A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 4-ii

Palermo and Salerno: Jewish-Greek learning.

This is a reference-post:  to be read if and when it may be helpful.


(detail) Cairo Geniza fragment of a 12thC copy of Donolo’s text, first composed in southern Italy in the 10thC AD.

When the Norman free-booter found himself king of Sicily, his newly acquired territory contained two well-established medical schools, one in Palermo and the other on the mainland at Salerno.  The origins of that in Palermo are obscure; it may have been founded before the Roman era, but that in Salerno was established by Jewish scholars and physicians in c.800 AD, and we may suppose that by the last quarter of the eleventh century its texts included at least a copy of the ‘Book of Asaf’; of Shabbatai Donolo’s ‘Book of Treasures’ and one or more of those written by Isaac Israeli (whom the Latins would mis-call Isaac Judaeus).

Since the Book of Asaf and Donolo’s works rely chiefly on Greek traditions, and Isaac al-Israeli was an Egyptian Jew who wrote in Arabic, we could say that, already, three and perhaps all four of those medical traditions were present which legend  maintained had formed the foundations of  ‘Salernitan’ medicine.

The Book of Asaf

The ‘Book of Asaf’ is an antidotary described by Lieber as  “.. a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model.” [1] I regret having been been unable to consult the only source cited by Lieber (or by anyone else) for its materia medica. [2]

The Book of Mixtures: Shabbatai Donolo.

Shabbatai Donolo’s “Book of Mixtures” or “~Remedies” ( Sefer HaMirkachot)  contains medical receipts too, but more of theory.  Donolo also wrote a treatise on religious cosmology (Sefer Hakhmoni) which has been overshadowed by the ‘Mixtures’, but could have been meant as companion to it.  The importance of his phamaceutical work (‘HaMirakachot) was such that part of a twelfth-century copy would be among the items recovered from the geniza in Cairo. [3]

Oria Apulia Asaf

Donolo was born in 913 AD in Oria, another of Puglia’s ancient hill-top settlements on the Via Appia, mid-way between Tarento and Brindisi. [4]

When Shabbatai was twelve years of age, a Saracen invasion left the town ruined, and all Donolo’s close family killed or enslaved.  Only he was able to be ransomed by more distant relatives.  It may explain why works composed or transmitted in Arabic are not mentioned in his own book,  although he studied  the medical traditions of the Greeks, Arabs, Babylonians, and Indians.

It may also explain why he chose to write his work in Hebrew, at a time when the revival of Hebrew as a language in daily use was only just beginning, the usual lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews having been Greek.  In addition to Italian, Greek and Hebrew, Donolo also knew Aramaic – which later becomes the language of the Zohar – and so he might have been able to read medical works written in Syriac, a western Aramaic dialect.  Once the common language of  Rome’s eastern empire it was maintained as the liturgical language of the Church of the East, the so-called ‘Nestorians’, whose interest in medicine was central to their religious views and made them renowned as masters of natural medicines.  Theodore’s interest in the subject led to speculation that he, too, had been a Nestorian before being appointed head of the Anglo-Saxon church.   He certainly knew Syriac, whether or not he taught it in Cantebury, three centuries before Donolo lived. Shown are three forms of Syriac script, which is read right to left.syriac-scriptsIsaac Israeli

One of the most widely known of the early Jewish physicians, Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) spent the first half of his life – possibly fifty years – in Egypt, before travelling – or being appointed to – Kairouan at some time between 905–907. There he served as physician to the first Fatimid ruler in North Africa. [5] al-Israeli (sometimes ‘al-Israīli’) had gained such renown by the second half of the eleventh century that we may fairly assume that his work, too, was in the Salerno medical school. Israeli  (Latinised as ‘Isaac Judaeus’) is everywhere described as the  ‘father of Jewish neo-Platonism’. For the local inhabitants of Sicily and Salerno, Isaac’s works having been written in Arabic would pose no difficulty. Arabic was Sicily’s official language for two centuries before the Normans, and the fact that Latin then became the language of administration, diplomacy and formal education did not prevent the people’s continuing to use Hebrew, Greek or Arabic as in fact we know they did. Arabic and Hebrew would later be ‘first languages’ of the future Frederick II, King of Sicily, learned from the community which welcomed him into their homes, when he roamed the town as a young boy.

Altogether, and although historians of Latin medicine imagine that Constantine the African brought all this ‘new’ learning to the Latin-speaking world from North Africa, it is  equally possible that he worked in this case from copies of texts in the Salerno school – where he spent some time (perhaps two years) in study,  between arriving in Sicily and his later settling in Monte Cassino.

Constantine the African

Constantine is another of the many multilingual people we meet outside the Latins’ world.   He learned Latin rather late, but his earlier life as a trader had meant extensive travel in Syria, India, Ethiopia, Egypt and Persia and gave him proficiency in  Greek, Arabic, and “several Oriental languages” – though I regret my source does not specify which ones.  I use this allusion to Ethiopia – which medieval Latin Europe believed the source of all plagues – as an excuse to add an image from an Ethiopian Healing Scroll.

detail-ethiopian-healing-scrollmateria medica

Since – as we’ve seen – there was also trade in eastern materia medica into both Palermo and Salerno before the Normans, linking Jewish connections at each end of that line (which does not preclude any other), so it does not seem too much to posit that what occurred in Palermo and Salerno with the advent of Norman rule was less any explosion of  new medical learning as a translation into Latin, within their Sicilian kingdom, of matter already established there – the translation occurring in parallel to Constantine’s work in Montpellier and Montecassino.  Unlike Green and Walker-Meikle, I do not attribute to Constantine the first presence in Europe of all the matter in the Great Antidotary, generally agreed to have originated in the south, and in general terms attributed to the ‘Salernitan’ school.

The Great Antidotary.

Close upon the heels of Latin rule in Sicily and Salerno, came a great compendium of medical recipes written in Latin and called Antidotarium Magnum, from which, as Walker Meikle says, the Latins gained knowledge of far eastern materia medica. With the arrival of Norman rule, the language of administration, education and diplomacy became Latin by default, since it was then usual for any new ruler replace the language of a region with that of his own liturgy.  From that time Sicily becomes part of medieval Latin Europe. A page from a twelfth century copy of the Great Antidotary is shown further belowAt present, Monica H. Green and Kathleen Walker-Meikle are working on a critical edition of  Antidorarium Magnum. Walker-Miekle  mentions (In her blog) a digital edition being developed online through T-Pen .  It is twelve months since Meikle announced that.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle,Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum’, The Recipes Project, (October 22nd., 2015).

Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Eastern materia medica


(detail) Bl MS Egerton 747 fol.9. Bitumen

Walker-Meikle says of the Antidotarium Magnum that it first brought to Latins eastern materia medica such as ” zedoary, musk, and camphor,…bitumen of Judea, myrrh, musk, and dragon’s blood (a plant resin).. Ground-up burnt elephant bones (spodium), musk, sumac, white sandalwood, ginger, mace, musk, cinnamon, roses, camphor, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg …”

A majority of those,  including bitumen,  are represented among the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408 –  in my opinion. As examples:

  • Rose and Bitumen in MS Beinecke 408 (folios 5v and 19v)

Bitumen I found was referenced in Folio 5v.

Originally published in ‘Findings‘, my original discussion of this folio  was republished with additions at voynichimagery as the first of three posts (i) the primary analysis and discussion; to which I added (ii)  explanation of a pictorial annotation (as mnemonic) and (iii) recap and textual evidence.

fol 5v detail fire sticks

The Rose-tree(s) folio 19v. Here I follow Dana Scott who first made the identification




  1. The persons who first made use of the “Rose”(s) image apparently – and unusually – had no interest in the flower or -petals, but in the rosehip; the image indicates removal of the bark for some purpose, though whether  the bark was used, or  the softer wood below it [7] the image does not say.  Not unexpectedly,  the circumscription mark is present – the plant(s) were known in cultivation, not gathered in the wild.


fol 86 mummia small

(detail) map from folio 86v (Beinecke foliation “85v-and-86r”). See my original   commentary to this section of the map (August 11th., 2012)


2. Terms for bitumen, and for mumia are used interchangeably in some medieval sources, but both may be referenced in Beinecke MS 408; bitumen proper I feel reasonably sure is referenced by f.5v, and on the map on folio 86v (Beinecke foliation  “folio 85v-and-86r”) includes  form which, by reference to contemporary beliefs and popular etymology (cf. ‘pyramid’ in Isidore’s Etymologiae) I read as referring to a pyramid. Its being formed as a headless ‘mummy’, though patterned like rubble and with a vapour emerging from it, may be an allusion to the pyramid as source of mumia and other items of value.

I’d emphasise (yet again) that the botanical identifications were gained by analysis of the imagery and references limited to secondary academic sources about art history, economic and historical botany, and the history of trade – all of which related to the themes evinced by the style and form of these pictures.  My initial approach had been informed by the fact that I was approached and asked to comment on some items of the manuscript’s imagery; initially I saw my role only as advisory  so that from 2009- 2012 I offered comments in detail, added full bibliographies and extensive marginal notes – whatever I thought most likely to be helpful as those  working on the text came to a particular folio.

