Understanding history through translation – a glimpse at Medieval Ireland's medical knowledge

by OFER TIROSH 12/06/2019

Translations of ancient texts can provide fascinating insights into years gone by, not just as a result of the translations themselves, but also thanks to when and where they date back to. A recent discovery of two pages of calfskin vellum provide a wonderful example of this, as the medical translation proves a direct connection between Medieval Ireland and the Islamic world. 

The Canon of Medicine

Persian physician Ibn Sīnā’s five-volume Canon of Medicine was a hugely influential work in the Middle East when it was written in the 11th century. The vast medical encyclopedia listed everything from basic principles of medicine to some 800 drugs that could be used to treat various diseases and aliments. It remained a cornerstone of the medical world until the 17th century, such was its depth. 

The Canon of Medicine’s influence spread across the Middle East and into Europe. References to it have cropped up in Irish texts from the Medieval period before now, but it was only recently that proof was found that Ibn Sīnā’s work had been translated into Irish. 

A hidden translation 

The two pages of the Medieval Irish version of the Canon of Medicine were found stitched into a Latin book on local administration and are believed to have been there for the last 500 years. The same Cornish family has owned the book for generations, but the discovery was only made when the current generation queried why two strange pages were stitched into the original work. 

This query led to the eventual identification of an Irish translation of Ibn Sīnā’s work, thanks to analysis by Pádraig Ó Macháin, professor of modern Irish at the University of Cork, and Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, an Irish medical text expert at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 

A glimpse of the past 

Translations such as this provide us with unique opportunities to look into the past and understand more about the medical, social and other interactions between our ancestors and their counterparts in other countries. Ireland is a particularly interesting example, as medical schools at the time taught in Irish, rather than Latin (unlike most of the rest of Europe). As such, Ireland built up a unique collection of medical texts including, it is now known for certain, the Canon of Medicine. 

The University of Cork’s Pádraig Ó Macháin observes that, 

“This is an example of learning in its purest form, it transcends all boundaries, it transcends cultures and religions, it unites us all in a way that other things divide us.” 

The power of translation

The discovery certainly highlights the value of knowledge and its capacity to spread around the world, even into centres of learning in countries that, according to Ó Macháin, were very much pre-urban. It’s a concept that can seem strange in our modern era when we take everything from printed materials and audio books to computers and the internet for granted on a daily basis. 

It shows how important translation was in spreading knowledge and learning from one country to another for the betterment of all humankind. It’s a legacy that continues to this day, with medical translation still responsible for spreading discoveries of new drugs and methods of treatment from one region of the globe to another, although the internet does mean that the process is now somewhat faster! 

We’ve seen this in action recently, with the UAE undertaking a huge translation project to nurture a new generation of scientists and mathematicians across the Arab world through the product of more than 5,000 video tutorials and more than 11,000 words of translated educational content. 

Final thoughts

Translation has for thousands of years helped to spread knowledge around the globe. Even now, it’s helping us to understand how that world worked and how we got to where we are today. 

What other examples are there of discoveries of translations revealing ancient insights like this? Please leave a comment to share your input. 
 

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