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University of Pennsylvania

The History of Medieval Medicine Through Jewish Manuscripts

University of Pennsylvania via edX


This mini-course is a general introduction to both to medieval medicine and to the value of using manuscripts. Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann presents a case study that builds from a unique 15th-century volume in which three important medical manuscripts in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) are sewn together. He will not only walk the student through the basics of medical knowledge training and practice in the Jewish Middle Ages and beyond, but he will also show how clues gleaned from the particular elements of a manuscript (such as marginal notes, mistakes, and handwriting) allow us to learn a great deal that we could not have gleaned from a pristine printed version. The course is made up of eight short video lectures (5-7 minutes each) that explore the fascinating highlights of an extraordinary manuscript.

While no previous knowledge is required, this course will be of most interest to advanced students of Jewish and medieval medicine studies in that it introduces a rare and fascinating medical text from the University of Pennsylvania’s manuscript collections.


Module 1: This module will introduce the ideas of the manuscript and codex as distinctive types of historical evidence. It will also discuss the languages of the codex at hand (Penn MS 1649), and discuss the languages of Jewish medical writing in the 15th c. Module 2: This module will introduce the colophon, a scribal note that may appear at the end of a manuscript, which says when and by whom a text was copied. The colophon in question comes at the end of the first text under discussion in the codex: Sa’ īd b. Hibat Allāh, al-Mughnī fī Tadbīr al- Amrāḍ (All You Need to Manage Diseases), and tells us not only about the transmission of the text, but the colophon’s unusual messianic poem also reveals the Jewish place in a politically precarious world. Module 3: This unit continues to explore the meaning of various physical features of the manuscript from module 2 (All You Need to Manage Diseases). Even without indices or modern apparatuses, Langermann shows how the medical work, whose main aim was diagnosis and treatment, made itself a useful reference guide for practicing physicians through a series of compositional and inscriptional decisions. That the text was indeed useful and used in many places over many years can be seen through wear and tear as well as the polyglot marginal glosses. Module 4: This module focuses on a text by the Islamic/Persian physician and thinker Abū ‘Alī Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), al-Adwiya al- Qalbiyya (On Cardiac Drugs). Cardiology was the study of how the body manages emotions through the vascular system. Here we see how medieval medicine fused categories such as “vital spirit” and body in ways alien to modern contemporary thinking. Module 5: This module looks at the nature of aromatic treatments for “cardiac” ailments of the emotions in Abū ‘Alī Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), al-Adwiya al- Qalbiyya (On Cardiac Drugs). The turn to specifics allows deeper penetration into the workings of manuscripts. We can see how texts were emended, and why, and see some telling marginal glosses. These corrections and additions allow us to see traces of the linguistic shifts, translations, and regional dialects that in turn reflect the complex social history of medicine and the transmission of texts around the medieval Mediterranean. Module 6: This module focuses on the third major medical text in this codex, by the Persian Alī b. al-’Abbās al-Majūsī, titled al-Kāmil fī Ṣinā’at al- Ṭibb (The Complete Art of Medicine). This work was the most comprehensive textbook of medicine of its time prior to the advent of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, which superseded it 100 years later. Scribal decisions that deviate from norms of translation give hints about the scribe’s origins. Module 7: This module reflects on the codex as a whole, with notes on what can be learned from the materiality of the book itself: overlooked paratextual elements such as covers and blank pages. The informal glossaries jotted in the blank pages by the texts’ owner give us amazing insight into everyday language and life. Module 8: Conclusions about the manuscript: its many corrections and notes are a snapshot of how knowledge itself travels and evolves. Then as now.

Taught by

Y. Tzvi Langermann


5.0 rating, based on 2 Class Central reviews

4.8 rating at edX based on 5 ratings

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  • I loved this course. It was a small informational course, and I would like more of the same, but much broader and more in depth, and something that I could use for college credit as well, but it has peaked my interest and prepared me for more courses like it in the future.

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