The reactions I received were limited to overt hostility, or ‘active indifference’, with one or two of the more political characters beginning and maintaining an ad.hominem campaign whose aim was evidently a form of  ‘boycott’.  I was certainly not the only non-conforming researcher to be subjected to negative “lobbying” practices by one persuasive individual; I saw a number of interesting new minds forced from the old mailing list by the same small group.  However, none was  pursued with quite so much vigour or malice – which extended to the public abuse of my students, and to approaches being made to owners of public forums and prominent blogs, indicating that dissenters from the ‘standard opinion’,  should be prevented from speaking in public discussions of the manuscript and “post their views only on their personal blog”.

Exactly the same tactics and lobbying has recently infected a new Voynich forum, but the present moderators appear to be of admirable independence in mind and character and have censored equally the perpetrator and the victim, which in the circumstances seems exactly the right approach to take.   This promising sign has been met with others in my case.  Some of the new arrivals have found no difficulty citing matter from this blog, and acknowledging the source in the normal way.

The older practice had been to take the research, without acknowledgement, and re-work it so that the result appeared to support, rather than obviously contradict an “all Latin European” and central European storyline.

Such habits have seen many promising researchers driven out, or led to give up in disgust during the past decade and more.  One cannot pretend that the routine of combining refusal to acknowledge or engage, with a parallel ad.hominem campaign conducted without reasonable limits, is not effective in reducing all opinions to just one.  Except occasionally.



[1] E. Lieber, ‘Asaf’s Book of Medicines: a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model’,  in John Scarborough (ed.), Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 38, Symposium on Byzantine Medicine (1984), pp. 233-249.  Lieber notes elsewhere that 18 manuscripts of the Book of Asaf were known at the time of writing, from various European libraries and that they contain greater or lesser parts of the Book, the longest continuous section being of 250 folios.  “On palaeographic evidence, however, the dates of the manuscripts range from the 12th to the 15th or 16th centuries, and all are apparently of European origin, mainly from Italy. However, there is some reason to think that part, at least, of the content may derive from Jews of Hellenistic or Byzantine Alexandria .. from the 3rd century B.C. or earlier…. It is thus almost impossible to determine the actual extent of the work.. It almost certainly grew by accretion over the years — or even the centuries — and appeared in a number of different versions”.

[2] i.e.  L. Venetianer, Asaf Judaeus, der aelteste medizinische Scritftsteller in hebraeischer Sprache, 3 pts., Budapest, 1915-17.  Another which might prove helpful is another I have not sighted: Meir Bar-Ilan (מאיר בר-אילן), ‘Medicine in Eretz Israel during the First Centuries CE / הרפואה בארץ-ישראל במאות ‘, הראשונות לספירה, Cathedra: Vol. 91 (1999), pp. 31-78.

The eastern influence in the ‘Book of Asaf’  may be less due to Byzantium than  centres in the east, formerly Hellenistic, in which some communities had settled before the loss of Jerusalem.  Their return to the west finds them – and particularly those of India – distinguished as  ‘al-Israeli’ or ‘al-Israili’, a name often associated with physicians and pharmacy in the medieval Mediterranean.  Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) is one of the earliest and best known, but not the only one.

[3] The Cairo geniza fragment contains part of Donolo’s commentary and had been bound with a fragment of Kabbalistic text.  ( Bodleian Library, MS. Heb. e. 26 Cowley Catalogue 2762).

[4] The JVL comments that  Shabbetai Donnolo was born in 913 in Oria spent the rest of his life in southern Italy and that “It appears that Donnolo was the first person to write about medicine in Christian Europe. His Sefer HaMirkachot, “the Book of Remedies” is a summary of his forty years of medical experience. …As pharmacy and medicine in the tenth century were inextricably interwoven with astrology and cosmology Donnolo sets out his idea of a divinely created universe, with man in the image of God, based on a synthesis of contemporary thought, but his medical reputation has overshadowed his cosmological writings, the most important of which is his Sefer Hakhmoni, a title implying Wisdom.  Donnolo wrote in Hebrew, which was very unusual for his time. He died in 982″.

[5] The only reference which I find to the bark of the tree or its soft inner wood being used in medicine is in this source online which says: “Rose leaves, flowers, bark and roots are generally considered to be cooling in Western herbalism, with authors as varied as Avicenna, Dioscorides, Bauhin and Hildegarde specifically mentioning plant’s place on the colder end of the thermal spectrum although Galen seemed to feel that it had some warming properties. The fruits are closer to neutral in temperature”. Specialists may care to comment.



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