Constantine the African (Constantinus Africanus)

 

Little is known about Constantine, save that he was born in Africa, entered the monastery of Montecassino in southern Italy somewhere around 1060 CE, and probably died in 1087. The earliest and best accounts we have on Constantine's life appear in two works, Illustrious Men of Montecassino and Chronicle of Montecassino, both written by a writer named Peter the Deacon in the mid-twelfth century. According to Peter, Constantine was born in Carthage. When he grew to be a young man, he traveled widely as a merchant, venturing to Babylon, India, Ethiopia, and Egypt, and all the while learning the arts and sciences of these cultures from their most eminent practitioners. After thirty-nine years of travel and study, Constantine returned to Carthage, where his countrymen tried to kill him out of jealousy of his achievements. He then fled to Salerno in southern Italy, where he converted to Christianity, and thence to Montecassino to become a monk in the monastery there. During his monastic years, Constantine completed numerous translations of Arabic medical texts into Latin, some of which would become required reading in European universities in years to come. Prominent among these works was his translation of a small medical handbook for travelers called the Viaticum.

A portrait of a physician, probably meant to be
Constantine the African, from the opening initial
of a Vatican library manuscript of the Viaticum.

 


 

The Viaticum

 

The Viaticum peregrinantis is Constantine's adaptation of a medical handbook written in the tenth century by the Arabic physician Abu Ja'far Ahmad ibn Ibrahim ibn abi Khalid al-Jazzar--often called simply Ibn al-Jazzar--entitled Kitab Zad al-musafir wa-qut al-hadir, or Provisions for the Traveler and the Nourishment of the Settled.

The Arabic treatise was meant to be a small book for travelers who had no convenient access to medical care (Wack 35). It was divided into seven sections arranged by maladies affecting the body from head to foot. The discussion of 'Ishk, or passionate love, occurs in the twentieth chapter of the first book, concerning diseases of the head, and immediately follows the chapters on insomnia, frenzy, and drunkenness (35). That an entire chapter was devoted to the subject reveals how prevalent the notion of lovesickness was in Arabic medicine long before it gained similar currency in Europe.

Constantine paraphrases and summarizes the Arabic text in many instances in order to make it more accessible to a Western audience unfamiliar with Arabic medicine. He also makes some significant reworkings. In the original text, Ibn al-Jazzar relies on Galen, Zeno, Rufus of Ephesus, and numerous Arabic authorities in his diagnosis of love and its consequences (38). Constantine, however, omits all references to Arabic sources while leaving those to the Greeks and Romans. He also abridges the definition of passionate love and limits it to obsession with a person of the opposite sex, whereas the Arabic text allows for obsession with objects to fall under the rubric of 'Ishk as well (38). These alterations would characterize the European medical notion of lovesickness and distinguish it from that in the Arabic world for centuries to come.

Arabic doctors treat a patient in this image from a manuscript

of the Maqamat of the physician al-Hariri.

 

Shortly after Constantine wrote it, the Viaticum circulated widely throughout Europe's academic institutions. This is due partly to the scarcity of Arabic medical works translated into Latin and partly to the fact that Montecassino was located in an intellectual focal point, situated at the crossroads of the European, Greek, and Arabic cultures (37). The text became a seminal work in European medical curricula, and it remained the most widely read source on lovesickness until a translation of the Canon medicinae by the Arabic physician Avicenna emerged in the thirteenth century (xii). And over time, the Viaticum acquired a series of commentaries and glosses from the lectures of medieval physicians. The more notable of these glosses are included in this study.

 


 

Comments on the Text of the Viaticum

 

A few points are worth mentioning about the text of the Viaticum for the sake of specifying the precendents it sets for medical discussion of lovesickness in medieval Europe. First of all, the Arabic word for passionate love, 'Ishk, is translated into the Latin eros, and it is described both as an extreme form of pleasure and as a disease affecting the brain. This localization of love follows the Galenic tradition of couching all sensation and emotion in the brain rather than in the heart (Wack 39). Furthermore, the text recognizes love as a type of pleasurable affliction, a paradox that would effect discussion of the causes of the disease, as well as its symptoms and remedies.

Constantine cites two possible causes for lovesickness. The first is an explanation handed down by Ruphus of Ephesus, who explains the malady as the result of an imbalance of the humours and the need to expel an excessive quantity of black bile in the brain. The other possible cause is rooted in a more Platonic explanation, which accounts for lovesickness as the physical striving for a person of ideal beauty. Constantine himself takes no definite stand on the issue, but rather moves on to a subject where there is more general agreement: the symptoms.

The Viaticum describes victims of lovesickness as sickly and gaunt with sunken eyes, jaundiced skin, and suffering insomnia, anorexia, and depression. If untreated, this condition could worsen and plunge the patient into a severe, melancholic depression. Here it is interesting to note the medical link between passionate love and melancholy, a familiar equation given the many medieval artistic and literary representations of the melancholic lover.

