A Medieval Medical Textbook Transmitting Greek, Byzantine and Arabic Traditions

Outi Kaltio, Matti Haltia and Heikki Solin

Constantine the African's Liber Pantegni: Transmission of Greek Medical Tradition to the Latin West via Byzantium and the Arabic World. An interdisciplinary symposium sponsored by the Academia Europaea, the Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation, the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, and the Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters. Helsinki, Finland, 4–6 June 2009

The tradition of classical Greek medicine reached medieval Europe largely through Latin translations of Greek and Arabic medical literature. The Arabs had been exposed to Greek medical culture preserved in the lands conquered from the Byzantine Empire. The first wave of such translations was connected with the Salerno School of medicine and its central figure Constantine the African. He moved from North Africa to Southern Italy at around 1070 and worked at the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino until his death (before 1098/9). The most influential of his many translations was Liber Pantegni, based on the famous book al-Malakî of the Persian physician Haly Abbas. Liber Pantegni was the first comprehensive treatise of medical science in the Latin language and rapidly became the leading textbook of medicine at the first European universities and medical schools. Despite its pivotal role in the early development of European medicine, no modern editions or translations of Liber Pantegni into any modern language exist.

Our symposium was prompted by a manuscript on parchment in the collections of the National Library of Finland, which turned out to be one of the earliest preserved manuscripts of Theorica Pantegni (the important theoretical part of Liber Pantegni), written during the late twelfth century, probably in Germany, France or Belgium. The manuscript eventually ended up in St. Petersburg, in the collection of old medical books of Joseph von Rehmann, actual state counsellor and personal physician of Tsar Nicholas I. After von Rehmann's death, the Tsar acquired the collection and in 1832 donated it to the Helsinki University Library (currently the National Library of Finland).

Research on the manuscript is now in progress with the final aim of producing a Latin edition and English translation of Theorica Pantegni. Distinguished scholars from various disciplines and different countries were invited to the symposium to discuss subjects related to the transmission of Greek and Arabic medical tradition to the medieval Latin West, with particular emphasis on the role of Constantine the African and his Liber Pantegni in this process. The symposium was accompanied by a workshop concentrating on practical problems and open questions related to the editorial work of Theorica Pantegni.

After the fancy welcome reception at the Villa Gyllenberg, hosted by the Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation, the scientific programme of the symposium started next morning with addresses by Thomas Wilhelmsson, Rector of the University of Helsinki, and Jürgen Mittelstrass, Past President of the Academia Europaea. Two sessions with seven presentations were held on the Greek medical tradition and its transmission to the Latin West. The topics concerned were Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arabic medicine, Latin translations of Arabic medical texts, the Jewish contribution to the transmission process, and reflexions of Hellenistic medicine in the Nordic Renaissance. (The complete programme of the symposium is available here)

The symposium also included a joint meeting and reception with the Friends of the National Library. The event took place at the Cupola Hall of the National Library of Finland where the 12th century manuscript of Constantine the African's Theorica Pantegni was on display. Two lectures were given: Professor Heinrich von Staden (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) spoke on migrations of Greek medicine from antiquity to the early modern period, and MA Outi Kaltio (University of Helsinki) presented Constantine the African's Theorica Pantegni and the manuscript in the collections of the National Library.

The next day of the symposium concentrated on the Salerno School of medicine and Constantine the African's Liber Pantegni with five presentations. In the first lecture the evidence for and against the existence of a medical school at Salerno already in Roman times was critically evaluated. Two presentations dealt with codicological aspects of certain manuscripts of Liber Pantegni, one in the National Library of Finland, and another two in English libraries. The subsequent speaker discussed the relation of Practica Pantegni (the second part of Liber Pantegni) to the Arabic original by Haly Abbas and to other source texts. Finally, a comparison was made between different textual versions of Theorica Pantegni, and the relation of the manuscript in the National Library of Finland to other preserved manuscripts was examined.

The programme ended with a workshop and round table discussion with the speakers. Outi Kaltio presented her work in progress, the editing of the fifth book of Theorica Pantegni. Practical problems, such as choice of manuscripts, correcting of the base text, orthography, punctuation etc., were covered in a lively discussion. The future editing of the whole body of Theorica Pantegni was also brought out, and many of the speakers expressed their willingness to participate in the project.

The symposium gathered together outstanding scholars to discuss the roots of modern European medicine and Constantine the African's Liber Pantegni, Europe's first comprehensive textbook of medicine. Their contributions and continuous support and advice will be of great value for the editing and publishing process of Theorica Pantegni.

The papers presented at the symposium will be published in European Review (the official journal of the Academia Europaea) in 2010.

Outi Kaltio is a doctoral student at the Department of Classical Philology (University of Helsinki)
Matti Haltia is a professor emeritus of Neuropathology (University of Helsinki)
Heikki Solin is a professor emeritus of Latin Philology (University of Helsinki)


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  2. Cool! Wish I can also translate Greek words. Anyway, thanks for sharing your post. Looking forward for your next one.

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