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Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples: Medical

Remedies between Three Faiths in
Twelfth-Century Spain
Oliver Kahl
Department of Middle Eastern Studies , University of
Manchester , Manchester, M13 9PL, UK
Published online: 06 Apr 2010.

To cite this article: Oliver Kahl (2010) Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples: Medical Remedies
between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain, Annals of Science, 67:2, 291-294, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033790802509379


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Book Reviews 291

Medieval Science

CHARLES BURNETT, editor, Ibn Baklarish’s Book of Simples: Medical Remedies

between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain. Studies in the Arcadian Library No.
3. London: The Arcadian Library in association with Oxford University Press, 2008.
163 pp. 50 figs.  52 plts. £ 85.00. ISBN-13 978-0-199-54306-9.

The Arcadian Library in London is a private establishment dedicated to the history

of Levantine influences in Europe and promoting its study through exhibition and
publication. Judging from the circumstances which eventually led to the production
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of the present tome, I like to imagine the family who runs that business as distant
relatives of the Renaissance patrons, an admittedly naı̈ve but no less uplifting
thought. As the editor Charles Burnett informs us in his preface to the book (pp. 7
14), the Arcadian Library in October 2003 purchased a previously unknown Arabic
manuscript of the so-called , an important work on materia medica
composed in Islamic Spain around the year 1100 by the Jewish physician Ibn
Baklarish for the ruler of Saragossa, (hence the title). According to
the colophon of the Arcadian manuscript, as it is now known, the copy was
completed in January 1130, that is within a generation of the composition of the
(lost) autograph, making it the oldest manuscript on record and a potentially
supreme textual witness. This is why, on 10 September 2005, a group of scholars
came together in the Arcadian Library to discuss the content of this manuscript, to
evaluate its significance in relation to other manuscripts of the same text, and to
determine its position on the historical map of Western Arabic medicine. The volume
reviewed here contains the revised papers presented at that ‘symposium’. Burnett
proceeds to a short but detailed physical description of the Arcadian manuscript,
including some clever remarks on its numerous Latin glosses, and ends customarily
with brief summaries of the different contributions. As it sometimes happens with
collective endeavours, the eight articles which make up this book, too, seem to be
guided more by individual predilections than by an overriding sense of direction,
which may be due to a lack of shared methodologies, perhaps also the result of
editorial restraint, and in any case just as well since all contributors are established
experts in their respective fields. Not a jack of all trades I will confine myself in the
following to more or less concise accounts of those eight contributions and only
occasionally diverge into the realm of the detail.
Ana Labarta, ‘Ibn Baklarish’s : the historical context to the
discovery of a new manuscript’ (pp. 1526), gives a meticulous summary of the
history of scholarship surrounding Ibn Baklarish and his work, including a few
general and very useful ‘reflections’. Labarta is the scholar to whom we owe the one
and only Arabic edition (with Spanish translation) of the ‘Introduction’ to the
(published in 1980). Thanks to its age, provenance, synonymic lists
and tabular presentation, Ibn Baklarish’s book has been studied and used by
generations of scholars such as Dozy, Renaud, Meyerhof and Levey, but no critical
edition of the Arabic text has been published yet. The book comprises, in a roughly
alphabetical order, 704 medicinal substances (vegetable, animal and mineral), which
are followed, though not systematically, by synonyms in Syriac, Persian, Classical
292 Book Reviews

and/or Byzantine Greek and ‘non-Arabic’ (the latter mainly denoting Latin,
Romance and Berber). Dealing with such synonymic lists is an extremely difficult
task, which I suppose is why Ibn Baklarish’s text has not been edited already a long
time ago. Labarta’s discussion of Ibn Baklarish’s life also drives home the fact that all
we know about him is based on a couple of lines in Ibn Eastern Arabic
biographical dictionary (thirteenth century), and that nobody actually has a clue
what ‘Baklarish’ means or even whether the reading is correct in the first place. This
lack of biographical information about the author is quite astonishing in view of the
popularity of his work.
Joëlle Ricordel, ‘The manuscript transmission of the and the
contributions of the Arcadian Library manuscript’ (pp. 2741), surveys the extant
manuscripts of the from the privileged position of the one who has
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taken charge of a critical edition of the Arabic text. Her investigations show that the
distribution of Ibn Baklarish’s book was limited to the western parts of the Islamic
world; that at least twelve manuscripts of it have come down to us, which represent
two different strands of textual transmission (one in al-Andalus and another in the
Maghrib); that the book was used for many centuries; and that the Arcadian
manuscript will have to play an important role in the philological reconstruction of
the text. There is also a stemma codicum (fig. 6).
Juan Carlos Villaverde Amieva, ‘Towards the study of the Romance languages in
the ’ (pp. 4374), deals specifically with the Romance ( )
elements in the transmission of Ibn Baklarish’s book. Villaverde Amieva’s contribu-
tion is an impressive exercise in comparative philology, showing that the Romance
attestations, whether in the main text or in the glosses, vary from manuscript to
manuscript in frequency, diversity and lexical affiliation, revealing a wide geogra-
phical spectrum of Ibero-Romance languages and covering, chronologically, a period
of several hundred years (the youngest dated manuscript was copied in 1891). The
Arcadian manuscript, being the oldest on record, is distinguished by a peculiar
linguistic mix, a ‘promiscuity’ of Latin and Romance; moreover, the simultaneous
presence of Latin (in Latin script) and Arabic seems to point to Toledo as the likely
place of composition of the text (rather than Ibn Almerı́a). Here, too,
we have a stemma codicum, this time according to the Romance testimonies (fig. 12).
Jan Just Witkam, ‘The Leiden manuscript of the ’ (pp. 7594),
describes how this manuscript was acquired by the Dutch orientalist and
mathematician Jacobus Golius (15961667) during a diplomatic mission to Morocco
in the 1620s. The manuscript consists of an undated though clearly ‘old’ part, and a
‘modern’ part which was written on Golius’s request by a Morisco called Ahmad ibn
Qāsim to complete the missing or damaged passages in the old part. Witkam ˙ shows
that this textual restoration implies the existence of at least two further copies of Ibn
Baklarish’s book, attesting to its popularity in seventeenth century North Africa.
Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Syriac words in the in the Arcadian
Library manuscript’ (pp. 95104), offers what on the surface of things looks like the
most straightforward contribution, that is an etymological inventory of 31 citations of
‘Syriac’ synonyms in Ibn Baklarish’s book as preserved in the Arcadian manuscript.
Khan generally observes that even though Ibn Baklarish cites synonyms in numerous
languages, he probably was familiar ‘only’ with certain dialects of Romance, literary
Arabic and, being Jewish, Hebrew and possibly Talmudic Aramaic; he may not have
had first-hand knowledge of any of the other languages he cites. More specifically,
Khan concludes that the synonyms which Ibn Baklarish designates as ‘Syriac’ can be
Book Reviews 293

classified in two main groups, namely literary Syriac with a Nestorian (i.e. eastern)
pronunciation, and vernacular northeastern Neo-Aramaic. These findings, however,
are quite problematic. Why, for example, would Ibn Baklarish have wished to provide
his readers in Spain with ‘Syriac’ variants, literary or vernacular, which had currency
only in the eastern parts of the Islamic world? How in any case would he have obtained
knowledge of Neo-Aramaic dialects spoken by minorities in Iraq? Moreover, why do
his ‘Syriac’ synonyms often come to explain what appears to be obvious (e.g. no.1*
‘edible nut [Arabic jawz]: [Syriac] gawzā’) or irrelevant (e.g. no.19*‘the milk of
women: ‘‘women’’ are known in Syriac as bakhta’)? Finally, I would like to comment
on the following of Khan’s etymologies: no.9 * the ‘unidentifiable’ word is to be read
maywı̄zaj which is the Persian (!) equivalent of Arabic and more
commonly known as zabı̄b jabalı̄ (Galen’s ), i.e. the grains of Delphinium
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staphisagria j no.10 * the two ‘unclear’ words may be read al-fashrā B Syriac alpā
sherā and fāsharashtı̄n B Syriac peshar shtı̄n, denoting Bryonia dioica and B. alba
respectively; these two plants are often confused, but neither has anything to do with
Arabic , i.e. Rhoicissus rhomboidea j no.11*the Syriac term is more likely to
be a short form of which corresponds exactly to Arabic ,
i.e. the milky juice produced by certain lactiferous plants of the family Euphorbiaceae j
no.26*the ‘Arabic’ term is Persian barsiyān dārū, i.e. Polygonum aviculare, and
accordingly the first part of the obscure Syriac is to be read bar (instead of nr) j
no.27*the ‘Syriac’ term sūmā is probably a clerical error for shūshā which
corresponds exactly to Arabic sūs, i.e. Glycyrrhiza glabra j no.29*the equation of
Arabic tūtiyā ‘tutty’ and Syriac (sic) Tribulus (scil. terrestris) cannot be right,
for the former is an inorganic substance (zinc oxide).
David J. Wasserstein, ‘Ibn Biklarish* (pp. 105112), presents a short and
very enjoyable essay dealing with the question of Ibn Baklarish’s ‘Jewishness’.
Wasserstein emphasizes that the epithet given to Ibn Baklarish implies that
the person so named operated largely outside a Jewish context; he points out that Ibn
Baklarish is, in fact, not mentioned at all in the Hebrew sources for the Jews of al-
Andalus; he further observes that Ibn Baklarish, when compiling his synonymic lists,
completely ignored the rich pharmaco-botanical material of the Talmud; and he
finally draws the conclusion that Ibn Baklarish’s life and work must be seen as being
fully, if not exclusively, integrated in the Arabo-Islamic cultural tradition. Wasser-
stein, by the way, seems to favour a connection of the author’s name with the Spanish
location Biclar (hence his reading Biklarish), and he has got a point, too.
Emilie Savage-Smith, ‘Ibn Baklarish in the Arabic tradition of synonymatic texts
and tabular presentations’ (pp. 11331), investigates the place of the Kitāb al-
Must nı̄ in the didactic tradition of presenting medical material in synoptic tables
and including synonymic lists. Savage-Smith shows that medico-pharmacological
texts may be arranged according to the same ‘artistic’ design or layout and yet diverge
considerably in content. Striking similarities shared uniquely by Ibn Baklarish and
Maimonides in their choice of synonyms might, so Savage-Smith, indicate that the
works of these two authors circulated primarily among Jewish physicians and
scholars (though I am sure this suggestion would be disputed by Wasserstein).
Anna Contadini, ‘The zoological-medicinal material in the Arcadian Library
manuscript’ (pp. 13352), classifies the references in the to
medicinal uses of animal parts and compares the entries to corresponding material
found in ‘zoological’ writings, notably Ibn s
‘Book on the Usefulness of Animals’ (eleventh century). She observes that
294 Book Reviews

‘typological’ similarities notwithstanding, the relationship between Ibn Baklarish’s

book and the texts is far from straightforward, showing little correspondence
in the details, and drawing on different sources. Two minor remarks: the ‘unidentified
figure’ al-Ahwazi (sic) appears in similar Arabic sources often as al-Khūz(ı̄), and
both names originate in Syriac Hūzāyē ‘the people (scil. physicians) of Ahwāz or
Khūzistān’, a town and province in southwestern Iran; Yanis ibn Istifan al-Turjuman
(sic) is certainly not the Dioscorides translator (p. 151).
Burnett’s volume concludes with a bibliography (pp. 153159), an index mainly of
proper names (pp. 16163) and, bound from right to left, 52 facsimiles of the
Arcadian manuscript, showing the title page, the introduction, the complete letter alif
and the first (half) page of the letter of Ibn Baklarish’s . The
English contributions, too, are richly illustrated with colour reproductions from
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Arabic manuscripts and various diagrams. There are some oddities (the translitera-
tion of Arabic names is half-baked, footnotes occasionally appear on the wrong
page), but all in all we are looking here at a very nice example of academic
collaboration. In an age of mass-produced paperbacks, this volume with its beautiful
dust jacket, elegant cloth binding and fine paper is also a reminder that the making of
good books is a craft, and bearing that in mind the price is actually quite reasonable.
It seems that a critical edition of Ibn Baklarish’s , announced twice
before and overdue, is now being seriously tackled.

OLIVER KAHL, Department of Middle Eastern Studies,

University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

Bibliography and Reference

CHARLES MOLLAN, It’s Part of What We Are: Some Irish Contributors to the
Development of the Chemical and Physical Sciences. 2 vols. Dublin: Royal Dublin
Society, 2007. liii  1770 pp. t60.00. ISBN-13 978-0-86027-055-3.

This is a two-volume biographical dictionary of 112 Irish scientists which extends

from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Charles Mollan has restricted the
sciences covered (chemical and physical), but the selection appears to have been
largely a personal one. Mollan’s definition of ‘Irish scientist’ includes individuals, like
John Tyndall, who were born in Ireland but pursued their careers elsewhere. He also
includes scientists born abroad who spent substantial time in Ireland; thus Guglielmo
Marconi and Erwin Schrodinger are given a green tinge. Each entry incorporates a
range of material including quotations from the subject’s professional and personal
writings to the opinions of other biographers.
Although some well-known individuals appear in the volumes, there are also
many names that will be unfamiliar to most readers. Mollan has done a great service
in drawing together material on a number of individuals who have been routinely
overlooked in Irish history and in doing so also brings attention to their affiliation
with a variety of scientific institutions. The biography of Edmund Davy (a lecturer in
chemistry in Cork and then Dublin) reveals substantial information on the history of