Episteme and translation in an annotated copy of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna)

Sang Ik Song & Adam S. Komorowski
University of Limerick, Ireland (Spring 2017)


Processes of Translation in European Medieval Medical Episteme

Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, pg 275: Hooper has
underlined “nentaphyllon” and re-written the
mis-transcription on the margin in Arabic.

The episteme and movement of knowledge of medieval medicine in Europe is a syncretic, multifarious complexity that is often difficult to unravel. Medieval history in and of itself is a rarefied field where a good grasp of multiple languages and a lack of sources make quality scholarship a trying endeavour.1 Thus, the privilege of access to a 1593 edition in Arabic of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, annotated by George Hooper (1640-1727), Bishop of Bath and Wells, presented a distinct need to survey the territory and diversify the approaches to the major contours in European medical history discourse. The textual, cultural, and linguistic complexity of the source demanded further examination for an appropriate methodology.2 What followed was a survey of the contestations and intersections of ecclesiastical history, humanistic medicine, materia medica including pharmacological recipes, the notion of the “medical republic of letters,” the advent of Oriental studies, and the problematic politics and processes of translation occurring individually and societally in notions of cross-cultural, linguistic exchange.3 From this breadth of subjects and methodology, it was prudent to provide insight through a lens of translation as a process of constructing meaning from source-work.4 The value of the source, with George Hooper’s annotated marginalia on the Canon, allowed a much more flexible analysis of exchanges in medical episteme and philological inquiry in line with what historian Pierce Salguero asserts as “creative moments that hinged on the translational activities of individual historical actors.”5 This article proposes to give a brief background on this fascinating text in an effort to explore future directions of research with Bishop George Hooper’s translational activities by way of his marginalia on Avicenna’s Canon.


A brief introduction to Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine and Bishop George Hooper

The text is a 1593 edition in Arabic by the Medici printing house Typographia Medicea in Rome of Avicenna’s preeminent medical encyclopedia called the Canon of Medicine.6 It was the second book to be printed in Arabic in Europe since the Quran in 1547 and the next edition of the Arabic text was not published until 1877 in Cairo.7 Avicenna (980-1037) was a philosopher-physician of Galenic proclivities, widely known to have had a fundamental influence in Medieval medicine from the 12th to the 16th centuries; his work and philosophy have been analyzed extensively due to the breadth of his contributions to the literature.8 The extent of the influence of his work is demonstrated in the Canon being translated into Latin, in part or in full, no less than sixty times between 1500 to 1674 – this does not include the plethora of commentaries on its material.9 The Canon also appears in the oldest known syllabus at the School of Medicine at Montpellier in 1309.10

The text is categorically divided into five books. The first book dealt with generalities on medicine in theory and practice.11 The second book is predominantly a simple recording of pharmacological remedies and materia medica of approximately 760 items.12 The third book focused on specific organ by organ pathologies, the fourth book on other illnesses not previously covered such as fevers, and the fifth book dealt with the administration and make-up of drugs.13

The annotator of the edition under scrutiny was George Hooper (1640-1727) who was a bishop of Bath and Wells, and existing records write of him as a conscientious bishop, polymath, and excellent scholar.14 His interests were varied and his studies in Oxford demonstrated a curiosity for “Physick, Anatomy, and Botany.”15 There is a substantial discussion regarding the intersectional role of physician and cleric in the diocese of Bath and Wells in Somerset, England. While there is no evidence that George Hooper was a physician himself, his keen interest in medical texts invites a discussion on this intersectionality.16 Hooper’s fluency in ‘oriental’ languages is especially of note. It is posited that his relationship with Edward Pococke, the leading English Arabist of the time, helped Hooper to be proficient in Arabic.17 Hooper’s era in the 17th century was one of political and religious disturbances, but this was juxtaposed by the so-called “Republic of Letters,” a notion of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry by a community of scholars epitomized by the new genre of the consilium.18 It is also important to note that by Hooper’s time the epistolary exchange was distinctly humanistic; there was a backlash against the “barbaric Arabs” and a turning towards the ‘original’ Greek.19 Hooper’s detailed biography and context is beyond the scope of this article, however it is worthwhile to note that most sourcing of Hooper’s life came from his daughter Abigail Prowse’s manuscript after his death.20


A granular sample of marginalia: Dioscorides and Pentaphyllon on materia medica

A brief historiography on Avicenna’s Canon demonstrates a discourse fixated on the question of impact or influence of Arabic medicine on ‘Western’ medicine.21 However, if one sees language as a method of construction and meaning, of a cross-transmission and reception of ideas, then there is a multiplicity one must be aware of in the rich rhetoric of language that individual historical actors must negotiate and navigate in order to read, annotate, and translate.22 In this role, Hooper had to become “an active mediator between cultural-linguistic systems” and imagine bridges between distinct semantic landscapes in Arabic, Latin, Greek, and English.23 Moreover, in the case of materia medica, Hooper had to ground his conceptualization on an empiricism in pharmacology, botany, and utility of the recipes.24 Thus, to analyze Hooper’s annotations is to be aware of the ‘tactics’, the choice in words and language that Hooper wielded in order to navigate the Canon.

