” …thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt1

In that perfect hindsight which makes  history appear logical and even predictable, the Plague’s descent into Europe on a Genoese ship was only to be expected.  As a recent UNESCO report says, they had literally hundreds of harbours from the Black Sea through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic between the 11th-15th centuries, including “a virtual monopoly in the whole Syro-Palestinian area of the eastern Mediterranean, where the Embriaci dynasty created their own private settlement at Gibellet (Byblos/Jbeil).”

Depiction of the archer in the Voynich roundels alludes not only to the crossbow first (and worst) associated with Genoese, but simultaneously to that Persian Death whose temporary triumph is a trope older than Christianity.

I suspect it may be by way of allusion to yet another  –  one  cited by Roger Bacon in his excoriation of physicians – that Baresch writes in 1639:

Quin imo est valde probabile, ali quem virum bonum, verae Medicinae amantem, (cum in partibus Europaeis vulgarem medendi methodum parum fructuosum depraehendisset). Regiones orientis adijsse, ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos..

Simon a Cordo (sometimes ‘a Cour’) of Genoa served Pope Nicholas IV – he who received the Nestorian embassy and sent John de Montecorvino to China via India. Simon’s best known work is indeed a ‘thesaurus’ of medical terms, including plant names,  according to the Greek, Latin and Arabic works.  Since he later (c.1292) worked with a Jewish scholar, Abraham ben Shemtob, in order to translate Dioscorides into Arabic, we have to suppose that he had assistance too  in compiling his medical glossary – entitled Clavis sanationis or, often, Clavis sanatis and which  names plants according to the Greek, the Latin and the Arabic.

Neal translates that passage from Baresch’s letter:

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine..

a translation which, it scarcely needs to be said, is accurate. Still, the English cannot convey  the complex associations borne by the term ‘thesauros’ for men educated in schools such as La Sapienza. For them in the seventeenth century,  as when Isidore defined the term in the sixth, or Hugh of St. Victor employed it in the twelfth, the term thesauros signified not only a storehouse of words, but any repository of words, wisdom, wealth and  objects. All this may be implied by that phrase “thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos..”.

The Clavis sanationis has recently come to the attention of modern scholars and as a result there is much is available online, so I won’t spend much time explaining its content. For our purposes, it is more important that Bacon – with whom Mnishovsky at least associated the Voynich manuscript – should treat Simon as an authority not only in terms of academic writing, but for his practice of medicine. Simon’s official position was not that of  physician but ministering subdeacon:   subdyaconus et capellanus medicus.

In the same paragraph where Bacon refers to Simon,  he also refers to Soqotan aloes, to the  violet and to tamarind as equally familar materia medica in the England of his own time, and this necessarily takes us towards the orient for although modern science traces the tamarind’s origin to the Sudan, it was then as now considered a plant of the Indies.  Even the Arabic term for it  is  ‘Indian date’ (tamar hindi):

Welborn’s translation of the relevant paragraph runs:

40. It is said that tablets and pills purge the remote parts, because they lie for a long time in the stomach, and liquid substances, near ones. But in that case violet, if it were given in tablets, would purge the remote parts; purging cassia and tamarind and other light medicines of this sort and heavy medicines in liquid substances would purge distant parts, and this is not true. There are pills and tablets into which aloes is put because it is too bitter, nor could it be taken in a liquid substance on account of its bitterness: and aloes is better than honey according to the opinion of Master SIMON, because it has an affinity with the parts of the head, and he has proved by experimentation that aloes is more efficacious than honey. (p.47)

  • Mary Catherine Welborn, ‘The Errors of the Doctors according to Friar Roger Bacon of the Minor Order’, Isis, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jul., 1932), pp. 26-62. She adds that the aloes mentioned are certainly the Soqotran.

I’ve chosen to use Welborn’s translation partly because the article is relatively short and accessible (JSTOR), and partly because it includes a glossary of plants which Bacon knows.  That list (more in next post) confirms what is known from other sources, namely that England’s access to eastern goods at this time was better than most regions of mainland Europe, for reasons which are not entirely clear although Bacon himself suggests the reason in an earlier paragraph:

27. Viper’s flesh, although it is one of the important medicines, as ARISTOTLE said and as the experienced doctors know, is not in use among the Latins, nor is it easy to obtain it in a pure state. Because it can be adulterated in many ways, and it may be made from other serpents, and many imported drugs are adulterated and it is only by a few kings that pure drugs can be found in the necessary quantity, such as musk, balsam, and others of this nature.

