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A Brief Introduction to the Scientific and Medical Holdings of the Arcadian Library

A Brief Introduction to the Scientific and Medical Holdings of the Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_003

  • English / Arabic Title:
    A Brief Introduction to the Scientific and Medical Holdings of the Arcadian Library
  • Keywords:
    Abbasid, Agriculture, Alchemy, Anatomy, Arabic manuscripts, Astronomy, Baghdad, Chemistry, Geometry, History of medicine, History of science, Medicine, Medieval period, Middle East, Padua, Seville, Surgery, Surgical instruments, Toledo, Spain, Umayyad, Venice
  • Identifier:
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The field in which Arab and Persian contributions to progress was most widely acknowledged in the West was science. In spite of criticisms which started in the Renaissance and increased during the scientific revolution preceding the Enlightenment, Arabic writings on science were consulted from the eleventh century, when they were first translated into Latin, to the eighteenth century, when efforts were still being made to establish satisfactory versions of certain texts. Although a humanist like Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola may have objected, in his De rerum praenotione in the first years of the sixteenth century, to the practice of geomancy and necromancy, the many apologias for the study of Arabic published between 1500 and 1800 nearly all emphasized the benefits of consulting scientists who wrote in Arabic.

The House of Wisdom and the Translation Movement

The great scientific movement itself originated from the translations made in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, between the middle of the eighth and the end of the tenth centuries. Many of these translations were produced at the Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, founded by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid as an intellectual centre for the Abbasid Empire. Harun and his successor, al-Ma’mun, sent scholars into India, across Central Asia and to the West in order to acquire as many manuscripts as possible, and to bring them back to Baghdad where they could be translated into Arabic and their knowledge applied and built upon within the Islamic empire.

The translators, who included many Syriac-speaking Christians, translated Greek scientific texts, by Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, into Arabic, sometimes from Syriac or Persian versions, and sometimes directly from the Greek. Soon the Arabs and the Persians themselves were making experiments and formulating theories which led to a scientific tradition that spread across the Islamic world, as far east as India and as far west as Umayyad Spain. Immense advances were made in every domain—astronomy, chemistry, natural history, mathematics and medicine.

The Transmission of Arabic Science to Europe

Multicultural Umayyad Spain paved the way for the cross-pollination of European and Arabic learning. The end of the tenth century saw scholars from Europe travel to Spain in search of scientific knowledge from the East. Arabic representatives of every branch of science—Avicenna, Averroes, Albucasis, Geber, Serapion, Rhazes, Mesue, Haly Abbas, Albumasar, Alfraganus—would be marshalled by European apologists for the study of Arabic over the centuries in the knowledge that their part in scientific advance absolved them of the fact that they were not Christians. Moreover, the early European practitioners of Arabic, as well as scholars who simply pleaded for the study and teaching of the language, included a high proportion of doctors. The majority of them concentrated on Avicenna, but they were all in awe of the variety of medical, and more generally scientific, texts produced in the Arab world—of Elluchasem’s (Ibn Butlan’s) work on hygiene, for instance; of the alchemical writings attributed to Geber, commonly identified with Jabir ibn Hayyan, alleged to have lived in the eighth century; or of the De elementis et orbibus coelestis by Masha’Allah, one of the astrologers who took part in the discussions which led to the foundation of the Abbasid dynasty in the city of Baghdad. This last text, only the Latin translation of which survives, contains a study of Aristotle’s Physics and an introduction to astronomy—an early indication of the Arab interest in Greek scientific sources which prompted the great translation movement focussed around the scholars of the House of Wisdom. It was also of the utmost interest to European astronomers, such as Joachim Rheticus, who saw to the publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus in 1543, and to Rheticus’s pupil, Johann Heller, who edited Masha’Allah’s text.

While the medical encyclopaedia by Haly Abbas (‘Ali ibn ‘Abbas al-Majusi), the tenth-century Persian doctor, was acknowledged as one of the major channels of transmission of the ideas of Hippocrates and Galen, the Andalusian physician al-Zahrawi, known in Christian Europe as Albucasis, was considered superior to Galen. With its descriptions and illustrations of surgical instruments, his standard work on surgery, completed in about AD 1000, revolutionized medicine in Europe. In tones which heralded those of Paracelsus in the sixteenth century he appealed to ethical standards amongst physicians, but, in a spirit of greater pragmatism than Paracelsus, he endeavoured to separate medical practice from alchemy, theology and philosophy.

