Before the printing press, the persistence of the written word depended on the meticulous work of scholars and monks, who translated and copied early texts by hand. While many of the translated texts were religious in nature, Western Europe's burgeoning interest in science during the Middle Ages fueled demand for Latin translations of ancient scientific and medical texts as well.
Surviving examples of these translations are exceedingly rare, and because they are written by hand, no two are alike. Consider this copy of Theorica Pantegni, or Total Art of Medical Theory, from Duke's History of Medicine Collections, part of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Originally written in Arabic by the tenth-century Persian writer al-Majusi, the Pantegni was translated into Latin by a Tunisian merchant-turnedmonk known as Constantine the African (ca. 1020-1087). Duke's copy is one of the few remaining versions of the Pantegni known to exist. Written in red and black ink, the manuscript is bound in a volume along with a number of separate but related works, including a tract on medicinal waters and a poem, "De Urinis," with commentary.
Most medieval manuscripts are not dated, making the exact age of Duke's copy of the Pantegni hard to pin down. It was believed to date from the thirteenth century, but a group of scholars who examined the manuscript last year came to a different conclusion. The team—which included leading experts in the history of medicine, the analysis of medieval manuscripts, and medieval intellectual traditions—places the manuscript's writing in the early twelfth century.
Knowing the date of such writings is critical to understanding their intention, use, and context in history. That is particularly true in this case. As the first comprehensive medical encyclopedia in Latin, Theorica Pantegni became the leading textbook for the study of medicine in the earliest European universities—which were just being founded around the time this copy was transcribed.