Ibn Baklarish’s Book of Simples


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Yūsuf ibn Isḥāq Ibn Baklārish
Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā Rāzī, Galeatius, de Sancta Sofia, Marsilio Santa Sofia, Yaḥyá ibn ʻĪsá Ibn Jazlah, Clementius Clementinus, Richardus, Anglicus, Antonius de Gradius, Cristoforo Barzizza, Alban Thorer

Ibn Baklarish’s Book of Simples

Ibn Baklarish’s Book of Simples
by The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_007

  • Subtitle:
    Medical Remedies between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain
  • Keywords:
    Europe, Spain, 11th century, 12th century, Al-Andalus, Arabic manuscripts, Europe, Islam, Judaism, Medieval medicine, Medieval period, Middle Ages, Muslim Spain
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The Arcadian Library acquired the manuscript of the Kitāb al-Musta‘īnī in 2003. The codex was reportedly purchased in Paris in the 1960s by a Middle Eastern historian of medicine and arrived in the UK by family descent. Its earlier history is unknown. It elicited a great deal of attention not only because it is complete and in remarkably good condition, but because in the colophon the anonymous scribe states that it was completed on 18 January 1130, only twenty-four years after the completion of the original text. A small but significant number of copies exist—a rare occurrence for Medieval Arabic manuscripts—indicating the popularity of the Book of Simple Remedies and its importance within the context of medical scholarship in Medieval Europe. The Arcadian copy currently holds the record for the earliest appearance of Latin script of any kind on paper, and due to its glosses in various scripts, offers a remarkable insight into cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue in Medieval Spain. It is also the only document to survive from the Banu Hud dynasty’s magnificent scholarly library. The Kitab al-Musta‘ini—Book of Simple Remedies, or Book of Simples—by the Jewish physician Yunus ibn Ishaq ibn Baklarish is one of the most important pharmacological works written in Arabic in the Middle Ages, completed in the taifaof Saragossa in AD 1106.

The Book of Simple Remedies documents, in tabular form, the properties, uses and alternative names in several languages of over 700 medicinal substances. The Arcadian manuscript’s numerous Latin and Romance glosses—words or comments written in margins or between lines—attest to the Iberian readership of the text, and the Syriac synonyms to the use of sources from the Middle East. This manuscript—the earliest known copy of the work—thus provides a remarkable insight into both the dissemination and application of Arabic medical knowledge in Europe, and into the intercultural cooperation that occurred in medieval Spain, where Muslim, Jewish and Christian scientists worked together to advance the study and practice of medicine.

The Arcadian Manuscript

As described in the Sotheby’s sales catalogue, the Arcadian manuscript is on smooth, cream, lightly burnished Spanish laid paper, with five laid lines to the centimetre and full-length chain lines occasionally visible at intervals of 25 mm. The page dimensions are 29.8 x 22 cm; the average text area on folios 2b−15b is 23.5 x 16.1 cm; and the average dimensions of the tables on folios 16b−137a are 20.9 x 15.4 cm.

The title Kitāb al-adwiyah al-mufradah li-l-Isra’ili is written in a remarkable Maghribi hand on folio 1a; there are notes in various later hands and on a variety of subjects, including metrology, on folios 1a−2a and 140a−b; the introduction on folios 2b−15b contains 24 lines per page in a very clear Andalusian script in brown ink, with headings in a larger hand, and rubrication on folios 5b and 13b−15a. The text is carefully overwritten in small damp-stained areas on folios 2b and 3a; the main text on folios 16b−137a are in tabular form, ruled in five vertical and seven horizontal columns across each double-page opening, with supplementary text in the same Andalusian hand in the upper, lower and left, and occasionally in the right margins.

Later marginal headings in Latin script are written in the right margins. The colophon appears on folio 137a; and the concluding text on the classification of simples, featuring 24 lines per page, with frequent rubrications, appears on folios 138a−139b. The manuscript displays some damp staining and mould, and some small losses, tears and worm damage, but is now expertly conserved (Sotheby's, 2003).

The interest of the Arcadian manuscript is enhanced by the number of words in Latin script that are found throughout the text, attesting to the composition and reception of the manuscript in a context in which both Latin and Arabic were used. The Latin words within the text have been written on the same line and in the same ink as the Arabic, and are presumably by the same scribe as the Arabic text itself; they appear in Visigothic script (p. 92 ‘sanguinis canis’, p. 118 ‘triticum’, p. 150 ‘bettonica’; also a marginal gloss on p. 94), Carolingian script (p. 258 ‘furmentu’, p. 284 ‘istanu’), and in a mixture of the two (p. 258 ‘falernum’). Synonyms for the materia medica have also been added in Carolingian script (on pp. 21, 32, 34, 38, 40, 44, 58, 94, 96, 102, 182, 208, 210, 214, 216, 220, 224, 264).

Therefore the words in Latin script are contemporary with the manuscript, which is an indication that the Arcadian manuscript of the Book of Simples is the earliest known example of Latin script of any kind written on paper.

The Visigothic script closely resembles that of the Leiden glossary, while the script in the margins is not unlike that of an early manuscript of a translation from Arabic made by Hugo of Santalla, who used the library of the Saragossa family, the Banu Hud, in the 1140s. A confident hand has written numerous synonyms in Latin script from the beginning of the tables up to p. 146, using a thick pen and bold strokes. This script is distinctive because it includes ticks indicating the stressed syllable within a word. It is quite crude, and favours capital letter forms. It may be the same hand as that of the Arabic script used in the glosses on pp. 36, 80, 124, if not the hand of the Arabic entries naming the materia medica written with a thicker pen in the first columns of the tables. Other Arabic glosses evidently were added by different, later, hands. The gloss in Greek letters on p. 134 must be later, but the Arabic gloss in Hebrew characters on p. 236 may be early.

The early Carolingian hand also wrote the mysterious passage on the final page of the manuscript (p. 280). The Arabic equivalent that follows it is likely to have been written after the Latin, although it is fuller than the Latin. That it was written in the same context (perhaps by the same person) is indicated by the facts that both the Latin and Arabic are written in the same black ink, and that the scribe of the Latin text has added ‘pe’ above most of the occurrences of the free-standing ba’ in the Arabic.

So this bilingual text neatly corroborates the evidence scattered throughout this manuscript of the Book of Simples of an origin in a mixed Arabic and Latin-Romance culture.

Ibn Baklarish and the Arrangement of the Codex

Relatively little is known about Yusuf ibn Ishaq ibn Baklarish. The main source of biographical information comes from the dictionary of physicians compiled by the thirteenth-century Damascene physician Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, entitled, ‘Uyun ul-Anba’ fi Tabaqat ul-Atibba’ . He wrote that ‘Ibn Baklarish was a Jew and one of the wisest men of al-Andalus with regard to the practice of medicine, endowed with great experience and a profound knowledge of simple medicines. He served as physician to the dynasty of the Banu Hud and wrote a synoptic treatise on simples at Almeria for al-Musta’in bi-llah Abu Ja’far Ahmad, the son of al-Mu’taman bi-llah ibn Hud.’

Beyond this brief description, we know that he was born in the middle of the eleventh century and died in the first half of the twelfth. As Ana Labarta notes in a study commissioned by the Arcadian Library, he arrived in Saragossa after 1085, and before this time was likely to have been in Almeria, where he probably wrote this book. Any reference to him being from Saragossa must be understood to indicate the place of his work, not his birthplace. He was a practical physician, and his excellent knowledge of simple medicaments indicates that he was a scholar of contemporary medical works. His writing is noted for its simple, serious tone—he makes no mention, for example, of his own experiences, observations or travels, as many of his contemporaries and earlier physicians had done (Labarta, 2008).

The Book of Simples follows the Arabic tradition of listing the medicinal properties of materia medica in tabular form, though Ibn Baklarish is noted for his originality and clarity. Scholars are divided on the origin of this practice. Emilie Savage-Smith posits that the tabular form of presentation within a medical context may have been devised in Alexandria, due to the occurrence of synoptic tables in the Alexandrian Summaries of Galenic treatises, originally written in Greek but surviving only in Arabic, and in particular in the summary of Galen’s treatise on simple drugs (Savage-Smith, 2008).