Hooper’s annotations were predominantly in the second book of the Canon, and were sparse in the first and third book: this may reflect the changing understanding of medicine and humanistic hues of this time. His remarks were written in Arabic, Greek, and Latin in the margins. He specifically re-wrote most of the pharmacological names in Latin next to the Arabic such as hedera for ivy or daucus for carrot.25 There is no clear evidence of when Hooper read or annotated the text; however there are signs that he was not fully proficient in his Arabic, which leads one to presume he had the Canon during his studies at Oxford in the late 17th century. For example, throughout the second book, Hooper has added tashkil diacritics to the pharmacological names, a technique often used to optionally represent missing vowels and consonant length when learning the Arabic script. Moreover, there are instances where Hooper has re-written a misspelt Arabic word: on page 275, in the entry for ginseng, Hooper copies the exact misspelling of the original transcriber of the Arabic – nentaphyllon – when it should read pentaphyllon [Figure 1]. The paucity of text on pentaphyllon in both Arabic and in the misspelling may also be reflective of the confounding geographical distribution of pentaphyllon, which would have been unavailable in England.

There is also, throughout the second book, a referenced notation with Diosc as per Diosc 2. 176 written for chelidonium or Greater Celandine [Fig. 1.]. Hooper may have been referencing Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica of the 1st century, following the initial humanist tradition of trying to better understand the “ancients.”26 The references match closely to the respective botanical pharmacology by Dioscorides. In short, this simple example demonstrates that Hooper was working through a classic Arabic medical text while referencing Greek botany, clarifying empirical utility of the pharmacological recipes and functioning in an English and Latin speaking ecclesiastical community.


Implications in the “Terrain of the Original”27

This cursory survey into George Hooper’s marginalia on Avicenna’s Canon is a small window into the potential implications of deconstructing Hooper’s translational conceptualization in reading and annotating. It may be fruitful to consider the agency of a historical individual such as Hooper in his semantic and linguistic choices, providing clues to the evolving “registers of expression” of his position and time.28 This is complicated theoretical territory; however in the multivalent act of reading and transcribing, there is a historical angle where the act of translation can be used as a categorical scheme to provide insight into the individual subject of inquiry and the norms of the recipient culture and locality. In his act of translation, Hooper was an agent that navigated this complicated territory. To obtain a more complete view of Hooper’s act of translation, his annotations of the other Arabic texts, philosophical, and theological works in his library must be considered in concert with the one presented here. As with this annotated Canon, this multivariate translational approach can lend itself to a deeper critical thinking with regard to mediaeval materials.



The authors would like to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Mr. Kevin Spears and Ms. Pattie Punch, Librarians of Wells Cathedral (Somerset, England) and the University of Limerick (Ireland) respectively, for their invaluable guidance in researching this topic. The authors also wish to thank Ms. Lydia Mehrara for her invaluable guidance with translations of the Arabic marginalia of George Hooper.



