Arabic and Persian plant names in the Codex Vindobonensis | Curator of Botany

The Codex Vindobonenis is a Byzantine compendium of pharmaceutical knowledge produced in around 512 C.E.. In this blog, Hanouf Al-Alawi and botany curator John Hunnex discuss their recent project examining the overlooked Arabic and Persian annotations on the plant descriptions included in the work.

Folio 26v. Asphodelus ramosus L. The plant is illustrated along with its name in Greek uncial, text in Greek miniscule and additions in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

The Codex Vindobonensis or ‘Vienna, Osterrechische Nationalbibliothek. Cod. Med. Gr. 1.’ is as the name suggests, held in the National Library of Austria. It is thought to have been produced in around 512 C.E. in what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul) for the generous Roman aristocrat Juliana Anicia, For convenience sake hereon the codex will be referred as the Juliana.

The Juliana is a compendium of much of the pharmaceutical knowledge of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds with the main section being an illustrated herbal that depicts 387 plants along with accompanying references to their medicinal uses. The Natural History Museum library holds two photographic copies, one of which was produced in 1906 and the second – a colour version – in 1970.

In this project, the Arabic and Persian plant names were documented, translated and analysed to examine correspondence with Greek names and to examine additional information the Arabic and Persian scholars had added to the manuscript. The dataset can be found here.

Following the issue of the facsimiles of the Juliana in 1906 and 1970, attempts were made to identify the plants depicted. However, until now little attention has been made to the Arabic and Persian additions that were documented as being present in 1422.

Arabic additions to folio 26v

This is perhaps the first full examination of the additions since they were made, most probably, at a point between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.

Interesting highlights to emerge are the suggestion that there may have been some knowledge of sexuality in plants in the Islamic World before there was in Europe and indications of knowledge of medicinal properties of plants that may have been forgotten.

Many of the illustrations in the Juliana may have been copied from an earlier herbal that is now lost and some plant names given in the Juliana don’t equate to the illustrations. The Arabic and Persian speaking scholars (or perhaps scholar) picked these up, they were obviously well versed in botany and not just translators or transliterators.

In total, 176 of the 375 plants illustrated and described have Arabic names added and 41 have Persian names. Additionally, for 329, the Greek name has been transliterated into Arabic of Persian.

Arabic became the international language of science for 600 years from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. This fascinating period of extensive scientific activity started with a truly ambitious idea – translating the scientific work of various cultures into one language, Arabic. This Translation Movement sought not only Greek scientific work, but also Sanskrit, Persian, Chinese, Syriac and even hieroglyphics.

The contribution of scholars from the Islamic world remained forgotten or even ignored until the 1950’s. The work of Belgian Historian of Science George Sarton[i] helped to rectify this view and now those contributions are being revisited.

[i] The Incubation of Western Culture in the Middle East. A George C. Keiser Foundation Lecture Delivered by George Sarton, Etc. ISBN: OCLC:503944630

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