Cambridge University Library

Fragment of the Month: February 2011

Rhubarb and dodder and absinth, Or.1081 J39

By Efraim Lev and Leigh Chipman

These ingredients are just three of the nine different exotic materia medica that are pounded together to form an electuary (a medicinal paste which is mixed with syrup or honey) in this prescription from 11–12th-century Egypt. It is one of 140 prescriptions identified by our research group, which deals with the history of medicine in the Genizah, and is one of 30 that are about to be published in a new book, Medical Prescriptions in the Cambridge Genizah Collections: Practical Medicine and Pharmacology in Medieval Egypt, written by Efraim Lev of the University of Haifa and Leigh Chipman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Cambridge Genizah Studies series published by Brill.

The book contains transcriptions and translations of each prescription, together with a detailed commentary on the ingredients and their medical qualities according to the traditions of Arabic medicine. For example, in the present prescription the majority of the ingredients are classified as ‘hot and dry’ (a classification going back to Hippocrates), and more than half of them are purgatives (rhubarb being the most obvious, but also dodder, a parasitic weed of the morning glory family). It thus seems that this is a prescription for a strong purgative, perhaps a remedy for constipation.

The prescription is more than just a single remedy, however; instead it provides a complete holistic course of treatment, consisting of an electuary (l. 5, ‘knead with rose syrup’) to be taken first thing in the morning, a decoction (a boiled medicine) to be drunk later on (l. 6, ‘at the fourth hour’), and a diet to be followed, consisting of chicken and perhaps spinach, cooked with white wine. The low overall weight of the ingredients (12 grams for the electuary, 10 grams for the decoction) indicates that this was an individual dose, perhaps only for a single day.

This is one of very few prescriptions in which the name of the patient appears, in this case, in the form of an Arabic kunya, or nickname, Abū Yaḥyā. The well-known eleventh-century merchant Nahray b. Nissim was known by this kunya, which is not particularly common. It would be nice to think that this prescription was written for him, a great figure, whose trading activities stretched from Spain via North Africa, the Fertile Crescent and Yemen to India, and whose exalted position in the Jewish community of Cairo is revealed by many letters and other documents in the Genizah.

The handwriting is similar to another prescription that appears in the book, T-S Ar.30.305, which also shows the use of Arabic for the opening and closing phrases of the prescription and Judaeo-Arabic for body text itself. It is likely that the two fragments derive from the same physician. It should be noted that, as in the other prescriptions found in the Genizah, Hebrew letters are used as numerals, such as alef for one, in the phrase ‘of each one’.

Prescriptions are an authentic source for the practice of medicine in medieval times, providing an insight into the medical reality of the Genizah world, and are a counterpoint to the idealised medicine of the theoretical works of the Middle Ages.

Translation

1. The shaykh Abū Yaḥyā
2. Take chebulic myrobalan, one dirham; turpeth and agaric and hiera picra, of each half a dirham;
3. rhubarb and dodder and absinth, of each two dāniqs; blue bdellium and Andarānī salt
4. and mastic, of each one dāniq. Grind all of it, and add to it two dāniqs of scammony, and knead
5. everything with rose syrup and take it at daybreak with hot water; and at the
6. fourth hour drink water in which were previously boiled a handful of red raisins, cleaned of stones, and borage
7. and crushed polypody and senna, of each three dirhams; fresh rose, cleaned of thorns,
8. five in number, skim over rose syrup and washed basil seed. Diet: chicken
9. ASBĪD BĀḠ (spinach?) and replace the water while skimming with white wine. Beneficial if God wills.

 

Recto of Or.1081 J39

Or.1081 J39, recto, prescriptions and a recommended diet

 

Bibliography

Chipman, L., The World of Pharmacy and Pharmacists in Mamlūk Cairo (Leiden, 2009).
Lev, E. and Amar, Z., Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean according to the Cairo Genizah (Leiden, 2008).

Efraim Lev and Leigh Chipman

Contact us: genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk

 

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