Can sheep excrement cure ulcers? Consult the final volume of Maimonides’s Medical Aphorisms

09.14.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

I’m excited to announce the publication of the fifth and final volume of medical aphorisms by the great Medieval Jewish physician and theologian Moses Maimonides, translated from the Arabic by Gerrit Bos, a world authority on Maimonides. Moses Maimonides is among the most celebrated rabbis in the history of Judaism and the author of works on many subjects. Born in 1138 in Córdoba, Spain, Maimonides eventually settled in Egypt, where he practiced medicine until his death in 1204. This fifth and final volume of the critical edition of Moses Maimonides’ Medical Aphorisms covers treatises 22–25. An additional volume of indexes and glossaries to all of Maimonides’ medical aphorisms is also in the works. Unlike today, where doctors usually specialize in a particular branch of medicine, physicians in the Medieval world were expected to master the full array of medical knowledge at the time. In an effort to make that daunting task achievable, some physicians authored compendia of medical information which could be consulted and committed to memory. Maimonides’s collection of aphorisms—short sayings that come quickly to their point—represent such an effort. Each one could fit on a three-by-five card, as it were, and be grouped together with other aphorisms dealing with related topics. This is a highly specialized volume that will be of interest primarily to scholars of the history of medicine and of ideas. But to give a flavor of what it contains, I thought it might be fun to list the main topics of each section of the aphorisms (treatises) in this book, followed by a sample aphorism or two. The central subjects of treatise 22 are the specific properties of medicines. These are fairly moderate examples of the medicinal recipes in this volume. Still, if you are eating, you may want to finish before continuing:
Sheep excrement, dried and kneaded with vinegar, heals warts, fleshy excrescences, ulcers that develop from burning with fire, and shingles in which one has the sensation of crawling ants. If one burns river crabs alive in a red copper pot, takes one part of their ashes, half a part of great yellow gentian [Gentiana lutea], and one tenth of frankincense [Boswellia spp.], and from this [mixture] sprinkles a large spoonful on water and gives it to someone bitten by a dog, it is of amazing benefit. 
Treatise 23 deals with the differences between well-known diseases and explains technical terms:
The illness that occurs in all joints is called “arthritis”; this very illness is called “ischias” if it occurs in the hip joint only and “podagra” if it occurs in the feet. If podagra becomes chronic and persists for a long time, the illness spreads into all joints. In all these [illnesses] much chyme develops in the joints and spreads to the nerves surrounding them. The chyme that mostly flows in the case of arthritis is that which is called “crude.” 
Medical curiosities and rare occurrences comprise treatise 24:
It is related that the queen of Egypt killed herself by letting a viper free on her breast. [The viper bit her] and she died immediately. The reason she did so was because another king had defeated her and usurped the land that was in her possession. Says Galen: I saw with my own eyes in Alexandria how fast this viper kills [someone]. For when the judge in that city sentences a prominent person to death, they bring this viper and let her bite him in the chest and he dies immediately.  Once a plague erupted from the borders of Ethiopia to Greece. Hippocrates acted skillfully [against the plague] and saved the inhabitants of his city by instructing them to ignite a fire around the city and [to put onto it] large quantities of wood and other things, namely, blossoms and leaves of plants and fragrant trees. He also told them to put on the firebrand many spices and odiferous oils. When they did so, they were saved from the death they were so close to.
The 25th treatise is by far the longest in this volume. It contains Maimonides’ critical assessment of a number of passages in the vast medical corpus of Galen, one of the most influential physicians of the ancient world:
[Galen] makes the following statement, and these are his words: The language of the Greek is the most pleasant of all languages and the most universal for all people [endowed] with logic, the most eloquent and most human. For if you pay attention to the pronunciation of the words in the languages of other peoples, you will certainly discern that some of them are very much like the grunting of pigs, others resemble the croaking of frogs, and yet others resemble the sound produced by the green woodpecker. Then you will also find that [these words] originate in an ugly way in the movements of the tongue, lips, and entire mouth…. Says Moses: Al-Rāzī and others have cast doubt on these words of Galen. The thrust of their objection is that he makes the Greek language into a unique one [among the languages] spoken by men and regards all the other languages as ugly ones. It is well known that the languages are conventional and that every language is ugly, hard, and obscure for someone who does not know it and who has not been raised with it.
Maimonides was an independent and critical physician who tried to eradicate prejudices and dogmas in medicine, even if their source was a physician as venerated as Galen. This fifth volume of his aphorisms bears witness to this critical attitude as well as to the breadth of his training. This volume, and all of the published translations from this series of the medical works of Maimonides, is published by Brigham Young University Press and distributed world-wide by the University of Chicago Press.


Davis-Morgan-staffD. Morgan Davis has been affiliated with the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative since its launch in 1993 and became the project’s director in 2010. He holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Brigham Young University, an MA in history from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD (2005) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Utah.