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History of Science and Medicine | Europe and the Ottoman World: Diplomacy and International Relations

April - June 2019

Albumasar – De magnis coniunctionibus

In twelfth-century Western Europe, the study of astrology gained momentum as Moorish universities translated Arabic works about astronomy into Latin. Among the most popular of these texts was the writing of renowned ninth-century Muslim astronomer, Abu Maʻshar (Latinised as "Albumasar").  

Albumasar argued that astronomical changes could influence events, both good and bad, on earth. In Kitāb al-qirānāt (the Book of Conjunctions), he advocated an astrological interpretation of history based on the conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter. According to his work, every 240 to 480 years, a holy prophet visits earth and a new religion or philosophy begins. Therefore, no human institution, including monarchies and religions, can ever hold a permanent state. This was a revolutionary way of thinking about causality; it offered an alternative to the traditional understanding of divine sovereignty, kingly authority and human free will. 

Albumasar’s conjunction theory took root throughout medieval Europe and influenced several European philosophers including Roger Bacon and Pico della Mirandola. His influence on the French cardinal and astrologer Pierre d’Ailly is particularly noteworthy. D’Ailly studied Albumasar’s astrological ideas in an attempt to balance divine sovereignty and human free will. When the Great Schism (1378-1417) in the Catholic Church occurred, d’Ailly perceived it as a sign that ecclesiastical reform was necessary because in the context of Albumasar’s conjunction theory, he believed that the schism was an omen for the arrival of the Antichrist. As a solution, the cardinal ardently advocated conciliarism and encouraged the establishment of the Council of Constance, which ended the schism and resulted in the election of Pope Martin V.

This item, entitled De magnis coniunctionibus in Latin, is a first edition translation by John of Seville from 1489. Latin translations of the text solidified Albumasar as a key link in the transmission of knowledge between ancient and medieval philosophers. Indeed, Richard Lemay, a leading historian in medieval astrology, argued that Albumasar’s work is how the world came to know of Aristotle’s theories on nature.

Considered the greatest astrologer of the Abbāsid court in Baghdad, Albumasar’s works made a significant contribution to the field of astrology throughout Persia and subsequently in Europe and Byzantium through translations. The Arcadian Library also holds the earliest known edition of Kitāb al-qirānāt in the original language from the 10th century.

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Pingree, D., 2011. Abū Maʻsar, Encyclopædia Iranica. [Online] Available at: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abu-masar-jafar-b [Accessed on 21 March 2019).

Hockey, T. et al (eds.), 2007. The Bibliographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer.

Smoller, L. A., 1994. History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d’Ailly, 1350-1420. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

January - March 2019

Albucasis - Liber de cirurgia

In 1010, the city of Cordoba in Andalusia was sacked and plundered during civil war. Amidst the devastation, the palace of Medina Azahara was looted and many of the books held in the palace library were lost or destroyed.  

One manuscript that managed to survive however, was the Kitāb al-tasrif. Written only ten years before the civil war by Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn ʻAbbās al-Zahrāwī (latinised as "Albucasis"), personal physician to caliph Abdul Rahman III, it was the first ever comprehensive guide to practical surgery. 

In the Kitāb al-tasrif, Albucasis described surgical procedures in detail, including several completely novel treatments, and used beautiful colour illustrations of surgical instruments, many of which he had invented. The gruesome nature of surgery in the early twelfth century was revolutionised by his work and as its influence grew, the original thirty-volume work was reproduced and translated into both Latin and French.

Entitled Liber de Cirurgia in Latin, this item is dated c.1300 and is particularly significant as a fully complete and early edition of the final volume, On Surgery. Widely considered to be the most influential volume of the work, it describes innovative operations including Albucasis’s remarkable contribution on extracting bladder stones using forceps rather than an instrument that previously scooped the stone out of the bladder. Developments like this resulted in far fewer risks and fatalities. 

Albucasis attributed the basis of the Liber de Cirurgia to the classical works of Galen, Hippocrates, and in particular Paulus Aegineta. What made his work particularly original however, was its instructional style and Albucasis’s use of personal case records and observations, setting him aside from his predecessors and demonstrating his expertise as a practicing surgeon. It also elucidates why he was commonly recognised as the medieval authority on surgery and why his work continued to exert influence throughout Europe for over five hundred years.

This manuscript is one of the rarest items held in the Arcadian Library with only twenty-seven manuscripts known to still exist.

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Cumston, C. G., 1926. An Introduction to the History of Medicine: From the time of the Pharaohs to the end of the XVIII century. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London [Online].

Elgohary, M. A., 2006. Al Zahrawi: The Father of Modern Surgery. Annals of Pediatric Surgery. Vol.2 No.2 April 2006. PP. 82-87 [Online].

Spink, S. and G. L. Lewis, 1973. Albucasis On Surgery and Instruments: A definitive edition of the Arabic text with English translation and commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press [Online].

October - December 2018

Farghani - Breuis ac perutilis cōpilatio Alfragani astronomo[rum] peritissimi

This is a very rare first edition of the great Arabic astronomer al-Farghānī’s (Alfraganus) most famous work. One of the most celebrated astronomers of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun, al-Farghānī composed this work between 833 and 857 AD. It went on to become the most popular astronomical works in both the East and the West, and was used as a textbook until the 15th century. 

The core of the book is the exposition of the basic concepts of Ptolemy's Almagest, to which al-Farghānī also introduces new material. For example, in chapter 21 he states the distances of the planets from the earth (Ptolemy had only stated the distance of the sun and the moon), and in the next chapter the magnitudes of the planets (Ptolemy again had only given the magnitudes of the sun and the moon). 

Following the translation of the Breuis by John of Spain in 1137 AD, it became the prime vehicle for the dissemination of Ptolemaic astronomy in the medieval West. Its influence can be seen in the works of many great European scholars of the medieval period, notably those of Johannes de Sacrobosco, Guido Bonatti and Roger Bacon. However, its impact extended beyond this period and the scientific and mathematical sphere. Dante derived his astronomical knowledge from al-Farghānī, and the text was referred to several times by Kepler, who cited, for instance, his measurements of the circumference of the world. (Epitome, Book I, Part I). In the 15th century, these calculations were also used by Christopher Columbus in planning his western voyage of discovery. However, Columbus mistook al-Farghānī’s Arabic miles for shorter Roman mile, an error that was instrumental in leading him to believe he could take a shortcut to Asia.

The printer of this particular work, Andreas Belfort, was the first printer in Ferrara and the most important of the printers there before 1500. Belfort was a printer of scientific and medical works, including commentaries on Avicenna and Mesue, whose career was interrupted twice by political upheavals and war. This is one of his last books, and the only one of his to contain illustrations. The beautiful woodcut portrait, which has attracted much attention from historians of art, is in the style of the Ferrara master Cosme Tura.

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Abdukhalimov, B., 1999. Ahmad Al-Farghānī and his Compendium of Astronomy. Journal of Islamic Studies, 10(2), pp. 142-158.

Beding, S. A. (ed.), 1992. The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. London: Macmillan.

Unat, Y., 2007. Alfraganus and the Elements of AstronomyManchester: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation.