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Constantine the African

Constantine the African

(b. Carthage, North Africa; d. Monte Cassino, Italy; fl. 1065–1085),


Constantine the African, the first important figure in the transmission of Greco-Arabic science to the West, may have “freed Salerno to speak” (in Karl Sudhoff’s phrase), but not to speak about him; and his life and career remain clouded and confused. The most credible account of Constantine’s early life is that given by “Matthaeus F.” (Ferrarius?), a Salernitan physician of the mid-twelfth century, in the course of a gloss on the Diete universales of Isaac Judaeus. According to this, Constantine was a Saracen merchant who, on a visit to the court of the Lombard prince of Salerno in southern Italy, learned from a cleric physician there that Salerno had no Latin medical literature. He immediately returned to North Africa for three years’ study and came back to Salerno with a supply of medical texts in Arabic (some of which were damaged in a storm during the crossing), perhaps as early as 1065. Within a few years he had become a Christian and joined the Benedictine community at nearby Monte Cassino. Most of the Latin medical texts bearing his name show signs of having been written at the monastery: two are dedicated to its abbot, Desiderius (later Pope Victor III), and others to Johannes Afflacius, another Muslim turned Christian monk, and Constantine’s disciple. It has become traditional to place his death in 1087, but the date seems to rest on no satisfactory evidence.

In a biographical note, Peter Deacon, the untrustworthy historian of the monastery of Monte Cassino, listed some twenty works that the West owed to Constantine. Although this list is clearly incomplete, a precise itemization of the Constantinian writings is not yet possible. He translated a number of books of classical authors from Arabic into Latin (e.g., Hippocrates’ Aphorisms and Prognostics with Galen’s commentaries thereupon, and a summary version of Galen’s Megatechne); but he plainly felt no particular urgency about making such writings available, perhaps because a few Latin versions of classical medicine had remained in use in Europe since late antiquity. The most extensive and important group of texts bearing his name is instead that which for the first time communicated the expanded Arabic medical tradition. We cannot determine the sources of all of these, but it is quite possible that a number of the shorter treatises that now appear to be Constantine’s own compositions will prove to be translations. Many of the identifiable translations are of the works of Isaac Judaeus (Isḥāq al-Isrāʿīlī) on urines (perhaps Constantine’s first effort), on fevers, and on diets; others are of the works of Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 1009), most notably the text that Constantine entitled Viaticum. It is not possible to say much about the order in which the translations were made, but the two Greco-Arabic medical compendia, the Viaticum and the Pantechne or Pantegni (Constantine’s version of the Kitāb almālikī of Haly Abbas [ʿAlī ibn al-ʿAbbās, d, 994]), seem to have been produced relatively late. The Pantechne, divided into two ten-chapter sections, one dealing with theorica and one with practica, was certainly the most ambitious and the most influential of Constantine’s productions. As it happens, Constantine was apparently unable to finish the translation of the second half; his copy of the original may have been damaged on his voyage to Salerno. At any rate, internal evidence suggests that he translated only chapters 1–3, part of 9 (the surgery), and perhaps 10, of the practica, and that his student Johannes Afflacius completed the translation later.

The Kitāb al-mālikī was translated a second time in 1127 by Stephen of Antioch, under the title of Regalis dispositio; in passing, Stephen complained that the earlier translation had been incomplete (he had presumably not seen the text in the form completed by Aflacius) and that Constantine had besides suppressed Haly Abbas’ name in favor of his own as author. This charge of plagiarism has been leveled repeatedly against Constantine ever since, and the reasons for it lie in his approach to translation. For one thing, he was by no means intent upon exactly reproducing whatever text was in question; rather, as his prefaces reveal, he saw himself as coadunator, with the responsibility of summarizing or expanding the substance of the original, perhaps adding material from other sources, in whatever way was best suited to the needs of an essentially ignorant Western audience. It would certainly be wrong to look for any consistent plan, any impulse to systematization or comprehensiveness, in his writings; he was composing primarily to satisfy requests or to fill whatever practical and pedagogical needs arose; and it was this that produced so many explanatory additions. Obviously, therefore, it is nearly impossible to draw a sharp line between a greatly expanded translation, such as the Antidotarium that seems to derive from the Pantechne, and an original collection of material bearing on a particular subject, such as the Liber de stomacho that Constantine assembled for his friend Archbishop Alfanus I of Salerno. In a sense, they are equally Constantine’s own creations. The fact remains, of course, that Constantine did not always identify his sources. But it should be noted that while he was regularly silent about his indebtedness to Islamic authors (Haly Abbas, Ibn al-Jazzār), he was consistently open about that to Isaac Judaeus—and the suggestion that he was trying not to disturb Christian or Benedictine sensibilities in a land only recently retaken from his former coreligionists is at least a possibility.

