Today, Constantine the African. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Salerno was a part of the Kingdom of Sicily, in AD 1060.
It'd been under Moslem rule for over a century. That year, even before the
Battle of Hastings, the Normans invaded Sicily and conquered
it. Now Southern Italy, and especially Salerno, was a great cultural mixing bowl
of Mediterranean civilizations. Salerno had already been, and it remained, better
defined by its cosmopolitan intellectual energy, than by any ruling group.
Just after the Normans came, a Carthaginian merchant/scholar visited Salerno,
Constantine the African, a Moslem fluent in Arabic as well as Greek and Latin.
Constantine was a medical-book collector, and Salerno was the best-known European
center of medical learning. Constantine saw that Salerno was far behind the Arabs.
So, when he was suspected of practicing magic and exiled from Carthage three years
later, he loaded his library on a ship bound for Salerno. It included Arabic translations
of lost Greek and Latin medical works -- Hippocrates, Galen, and others. It also
included the more advanced treatises of later Arab doctors.
The voyage was marred by a storm that rose up and destroyed many of the books. But
Constantine saved a great deal. Then he converted to Christianity and set up shop
translating this literature into Latin in the Monastery at Monte Cassino
(North of Salerno). Well, maybe translate is not quite the right word. Much of his
writing consisted of new books based upon the old works, with ideas moved around
and added to.
He's been called a plagiarist, yet what he was doing was no secret. He set out to
create a medical literature adapted to bring the West up to speed. Another wrinkle
in the plagiarism debate is that he was writing in a region recently retaken from
the Moslems by Christians -- a region where it was politically unwise to rub his
patron's noses in his Islamic sources.
And he succeeded: In the following century, Salerno became home of what we call the
first medical university. And it all came to rest on a voluminous infusion of medical
literature (whether translations or original writings) by Constantine the African.
By way of emphasizing the great openness of that intellectual era, another influential
medical writer was born in Salerno just about the time Constantine died. This writer
produced a body of work called The Trotula. To the best of our knowledge the
writer was a woman named Trocta -- an important doctor and teacher whose works, like
Constantine's were read and used for centuries.
People speak of a medieval renaissance in those years. It was a time of invention, freedom
of ideas, and mental animation -- with cities like Paris and Salerno serving as its
centerpieces. And, in the case of Salerno, a major part of its ascendancy was the arrival
of an African scholar who looked at the place, and said to himself, these people are backward;
something must be done about it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. McVaugh, Constantine the African. C. C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography,
Vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970): pp. 393-5.
A. S. Lyons and R. J. Petrucelli, Medicine: An Illustrated History. (New York: Abradale
Press, 1978/1987) pg. 319.
M. Green, The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine.
(State College, PA: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
A portion of the map of southern Europe in AD 1097 as shown in the Hammond Historical Atlas of the
World, MCMLXXVI. The term Carthage refers to the ancient city once located roughly where Tunis
now sits, or the surrounding region which it controlled.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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