Lecture: “Like a Prometheus Stealing Fire: Constantine the African and the Transformed Landscape of Learned Medicine in Twelfth-Century Christian Europe”


Location: Medieval Institute Reading Room (715 Hesburgh Library)

Monica Green, Professor of History, Arizona State University specializes in the global history of health and medieval European history, particularly the history of medicine and the history of gender. In 2004, she was a co-winner of the Medieval Academy of America’s John Nicholas Brown Prize for Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts, and in 2009 she won the Margaret Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize, awarded by the History of Science Society for Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology.

The Arabic-into-Latin medical translator Constantine (d. before 1098-99) was portrayed by his contemporary biographers as an escapee from North Africa. Like a Promotheus stealing fire, Constantine himself speaks of the benefit Latin Christians will receive from his efforts. He never speaks of “dialogue” between Christian and Muslim, Latin and Arab. Similarly, about a century later, a Jewish translator (known only by the self-ascribed pejorative, “Doeg ha-Edomi”), translates twenty-four Latin medical works (including several of Constantine&rsuo;s) into Hebrew. He, too, speaks of the benefit to accrue to his new audience, and not of any desire for cross-confessional “dialogue.” But both translators stress the newness of their product and the hard labor of their work. This talk will survey the landscape of learned medicine in the twelfth century as it looked from the Latin perspective. Drawing on a wealth of over 500 newly identified medical manuscripts from this period, the talk will assess the degree to which the radical transformation that occurred in medicine in this period was a deliberate embrace of novel cultural traditions, valued as “imported” in the same way many of the medicinal substances imported “from beyond the sea” were valued.