  1. See Elizabeth A. Clark, History, theory, text: historians and the linguistic turn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  2. It is worth noting here that an appropriate methodology may include an anthropological analysis, in order that the perspective of the writer is not lost. There remains an interesting question pertaining to the symbolism of two medical students studying in Europe translating and reading a bishop’s notations and translations of a classical Arabic medical textbook.
  3. For broad overview on the context, see Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval & early Renaissance medicine: an introduction to knowledge and practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). For Medical “republic of letters”, see Ian Maclean, “The Medical Republic of Letters before the Thirty Years War,” Intellectual History Review 18, no. 1 (March 2008):, doi:10.1080/17496970701819327. For politics of translation, see the seminal work by Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak, Outside in the teaching machine (New York: Routledge, 1993).
  4. Spivak, Outside in the teaching machine, 179.
  5. C. Pierce Salguero, Translating Buddhist medicine in medieval China (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 3-4.
  6. Raphaela Veit, “Avicenna’s Canon in East and West: A Long History of Editions,” in Texts in Multiple Versions – Histories of Editions, vol. 5, Variants (Brill/Rodopi, 2006), 333.
  7. Veit, Texts in Multiple Versions, 333.
  8. Jon McGinnis, Avicenna (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), accessed January 2017, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195331479.001.0001/acprof-9780195331479-chapter-9.
  9. Helena M. Paavilainen, Medieval pharmacotherapy continuity and change: case studies from Ibn Sīnā and some of his late medieval commentators (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 33. The Canon of Medicine was first translated in its entirety between 1150 and 1187 by Gerard of Cremona. 87 translations were made in all including Hebrew translations (Paavilainen, 72)
  10. Ibid, 72.
  11. Veit, Texts in Multiple Versions, 332.
  12. Paavilainen, Medieval pharmacotherapy, 69. See also Veit, Texts in Multiple, 332. In detail, each pharmacological recipe was first a listing of drugs by its physical appearance. The plant/drug was then described to allow differentiation, and Galenic grades of the drug with special qualities on the human body were also listed. Possible poisonous effects or antidotal qualities were added when available.
  13. Paavilianen, Medieval pharmacotherapy, 70.
  14. William M. Marshall, George Hooper, 1640-1727, Bishop of Bath and Wells (Sherborne: Dorset Pub. Co., 1976), 197.
  15. Marshall, George Hooper, 5.
  16. Komorowski, AS and Song, SI. “Doctorum Ecclesiae: the medical clerics of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, England.” Hektoen International 8(3), Summer 2016. http://www.hekint.org/index.php?id=2186.
  17. Marshall, George Hooper, 5 & 163.
  18. Ian Maclean, “The Medical Republic of Letters before the Thirty Years War,” Intellectual History Review 18, no. 1 (March 2008), doi:10.1080/17496970701819327, 17, 19. See also Nancy G. Siraisi, “Medicine, 1450–1620, and the History of Science,” Isis 103, no. 3 (2012), doi:10.1086/667970, 502 for further details on Consilia.
  19. Maclean, The Medical Republic of Letters, 18.
  20. Marshall, George Hooper, 198.
  21. An example is Jamal Moosavi, “The Place of Avicenna in the History of Medicine,” Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology 1, no. 1 (April & may 2009), accessed January 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3558117/. There are many similar narratives in this historiography.
  22. Spivak, Outside in the teaching machine, 179 and Salguero, Translating Buddhist Medicine, 6.
  23. Salguero, Translating Buddhist medicine, 8.
  24. Paavilianen, Medical Pharmacotherapy, 4 on the intersection of traditionalism and empiricism. Hooper’s act of translation must take into account the empirical response by the human body to the pharmacological therapies proposed by the Canon.
  25. George Hooper’s annotations were specifically on Populus, Anthora (Aconitum Anthora), Daucus, Hedera, Alumen Catinum, Pentaphyllon, and Ricinus.
  26. For further elaboration on this point, see Nancy G. Siraisi, Medicine, 1450–1620, and the History of Science,” Isis 103, no. 3 (2012): 507, doi:10.1086/667970.
  27. Spivak, Outside, 197.
  28. Salguero, Translating Buddhist Medicine, 9.



  1. Avicenna. Kitāb al-Qānūn fī al-tibb li-Abū ‘Ali al-Shaykh al-Ra’īs Ibn Sīnā ma’a ba’d ta’līfihi wa-huwa ‘ilm al-manṭiq wa-‘ilm al-ṭabī’ī wa-‘ilm al-kalām. Rome: Typographia Medicea, 1593.
    Clark, Elizabeth A. History, theory, text: historians and the linguistic turn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  2. Komorowski, AS and Song, SI. “Doctorum Ecclesiae: the medical clerics of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, England.” Hektoen International 8(3), Summer 2016. http://www.hekint.org/index.php?id=2186.
  3. Maclean, Ian. “The Medical Republic of Letters before the Thirty Years War.” Intellectual History Review 18, no. 1 (March 2008): 15-30. doi:10.1080/17496970701819327.
  4. Marshall, William M. George Hooper, 1640-1727, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Sherborne: Dorset Pub. Co., 1976.
  5. McGinnis, Jon. Avicenna. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Accessed January 2017. http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195331479.001.0001/acprof-9780195331479-chapter-9.
  6. Moosavi, Jamal. “The Place of Avicenna in the History of Medicine.” Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology 1, no. 1 (April & May 2009): 3-8. Accessed January 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3558117/.
  7. Paavilainen, Helena M. Medieval pharmacotherapy continuity and change: case studies from Ibn Sīnā and some of his late medieval commentators. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  8. Salguero, C. Pierce. Translating Buddhist medicine in medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
  9. Siraisi, Nancy G. Medieval & early Renaissance medicine: an introduction to knowledge and practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  10. Siraisi, Nancy G. “Medicine, 1450–1620, and the History of Science.” Isis 103, no. 3 (2012): 491-514. doi:10.1086/667970.
  11. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  12. Veit, Raphaela. “Avicenna’s Canon in East and West: A Long History of Editions.” In Texts in Multiple Versions – Histories of Editions, 331-89. Vol. 5. Variants. Brill/Rodopi, 2006



SANG IK SONG is a third year medical student at the University of Limerick (Limerick, Ireland). He studied history and East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. His work has been predominantly multidisciplinary with a specific interest in translating critical theory into viable clinical interventions. His current research interests lie in the multiplicity of bereavement, semi-structured narrative interventions in oncology, anthropological manifestations of suffering, and the persisting political nuances of representation involving colonial legacies.

ADAM S. KOMOROWSKI is a second year medical student at the University of Limerick (Limerick, Ireland). He studied immunology and microbiology at the University of Toronto, completing research in protein engineering and bioinformatics, as well as cancer immunotherapy. His current interests in medical humanities lie in interrogating the intersection of medicine and the ecclesiastical ministry, as well as epistemic violence in medicine.