Salerno and Constantine the African

Salerno came to prominence as the first faculty-University of the Christian West because of its importance as a center where Islamic science, particularly medicine, became known to Europe… this because of his translations...
The principal reason for linking Salerno and Islamic science is the fact that Salerno came to such prominence as the first faculty-University of the Christian West as soon as it received the visit of a scholar known under his European name Constantine the African, a Tunisian in origin (Tunisia being called at that time Ifriqiya, from which was derived the name Africa that designated the whole continent). Islamic medicine really began to make its influence felt at Salerno in the middle of the 11th century, precisely following this arrival of Constantine.

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Figure 1: An early illustrated work dealing with the school of Salerno. The cover shows Constantine the African lecturing to the school. From Anastasius et al., Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum (1573). (Source).

Dr Mahbub Gani

Salerno is a town in southern Italy that remained under Byzantine control until the Normans  wrested Sicily from the Muslims and Salerno itself from the Byzantines. The Norman duke, Robert of Guiscard, took possession of Salerno in 1076. In Salerno was established the principal university of Christendom from this time up until the foundation of the University of Naples in 1224. The Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, who is said to have visited it in 1164, alluded to it as the principal university of Christendom [1].

The principal reason for linking Salerno and Islamic science is the fact that Salerno came to prominence as the first faculty-University of the Christian West as soon as it was visited by a scholar known under his European name of Constantine the African, a Tunisian in origin (Tunisia being called at that time Ifriqiya, from which was derived the name Africa that designated the whole continent). Islamic medicine really began to make its influence felt at Salerno in the middle of the 11th century [2], following the arrival of Constantine.

Constantine (the African)

Constantine (the African), a Muslim from Tunisia, who had studied medicine in the Muslim schools of Africa and Baghdad, brought with him an 'exciting' cargo of Islamic medical lore [3], of which the subsequent translation contributed to the revival of science in Italy; and making the school of Salerno the chief source of medical knowledge in the Christian West. His rich cargo of books came initially from his native Tunisia. Legend has it that he fell into the sea and lost part of his treasure, but what he salvaged, he translated into Latin [4].

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Figure 2: Mansur ibn Ilyas's 14th century work on anatomy contained illustrated chapters on five systems of the body: bones, nerves, muscles, veins and arteries. This page depicts the arteries, with the internal organs shown in watercolors. (Source).

Constantine had come to Salerno from North Africa perhaps as early as 1065 and, at the encouragement of Archbishop Alfanus, had begun to translate medical works into Latin from Arabic [5]. Alfano, archbishop of Salerno, who himself had medical knowledge, encouraged Constantine to make translations from Arabic of several popular medical texts [6]. One such translation was an adaptation for a Latin audience of the Kitab Kamil as-sin'a at-tibbiya (the complete (or perfect) book on medical art) of 'Ali ibn a-Abbas al-Majusti (written before 977/978), called the Pantegni [7]. Constantine translated several other works on diets, the stomach, melancholy and forgetfulness by doctors in Qayrawan, the Zirid capital, from where he himself originated [8]. These had Latin translations such as Chirurgia, Prognostica, De pulsibus, De instrumentis, Practica (in 12 books), Liber graduum, De Stomachi et instestinorum infirmitatibus, Liber de urina, and a number of others [9]. During the next twenty years Constantine continued to translate from the Arabic while teaching medicine to a generation of disciples.

Perhaps more important in the long-term for European medicine were the translations Constantine made of Arabic authors treatises on diet, fever, and urines by Isaac Israeli and the Pantegni of Haly Abbas ('Ali ibn al-'Abbas) [10]. It was not long before these translations became the basis for a new sort of medical education at Salerno that foreshadowed the scholastic forms of the later Middle Ages.

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Figure 3: An illustrated leaf from an important early manuscript on the works of Roger of Salerno. Illustrated here are some early surgical treatments, including some neurosurgical and spine treatments. Courtesy of the British Museum, Sloane Collection, MS 1977. (Source).

