The Alexandrian Summaries of Galen’s “On Critical Days”: Editions and Translations of the Two Versions of the Jawāmiʿ, with an Introduction and Notes

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 The Alexandrian Summaries
  • Book Author:
Gerrit Bos
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The “Summaries” and Other Recensions of Galen

The collection referred to, properly or not, as the Alexandrian summaries of Galen, has attracted interest for several generations.1 They promise, on account of their purported Alexandrian origins, to be an important source for the transmission of Greek wisdom “from Alexandria to Baghdad”. The total absence of any trace of Greek originals for the collection has deepened the mystery surrounding them.

In this first section of our introduction we will briefly review the main texts and issues, as well as taking note of some of the most recent research. However, our main purpose here, as, indeed, it is one of the major objectives of the publication of the Arabic and Hebrew texts in this volume, is to establish what these summaries were about; and we include here not just those that are said in their titles to be “Alexandrian summaries”, but other epitomes as well.

Examples of the latter include the collection ascribed to “Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī” and the recently discovered sum-mary of On the Elements According to Hippocrates attributed to Ḥunayn bin Isḥāq.2 All of these belong to the same genre as the Alexandrian summaries and were written with the same aims in mind.

These writings had two main objectives: (1) Making Galen’s books more accessible, especially for students; (2) Bringing Galen up-to-date. There is no surprise or controversy concerning the first of these. Galen is one of the most prolix authors of all times, and his books are full of long diversions, which, for all of their interest, were something that medical students could do without. The second objective is not yet fully appreciated. The summa-ries—both those said to be Alexandrian and those not—are not just short-ened versions of Galen; they display some revision which at times may even be in flagrant contradiction to what Galen had taught.

The most important description of the history of these texts, and their reception and study among the Christians of Baghdad, remains that pro-vided by the “Meisterübersetzer”, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, himself a Christian of Baghdad. We reproduce it here in the translation of M. Meyerhof:

These (Nos. 1-20) are the books to the reading of which the students of the Medical School at Alexandria were confined. They used to read them in the order which I have followed in my list. They were accus-tomed to meet every day for the reading and interpretation of one of the standard works, in the same way in which, in our days, our Chris-tian friends are accustomed to meet every day at the educational in-stitution known as σκολή for the study of a standard work from among the books of the Ancients.

Concerning the remainder of (galen’s) books they were accustomed to read them everyone for himself, after an introductory study of the aforementioned books; just as our friends read today the explanations of the books of the Ancients.3

Recent studies by Gregor Schoeler and Gotthard Strohmaier have called into question Meyerhof’s reading of this text, according to which the Christian schools as well as the Bayt al-Ḥikma of Baghdad were in some way at least a direct continuation of the Alexandrian schools of late antiquity.4 This line of inquiry is not of particular interest to the present study; even less though is the deeper critique of Meyerhof’s Alexandria to Baghdad narrative.5

Neither  the purported Alexandrian origins of the summaries, nor the vexed question of the continuity of school traditions, are pivotal questions for our study. We are rather interested mainly in the scientific and doctrine content of the summaries, and we are on the lookout for modifications of or deviations from Galen’s original teachings—revisions that may have helped shape the particular forms “Galenism” would take in Islamicate culture.

Let us then turn to our main subject of interest, the content of the sum-maries and their differences with the original Galen. Focusing on an impor-tant anatomical text, Albert Z. Iskandar notes some differences in organiza-tion and content between the summaries and Galen; Ḥunayn takes them to be deliberate changes made by “the Alexandrians”.6 As the title of his paper reveals, Iskandar is interested mainly in bibliography. He observes:

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