The Medieval Review 10.01.10

Burnett, Charles (ed.). Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples: Medical Remedies Between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain. Studies in the Arcadian Library, no. 3. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 176. $170 ISBN- 978-0-19-954306-9. .

Reviewed by:

Monica Green
Arizona State University

With this handsomely produced volume, Charles Burnett continues his impressive string of studies on medieval scientific and medical texts. As with many of his editorial endeavors, this multi-disciplinary collaborative effort duplicates the multi-lingual milieu that originally produced texts like Ibn Baklarish's Kitāb al-Musta'īnī , a book on medicinal simples (uncompounded pharmaceutical ingredients) dedicated to al-Musta'in bi-llah Abu Ja'far Ahmad, the ruler of the Muslim kingdom of Saragossa (Zaragoza) from 1085-1110. In 2003, a hitherto unknown copy of Ibn Baklarish's book came up for auction and was purchased by the Arcadian Library. Remarkably, on the basis of a colophon it can be determined that this manuscript was made in the year 1130, within a generation of the author's lifetime; as such, it now constitutes the earliest known copy of the text. These eight papers come from a 2005 colloquium held in London and constitute the first monographic study of Ibn Baklarish in English (though considerable scholarship has been published in German, English, Spanish and French throughout the past century). The essays are accompanied here by a partial photographic facsimile of the Arcadian manuscript and a generous number of color images from other manuscripts of Ibn Baklarish's text and similar works of Arabic medicine.

Ibn Baklarish's Arabic text sets out in tabular form the properties and uses of 704 different medicinal substances, arranged in alphabetical order, together with their alternative names in Syriac, Persian, Berber, Byzantine Greek, Latin and Romance ( 'ajamiyya ). Twelve, possibly thirteen extant copies of the text are known. In the Arcadian manuscript, written perhaps in Mozarabic Toledo on paper from the mills of Jtiva, the work takes up 140 leaves. The work is shown to have circulated in later centuries in both Spain and North Africa, and was actively used in the latter region up through the nineteenth century.

The eight essays cover what is known of Ibn Baklarish's biography and the genesis of the text (Ana Labarta); the manuscript transmission of the Kitāb al-Musta'īnī (Joëlle Ricordel); a study of the Romance words, not simply in the original version of the text but as they developed in later manuscripts (Juan Carlos Villaverde Amieva); a detailed provenance and codicological study of one seventeenth-century copy now in Leiden (Jan Just Witkam); an examination of the Syriac words in the text, together with a complete list of them (Geoffrey Khan); a consideration of Ibn Baklarish's Jewish identity (David J. Wasserstein); a study of the tradition of texts listing synonyms and employing tabular presentation (Emilie Savage-Smith); and a study of the ingredients employing animal products (Anna Contadini). Ironically, the contributors confirm that Ibn Baklarish was no polyglot: he got not simply the Syriac, Greek, Persian, and Berber words from other Arabic writers (particularly from the prolific late-tenth-century Cordoban physician al-Zahrawi); even Arabic variants probably came from these same written sources.

The most valuable contribution in the volume, and the one most likely to be of interest to scholars of medieval culture generally, is that by Savage-Smith, which takes a broad view of the way the provision of synonyms and the use of schematic tables might have facilitated the transmission of medical knowledge. Savage-Smith traces the first use of synoptic tables back to late antique Alexandria. As she notes, the table format lent itself well to rules (for example, to summarize the properties of different foods). She surveys the use of tables in several writers contemporary to Ibn Baklarish, including Ibn Butlan (d. 1066) and al-'Ala'i (mid-12th century). As one writer claims, the tabular format has a distinct heuristic advantage because it is "more worthy of being taken seriously, more attractive to see, easier to read, and not so boring" (117). Although Savage-Smith does not pretend to offer a comprehensive survey of the genre here, it does seem to have become particularly popular in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In sample collations, Savage-Smith is able to show that Ibn Baklarish is not influenced by Ibn Butlan nor does he seem to have influenced others. The one exception she finds is Maimonides, whose Commentary on the Names of Drugs is extant in a single thirteenth-century copy. Here, the overlaps with Ibn Baklarish are notable, suggesting either that Maimonides used Ibn Baklarish directly or they shared a common source.

Aside from Savage-Smith's contribution, it is unlikely that anyone beyond a handful of specialists will find benefit in this assembly of highly learned but deeply specialized and, for the most part, tentative studies. One cannot find in this volume a consistent image of Ibn Buklarish or his historical significance. The eight contributors themselves are divided as to what region of Islamic Spain his work reflects: Labarta, Savage-Smith, and Contadini state unequivocally that he wrote the book in Almeria in the south of the peninsula, yet Khan claims "he spoke the dialect of Saragossa" (96) in the north while Wasserstein similarly sees Saragossa as his only place of residence (106-9 and 111). There is similar disagreement (unacknowledged by the editor) about Ibn Baklarish's Jewish identity. Wasserstein suggests that despite his epithet al-Isra'ili , Ibn Buklarish in no way reflects Hebrew culture: there are no Hebrew words in the original text (the couple of words in Hebrew letters in the Arcadian manuscript being in fact Arabic words in Hebrew letters), nor are there any references to the Talmud. He is "a Jew who is not perhaps all that Jewish" (107). Khan, on the other hand, says that two of the several dozen words that Ibn Baklarish identifies as Syriac are in fact Hebrew (98-99). These two views are not incompatible (Ibn Baklarish may have been so poorly acquainted with Hebrew that he couldn't distinguish Hebrew from Syriac), but one wishes for some acknowledgement and discussion of these discrepancies. Such discussion would have helped the reader better assess Savage-Smith's interesting observation that Ibn Baklarish's work had its closest parallel in another Jewish writer active in the Islamic world, the Spanish and Egyptian physician, philosopher, and rabbi, Maimonides.

Other editorial oversights will simply annoy rather than confuse the attentive reader. Despite the high quality of textual editing and publication of manuscript images, the editor has not imposed such basic editorial standardization as a single set of sigla for manuscripts cited (compare Ricordel's and Villaverde Amieva's essays). Despite Labarta's careful accounting of the extant manuscripts, Wasserstein (105) refers to "some half a dozen" copies.

Perhaps most frustratingly for the general reader, basic historical information and analysis is never provided. There is, for example, nowhere in the volume a description of what, exactly, Ibn Baklarish discusses in the long (thirty-page) introduction to his text, a surprising oversight given that the introduction was edited and translated (into English and separately into Spanish) forty years ago. Insights made by scholars in some essays are not explored in others: for example, Labarta, Villaverde Amieva, and Kahn identify al-Zahrawi as a major source for Ibn Baklarish's foreign terminology, yet in her study of his lore on animals Contadini doesn't mention the Cordoban writer.

Similar historical questions are never asked. Geoffrey Khan establishes persuasively that Ibn Baklarish was gathering his Syriac and Aramaic terminology at second hand, but never muses why anyone in al-Andalus cared about this terminology used exclusively in the eastern Mediterranean. Why is Syriac (or, for that matter, Persian or Greek) more important to him than Hebrew? Why, indeed, are only five Latin words incorporated into the text, and these of such common terms as the words for "man" and "dog's blood"? Villaverde Amieva's careful study of the Latin glossing in the Arcadian manuscript implicitly hints that it was this copyist, and not Ibn Baklarish himself, who engaged with the intersections of Arabic and Latin-Romance culture. Perhaps (as Wasserstein hints), Ibn Baklarish really was just a bookish pendant who never travelled, never recorded his own observations or experiences. If so, what does this say about this so-called "multi-cultural" society if most engagement with foreign languages was merely academic? Actually, Ibn Baklarish probably gives us the answer himself: "I mentioned all that I could gather from different books about each drug whenever I found it necessary to enlighten people about it in case they come across unknown names in prescriptions. A prescription would become useless if its compounder were ignorant of that drug." [1] It would seem that Ibn Baklarish was himself engaged on a "philological project" that recognized that physicians and pharmacists in Muslim Spain were wrestling with how to make the knowledge they had inherited from eastern Mediterranean sources useful at the far western edges of the Islamic world. Latin terminology would have been relatively irrelevant, since probably no Latin texts of materia medica were circulating in southern Iberia in this period. It also shows, remarkably, how very literate Islamic medicine was, dependent more on texts (apparently) than on empirical knowledge of pharmaceutical substances.

Unfortunately, one comes away from this book still uninformed about the medical and scientific culture in either Almeria or the Saragossan court. Although Villaverde Amieva's carefully nuanced study of the Romance vocabulary in particular recognizes the "curious orthographic and linguistic promiscuity" (74) of the Arcadian manuscript, there is no hint of how this important early copy might open up new possibilities for the study not just of pharmacological vocabulary but of pharmacological ingredients themselves, such as is now being done with the contemporary Genizah materials from Egypt, which are equally historically valuable because they do not reflect the corruptions of later centuries of copying. [2]

What is the rationale for bringing out such an expensive book of preliminary scholarship in this day of digital publication? If the Arcadian Library's intention was to make their manuscript accessible for scholarly study, that could have been more readily effected by online publication of digital images and the essays printed here. Whether print publication will still be around when the much anticipated critical edition of Ibn Baklarish's book is finished remains to be seen. But whether in print or online, it is hoped that that edition addresses both the historical and the philological questions raised by this fascinating text from medieval Islamic Spain.



1. Martin Levey, "The Pharmacological Table on ibn Biklarish," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 26, no. 4 (October 1971), 413-21, at p. 414.

2. For example, Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar, "'Fossils' of practical medical knowledge from medieval Cairo," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 119, no. 1 (2 September 2008), 24-40.