In the end, trade depended on the establishment of diplomatic ties, on a more-or-less personal basis between rulers.

That Roger seems to know of true balsam becomes interesting in this context, for (as described in earlier posts), the only source of true balsam west of Suez, was a single garden in Egypt. It was so closely guarded that even the plant’s form remained a subject of speculation and enquiry in seventeenth-century mainland Europe.  It was however described by a Jewish traveller in the  late fifteenth century, and so clearly that we must revise our ideas of the image in Manfred’s herbal, where the ‘balsam garden’ has often been supposed a figure schematic or imagined.  Bacon implies that balsam is not available to ‘the Latins’ yet while it is difficult to acquire, it could be had in in England, in his own day.

Before description of Egypt’s balsam garden a few additional notes are given below. All come from the fifteenth-century account of his travels by Meshullam ben R. Menahem of Volterra (1481).  Here, Misr means Cairo:

In Alexandria I saw four large fondaks (warehouses, thesauri), one for the Franks and another for the Genoese .. and two for the Venetians.. [Between Alexandria and Cairo] they cultivate sugar and rice in very great quantities. .. If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter [when in Misr].. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   .. In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak.. There is nothing in the world that you do not find in the fondaks of Misr… Old Misr, which is called Babozinia[Fustat], is all in ruins…

The Karaites’ script is different from all others, and they have not the letters ayin, he, aleph, or het, bet, tsade. ..

When we were five miles distant from Misr, we saw on the left-hand side of the road a small pyramid of a single stone, and opposite a garden in which they make spices; and I saw that in that garden there are about a hundred small trees and that they have thin branches, and their foliage is small like that of gum-trees, but greener and thinner; and in the garden there is a fountain of running water, and they sprinkle the trees with this water, and also the ground around the trees every day. The trees grow only in that garden. The Moslems have already tried to remove some trees with their earth and plant them in another place, but only so long as they are watered with that water do the trees remain alive and full of sap, though giving very little balsam; but if they put other waters upon them the trees dry up. They make balsam in the following way: they remove the bark from the tree and cut the small branches, whence the balsam issues into the a vessel placed beneath and although the garden is surrounded by a wall, every tree has five guards so that nobody can touch them. All the juice they extract they carry once a year to the Sultan, and he gives a little of it to those who are in the first rank in the kingdom… The oil is thick, and like castor oil, and if anyone tells you that he has brought this balm to Tuscany do not believe him, because it is impossible that any man should get hold of it other than lords, and very few of them.

– which agrees very well with the situation in Bacon’s time.  He, presumably, had any balsam from the king.

extract above from a Florentine ms. translated in  Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routedge (1930) pp.156-208.

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12
Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

Simon’s ‘thesaurus’ takes the very simple format typical of most Latin and Byzantine medical books.  See also:

Welcome library –  “Simonis Januensis opusculum cui nomen clavis sanationis simplicia medicinalia latina greca at arabica ordine alphabetico mirifice elucidans recognitum ac mendis purgatum et quotationibus Plinii maxime: ac aliorum in marginibus ornatum. Venice: For heirs of O. Scotus by B. Locatellus, 1510.”


One Reply to “” …thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt1”

  1. R. A. Donkin says that Simon aCordo personally travelled to the East. See Donkin, Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2003. p.123

    I have reservations about the statement (repeated above) that Simon worked with Abraham ben Shemtov. The name is usually associated with the Spanish Kabbalist whose dates are given as 1283-c.1330.

    I think more probable that a connection is being made with another medical thesaurus, that by Shem Tov ben Isaac. His Sefer ha-Shimmush “was compiled in Southern France in the middle of the thirteenth century. The list … consists of Hebrew or Aramaic lemmas, which are glossed by Arabic, Latin and Romance (Old Occitan and, in part, Old Catalan) synonyms written in Hebrew characters.” from a review of the recent edition published by Brill

    Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaac of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. Book 29

    Part 1: Edition and Commentary of List 1 (Hebrew – Arabic – Romance/Latin)
    There is an online edition. See


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