Constantine’s writings had a very considerable effect upon twelfth-century Salerno. (As the core of the collection entitled Ars medicine or Articella, which was the foundation of much European medical instruction well into the Renaissance, they exerted a more diffuse influence for centuries.) Johannes Afflacius seems to have fostered their gradual assimilation, continuing the Constantinian program of translation while in association with the medical school at Salerno (there is no evidence that Constantine ever taught there), and by mid-century the Constantinian corpus had become central to Salernitan education. It did not merely enlarge the sphere of practical competence of the Salernitan physicians; it had the added effect of stimulating them to try to organize the new material into a wider, philosophical framework. Constantine had repeatedly insisted that medicine should be treated as a fundamental constituent of natural philosophy, and this attitude was encouraged by the first half of his Pantechne (the theorica), the first book available to the Salernitans that provided a framework to accommodate all their practical knowledge and to allow them to express and unify it. The achievements of twelfth-century “Hochsalerno,” of such writers as Urso of Calabria, mark the eventual triumph of this attitude. In this sense Constantine did indeed “free Salerno to speak.”


I. Original Works. The study of Constantine’s work presents great technical difficulties. His writings were included in two sixteenth-century collections, Opera omnia Ysaac (Lyons, 1515) and Constantini Africani opera (Basle, 1536), of which the former usually provides the better texts. However, neither is really satisfactory or even adequate; MS versions (the earlier the better) are regularly more coherent. What is really required for each of his works is a study of the complicated MS tradition on which to found a careful edition. A partial list of MSS of Constantine’s writings (followed by a short passage in which he summarizes his general aims and expresses his conviction that medicine is the fundamental science) is printed in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, CL (Paris, 1880), cols. 1559–1566; a number of such MSS may also be found cited in the articles by Heinrich Schipperges referred to below. Some of Constantine’s works have been reprinted relatively recently, unfortunately none critically: his Chirurgia (from the Pantegni) by J. L. Pagel, “Eine bisher unveröffentlichte Version der Chirurgie der Pantegni nach einer Handschrift der Königliche Bibliothek zu Berlin,” in Archiv für klinische Chirurgie, 81 (1906), 735–786; the Microtegni seu de spermate by V. Tavone Passalacqua (Rome, 1959); and several by Marco T. Malato and Umberto de Martini, Della melancolia (Rome, 1960), L’arte universale della medicina (Rome, 1961), and Il trattato di fisiologia e igiene sessuale (Rome, 1962). No one has tried seriously to analyze the authenticity or the sources of the individual works attributed to Constantine since Moritz Steinschneider’s “Constantinus Africanus and seine arabischen Quellen,” in Virchows Archiv für pathologische Anatomie, 37 (1866), 351–410, and a new such study would be valuable.

II. Secondary Literature. The account of Constantine’s life provided by “Matthaeus F.,” summarized in this article, has been printed and analyzed by Rudolf Creutz, “Die Ehrenrettung Konstantins von Afrika,” in Studien and Mitteilungen zur Geschichte des Benediktiner-Ordens, 49 (1931), 35–44. Two others exist. One, publ. by Charles Singer, “A Legend of Salerno. How Constantine the African Brought the Art of Medicine to the Christians,” in Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 28 (1917), 64–69, was recognized by Singer as patently false. The other is that given by Peter Deacon, printed in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, CLXXIII (Paris, 1894), cols. 766–768, 1034–1035. According to Peter, Constantine left his native Carthage for “Babylon,” India, Ethiopia, and Egypt, where in 39 years of study he mastered grammar, dialectic, medicine, and the mathematical sciences of the East. He returned to Africa only to meet with jealousy and hatred, and hurriedly took ship from Carthage to Salerno, where he lived quietly until brought to the attention of Duke Robert (Guiscard) by the brother of the “king of Babylon"; he subsequently became a monk at Monte Cassino and there made his translations and died “full of days.” This story, which has become the commonly accepted account of Constantine’s life, seems somewhat less realistic than that given by Matthaeus.

The most extensive modern treatments of Constantine’s life and work are those of Rudolf Creutz: “Der Arzt Constantinus von Monte Cassino. Sein Leben, sein Werk and seine Bedeutung für die mittelalterliche medizinische Wissenschaft,” in Studien and Mitteilungen zur Geschichte des Benediktiner-Ordens, 47 (1929), 1–44, and “Additamenta zu Konstantinus Africanus and seinen Schulern Johannes and Atto,” ibid., 50 (1932), 420–442, as well as the article previously cited. Lynn Thorndike’s discussion in his History of Magic and Experimental Science, I (New York, 1923), ch. 32, is also of interest. Constantine’s role in the translation movement has been carefully examined by Heinrich Schipperges, “Die übersetzer der arabischer Medizin in chronologischer Sicht,” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin, 38 (1954), 53–93, and Die Assimilation der arabischen Medizin durch das lateinische Mittelalter (Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin, Beiheft 3; Wiesbaden, 1964), pp. 17–54. His role in the development of the Salernitan medical school has been considered by Karl Sudhoff, “Constantin, der erste Vermittler muslimischer Wissenschaft ins Abendland and Urso, als Exponenten dieser Vermittlung,” in Archeion, 14 (1932), 359–369, and more thoroughly by Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The School of Salerno: Its Development and Its Contribution to the History of Learning,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 17 (1945). 138–194, repr. in Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome, 1956), pp. 495–551. Few studies of the content of individual works have been made. Rudolf and Walter Creutz, “Die ‘Melancholia’ des Konstantinus Africanus and seine Quellen,” in Archiv für Psychiatrie, 97 (1932), 244–269, give a German trans, of the De melancolia, discuss its sources, and appraise its psychology.

Michael McVaugh

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