From my diary

I decided that I’d better upgrade the blog software — WordPress — to the latest version.  You worry, if you don’t, about security.  Just done the deed from 2.9, and we’re now on 3.2.1.  I don’t really think the new look and feel is an improvement, in truth, but if you use someone else’s free software, you get what you’re given.[1] 

Expect a certain degree of instability this afternoon!

UPDATE: A note to WordPress users: DO NOT INSTALL JETPACK!  It will lose you your stats.  When you revert, and try to use your old WP-STATS, it seems to work; but when you try to look at your stats you get “Your account, xxxxxxx is not authorized to view the stats of this blog.” 

Blast the wretches!

  1. [1]A footnote to check that footnotes are still working.

From my diary

I am just plodding along OCR-ing Ibn Abi Usaibia.  I was doing a few pages just now after lunch, and I saw page number 254 at the foot of a page that I had just completed.  So I must be approximately a quarter of the way through.  A long way to go yet, of course.

An order for three signed copies of my Eusebius: Gospel Problems and Solutions has come in, which I am dealing with, and is very welcome, of course.

Nearly all the sales of the book are through Amazon, and I don’t have any stock on my floor (thank goodness).  But I bought a box of 20 copies to take to the Oxford Patristics Conference back in August, and never unpacked them even.  However it seems that you don’t get that many sales as such at conferences, and I brought nearly all of them back, still in the box.  This was a bit depressing, but orders direct to me are currently being fulfilled from that box.  It’s interesting watching the box of copies of the paperback get steadily emptier! It’s a salutary reminder that the sales are likely to be constant rather than exciting.

The book seems to be well received by those who have seen it, and the professional reviews will be interesting to see as well. 

The British Library demanded a free copy under the law in the UK which requires copies to be sent to the copyright libraries on request.  Recently the other five decided they wanted free copies too, drat them. 


As the evenings draw in and the mornings grow frosty…

Every year, I look forward to a couple of things as the evenings draw in, and the mornings begin with frost in the air.

The first of these is that, mysteriously, men appear in the town square on Saturday mornings who sell roast chestnuts.

Admittedly in my own town, they don’t bother to get set up much before noon, so I rarely get to have any.  I’ve been and gone by then!

The best street vendors are in London, where the quick turnover means that all the chestnuts are well-cooked.

But still, it’s something I look forward to.  What childhood memory they evoke I cannot say, but clearly there is something.

You can’t eat too many — they contain something poisonous, I believe. 

But nevertheless, the charcoaled items will be consumed by me this winter, if at all possible.

The other items to which I look forward are also seasonal.  I will welcome the arrival of the new season’s brussell sprouts.  You have to cook these rather exactly — 8 of them, in boiling water for precisely 8 minutes and not as second longer — but they taste good when fresh.  When I had Christmas alone, as I did for a couple of years recently, they formed part of the seasonal meal.

The shorter days do tend to leave us all feeling a bit strange, and a bit jet-lagged.  It can be a sad time too, for those sensitive enough to feel the change of season but not perceptive enough to realise the source of their moods.  But there are good things to be had, and we need to try to enjoy them.


From my diary

Today I sent off 50 copies of the leaflet promoting the Eusebius book to someone who can make use of them at a conference next week.  I also heard from the translator of the Coptic section of the book, who has some suggestions for improvements.  This will probably become a list of errata — although in fact they’re not errors as such.  I’ll probably host the list here.

An email arrived yesterday with a draft translation of the portion of John the Lydian’s On the Roman Months IV which deals with November.  I responded with my (few) comments — it was really rather super, and excellently footnoted, as you will doubtless see in due course.

I’m still working on digitising the English translation of Ibn Abi Usaibia.  The photographs that I have were done in stages, at somewhat different resolutions and so on.  I’ve just moved into a chunk of 300+ photos.  That’s rather daunting to start in on, when you can only do a few pages an evening.  I spent some time last night peeling off the first 40, and then the next 40 pages into separate FineReader projects, so I could work on the pages in that form.  You get a feeling of achievement when you finish a “project”, and 40 pages is not nearly so oppressive as 350!  When I’m at home, and can spend hours and hours on proofing, of course, it’s different.  In the end it’s all about ways to keep your motivation going. 

This evening I OCR’d some stuff about early Islamic physicians.  It consists mainly of gossipy stories of the various people.  It was all very well to be the favourite physician of Haroun al-Rashid, the Caliph of the Arabian nights; but when the latter fell into his fatal illness, his favourite physician soon ended up observing events from a dungeon!  Those who live by the favour of a capricious oriental despot have no security of property, nor life.


Ibn Abi Usaibia in French in the Journal Asiatique

A correspondent has written and let me know that French translations exist of chunks of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians.  They were done by Sanguinetti in the Journal Asiatique, with the chunks starting in 1854.  I’ve seen five bits so far.  The first chunk is here (1854, series 5, tome 3, p.230 f.), and includes a useful biography of Ibn Abi Usaibia.  The second part is here (1854, series 5, tome 4, p.177 f.), mostly from the second chapter of the book, about Asculapius.   The third part is here (1855, series 5, tome 5, p.401 f.), extracts from chapter 7.  Unfortunately the BNF does not have 1855 series 5, tome 6 online, which must contain the fourth part — tome 7 does not contain it. [Update: it’s here at Google books, p.129]  The fifth part is here (1856, series 5, tome 8, p.175 f.), extracts from chapter 4 (Hippocrates).

That seems to be all, as the next tome (9) contains an article also by Sanguinetti, on p.392, headed Biographical notices of various physicians, taken from an Arabic work by Assafedy: French translation with notes.

All this material is useful to have.   I thought that I would translate chunks of Sanguinetti’s introduction, which also includes a biography of Ibn Abi Usaibia.  Note that I have not attempted to change his transcription of Arabic names from the older French style into those used today.

The purpose that I had in view, in the present work, is to contribute to make known a work whose complete publication would render much service to all those who are busy with the history of sciences in general, and particularly to those who study the history of medicine and philosophy.  The fragment that follows is composed of the preface of the Arab author, then the first chapter of the work, which deals with the origin of medicine.  In his introduction Ibn Abi Usaibia develops the subjects which he intends to include in his book.  He then indicates the plan and mentions the content. I will refrain from dwelling on these different points.  The manner in which the author treats the difficult subject of the origin of medicine seems to me more complete than that of authors who preceded him; … in the citations which the author makes from earlier works, from the beginning of his work on, he makes known to us passages of books which are lost to us, and may, perhaps, sometimes help us to look for them.  …

In order to carry out this work, I had on my desk three manuscripts of Ibn Abi Usaibia, belonging to the Bibliotheque Imperiale, one of which is merely an abridgement of the complete work:

1.  No. 674 of the Supplement arabe, drawn up by Reinaud, quarto manuscript, 150 folios, but incomplete and only containing the first 8 chapters.  It is in very good condition, containing here and there marginal glosses which are sometimes interesting, and is, in my opinion, the best of all the manuscripts of this work in the Bibliotheque imperiale.  This in particular allowed me to establish the text of the extract I give here.  Part of this text is in rhymed prose, and is far from easy, and is ready for printing.  I think that reading and studying it would offer more than one kind of interest and utility, and I would hope that a favourable occasion will present itself to publish it.

2.  No. 756, ancient fonds arabe; it is likewise in quarto, is composed of 138 folios, and also contains only the first 8 chapters.  This ms. is somewhat mediocre, and certainly not as good as the preceding one.

3.  No. 873, ancient fonds arabe: this is a small volume, small quarto, of 111 folios, and is an abridgement of the whole work.  Its condition would be very good, but unfortunately it has so suffered from damp and from other causes that it is often illegible.

Finally, as may be seen below, I also made use of the manuscript of this work which is in the Bibliotheque imperiale, Supplement arabe 673, and which is the only one that is complete.  This is a folio volume, of 273 folios, modern and mediocre.

I cannot avoid saying something about the Arab author and his works.  Some details on this may be found in the work of Abou’l mahacin, under the year 668 AH, at the end [1], in Hadji Khalfah[2], Reiske [3], Wustenfeld [4], etc, but particularly in the last two chapters of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s own work, where the author speaks several times about his family and himself[5].  I will content myself with giving, in summary, a small number of the most important facts.

The name of our author was Mouwaffik eddin Abou’l’abbas Ahmed, son of Abou’lkacim, son of Khalifah Alkhazradjy [6], but he is better known under the name of Ibn Abi Usaibia.  He was born at Damascus, late in the year 600 AH (1203 AD) and he learned medicine from his uncle Rachid eddin ‘Ali, son of Khalifah, practitioner of medicine and director of the hospital at Damascus for eye problems.  He also studied under his father, who was above all a surgeon and oculist.  His teacher of philosophy was the jurisconsult and philosopher Radhy eddin Aldjily (i.e. of Ghilan).  He had connections with Ibn Albaithar, who gave him some lessons on botany, with ‘Abdallathif and others among his famous contemporaries.  In the year 634 AH (1236-7 AD)  Ibn Abi Osaibia went to Cairo, where he practiced medicine, and was even employed in a hospital.  About a year later he went to Sarkhad, in Syria, and entered the service of the commandant ‘Izz eddin Aidemir, son of Abdallah, whose first doctor he became.  He died in the month of djoumada I, in the year 668 AD (January 1270 AD).  He was then almost a septugenarian, and indeed older than that according to Abou’l mahacin.

The principal work of Ibn Abi Usaibia is, without question, his History of physicians, as the real title indicates: “Sources of information on the subject of the classes of physicians”[1], and which was regarded as a classic in its genre.  He also left another book of practical medicine, entitled “Useful experiences and observations” [2].  He also had begun a third work, which he did not finish, but which he intended to call “Monuments of the nations and histories of the wise” [3]  Finally Ibn Abi Usaibia was the author of various pieces of verse, one of which, among many, was  the eulogy of the emir Amin Addaoulah, and Abou’; mahacin gives a fragment of this.

  1. [1]BNF, ancien fonds arabe, 661, f. 219 r and v.
  2. [2]From BNF ms. ancien fonds arabe 875.
  3. [3]Opuscula medica ex monumentis Arabum et Hebraeorum, Grunier, p.55-6.
  4. [4]Geschichte der arabischen Aertze und Naturforscher, p.132.
  5. [5]See, among others, the biography of Ibn Albaithar, that of Abdallail, and notably the biography of his uncle Rachid eddin ‘Aly.
  6. [6]And therefore belonged to the tribe of the Khazradj.

JTS charging far too much?

From the ABTABL list I learn that the Journal of Theological Studies this year is demanding £277.80 for two issues.  This seems rather excessive.  In consequence smaller libraries are now considering cancelling their subscription.

In the pre-internet days, the academic journal was the only sensible means to disseminate research.  Containing a range of articles written by academics, and edited by one or more academics — all these paid by the taxpayer — the journal article was the only practicable way to circulate this material.  The issues were bought almost exclusively by major libraries at universities — also tax funded.  The publisher made a profit, of course, but also provided a necessary service.  This was, in truth, the only way to circulate the material.

But today?  Just why do we need the publisher?  Surely the articles could be disseminated in PDF form by the editors, and printed (by those libraries that need them) using services like Lulu?  Most academics would probably rather have the articles in JSTOR anyway.

Well we all know why that won’t happen — because everyone is used to the current system.  There is tremendous inertia in the system.  Libraries might feel that they serve no purposes, without rows of bound volumes.  Academics will feel that PDF publication is less real, and might be less useful in the key and necessary role of establishing or maintaining their reputation as professional academics.

The current situation seems to be in no-one’s interest, other than a handful of publishers.  It isn’t in the interest of academics to restrict the circulation of their work!  It isn’t in the interest of the poor bloody taxpayer to have what he pays for made inaccessible.

In a way, I welcome the new, very high charges.  I can hear a sound in the distance, indeed. 

It is the sound of a monopolist sawing off the branch he is sitting on.


Some notes on blogging

From time to time all of us who upload content to the web get to wondering what we’re doing and whether it’s worth it.  This happens, even if you don’t have someone spitting insults at you — it’s a normal part of human nature. 

This was brought on by a question asked at eChurch blog, Does anybody else ever go through a blogging crisis of confidence?

For me it always starts with ‘blogging block’; I just don’t seem to be able to find anything worth blogging about, and I’m never sure if this is because there is nothing interesting to blog about; or whether it’s more reflective of my state of mind.

Then comes a crisis in confidence. Everybody else seems so damn smart and knowledgeable on any given subject; that I feel like a know-nothing fraud.

I thought that I’d offer some thoughts on this (rather inward-looking) subject. 

I myself have found blogging a bit difficult lately, but I also know why.  My current job takes a lot out of me, and I’m also very busy with some other necessary but boring business which leaves me very little time to think about anything else.

Each of us, when we blog, or write articles online, draws upon what we are currently thinking about.  But most people can only do this for a while before they need to replenish the “reservoir”.  Otherwise, we grow “cruel dry”, as Addison did when writing the Spectator.  It’s natural, and of no other significance.  When we can’t write, it means only that we need to read, that we need to browse, to refill ourselves.  Your cup can only overflow if it is full!  This applies, even to those uploading material by others.  If we just haven’t the time to do this, it will be difficult to blog.

But sometimes we all just don’t feel that original.  In such circumstances, I think it is important to have a few volumes of miscellaneous literature that we can plunder for quotations or witty material.  Regular readers will have observed that I often post from Paley’s collection of Greek Wit.  When I was reading Aulus Gellius — itself a work of precisely this kind — I posted extracts from that.  Martial’s epigrams are short and there’s usually something to say.  I think that a supply of such works, which are easy to read as well as to quote from, is a useful help.  Of course the works must not be works which are in everyone’s hands.

The other question raised is about how valuable what we do is.  How useful, in a way, is this very post, except perhaps to other bloggers and website maintainers?  Am I writing something that anyone will wish to read, even six months hence?

I confess that I don’t really care.

That may seem harsh, but really, just imagine what would happen if I worried about what I write everytime I uploaded something, every time I blogged?  I’d soon cease to do anything at all.  Human nature is what it is, and it is a mistake to over-analyse these things.  From time to time I look at the blog stats, which continue to rise, and that’s as much as I need.  Indeed I don’t even care about that.

Commenters can be a danger, in this respect.  On this blog everyone is nice, and the nature of the subject is that the online thug is a rare visitor.  But current affairs blogs, by their very nature, attract aggressive disagreement.  This can wear down the blogger.  Indeed I have seen “comments” elsewhere which were plainly intended for no other purpose, a form of soft-intimidation. 

My own response to any comment that annoys me is brutal — I delete it.  This blog isn’t a public forum, but rather my diary online, in which people of goodwill are welcome to share, and add notes in the margin.  This disposes of such people.  It’s really important to retain control of one’s own blog, and not be intimidated by specious cries of “censorship” — often made by people who themselves won’t allow any disagreement.  As my experience in Wikipedia early this year showed me, there is no lack of criminals online who write solely to silence others, and wreck their work, and care nothing for the public weal. 

Doubtless one day I shall cease to blog.  This journal of what I am doing and thinking about will fall silent.  So do we all. One day I shall die.  One day the moon will fall and the sun grow cold.  We all know this: but we do not act upon this knowledge, for to do so is to become less than human, and to worry ourselves silly.  We must write as if we will live forever, and as if we will live forever, and as if surrounded by friends.

But in the mean time I have a few objectives: firstly, to enjoy what I do, and secondly to share that with the like-minded. 


Political imprisonment in Britain today

A horrible story on the BBC today, written in a manner that indicates the BBC is on the side of the nasty people.

A man who posted sectarian comments on a Facebook page called “Neil Lennon Should be Banned” has been jailed for eight months.

Stephen Birrell, 28, from Glasgow, admitted posting the religiously prejudiced abuse earlier this year.

Sheriff Bill Totten said what Birrell had done was a hate crime which would not be tolerated by “the right thinking people of Glasgow and Scotland”.

He said he wanted to send out “a clear message to deter others”.

There is no suggestion that Mr Birrell — whom the BBC labels a “bigot” in its headline — did anything except express a strong dislike for a group of people holding views different from himself.  He did not incite violence. 

He was, in other words, imprisoned for expressing his opinions.

Heaven alone knows what punishment he would have received had he called for those he disliked to be imprisoned for disagreeing with him.

There is much talk in the article about “hate” — that is, about feelings.  But when did feeling become a crime?  And if we’re talking about hate, you have to hate someone pretty badly to throw them in prison for disagreeing with you.

This judgement abolishes freedom of speech online.  I don’t care about Mr Birrell’s views, either for or against.  I support neither Celtic or Rangers.  But he becomes the first political prisoner in Britain of modern times.

I learn from the BBC article that there is a group, Take a Liberty, who are opposing this hatred and bigotry.  Please link to them.


Galen: what the Arab knew and we only discovered in 2006

I’m still OCR-ing the English translation of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s dictionary of medical writers.  But I have just come across the following line, in a list of Galen’s books:

In his book “The Negation of Grief” he says that many of his books and much of his valuable furniture were burnt in the royal storehouses in Rome.

Some of the books that were destroyed were manuscripts of Aristotle; others were manuscripts of Anaxagoras and Andromachus which he had corrected under the guidance of his teachers and of people who had studied them with Plato (he had traveled to a distant city for this purpose). He mentions many other things lost in that fire, but they are too numerous to be indicated here.

Al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik says: “Among Galen’s books that were burnt were Rufus’ on theriacs and poisons, the treatment of poisoned people and the composition of drugs (according to disease and time) and — dearest to him — the books written on white silk, with black covers, for which he had paid a high price.”

 This is a reference to the previously unknown Peri Alupias, (On grief) only rediscovered quite by accident very recently in the monastery of Vlatadon in Thessalonica in 2006.  Yet clearly in the 13th century Ibn Abi Usaibia knew the work.  It’s a good summary, too, as these extracts make plain.

Where there is one lost work, of course, there might be more.  But my efforts to get a copy of the catalogue of Vlatadon — from 1918, if I remember rightly — were all in vain.  Librarians blithered about possible copyright, drat them.  These people are paid from money exacted from the poor to make stuff accessible, but do they do it?  Do they heck!