Montserrat Cabre

title.none: Barkai, A History of Jewish Gynaecological Texts (Cabre)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.002 99.06.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Montserrat Cabre, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mcabre@MIT.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Barkai, Ron. A History of Jewish Gynaecological Texts in the Middle Ages. Brill's Series in Jewish Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. xi, 241. $92.50. ISBN: 9-004-10995-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.02

Barkai, Ron. A History of Jewish Gynaecological Texts in the Middle Ages. Brill's Series in Jewish Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. xi, 241. $92.50. ISBN: 9-004-10995-1.

Reviewed by:

Montserrat Cabre
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In this book, Ron Barkai offers the first comprehensive history of Jewish gynecological and obstetrical texts, more precisely, of those produced in the Jewish communities of Mediterranean Western Europe -- namely Spain, Southern France and Italy. He identifies a total of 16 texts as belonging to this tradition, of which 15 are known to date -- the Nitrei nashim(?) (Secrets of Women) not having been identified as extant. A useful table of the texts, noting their original language as well as their known manuscript tradition, can be found in pages 4-5. Two of the texts discussed had been previously studied by Barkai himself: The Sefer ha-toledet ( Book on Generation), a Hebrew adaptation of Muscio's Latin version of Soranus of Ephesus' Gynecology, had been studied, edited and translated into French by Barkai himself [ Les infortunes de Dinah, ou la gynècologie juive au moyen âge. Paris: Cerf, 1991]; the Miqoshi ha-ledah (On the Difficulties of Birth) was published by the same author ["A Medieval Hebrew Treatise on Obstetrics", Medical History 33 (1988), pp.96-119].

This book is divided into two parts; the first presents a critical study of the texts, drawing from them a history of Jewish gynecology from the 12th to the end of the 15th centuries; the second offers critical editions and English annotated translations of six of the texts discussed.

Chapter 1, "The rise of Hebrew medical literature", sets a general context for the production of Jewish gynecological and obstetrical literature, offering a detailed explanation on how Hebrew came to replace Arabic and Judeo-Arabic as the written scientific languages used in Jewish communities of the Western Diaspora. The medical turning point of this "second renaissance" of the Hebrew language in the 12th century was the work of an anonymous translator who, active in Provence, by 1197-1199 had translated from Latin into Hebrew as many as seven books on theoretical medicine and 17 on practical medicine. The work of this translator, whose own reflections on his work are extant and are offered in English by Barkai (pp. 21-27), is heavily grounded in the "Arabic Galenism" which permeated the Western medical Latin culture of the 12th century. This analysis allows Barkai to state that, by the end of the 12th century, the Hebrew medical corpus included at least 3 gynecological texts: the Sefer ha-ém 'al Galynus (Galen's Book on the Womb), the Sefer ha-seter (Book on the Hidden [Places]) and the Sefer ha-toledet ( Book on Generation). For this later text, Barkai emends his previous dating of the text as a translation of the first half of the 13th century (p.31), an hypothesis he had put forward in his book cited above, Les infortunes de Dinah.

Chapter 2, "The specialized Arabic and early medieval Latin gynaecological treatises" summarizes what is known today on the late ancient and early medieval development of gynecological literature. Relying heavily on the research of Monica Green [The Transmission of Ancient Theories of Female Physiology and Disease Through the Early Middle Ages, Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1985], Barkai offers an overview of the history of the independent gynecological treatises in the Greek, Arabic and Latin traditions, to map the ground from which Jewish scholars and translators created a Hebrew textual corpus.

