Galen, “On my own books” — the translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq

The second century medical writer Galen left behind such a vast array of works that it has been estimated that around 20% of the surviving volume of ancient Greek was written by him!  I’m not sure where this estimate comes from, but it is a remarkable amount.

Ancient medical texts are a specialised interest.  Our interest here is more with what Galen has to say about ancient books, libraries, manuscripts, the book trade and the process of copying.  He does, in fact, have a great deal to say on these subjects.

One of the most revealing works is On my own works (De libris propriis).  I gave some extracts from this here

But today I gained access to a rather interesting volume: Vivian Nutton (ed.) The unknown Galen (2002) — a collection of papers from a colloquium on texts of Galen not in the massive 20 volume 19th century edition by Kuhn.  Nutton writes engagingly, and I shall have things to say about the book on Monday, I suspect.

But what I wanted to see was a paper by Veronique Boudon, Galen’s “On my own books”: new material from Meshed, Rida, tibb. 5223, on p.9-18.

De libris propriis reaches us only in a single Greek manuscript, Milan Ambrosianus graecus 659 (=A).  This is a paper manuscript of the 14th century, some 272 folios long.  It contains 14 works by Galen, and De libris propriis occupies f. 187r-197r.  An equally interesting work, bibliographically, follows: On the order of my own works, f.197r-200r.  But examination of the gatherings in the manuscript reveals that a bi-folium has been lost at some point.  The manuscript was written on quaternions.  The outermost bifolium of quaternion 24 is lost.  Quaternion 24 currently includes folios 193-198.  So there should be an extra folio before f.193, and another after 198.  In short, we have lost two pages from each of these useful works, or the equivalent of about 4 pages of Kuhn’s edition.

But it seems that the great translator of Galen into Arabic made a translation of De libris propriis.  He says so, indeed, in the Risala which Bergstrasser published (I uploaded this to and which John Lamoreaux has translated into English.

A single manuscript containing the translation exists.  It’s in what Boudon calls “a religious library in North-Eastern Iran, at Meshed”.   The manuscript has been unknown to science, and was first mentioned only in 1970 by F. Sezgin in Geschichte des arabischen Schriftums, III (Leiden, 1970), p.78, no.1.  The work is on f.22v to 40v of the manuscript.

Boudon adds an interesting note for the rest of us: that it was unknown to M. Steinschneider, Die arabischen Ubersetzungen aus dem griechischen (Leipzig, 1897) (online here) and M. Ullmann, Die Medizin in Islam (Leiden, Cologne 1970), which are “the standard repertories of information on such manuscripts.”  The former should be out of copyright and worth a bit of investigation!  But back to the Meshed ms.

Boudon was able to get a set of “photocopies”, evidently monochrome, by means of a “complex series of exchange deals”.  These revealed that the folios had become disarranged.  The script suggests an 11th century AD date.  It is so very similar to another Meshed ms, Rida, tibb. 5214/1 which contains On the order of my own books and gives Hunain ibn Ishaq as the translator, that the two were probably once part of the same ms.  Once the folios are rearranged, we find that the opening leaf of De libris propriis is lost.

But the translation gives us much.  The lacunose Greek neverthless has chapter titles.  The Arabic agrees, and restores three more from points where there are lacunas in the Greek.  Still more, it gives us a massive extra chunk of text from chapter 3, where Galen is summarising the contents of 20 books of anatomy written by one Marinus, who wrote ca. 129 AD.  Boudon gives a translation, also.  Nothing in it relates specially to our interests, however, but it is very good to have. 

The translation by Hunain also corrects various numerals appearing in the text, for the numbers of books in particular works.  Naturally at some points this leaves a question as to what the right number is — the Greek or the Arabic both giving a different number!

I had never heard of the library at Meshed, or its contents.  But if such libraries can give us back portions of ancient literature, we need to know more of them.

UPDATE: Please note the comments on this article by Maureen which contain a vast amount of information about the Meshed site.  Thank you so much for that!


9 thoughts on “Galen, “On my own books” — the translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq

  1. Apparently Meshed/Mashhad has a pretty darned good library.

    From a page about Diophantus of Alexandria

    “The Arithmetica is a collection of 130 problems giving numerical solutions of determinate equations (those with a unique solution), and indeterminate equations. The method for solving the latter is now known as Diophantine analysis. Only six of the original 13 books were thought to have survived and it was also thought that the others must have been lost quite soon after they were written. There are many Arabic translations, for example by Abu’l-Wafa, but only material from these six books appeared. Heath writes in [4] in 1920:-

    “The missing books were evidently lost at a very early date. Paul Tannery suggests that Hypatia’s commentary extended only to the first six books, and that she left untouched the remaining seven, which, partly as a consequence, were first forgotten and then lost.

    “However, an Arabic manuscript in the library Astan-i Quds (The Holy Shrine library) in Meshed, Iran has a title claiming it is a translation by Qusta ibn Luqa, who died in 912, of Books IV to VII of Arithmetica by Diophantus of Alexandria. F Sezgin made this remarkable discovery in 1968. In [19] and [20] Rashed compares the four books in this Arabic translation with the known six Greek books and claims that this text is a translation of the lost books of Diophantus. Rozenfeld, in reviewing these two articles is, however, not completely convinced….”

    All roads lead to Hypatia…. 🙂

  2. The shrine that holds the library has a Wikipedia page. Meshed/Mashhad (which apparently means “martyrdom place”) is pretty much a pilgrimage/tourism economy kind of town, at least nowadays. (The “charity foundation” that runs the place seems to have grown to an eyebrow-raising extent.)

    Ali al-Reza apparently was #8 of the 12 imams. His tomb’s a big tourist attraction; but given that he’s buried next door to Haroun al-Rashid, I know where my interest would be. (Even though the real guy wasn’t anything like the Arabian Nights guy.)

    However, the entrance to the Central Library is pretty snazzy. It would seem there’s not much about the library in English, though.

    There’s a linked English-speaking pilgrim report which describes the library as having books about Islam in X many languages. But there seems to be a good amount of medical stuff going on in town and in the shrine; and there does seem to be some arcane Mid-Eastern connotation of “Greek medicine” and some other kinds of Greek learning with being pious and Islamic. So there’s that. And of course, any library that’s open long enough will tend to accumulate obscure or cool stuff. However this stuff got there and stayed there, I certainly wish their librarians well!

  3. Oh, and apparently non-Muslims can’t set foot in the shrine proper, but apparently they can go to the museum. And apparently the museum and the library are attached, at least according to this story about a Lydian coin donation to the place. So…

    Their website has a little something in English about the library’s history.

    The library’s own webpage is at Here’s the English version. (The other languages are Farsi and Arabic.)

    It’s amazing how many places there are in the world that we’ve never heard about before — some of them well worth hearing about.

  4. The thing that’s sad is that, although this place apparently has a big reputation for encouraging women students (due to this particular imam being related to many prominent female Shi’ite “saints”), they’re still mewed up in a separate section (heck, every age and sex is), and the library closes early as far as females are concerned. There’s also a strong odor of totalitarian boast about the museums, and the shrine website drops Khomeini’s name all over the place. So it’s not all sweetness and light.

  5. Thank you so much for all this fantastic material. How very, very kind of you. I wouldn’t have known where to start.

    It seems that the library is in a brand-new building, constructed after the revolution. The presence of an English language website also testifies to high technology and a forward-looking attitude. Well done them!

    I couldn’t find a link to order reproductions, tho. Nor could I find a catalogue of mss online (and why do so many libraries do that?)

    It’s clear from that article on Diophantus that Sezgin — who also noticed the Galen — did some good work. A commentary by Hypatia? It doesn’t sound as if it has been published, tho.

    People need to work in this place. It sounds like a gem!

    I saw the language to which you refer, but it’s harmless, surely, and part of the political environment in which they operate. So, indeed, is politically correct language from western institutions, which I find much more difficult to endure politely because I know that the tax exacted from me pays for it.

  6. I have been corresponding via email with Dr. Singer about another text of Galen’s, but Dr. Singer mentioned to me that he is hoping to release a new edition of his “Galen: Selected Works” soon. No doubt he would revise some of the lacunae he has marked, as I think some new manuscripts have come to light.

  7. Yes: new Greek texts were found at the Vlatadon monastery in Thessalonika by a bored PhD student kept hanging around the catalogue area (I tried to get hold of a copy of that catalogue myself – no luck). Good news!

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