METI’s latest Islamic translation now available

04.15.2015 | Morgan Davis

As director of the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, I’m excited to announce the newest title in our Islamic Translation Series. John Walbridge’s expert edition of The Alexandrian Epitomes of Galen is the product of over a decade of careful collation of manuscripts, translation, and additional interpretive scholarship. Volume one Alexandrian Epitomes is an unusual volume with an unusual history and a unique place in the ITS catalog. As such, it deserves a proper introduction, and who better to do the honors than the editor/translator himself? What follows are excerpts from Professor Walbridge’s introductory chapter to volume one of this historically important text.D. Morgan Davis

What are the epitomes and where did they come from? 

About fourteen hundred years ago, one or several professors of medicine in Egypt prepared epitomes in Greek to accompany the sixteen works of Galen (b. 129) that constituted the larger part of the standard syllabus of medicine in the medical schools of Alexandria. These epitomes were study guides, similar to the CliffsNotes of modern American students. In contrast to the rambling and argumentative style of Galen’s original works, the epitomes are full of the lists, tables, and systematic categorizations of concepts, symptoms, diseases, and organs that medical students have always had to memorize.

There are three accounts of the authorship [of these epitomes, attributing their final formulation to a variety of people]. The most plausible overall explanation is that during the sixth century, it was customary for iatrosophists—the professors of medicine in Alexandria—to write such works, of which we have a number of whole or fragmentary examples in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Anqīlāʾus, probably toward the end of the period, compiled the works we know as the Alexandrian epitomes, drawing from similar works written by some or all of the other individuals whose names are associated with the project. These works should thus be taken as representing the tradition of sixth-century Alexandria as it was codified sometime around the year 600.

What do the epitomes contain?

The Alexandrian epitomes are typical of the late antique study guides composed in the form of commentaries, questions and answers, tables, and diagrams for the use of medical students. Similar works also exist for other disciplines, notably philosophy. Such works continued to be written in the Islamic world until works such as Ibn Sīnā’s Canon of Medicine supplanted the actual works of Hippocrates and Galen for student use.

The enduring popularity of Ibn Sīnā’s Canon of Medicine no doubt owes as much to its clarity and excellent organization as to its reliability. There are five books: (1) medical theory; (2) simple drugs…; (3) diseases of particular organs…; (4) systemic diseases, such as fevers; and (5) compound drugs. The first book, entitled General Matters, is what corresponds to our curriculum. Ibn Rushd’s General Matters follows the same outline, though it omits the introductory sections on elements, temperaments, and humors. A similar outline prevails in other Islamic medical textbooks.

Why were the epitomes written? 

Reading the epitomes side by side with Galen’s texts makes it perfectly obvious why they were written. Galen meanders, interrupts himself to expand on some side issue, partially develops alternative categorizations, interrupts himself again to savage at length some opponent over a long-forgotten theoretical dispute, and in the end convinces that reader that Galen’s vast literary output was achieved by not wasting time on revision. The epitomes give the student reader the background he needs to understand the text in a clear and comprehensive manner.

How influential were they? 

Besides the Alexandrian students, others must have found them useful, for they were translated into Arabic—supposedly by the famous Christian translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq—and then into Hebrew. Arabic manuscripts of these epitomes are about as common as manuscripts of the Arabic versions of the corresponding original works of Galen. Citations of them, or signs of their influence, are not difficult to find in Arabic medical literature. Thus they are historically important and worthy of closer study than they have received so far. They are also an admirably clear, if sometimes tedious, survey of Galenism as it was understood at the very end of antiquity.

What does volume one of the present translation contain? 

The three texts edited and translated were chosen for their general interest and, in particular, for their philosophical significance. They include a work on scientific method as applied to medicine, a survey of medicine that includes a discussion of the epistemology of diagnosis and choice of treatment, and a discussion of theories of the elements as applied to basic physiology.

The Alexandrian Epitomes of Galen, Volume 1: On the Medical Sects for Beginners, The Small Art of Medicine, and On the Elements According to the Opinion of Hippocrates is now available at Amazon.