Chapter 3, "Hebrew translations of Latin and Arabic gynecological treatises", discusses the Jewish gynecological corpus of texts translated from these languages, which provided Hebrew with a technical terminology -- the use of Latin, Arabic and vernacular words being one of the features of the medieval medical Hebrew lexicon. Barkai assesses a scarce reception of the Hippocratic gynecological writings; only one text, Hippocrates' Book on Pregnancy, the Sefer le-Abûqrât be-herayon, was translated in 14th-century Provence from an Arabic version of On Superfeotation. It is Soranus' gynecological work that most influenced Hebrew medieval gynecology, directly and indirectly through its Latin 'Muscian versions.' Four texts fall into the category of 'Soranian works': the Sefer ha-toledet (Book on Generation), the Sefer ha-ém el Galinus (Galen's Book on the Womb), the Miqosi ha-ledah (On the Difficulties of Birth) and the Judeo-Arabic Sefer Dinah (Dinah's Book), a fragmentary version of Muscio's Pessaria. Lesser impact upon Hebrew literature was enjoyed by the corpus of three popular Latin Salernitan texts, of intrincate textual history, which in the 13th century came to form the 'Trotula ensemble.' The Sefer ha-seter ( Book on Hidden [Places]), translated by 1197-1199, is the only known Hebrew treatise belonging to this tradition -- more precisely, the Liber simpthomatibus mulierum 3, in Monica Green's textual history of these works ["The Development of the Trotula," Revue d'Histoire des Textes 26 (1996), pp.119-203]. However, there are clear signs that this popular medieval tradition was disseminated among Jewish authors, in the form of a 14th-century reference to a "book called Trotula" (p.63). Texts directly translated from the Arabic aside the Hippocratic treatise are represented only by two texts: two fragments from 'Arib ibn Sa'îd work on obstetrics, the Sefer yesirat ha-'ubar ve- hanhagat ha-harot ve-hanoladim(Book on the Creation of the Foetus and the Treatment of Pregnant Women and Babies), and gynecological excerpts from Maimonides' Aphorisms, the Liqutei Rabbenu Mosheh be-'inyanei veset ve-herayon (The compilations of our Rabbi Moses on Menstruation and Pregnacy).

Chapter 4, "Genuine Hebrew treatises on feminine and masculine genital diseases", discusses the Jewish corpus originally produced in Hebrew, particularly two specialized treatises regarding the problematics of human conception. The Zik-hron ha-holayim ha-hovim bi-khlei ha-herayon (Record of the Diseases Occurring in the Genital Members) is a practical manual intended to be used by male physicians to treat both male and female disorders regarding generation. Barkai compares this text extensively with similar Arabic and Castilian texts. Their differences and parallels show the extreme difficulty in ascribing direct dependences among contemporary medieval medical texts; nevertheless, it demonstrates how much was shared among distinct linguistic medical cultures. The second text, the Ha-ma 'mar ba-toladah niqra sod ha-'ibbur (The Treatise on Generation, Called the Secret of Conception) was originally written in Hebrew but Barkai perceives in it the influence of Latin gynecology. Being produced in a rhetorical manner resembling the Latin consilia, it shows a sympathetic approach to women's nature, free from the more mysogynistic views of patriarchal Jewish culture.

Chapter 5, "Empirical and magical treatises", deals with two texts, the Merqahat mo 'il le-qabel ha-herayon be-shem ha-rofé Mae. Vidal Debourian (A Useful Unguent for Conception, Attributed to the Physician Master Vidal de Bourian), and the Maguen ha-rosh (The Head's Shield), ascribed to Seshet. Both texts share a practical nature and present no theoretical discussions of the female body. Showing no interest to explain the causation of illnesses, they compile recipes containing magical lore, a common feature of Jewish medical texts, both learned and empirical, despite the condemnations of prominent Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides.

Part II is preceded by a short conclusive chapter where the main historical arguments dealt with in the previous chapters are abstracted and some important questions regarding audiences for the texts are made. Barkai finds that only one text, the Sefer ha-toledet seems to be directly intended for the use of midwives; the rest, although some note the midwife's role in certain manual procedures, seem to be intended for the use of the physician.

Hebrew and, in one case, Judeo-Arabic critical editions of six texts, followed by their English annotated translations, are offered in Part II: Dinah's Book on All That Concerns the Womb and Its Sicknesses (Sefer Dinah), A Record of the Diseases Ocurring in the Genital Members (Zik-hron ha-holayim ha-hovim bi-khlei ha-herayon), Galen's Book on the Womb, which is called Genicias (Sefer ha-ém el Galinus), the Hebrew translation of Liber de Sinthomatibus Mulierum, 3 (Sefer ha-seter), Medicament for Pregnancy Called the Head's Shield (Maguen ha-rosh) and the Treatise on Procreation Called the Secret of Conception and it is Divided into Three Parts ( Ha-ma 'mar ba-toladah niqra sod ha- 'ibbur).

While this reviewer is unable to report on the accuracy of the Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic editions and their English translations (this being the job of scholars in Jewish studies), she is nevertheless prepared to assess the importance of this book for historians and students of both, medieval medicine and women. Being the very first comprehensive history of medieval Jewish gynecology, this book stands as an instance of the complex ways in which diverse linguistic medical traditions interacted in the Middle Ages.