Others suggest the practice may have been borrowed from astronomical literature, examples of which abound in the Arcadian Library. Whatever the synoptic tables’ origin, the format proved itself useful for the presentation of the names of drugs, their synonyms, their properties, the diseases they were capable of treating and the therapies with which they could be deployed. The bulk of the Arcadian manuscript consists of 121 synoptic tables featuring the properties, uses and alternative names of 704 medicinal substances. Similar charts are found in Ibn Jazla’s eleventh-century treatise, The Almanac of Bodily Parts for the Treatment of People, the first Latin edition of which the Arcadian Library owns, dating from 1533, which features 44 synoptic tables on the pathology and therapeutics of numerous diseases, and in Ibn Butlan’s Almanac of Health, of which the Arcadian Library also owns the first Latin edition, printed in Strasbourg in 1531, which features 40 tables detailing the properties and uses of 210 plants and animals, and 70 other items and procedures to be employed for maintaining good health.

The 704 simple remedies listed in the Book of Simples (as opposed to compound remedies, due to their derivation from a single plant, animal or mineral source) are arranged alphabetically in abjad order. The synoptic tables are arranged in seven horizontal rows, the first of which references the column heading, the other six allow for six different remedies per double-page opening. The table contains five vertical columns, with four on the right-hand page and one on the left, and reference the Arabic name for the remedy, its nature and grade according to the four basic qualities of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine, its name in other languages, including Syriac, Persian, Latin and Berber, substitute substances, and the properties and applications of the remedy.

The majority of the simples are derived from plants, but there are some mineral ones, and 58 zoological entries, including substances derived from humans. These largely fall into thirteen groups of substances derived from various animals, namely rennet, droppings, urine, skin, blood, dung, spleen, liver, milk, meat, gall-bladder, fat and eggs. There is, of course, an emphasis on domestic species, this being a practical pharmacopoeia, but there are also some rather more exotic animals. There are also a few other body parts or secretions that only occur once, namely spittle, old skin, hedgehog and lamb brain, ear wax, hoof, bone marrow, sweat, charred bones, goat penis, human hair, and the fat of fish, lions, geese and pigs.

Beyond the practical matter presented in the codex, Martin Levey and Safwat S. Souryal single out the manuscript’s introduction for particular praise due to its explanation of contemporary pharmacological theory. They note that much of this theory is scarce in ancient literature, and Ibn Baklarish’s inclusion and straightforward presentation thereof is therefore of great value, as is his detailed work on the materia medica, which yields an unparalleled amount of information on the accurate preparation of simple remedies and on the practical fundamentals of the subject as a whole (Levey & Souryal, 1969).

Cross-Cultural and Inter-Religious Dialogue in Medieval Spain

As indicated by the title of Ibn Baklarish’s work, the Kitab al-Musta’ini was dedicated to Al-Musta’in bi-llah Abu Ja’far Ahmad, who ruled the taifa of Saragossa from 1085 to 1110. A taifa (plural tawa’if) is the name for a small Muslim principality, many of which emerged in Medieval Spain as Arab rule fragmented and civil wars broke out following the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba during the course of the Reconquista—the attempt by European Christians to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control. Al-Musta’in II was a member of the Banu Hud dynasty, an Arab family that had ruled over the region since 1039, and became the last member of the clan to reign independently, when Saragossa was conquered by the Berber Almoravid dynasty in 1110.

The epithet ‘Al-Isra’ili’ is usually appended to Ibn Baklarish’s name, indicating that he was a Jew, and that his reputation grew in a strictly Muslim context—the use of the cultural and religious denominator would, of course, not have been used had he gained renown predominantly amongst his fellow Jews. At the time, Saragossa was home to a considerable Jewish community (various scholars have offered population estimates, but there is no real basis to consider any of them accurate), and David Wasserstein points out that we know of at least half a dozen Jewish intellectuals active in the city at the time who achieved some measure of success in their various pursuits (Wasserstein, 2008). Given the possibilities for Jews in Al-Andalus, it is interesting to consider what their choices of language and subject matter reveal about the extent and nature of inter-cultural intellectual dialogue in the region.

In his article ‘The Language Situation in Al-Andalus’, Wasserstein writes that Jews in Muslim Spain were “part of a complex linguistic and cultural set-up, with complicated relationships to the social nexus of their environments”. They would most likely have spoken the language of their environment—in Ibn Baklarish’s case this would have been both Arabic and Romance, rather than Hebrew(Wasserstein, 1991). His proximity to Christian Europe means that the book itself, and the Arcadian manuscript in particular, sheds a virtually unique light on the sharing of scientific knowledge in Medieval Europe.

The manuscript contains numerous glosses in various languages and scripts, indicating that it was used by scholars from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting notonly the strength of Ibn Baklarish’s work and the scarcity of comparable Latin work in Europe (the Book of Simples is four centuries older than the earliest other European pharmacopeia, the Nuovo Receptario, printed in Florence in 1499), but also the central role of Muslim Spain as a nucleus of knowledge in Medieval Europe. Many of the glosses are in the same ink as the Arabic, and were probably written at the same time the manuscript was copied. Of particular note is the fact that the Latin script in the Arcadian manuscript currently holds the record for the earliest evidence of Latin script on paper, thanks probably to its proximity to large paper-manufacturing outfits in Spain.

Even though Jews of the time would likely have spoken and written in their local language (in the case of Al-Andalus this would generally have been Arabic), they tended to write in Hebrew characters, a script known as Judeo-Arabic. However, although we know that many Jewish Andalusian intellectuals of the time wrote in Judeo-Arabic, hardly any of their work survives in its original form. By contrast, we have a larger amount of Arabic material by Jewish writers. This suggests that, although there was a great deal of inter-faith dialogue in Al-Andalus, there were limits, and a degree of separation remained between Muslims and Jews in certain scholarly and cultural contexts.

The script a work was written in indicated its likely audience—something written in Arabic was probably intended for a Muslim audience, but something in Judeo-Arabic was likely intended for use within the author’s Jewish community. Comparatively little contemporary poetry or philosophy by Jewish writers from the area survives (though some interesting Jewish poetry in Arabic remains), probably because there was little appetite for such work amongst the ruling Muslim dynasties due to the likelihood of the work naturally being tinged with some measure of Judaic perspective. As such, there was little need for Jews to compose such works in classical Arabic, and so they would have been written in Judeo-Arabic. Many such works were subsequently translated into Hebrew proper.

There is only one occurrence of Judeo-Arabic in the Arcadian manuscript of the Book of Simples, and the bulk of the pharmacopoeia is written in classical Arabic, a clear indication that Ibn Baklarishwas reaching beyond the Jewish community to appeal to the ruling Muslim class. This is corroborated by Ibn Baklarish himself, who in his introduction indicates that he penned the Book of Simples as a way of reaching the ruler. He succeeded not only because of the quality of his work, but because a medical treatise, being more neutral and practical than a philosophical or literary text, was more likely to appeal to a potential Muslim patron. His work did indeed attract attention, and he became a physician to the Banu Hud dynasty, namely Al-Musta’in II, a notable patron of scholarship.

The ruler died in 1110, and in 1119 his successor fled to Rueda de Jalon with his library, which then moved in 1140 to Toledo, the epicentre of the European effort to translate Arabic works. The Banu Hud library was the only significant Arabic library, and probably hosted such illustrious guests as Gerard of Cremona and John of Seville. The Arcadian manuscript is the only book that has survived from this princely library, and is therefore a unique window into intellectual pursuits in Medieval Spain.


Labarta, A., 2008. The historical context . In: C. Burnett, ed. Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples. Oxford: Oxford University, p. 22–23

Levey, M. & Souryal, S. S., 1969. The introduction of the Kitab al-Musta'ini of Ibn Baklarish (fl. 1106). Janus, Volume LV

Savage-Smith, E., 2008. Ibn Baklarish in the Arabic tradition of synonymatic texts and tabular presentations . In: C. Burnett, ed. Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 113

Sotheby's, 2003. Arts of the Islamic World. [Online] Available at: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.11.html/2003/arts-of-the-islamic-world-l03221 [Accessed October 2016]

Wasserstein, D., 1991. The language situaion in al-Andalus . In: A. Jones & R. Hitchcock, eds. Studies on the Muwassah and the Kharja: Proceedings of the Exeter International Colloquium. Reading: Ithaca Press, pp. 1–15

Wasserstein, D., 2008. Ibn Biklarish – Isra'ili . In: C. Burnett, ed. Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 107