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Book as Microcosm: A Unique Hebrew Copy of Ibn Sina’s Canon

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“Ha-Kanon” [Encyclopedia of Medicine] by Ibn Sina. Naples, 1491. Translated from the Arabic into Hebrew. African and Middle Eastern Division.
The book is bound in dark brown leather over wooden boards, its tooled surface rubbed smooth with age. Its envelope-style binding, common to works in the Muslim world, is highly unusual in the world of Hebrew books, and though not the oldest item here in the Hebraic Section, it is the one book that always makes visitors draw in their breath and ask wonderingly: “How did it get here?”

The short answer, of course, is that it entered the Library of Congress as part of the “Deinard Collection,” Deinard being Ephraim Deinard (1846-1930), that nigh legendary book-seller who traveled the world in search of the rare and unusual, and whose collections, thanks to the generosity of Jewish philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920), became the basis for the Library’s nascent Hebraic Section in 1912.

But that is the short answer. The real answer, of course, is far more complex, for what people are really asking is not how the Library of Congress acquired the book but rather: what lands did it traverse as it made its journey through the centuries, and how on earth did it survive the expulsions, the pogroms, the wars, the Holocaust, to reach the Library of Congress? Whose eyes read the book through the generations, whose hands smoothed the leather binding – and who scribbled those comments there in the margins? That is what people are really trying to ask as they gaze down at the ancient object in front of them, and this is the tangle of questions we will now try to address.

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The book is a Hebrew translation of a medieval best-seller known simply as the “Canon,” a 12th-century medical encyclopedia blending the theories of Galen with the philosophy of Aristotle – a potent blend in the High Middle Ages. The “Canon” was originally written in Arabic by Ibn Sina (980-1037), the great Muslim philosopher-physician better known to the European world as Avicenna. Thanks to early translations in Latin and other European languages, the “Canon” served for centuries as the single most important medical textbook in the world, finding its way into university curricula already in the 13th century and also – to judge from the numerous annotated copies in manuscript – into the hands of many a private physician.

‘Ha-Kanon” [Encyclopedia of Medicine] by Ibn Sina. Naples, 1491. Translated from the Arabic into Hebrew. African and Middle Eastern Division.
The Hebrew translation before us now was printed in Naples, 1491, and as such is one of the earliest printed Hebrew books in existence; indeed, one of the only 175 or so known titles printed in Hebrew before the year 1500.

But Jewish scholars were familiar with the “Canon” long before it became available in printed form. In Spain, where Jews lived for centuries under Muslim rule, they could read it in the original Arabic. In Italy, they had access to it via the Hebrew translation first created in Rome in 1279. The Hebrew text printed in Naples, though based on the earlier version and its subsequent revisions and re-translations, also contains formulations unique to the printed edition, and these were clearly translated directly from the Arabic original. Jews who knew Hebrew and Arabic were thus afoot there in Naples over the centuries.

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Al-Bukhari, Collection of Authentic Hadith,” Arabic Manuscript, 17th century. Fine example of envelope-binding in the Muslim world. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The Hebrew version of Avicenna’s “Canon” is a good example of intellectual trends current amongst the Jews of late medieval Europe, attesting to their interest in science, their knowledge of Arabic, their role in the transmission of Greek and Arabic wisdom into the Renaissance. This is true of any copy of the Hebrew “Canon,” printed or in manuscript form. But the Library’s copy of the Hebrew “Canon” is something more, for with its unique, Arabic-style binding it almost is a microcosm of Jewish history at the crossroads. In late 1491, when the book was being printed, Spanish Jewry, the once proud community ravaged by centuries of persecution, was on the move. Some looked to Portugal or to the Ottoman Empire for refuge; others fled to Naples, then an independent kingdom under the rule of Ferdinand I and with an established Jewish community going back to late antiquity. Unlike that other Ferdinand, in Spain, King Ferdinand of Naples offered Jews freedom from persecution and the hope of rebuilding a strong Jewish community. Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508), renowned Jewish scholar, trusted advisor to the kings of Spain and Portugal, and now a refugee in search of a new home, gave eloquent expression to this hope in his “Commentary on the Book of Kings,” praising the “great and lauded city of Naples” and its “beneficent kings.”

For a while Jewish life flourished in Naples and, in fact, more Hebrew books have come down to us from Naples than from any other locality during the 15th century. But the haven proved all too brief. In 1494, Charles VIII of France put Naples to the sword and the Jews were again forced to flee.

Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel Abravanel (?). Introduction to his “Commentary on the Book of Kings.” Pesaro, 1511.

The crumbling world of Spanish Jewry thus created a tangled web of narratives linking Muslim Spain, Naples, and the Spanish Reconquista – and all of these find expression in the book before us now. The Jews of Spain knew Arabic, the language of Ibn Sina’s original work, and did not therefore require a translation. But they were required to create the Hebrew translation for the Jews of Italy. It must have been during those centuries of persecution in Spain that Arabic-speaking Jews – those capable of translating Ibn Sina’s “Canon” into Hebrew – washed up on the shores of Naples. The same is also true of the book’s unique envelope-style binding, for this, too, bears testimony to the movement of Jews across linguistic and cultural borders. Though probably created in Naples, the Arabic-style binding was surely fashioned by a workman versed in the techniques and aesthetics of the medieval Arabic book and this suggests a recent arrival from Spain. Language, subject, and binding all combine, therefore, to create a veritable microcosm of Jewish history in the 15th and 16th century.

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Let us now return to the question with which we began this essay: how did the book reach the Library of Congress? The answer is, we don’t know. Deinard himself, though a prolific writer on a great many subjects, was notably silent on the methods of his acquisitions. The book bears numerous annotations in Judeo-Italian (Italian in Hebrew letters) by more than one hand, but whether it survived all the centuries in Italy, or ended up in one of the many other lands Deinard visited during his travels, is something we can only guess. The tide of history creates byways often stranger than fiction for people and for books. Isaac ben Judah Abravanel laments the destruction of his library during the French invasion of Naples in 1494, and perhaps we should just be grateful that this book survived at all, leaving us with an eloquent artifact of Jewish history – and the magic of all the possibilities.

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