Constantine's translations were reinforced a century or so after by a new influx of medical works, also translated from Arabic but this time primarily in Toledo, Spain, most of them the work of the prolific Italian translator Gerard of Cremona (ca. 1114-1187). The list of translations from the Arabic attributed to him by his disciples includes no fewer than two dozen works on medicine [11]. Some works were by Greek authors, but the majority were by outstanding figures in Islamic medicine: seven works by Rhazes (al-Razi), including both his great medical compilations, the Liber al-mansoris and the Continens, the Canon of Avicenna (Ibn Sina); the Breviarium of Serapion (Ibn Sarabiyun); and the Chirurgica of Albucasis (Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi) [12]. The importance of these new materials for Western medicine, Mac Vaugh notes, is not easy to overestimate. The remarkable medical encyclopaedias of the Arabs, in particular the Canon, confirmed Western physicians in their belief that medicine should be studied as a rational system with close ties to philosophy, grounded in logical order and susceptible of methodical investigation [13].

The impact of Salerno on the rise of modern science can be seen from the following. First, it demonstrated the progress that can be made by the translation of Muslim science and works in Arabic. From Constantine alone, the Christian West was able to acquire such a vast amount of learning as to lead to the formation of the first faculty/University of Western Christendom. By the time of his death (c.1087), the school of Salerno stood at the head of medical knowledge in the Christian West [14]. As Campbell recognizes, Constantine became, in fact, "one of the most important figures in the history of mental development of Europe in the Middle Ages" [15]. The trends apparent in 12th-century Salerno became characteristic of European medicine in general in the 13th century, under the influence of a second group of medical works translated into Latin [16].

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Figure 4: People showing a sample of their urine to the physician Constantine the African for a diagnosis. (Image in the public domain).

The second most important impact is that the vast amount of knowledge he had carried from Al-Qayrawan north to Europe brought about, "a generation of prominent medical teachers" [17]. It made Salerno School the centre of its medical teaching [18], on which was built the whole basis of higher learning in the Christian West as many subsequent faculties and universities were offshoots of Salerno, especially northern Italian universities such as Padua.

From the knowledge acquired from Constantine, especially his translation of the so called Isagoge by Johannitius, we have some radical new approaches to medicine. Western literature keeps telling us this, but in its overwhelming majority fails to note that Johannitius is Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, and his work Isagoge, is the Massa'il fi'l tib (medical questions). These new approaches are summed up here by the erudite McVaugh:

"Every body, indeed every member of the body, has its own normal balance or proper temperament of qualities and humors, and illness arises when imbalance is so great as to distort function. The six non naturals, of which we learn next, are the causes external to the body that we or the physician can manipulate to preserve or sometimes to restore health: air, food and drink, excretion, exercise, sleep, and the emotions. Finally we learn of pathology: of disease, its causes and consequences (etiology and semiotics) the rescontra naturam. Diseases are classified sometimes by the part of the body they affect, sometimes by the symptoms they manifest, and sometimes by their supposed cause. Only a very small portion of the Isagoge summarizes medical practice for the beginning student: 'The practice of medicine deals with the right ordering of the non-naturals, with giving of drugs, and with surgery' to be essayed in that order, no doubt, by the consulting physician; of these, the administration of drugs, mostly botanical, seems to have dominated medical practice."[19]

Breakthroughs also came from Salerno concerning particular aspects of medicine. Here must be stressed the impact of the Kitab Kamil as-sin'a at-tibbiya (the complete (or perfect) book on medical art) of Ali ibn a-Abbas al-Majusti (written before 977/978), and called in Latin the Pantegni [20]. It consisted of ten books of theory of medicine and an equal number on practical medicine, and aside from being the most comprehensive book on medicine of its time, it was also important for dealing with elementary physics [21]. McVaugh stresses the change in medical knowledge in the Salernitans' work in anatomy, a field which in effect they recreated as the Latins had inherited virtually no anatomical literature from the classical past, a situation changed only by Constantine's translation of the Pantegni with its anatomical chapters [22].

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Figure 5: Front cover of Constantine the African and 'Ali Ibn Al-'Abbas Al-Magusi: The Pantegni and Related Texts edited by Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Brill, 1995).