Published continuously in Europe from the late fifteenth century onwards, Albucasis’s was one of many scientific works that had been translated into Latin in the twelfth century in Toledo by members of that same international team of scholars of which Robert of Ketton and Herman of Carinthia, the translators of the Quran, had been part, and which had been assembled shortly after the city had been reconquered by the Christians in 1085. While both Herman of Carinthia and John of Seville tackled the work of the ninth-century Baghdadi astronomer Abu Ma’shar (Albumasar), the Italian Gerard of Cremona, known above all for his translation of Avicenna, had also translated Albucasis himself and the astronomer al-Farghani, or Alfraganus, whose details about chronology were to fascinate European Arabists from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century. The translators of the Toledo School were not alone; their contemporary Constantinus Africanus, a Christian from Carthage in Arab Tunisia, accepted an invitation to Salerno where he assisted in translating various scientific works and thus in reintroducing Greek medicine in the West. The library has the first collected edition of his writings of 1536 (ARC_15461).

Important Codices in the Arcadian Library

The Arcadian Library’s collection of scientific manuscripts is particularly rich. One of its rarest items, of which the library has published a study, is an Arabic manuscript of the medical work, the Kitāb al-Mustaʿīnī, by the Jewish physician working for the king of Saragossa in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, Ibn Baklarish. The codex was completed in January 1130, within a generation of the composition of the original text. It is the earliest known copy to survive. A list of simple medicaments with their properties and methods of use, the manuscript contains numerous words in Latin, added in both Visigothic and Carolingian script. Thanks to the various glosses and additions, it is a source of unique information about the state of medicine in twelfth-century Spain among the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims.

Besides the Ibn Baklarish manuscript, the library also has other codices. One is a tenth-century manuscript of fragments taken from the Kitāb al-milāl wa al-duwal by the ninth-century Baghdadi astronomer Abu Ma’shar or, in the West, Albumasar. The manuscript is exceptional, not only because it was written within a century of the author’s death, but also because it is the earliest known codex to contain part of his work on the great conjunctions, the printed Latin translation of which we shall return to in part III of this survey.

There is also a codex, dating from the first years of the fourteenth century, of the Latin translation made in Toledo, of the work on surgery by the Andalusian physician al-Zahrawi, known in the West as Albucasis, completed in about 1000. The manuscript of the De cirurgia, which has abundant marginalia, was owned, in 1457, by the heirs of Andrea da Recanati, and then, in the late eighteenth century, by Michele Vincenzo Giacinto Malacarne from Turin, the founder of topographic anatomy and historian of medicine who ended his career as professor of surgery at Padua.

In the Middle Ages Albucasis was generally considered superior to Galen, and his work on surgery, with descriptions and illustrations of instruments such as lancets, forceps, scissors, scalpels, syringes, the tonsil guillotine and a concealed knife for opening abscesses, revolutionized surgical practice not only in the Islamic world but also in Europe. The library has the first printed edition of the work, which appeared in 1500, and the Venice edition of 1531 edited by one of Albucasis’s most faithful followers in the West, Pietro d’Argellata who lectured on medicine in Bologna in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. It also has Argellata’s own text on surgery, the 1499 edition of his Cirurgia.

Of some rarity too is a two-volume, eighteenth-century manuscript of a twelfth-century work on agriculture and horticulture by Ibn al-Awwam from Seville. Written in Arabic, but with a summary of the chapters in Castilian at the end, the treatise deals with every aspect of husbandry—pests, diseases, the planting, grafting and pruning of trees, vegetable growing, irrigation and fertilizers, in addition to giving instructions about the raising of sheep and cattle and the breeding of horses and camels. Only four other copies of the manuscript are known to exist. The work was translated into Spanish in 1802 and appeared in French in 1864.