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Early Modern Judaeo-Arabic Medical Manuscripts

Published January 03, 2020 by Ani Avetisyan

Ani Avetisyan, Woolf Institute Honorary PhD Scholar & First Year PhD at St John's College, University of Cambridge, discusses her doctoral research.

My PhD research focuses on the corpus of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts preserved in the Scientific Research Institute of Ancient Manuscripts of the Matenadaran Museum in Yerevan. Unlike the Arabic Manuscripts of the Matenadaran, which have always been a subject of various studies and projects, no attempt has been made to study the Judaeo-Arabic corpus, which comprises only two medical manuscripts. This corpus was discovered during my research in the Matenadaran. Consequently, the fact that it had not been studied previously strongly influenced my determination to undertake the examination of these two treatises. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that generally, the investigation of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts has drawn the attention of scholars only in recent years. The first steps were made at Cambridge University, which holds the biggest collection of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts - the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection. The majority of those manuscripts have been found in the Cairo Genizah and most of them date back to the 12th century and have not been studied yet sufficiently.

Research in the field of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts started right after the discovery of the Cairo Genizah documents in the late 19th century. During the first stages of the Cairo Genizah studies, the research focused on various religious and biblical topics, such as Jewish law, education, poetry, etc. The 300,000 fragments of documents found in the Cairo Genizah attest that Jews were involved in almost every aspect of life including the medical milieu of the Muslim and Christian societies. Turning to some of the 1600 fragments dealing with medical letters, it is possible to appreciate why the Genizah is such an important source for investigating an interaction of the Hebrew and Arabic medical traditions. The languages in which the manuscripts were written are also important to an understanding of the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic medicine and the transmission of medical literature. Both Jewish and Muslim doctors followed the Graeco-Roman tradition of medicine as transmitted in Arabic. Educated Jews were acquainted with the Arabic language, but generally wrote their Arabic in Hebrew script (Judaeo Arabic) rather than in an Arabic one. This was possibly one of the ways in which the Jewish community, being a protected minority within the Islamic society, maintained its own religious and cultural identity.

However, those medical texts attracted the attention of only few scholars for a long time. Scholars such as Goitein, Fenton, Cohen and Dvorjetski initiated the exploration of medical materials: however, their focus was still primarily devoted to subjects like astronomy, divination or magic. Already fifty years ago, Goitein noticed the importance of this material, and portrayed the medical aspects of Genizah documents as follows: 'With regard to… medical and culinary plants there's enough material for a PhD dissertation on each'. P. Fenton also wrote 'that the Genizah fragments, although of considerable interest for the history of medicine, have received relatively little attention'.

The most recent attempt to provide a comprehensive description of all existing medical materials, as well as to compile the list of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts, has been made by Dr Gabriele Ferrario in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Unit. However, the map depicting the medical medieval knowledge and its texts is still a work in progress.

For the study of the corpus of Judaeo-Arabic medical manuscripts, I will examine each manuscript separately from a linguistic and codicological perspective and put them into the general context of transmission of knowledge. The research is particularly appealing as the contemporary medical Genizah manuscripts are usually composed in Hebrew. The linguistic and codicological data of my research will serve as a basis for the identification of the respective contexts of production and provenance of the manuscripts until their arrival to Yerevan. It will also serve as a basis for the glossary, together with the translation of this corpus.

Ani Avetisyan is a Woolf Institute Honorary PhD Scholar and First Year PhD at St. John's College, University of Cambridge.

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