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Ibn al-Jazzar on Forgetfulness and Its Treatment: Critical Edition of the Arabic Text and the Hebrew Translations, with Commentary and Translation into English (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 71, Number 4, Winter 1997
pp. 704-706 | 10.1353/bhm.1997.0184

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 71.4 (1997) 704-706

Book Review

Ibn al-Jazzar on Forgetfulness and Its Treatment: Critical Edition of the Arabic Text and the Hebrew Translations, with Commentary and Translation into English

Gerrit Bos. Ibn al-Jazzar on Forgetfulness and Its Treatment: Critical Edition of the Arabic Text and the Hebrew Translations, with Commentary and Translation into English. Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series, vol. 1. London: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1995. vii + 91 pp. £15.00.

Ibn al-Jazzar (Qayrawan, d. 970/980) is a well-known, prolific physician whose works -- translated into Greek, Hebrew and Latin -- were influential on medieval medicine. His Zad al-musafir (L. Viaticum peregrinantis), incorporated into the Articella, was widely used in medical schools.

This publication draws attention to a little-known treatise (Risala fi al-nisyan wa 'ilajihi) on a subject widely discussed in Greco-Arabic philosophical and medical texts. From a unique copy (14th c.) at the Academia das Ciencias de Lisboa, Bos has prepared an edition by using two extant contemporary Hebrew translations--Iggeret ba-Shikhhah by Nathan Me'ati (active in Rome, c. 1279-83), and the anonymous Ma'amar ba-Shikhhah --to help "correct the corruptions in the Arabic text" (p. 6). No description is given of the Arabic manuscript, however, or of the technical principles underlying the edition and translation.

The book falls into two parts. Five short introductory chapters (pp. 1-26) give the historical background to the author and the subject, with emphasis on classical mnemonics and its legacy in the Hebrew and (briefly) Arabic traditions, and an interpretive summary of the treatise. The rest of the book (chaps. 6-9) is taken up by the Arabic edition (pp. 27-36); the English (pp. 37-44) and Hebrew translations with commentary (pp. 45-67); and an additional Hebrew fragment in English translation (pp. 69-70). Bos mentions the older Latin translation (11th c.), circulated as Liber de oblivione under Constantine's name, but does not bring out its significance; as the Latin predates the Hebrew versions and contains the fragment, extant in Hebrew but missing from the Arabic copy, its inclusion would have been appropriate in an edition that derives its integrity from translated versions.

The edition has been well prepared: Bos provides a critical apparatus; copious notes, drawing attention to Ibn al-Jazzar's Greek, Byzantine, and Arabic sources; and two technical glossaries for the Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts, particularly on materia medica. The book's usefulness is again encumbered by the absence of folio and line indications for the English translation of the Arabic text, and by the lack of a general index for names, titles, and so forth.

Problems arise in Bos's interpretation of the treatise, which affects his translation of the key concepts such as "remembering" and "recollection" (dhikr), or "memory" and "retention" (hifz) (pp. 31, 38, 39), that are denoted by the same Arabic terms. His cavalier assumption (p. 20) that "Ibn al-Jazzar's distinction between retention and recall is probably the same as that explicitly stated by Ibn Rushd [d. 1198]" is unwarranted.

Several questions need to be clarified in the treatise which was originally written in response to the letter of an old man who "forgets much and remembers little" in spite of his "continuous study" (p. 37). Ibn al-Jazzar begins by describing how memories are established, cursorily drawing on earlier sources (Proclus, Galen, Paul of Aegina), and frankly states that the finding of drugs to cure forgetfulness and improve memory is impossible at that age (p. 39). Then he proceeds nonetheless to offer remedies.

Here "forgetfulness" is clearly specific to old age, but how is it defined? As an inability to remember, because of difficulty in learning and retention, or to recollect the past? Since Ibn al-Jazzar's correspondent complains of his inability to remember what he has studied, his "forgetfulness" appears to be a difficulty in retaining and hence remembering what is being studied (i.e., the acquisition and retention of new information), as further exemplified by Ibn al-Jazzar's use of the Aristotelian analogy of the seal that leaves no impression on frozen...


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