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Classics and Ancient History

Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms

Professor Peter E. Pormann is currently pursuing a major research project entitled ‘Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms’, funded by the ERC (€1.5m).

The project examined the entire Arabic commentary tradition on the Aphorisms, from the ninth to the sixteenth century. The Hippocratic Aphorisms had a profound influence on subsequent generations; they not only shaped medical theory and practice, but also affected popular culture. Galen (d. c. 216) produced an extensive commentary on this text, as did other medical authors writing in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. The Arabic tradition is particularly rich, with more than a dozen commentaries extant in over a hundred manuscripts and the project has produced scholarly editions of all twelve authors. These Arabic commentaries constituted important venues for innovation and change, and did not merely draw attention to scholastic debates. Moreover, they had a considerable impact on medical practice, as the Aphorisms were so popular that both doctor and patient knew them by heart.

The project broke new ground by conducting an in-depth study of this tradition by approaching the available evidence as a corpus, which was constituted electronically and approached in an interdisciplinary way. We have produced electronic XML editions of the commentaries. The project has examined this textual corpus, some 1.2 million words long, by employing the latest IT tools to address a set of interdisciplinary problems: textual criticism of the Greek sources; Graeco-Arabic translation technique; methods of quotation; hermeneutic procedures; development of medical theory; and social history of medicine. Both in approach and scope the project hopes to have brought about a paradigm shift in the study of exegetical cultures in Arabic, and the role that commentaries played in the transmission and transformation of scientific knowledge across countries and systems of belief.

Commentary tradition

The Hippocratic Aphorisms have exerted a singular influence over generations of physicians both in the East and in the West. Galen (d. c. 216) produced an extensive commentary on this text, as did other medical authors writing in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. The Arabic commentaries did not merely contain scholastic debates, but constituted important venues for innovation and change. Moreover, they impacted on medical practice, as the Aphorisms were so popular that both doctors and their patients knew them by heart.

Manuscripts

The Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms Project obtained 85 digital copies of manuscripts containing these commentaries from thirty different libraries in fifteen different countries around the world, thus gathering as completely as possible all copies of all known manuscripts containing these crucial historical texts. Through careful compilation, we have chosen several core manuscripts for each of the thirteen commentaries upon which we based our transcriptions, which in turn include notes detailing variations among different manuscripts containing the same commentary. By doing this work, not only have we created public, searchable transcriptions of important texts hitherto available only as fragile, handwritten documents, we are also able to better understand the history of the transmission of these texts.