Project Description

Towards a Digital Edition of the Canon Medicine: Book 3, Fen 1, Maqāla 1

Canon Medicinae is the title of the latin translation of Ibn Sīnā’s (latinised as Avicenna) great medical encyclopaedia al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb. This Latin translation was prepared by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century in Toledo. The Canon was subsequently used for teaching medicine in European universities for over five centuries. Despite its importance, no critical edition of the text has yet been produced.

Our project aims to rectify this gap: with the collaboration of a trained Latin palaeographer and an IT specialist, our team is preparing the first sample of a digital edition and an interactive English translation of the Canon Medicinae. We are focussing on Book 3, Fen 1, Maqāla 1, a section of the Canon that focuses on brain anatomy and mental health. As we prepare our edition and translation, our team is also examining the following issues: Gerard of Cremona’s translation techniques, his translation and transliteration of technical terms, his assebmling a Latin medical lexicon, the medieval reception of Galenic/Hippocratic theories on mental health and brain anatomy.


The Arabic and Latin Canon

The influence of Avicenna’s al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb on the history of medicine can hardly be overstated. A comprehensive and well organized medical encyclopaedia, Avicenna’s book proved an invaluable tool for teaching and practicing medicine; in the Middle Ages, it was translated from the Arabic into Hebrew and Latin. The Latin West owes its access to the Qānūn to the work of Gerard of Cremona. Working in Toledo in the 12th century, Gerard prepared – likely with the aid of a team of collaborators – the first Latin translation of Avicenna’s great medical encyclopaedia, whose title he rendered into Latin as “Canon Medicinae”. By the 13th century, Avicenna’s Qānūn in Gerard’s Latin translation was consecrated as the fundamental reference text for medical instruction by its inclusion in the curricula of major universities across Europe. It remained a mainstream text still consulted by physicians up to the 17th century.


Gerard of Cremona

Gerard was arguably the most prolific medieval translator (Brams, 2003, 71). In addition to the Canon, he translated from the Arabic a large number of texts which played a key role in Western intellectual history. His translations from the Arabic – together with the corpus of Greek to Latin translations – gave Europe access to Aristotle. Notwithstanding Gerard of Cremona’s importance in Western intellectual history, the circumstances around the production of his translations are still shrouded in mystery. The proposed project is aimed to advance our understanding of Gerard’s translation methods, his sources and his own medical knowledge.


Success of the Canon

Once the Canon reached the medical scholastic circles, its success was unparalleled. Despite its length and scope, the Canon was a handy manual for medical teaching. University masters realised the Canon‘s potential as a handbook for training physicians, and selected parts of the book which became mandatory for both theoretical and practical study in university curricula. By the latter part of the 13th century, the Canon was routinely studied and much prized in the major centres of medical learning, and the production of a body of commentary had begun. And the success of the Canon was not limited to teaching and theory: practicing physicians used it on a daily basis for its handy arrangement of pathologies, prognostics and therapeutics (Siraisi, 1987, 43, 46-47).

This success is not surprising. The Canon had already been tested by Arabic medical tradition, within which it acquired a status of the highest regard. Such a status is attested to by the great number of manuscripts preserved, as well as by the many commentaries on it, glosses, and imitations (Jacquart, 1996, 83).

The Canon‘s contents are divided in five books, ranging from general aspects such as anatomy and physiology, to the preparation of composite medicaments. Of these five books, books one, three and four found the readiest reception in European universities. Book one emerged as a textbook for the teaching of medical theory (Siraisi, 1987, 57). At Montpellier, for instance, the 1340 statutes fixed book one and the first part of Book four as mandatory for reading, while book three and the second part of book four as complementary (Jacquart, 1996, 191). At Bologna, the 1405 statutes included consistent portions of the Canon – from book One, two and four – as mandatory readings (Jacquart, 1996, 193), while medical practice was taught entirely on book three. At Paris, the Canon was adopted as early as 1290 for teaching practical subjects such as diagnostics and therapeutics (Jacquart, 1985, 75). Also Padua, Ferrara, Pavia, Lyon, Salamanca, Alcalá, Pisa, Oxford and Cambridge, all adopted the Canon in their curricula at some stage. It was not before the mid-seventeenth century that the Canon‘s incompatibility with contemporary developments in European physiology became apparent, leading to a progressive abandonment of the text for teaching in university circles (Siraisi, 1987, 6). Still, the Canon figured in various university curricula up to the 18th century. This enduring fame led to a boom in commentaries which shaped European medical discourse, particularly through the 16th and 17th centuries. These commentaries, and the many editions of the Canon, reveal the history of successive attempts to modernize the presentation of Avicenna’s text and the teaching of his ideas (Siraisi, 1987, 7).


The Critical Edition

Despite the unparalleled impact of the Canon on the history of medicine, no critical edition of this text is yet available. As a result, scholars working on the Canon have thus far relied upon quaint Renaissance editions (over seventy in total, dating from 1473 to 1674), which are often available only in bad quality printed copies.
The main problem with these editions is their lack of adherence to the original translation by Gerard of Cremona.

The standard text of the Renaissance editions was based upon the text compiled by Andrea Alpago (published in Venice in 1522), which is the result of a process of rearrangement and abridgement of the original (Jacquart, 1996, 154). The result of this situation is that scholars have thus far worked on unreliable texts, making our current findings about the Latin Canon at best provisional. The proposed project will be the first step towards solving this problem.

Through funding by the UConn Reseach Excellence Program, the PI and his team are producing the first scholarly electronic edition of a portion of the Canon Medicinae [Book 3, Fen 1, Maqāla/Dictio 1]. Our team meets for weekly readings of the Canon, to which everyone is welcome.

By means of both our critical edition and comparative study, this research project is setting a milestone towards filling a glaring gap in the history of Western medicine. It will provide a new, solid point of departure for further research on the Canon and its impact on Western history of science, and for a complete edition of the text.

For more information, contact Prof. Carpentieri at: