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No area of western high culture was more dependent on translations of Arabic texts than medicine, which had stagnated at a very low level in the West, while in the Muslim-Arab world it developed rapidly from the eighth century onwards, supported by the scientific and cultural policy of the Abbasid caliphs. An enormous amount of translation was done, exemplified by the work of the Christian doctor Hunain ibn Ishâq (808-877). With his probably Muslim, Jewish and Christian colleagues, he translated almost 200 Greek texts. To these he added his own introduction to medicine, which was to become the basic text that gave students the main elements of the book Galen had written in the second century and a great deal of practical and therapeutic information.

The building of hospitals in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Samarkand and elsewhere (the first was founded in Baghdad by the Caliph Hârûn ar-Rashîd), each run by a master, gave student doctors an ideal place in which to observe patients, and allowed the principles of hygiene to be disseminated: asepsis and the isolation of patients with contagious diseases, and an abundant pharmacopoeia: drugs derived from plants and animals, mineral extracts in the composition of plasters, ointments, poultices and tablets.

It was above all in Salerno in the eleventh century that Arab medicine was introduced to the West and translations were used in the teaching and practice of medicine. These works had an immediate success in the Salerno school, where medicine had been taught since the tenth century, but on the basis of haphazard knowledge. The introduction of the renowned Canon of Medicine, by the great scholar Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037), written by its author in Arabic and then translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona, is a striking example of the influence and incorporation of Arab thought in the West. His Canon, a monumental, encyclopaedic work, presents and classifies more than 800 remedies. Our vocabulary still bears the trace of this chemical and pharmacological inventiveness, Arabic terms having passed into every language: alembic, alcohol, benzoin, benzene, elixir, soda, talc, amber, saffron, sandalwood, senna, and so on. Avicenna’s Canon was translated and then published in Europe for the first time in 1473.

Medicine was now placed within the Aristotelian classification of sciences as a branch of physics and was subdivided into theory and practice, both of them based on thought and reasoning. Henceforth, people in the West had the benefit of stable theories put in place by the Arabs and in line with the writings of the doctor of Pergamon, the famous Galen.

Health was defined as a balance between the humours that characterize an individual’s temperament, and each part of his body. Any imbalance, an overabundance or corruption of one of the four humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – resulted in illness. The treatment involved re-establishing the initial balance by prescribing selected remedies and foods. This “theory of the four humours” became established in Europe, decisively excluding any purely religious interpretation of illness. Arab doctors had developed this learning through a logical conception of ailments and a methodical approach, on the basis of which they listed and described symptoms, and improved the art of diagnosis and clinical practice.

For further reading

"Sur la place de la théorie dans la pratique médical. Au-delà d'Avicenne: le chaînon manquant du Moyen Age tardif ?", Emma Gannagé, Georgetown University