As to the remedies for lovesickness, the Viaticum provides a range of possible treatments, most of which are intended to restore a balance between the humours. These treatments include drinking wine, listening to music, bathing, sleeping, conversing with close friends, reciting poetry, walking in bright, fragrant gardens with physically attractive people, and even having sexual intercourse with casual partners. These recommendations naturally aim at counteracting the lovesick patient's tendency to solitude and depression and include activities good for both the body and mind (41). But of all the possible treatments, indulging in wine is the most highly praised and encouraged.

 


 

The Text of the Viaticum

 

The love that is also called "eros" is a disease touching the brain. For it is a great longing with intense sexual desire and affliction of the thoughts. Whence certain philosophers say: Eros is a word signifying the greatest pleasure. For just as loyalty is the ultimate form of affection, so also eros is a certain extreme form of pleasure.

Sometimes the cause of this love is an intense natural need to expel a great excess of humors. Whence Rufus says: "Intercourse is seen to benefit those in whom black bile and frenzy reign. Feeling is returned to him and the burden of eros is removed, even if he has intercourse with those he does not love." Sometimes the cause of eros is also the contemplation of beauty. For if the soul observes a form similar to itself it goes mad, as it were, over it in order to achieve the fulfillment of its pleasure.

Since this illness has more serious consequences for the soul, that is, excessive thoughts, their eyes always become hollow [and] move quickly because of the soul's thoughts [and] worries to find and possess what they desire. Their eyelids are heavy [and] their color yellowish; this is from the motion of heat which follows upon sleeplessness. Their pulse grows hard and does not dilate naturally, nor does it keep the beat it should. If the patient sinks into thoughts, the action of the soul and body is damaged, since the body follows the soul in its action, and the soul accompanies the body in its passion. "The power of the soul," Galen says, "follows the complexion of the body." Thus if erotic lovers are not helped so that their thought is lifted and their spirit lightened, they inevitably fall into a melancholic disease. And just as they fall into a troublesome disease from excessive bodily labor, so also [they fall] into melancholy from labor of the soul.

What better helps erotic lovers so that they do not sink into excessive thoughts: temperate and fragrant wine is to be given; listening to music; conversing with dearest friends; recitation of poetry; looking at bright, sweet-smelling and fruitful gardens having clear running water; walking or amusing themselves with goodlooking women or men. "Wine," Rufus says, "is a strong medication for the sad, the timid, and erotic lovers." Galen: "Whoever first strove to press wine from the vines is to be reckoned among the most wise." Zeno said: "Just as the bitterness of lupines is removed by infusing them in water, so the harshness of my spirit is changed into sweetness after drinking wine." Again, Rufus [says]: "Not only wine, temperately drunk, relieves sadness, but indeed other similar things, like a temperate bath." Thus it happens that when certain people enter a bath they are moved to sing. Therefore certain philosophers say that sound is like the spirit and wine like the body, each of which is aided by the other. Others say that Orpheus said: "Emperors invite me to banquets so that they may take pleasure in me, [but] I delight equally in them; as I wish I am able to bend their spirits from anger to mildness, from sadness to joy, from avarice to liberality, from fear to boldness." This is the regulation of music and wine for the health of the spirit.

[The cure] is judged most perfect if good companions are gathered who are outstanding in beauty, wisdom, or morals. For it is said that pleasure is greatest in drinking wine and talking with the wise. Galen says: "Speaking with friends casts out weariness from within." It is best and most joyous if it takes place in bright, fragrant or fruit-bearing gardens. If not, let the rooms where they are to sit be clean and bright, [and] let roses and myrtle, willow, basil, and similar things be placed there. Let them avoid drunkenness and when it is fitting let them sleep. After sleep let them take pleasure in a bath with bright and temperate water and air, and do not let anything befall them that the spirit might shrink from. A certain person was asked by philosophers why a horrible man was heavier than any weight. He is said to have responded in this way: "A horrible man is a weight on the spirit alone; other weights are common to body and soul." This is the way of practicing medicine for erotic lovers.

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*All texts taken from:

Wack, Mary Frances. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and its Commentaries.

Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1990.


Sources:

Heffernan, Carol Falvo. The Melancholy Muse: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Early Medicine. Pittsburgh: Duquesne U P, 1995.

Lowes, John Livingston. "The Loveres Maladye of Hereos." Modern Philology 11: 4 (1914): 491-546.

Wack, Mary Frances. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and Its Commentaries. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1990.


This page is part of a project created in May 1998 by Carey Smith, Aaron Welborn, and K. Braden Phillips for Dr. Susan Hagen's Chaucer course (EH 350) at Birmingham-Southern College.