Constantine the African in Worcester Cathedral Library

Worcester Cathedral Library’s collection includes several manuscripts containing the works of important medical authorities, all originally translated into Latin by the eleventh-century monk known as Constantine the African. We have already mentioned Constantine’s work at Monte Cassino Abbey, translating the medical compendium Theorica Pantegni from Arabic into Latin, and how Worcester has two separate versions dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


One of Constantine’s medical texts, manuscript F.70. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Quarto manuscript Q.41 has thirteenth-century copies of other medical works originally produced by Constantine. First comes the Viaticum or Handbook for Travellers. This is followed by translations of the works of Isaac Judaeus On Urine, On Fevers, On Remedies and On Diet. Isaac Judaeus – ‘Isaac the Jew’ – was a tenth-century physician from North Africa who wrote in Arabic and is said to have lived to be 100 years old, a testament to his medical skills!

Folio manuscript F.85 has more copies of the Isaac translations and also of the Aphorisms or Sayings of the Greek physician Hippocrates, the person who formulated the famous Hippocratic Oath, the promise of faithful service that all doctors used to swear when they received their licences to practise. And there are other works in yet more Worcester manuscripts which may also be Constantine’s translations. It was said that Constantine had in his lifetime translated fifteen important medical texts that were all essential studies for medieval physicians, and Worcester has six of these among its manuscripts.

Who was this monk Constantine, and how did he come to be such an important source of medical knowledge for so many centuries afterwards? A fellow monk, Peter the Deacon, librarian at Monte Cassino, included him in his collection De Viris Illustribus or Famous Men. Constantine came from Tunis where he became a master of Arabic medical knowledge – ‘Saracen’ knowledge according to Peter. Eventually he sailed to Salerno, gained support from the Norman rulers of that kingdom, and finally was made a monk at Monte Cassino after becoming a Christian.

Little is known of Constantine’s life. Stories about him were told by various writers such as that Constantine was originally a merchant who settled at Salerno in Italy. He became ill and was amazed to discover that the people of Italy had no medical books, and followed only simple rules of medicine learned by heart. After his recovery he returned to Tunis, studied medicine and collected Arabic books on the subject. After three years he came back to Salerno bringing his collection, but some of these were lost or damaged in a storm at sea. He brought the rest to land, settled first in Salerno, then later became a monk in Monte Cassino. His work contributed greatly to the rise of Salerno as a centre of medical knowledge, and western Europe’s first medical school. For further information about Constantine’s story see, for example, Faith Wallis’ Medieval Medicine- A Reader (University of Toronto 2010), pp. 135-140.


A medieval ship. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Whatever the true story of Constantine, why did this development happen in this region of southern Italy? The crucial factor was the availability of medical manuscripts translated into Latin, the language of learning in western Europe, the old Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire and of the reconstituted Holy Roman Empire. In the eastern Byzantine half of the Roman Empire, the language of learning and religion was usually Greek, while in the extensive Muslim territories of Africa and the Middle East the language was Arabic. Moreover the classic European medical texts, Hippocrates and Galen, had been written in Greek. Arabian scholars and physicians had added greatly to the store of knowledge but in their own language. Southern Italy was uniquely placed to be in touch with all three languages. The monks of Monte Cassino and the teachers of Salerno knew that Latin was needed for their compatriots and for many other countries of the West.


A page from a polyglot Bible, including Latin, Greek and Arabic. The Book of Ecclesiasticus. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


There is another intriguing possible connection of Worcester Cathedral to Salerno and the works of Constantine. Mauger, Bishop of Worcester between 1200 and 1212, had been physician to Richard the Lionheart until the King’s death in 1199. As a physician, he could well have attended the medical school at Salerno and obtained copies of the famous Constantine manuscripts long in use there. King Richard spent six months in northern Sicily in 1190 and 1191 on his way to Holy Land in the Third Crusade. It is certainly possible that Mauger accompanied Richard and would thus not have been far from Salerno. Several of the Worcester manuscripts are described as being written in a southern European script, and some are early enough to have been in the possession of the Bishop. He may well have begun the collection that still graces the Library today.


King Richard the Lionheart. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)



Tim O’Mara














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