The translation of Muslim medical treatises introduced the West to fields in which Islamic physicians had made considerable advances such as surgery, materia medica, and theoretical pharmacy [23]. If surgery is taken as an example, this is the branch of 13th-century medicine that has received most praise for its empirical and "progressive" quality [24]. The first medieval compilation on the subject was the so-called Bamberg Surgery of the early 12th century, brought together at Salerno. It depended in large parts on the Pantegni already cited. But now, with the translations by Gerard of Cremona, beginning to infiltrate the West, we see the impact on the famous Italian surgeons: Bruno Longoburgo, Hugh of Lucca and his son Theodoric, and William of Saliceto, all of Bologna, and Lanfranc of Milan. In the development of surgery, we see here the penetration of the next phase of Muslim teachings, from the works of the masters: Ibn Sina and Al-Zahrawi who had been translated by Gerard [25].

Bibliography

  • C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic learning into England; The Panizzi Lectures, 1996. The British Library, London, 1997. P. 23.
  • Constantine the African and 'Ali ibn al-Magusti: The Pantegni and related texts, eds C. Burnett and D. Jacquard, Leiden, 1994.
  • D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages; Philo Press; Amsterdam; 1926.
  • W. Durant: The Age of faith, Simon and Shuster, New York; 6th printing; 1950.
  • P.O. Kristeller: `The School of Salerno: Its development and its contribution to the History of learning,' Bulletin of the History of Medicine 17 (1945): 151-7.
  • R. Lemay: Gerard of Cremona; Dictionary of Scientific Biography; Vol. 15; Supplement I; pp. 173-92.
  • D. Matthew: The Norman Kingdom of Sicily: Cambridge University Press, 1992; p.116.
  • M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, in Dictionary of Middle Ages; Charles Scribners Sons; New York; 1980, Vol. 8.
  • M. Meyerhof: Science and medicine in the Legacy of Islam; Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume: The Legacy of Islam, first edition, Oxford University press, 1931.
  • A Mieli: La Science Arabe et son role dans l'evolution scientifique mondiale. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1938; p. 219.
  • J. W. G. Wiet et al: History of mankind; Vol. III: The Great Medieval Civilisations. Part Two: section two; Part three; Translated from the French.

End Notes

[1] D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages; Philo Press; Amsterdam; 1926; pp. 109-10.

[2] J. W. G. Wiet et al: History of mankind; Vol. III: The Great Medieval Civilisations. Part Two: section two; Part three; Translated from the French; p.205.

[3] W. Durant: The Age of faith, Simon and Shuster, New York; 6th printing; 1950; p. 457.

[4] A Mieli: La Science Arabe et son rôle dans l'evolution scientifique mondiale. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1938; p. 219.

[5] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, in Dictionary of Middle Ages; op cit.; Vol. 8; pp. 247-54; at p. 248.

[6] D. Matthew: The Norman Kingdom of Sicily: Cambridge University Press, 1992; p.116.

[7] C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic learning into England; The Panizzi Lectures, 1996. The British Library, London, 1997, p. 23. See also: Constantine the African and 'Ali ibn al-Magusti: The Pantegni and related texts, eds C. Burnett and D. Jacquard, Leiden, 1994.

[8] C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic learning; op. cit., p. 23.

[9] D. Campbell: Arabian medicine, and its influence; op cit.; p. 123.

[10] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, op cit.; at p. 248.

[11] R. Lemay: Gerard of Cremona; Dictionary of Scientific Biography; vol. 15; Supplement I; pp. 173-92.

[12] R. Lemay: Gerard of Cremona; op. cit., pp. 173-92.

[13] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine; op cit.; p. 249.

[14] W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit.; P. 457

[15] D. Campbell: Arabian medicine; op cit.; p. 123.

[16] M. Mc Vaugh: History of Medicine, op. cit., p. 249.

[17] M. Meyerhof: Science and medicine in the Legacy of Islam; Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume: The Legacy of Islam, first edition, Oxford University press, 1931, p. 351.

[18] P.O. Kristeller: `The School of Salerno: Its development and its contribution to the History of learning,' Bulletin of the History of Medicine 17 (1945): 151-7, at p. 155.

[19] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, op cit.; p. 250.

[20] C. Burnett and D. Jacquard: Constantine the African; op cit.

[21] C. Burnett: The Introduction, op cit., P. 23. See also: Constantine the African and `Ali ibn al-Magusti: The Pantegni; op cit.

[22] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, op cit.; p. 248.

[23] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, p. 249.

[24] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, p. 250.

[25] M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, p. 250.

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