Constantine the African: The Muslim that ignited the Rennaisaance


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Describes the role of Constantine the African in transfer of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to the West through the medical school at Salerno.
   Makzan February 2012 -22- Constantine the African The Muslim Who Ignited the Renaissance   David W. Tschanz    Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb,science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. They are engines of change, windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time.    – Barbara Tuchman   Rome fell and the once proud capital roiled under the fetid smell of rotting corpses. A boy-emperorwith the ridiculously vainglorious name of Romulus Augustulus abdicated a throne that was less than anempty symbol and meekly ceased to be Caesar, a title that once had caused the trembling of millions.It merely confirmed what had been happening across Europe for over a century as barbarian hordesof Goths, Visigoths, Celts, and Vandals, stormed across the empire, toppling it before them anddestroying its books of knowledge accumulated over millennia. The dying flames of the burned books,parchments and scrolls marked Europe’s side into the cultural and intellectual morass that was the Dark Ages. For the next millennia, historian Barabara Tuchman has written, the European mind was shackled.It was never that simple of course. Thomas Aquinas,Roger Bacon and Benedict of Nursia would no doubtchallenge the idea that Dark Ages were intellectuallystagnant, but Europe was a grim place where the lack of knowledge condemned generations to lives that were nasty,brutish and short. The once great libraries were empty and theUniversity of Paris – Europe’s great center of learningboasted proudly of having 400 books – 300 of which werecommentaries on the New Testament.At the same time, the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo heldover 500,000 volumes covering all branch of human learning,including science, medicine, mathematics, history, sociology,geography, geology, rhetoric and much more.A century or so after the fall of the last Roman emperorand the victory of ignorance in the West, Islam had appearednova-like on the world scene and within another century hadbecome the dominant culture for a good portion of what beenthe non-European Roman empire and the Middle East andinto India.It would be in the buffer zone between the civilizations,one robust and awash with ideas, innovations; the other stuck in quicksand but longing for more. One of the great contributions of the Muslim world in the middleAges was the transmission of what had been learned, preserved and added to classical knowledge sincethe rise of Islam. That transmission would take place along the fluid borders between the two worlds,among the most important, a small town in southern Italy called Salerno   Salerno remained under Byzantine control until the Normans began to take over, wresting Sicilyfrom the Muslims and Salerno itself from the Byzantines. The Norman duke Robert of Guiscard took possession of Salerno in 1076. The city was an intellectual melting pot and better defined by itscosmopolitan intellectual energy, than by any ruling group.   Makzan February 2012 -23- Salerno Just after the Normans came, a Tunisian Muslim merchant/scholar, Constantine the African, aMuslim fluent in Arabic as well as Greek and Latin, visited Salerno.Constatntine had been born in Tunisia’s Kairouan in 1017 and studied medicine there and inBaghdad. He had become a medical-book collector, and Salerno was the best-known European center of medical learning. Constantine saw that Salerno was far behind the Arabs.Accused of practicing magic and exiled from Carthage three years later, he loaded his library on aship bound for Salerno. It included Arabic translations of lost Greek and Latin medical works --Hippocrates, Galen, and others. It also included the moreadvanced treatises of later Arab doctors. The voyage wasmarred by a storm that rose up and destroyed many of thebooks. But Constantine saved a great deal.In Salerno, Italy, he became a professor of medicineand his skills as a teacher attracted widespread attention. Afew years later Constantine became a Benedictine monk,living the last two decades of his life in the Monte Cassinomonastery.Alfano, archbishop of Salerno, who himself hadmedical knowledge, encouraged Constantine to maketranslations from Arabic of several popular medical texts.One such translation was an adaptation for a Latin audienceof the Kitab Kamil as-sin'a at-tibbiya (the complete (orperfect) book on medical art) of 'Ali ibn a-Abbas al-Majusti(written before 977/978), called the Pantegni . Constantinetranslated several other works on diets, the stomach,melancholy, forgetfulness by doctors in Qayrawan, the Ziridcapital, from where he himself srcinated. These had Latintranslations such as Chirurgia , Prognostica ,  De pulsibus ,  Deinstrumentis , Practica (in 12 books),  Liber graduum ,  DeStomachi et instestinorum infirmitatibus ,  Liber de urina , anda number of others.These translations are housed today in libraries in Italy,Germany, France, Belgium, and England. They were used astextbooks in the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century.Translate isn’t actually the right word. Much of his writing consisted of new books based upon theold works, with ideas moved around and added to and which he wasn’t above claiming as his ownsrcinal work.He's been called a plagiarist, yet what he was doing was no secret. He set out to create a medicalliterature adapted to bring the West up to speed. Another wrinkle in the plagiarism debate is that he waswriting in a region recently retaken from the Muslims by Christians -- a region where it was politicallyunwise to rub his patron's noses in his Islamic sources.By way of emphasizing the great openness of that intellectual era, another influential medical writerwas born in Salerno just about the time Constantine died. This writer produced a body of work called TheTrotula. To the best of our knowledge the writer was a woman named Trocta -- an important doctor andteacher whose works, like Constantine's were read and used for centuries.And he succeeded. In the following century, Salerno became home of what the West’s first medicaluniversity. His translations were reinforced a century or so after by a new influx of medical works, alsotranslated from Arabic but this time in Spain, Toledo, primarily, most of them the work of the prolificItalian translator Gerard of Cremona (ca. 1114-1187). Constantine the African giving a lecture atSalerno.   Makzan February 2012 -24- The list of translations from the Arabic attributed to Gerardincludes no fewer than two dozen works on medicine. Someworks were by Greek authors, but the majority were byoutstanding 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. The importance of thesenew materials for Western medicine, Mac Vaugh notes, is noteasy to overestimate.The trends apparent in 12 th -century Salerno becamecharacteristic of European medicine generally in the 13 th century,under the influence of a second group of medical works translatedinto Latin.The translation of Muslim medical treatises introduced theWest to fields in which Islamic physicians had made considerableadvances such as surgery, materia medica, and theoreticalpharmacy. At the same time the remarkable medicalencyclopedias of the Arabs, in particular the Canon , led Westernphysicians to view medicine as something that should be studiedas a rational system with close ties to philosophy, grounded in logical order and susceptible of methodicalinvestigation; rather than acts of supernatural intervention or lack thereof.For a century or so in this small part of Europe the light that would ignite and sustain theRenaissance flickered and grew in strength. Salerno, with its atmosphere of invention, freedom of ideas,and mental animation would lead the way and carry the light from the East back to Europe.And most of it was due to the arrival of an African scholar, whose birth name no one knows, wholooked at the place, and said to himself, these people are backward; something must be done about it. References C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic learning into England  ; The Panizzi Lectures, 1996. TheBritish Library, London, 1997. P. 23.Constantine the African and 'Ali ibn al-Magusti: The Pantegni and related texts, eds C. Burnett andD. 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; 6 th 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 NormanKingdom of Sicily : Cambridge University Press, 1992; p.116.M. McVaugh: History of Medicine, in Dictionary of Middle Ages; Charles Scribners Sons; NewYork; 1980, Vol 8.M. Meyerhof: Science and medicine in the Legacy of Islam ; Sir Thomas Arnold and AlfredGuillaume: 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: sectiontwo; Part three; Translated from the French.
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