The trajectory of "The Canon of Medicine" Lesson 16 - Shahrzad Irannejad

In manuscript cultures textual knowledge was transmitted over centuries by the copying labour of generations of scribes. During this process of transmission texts were often affected by damage or by the deliberate or inadvertent interventions of scribes (see lesson 14 on scribal errors) and this would in turn affect the next copy. On the other hand, readers, owners and students left traces of their engagement with the codex in various places. One genre of textual criticism strives to reverse the process of the transmission of a text, to produce a text as close as possible to that which the author may originally have intended, i.e. the archetype. This lesson will give an example of what different types of notes, specifically notes of purchase and engagement, can teach us about the trajectory of a codex.

Stemma: the way back to an archetype
Sometimes the producer of a critical or diplomatic edition can work from a holograph or an autograph. Most often, however, such manuscripts are not extant. In those cases, the first step to an edition is to establish the relationships of various manuscripts of the work to one another. The next step is to choose which manuscripts should be used for a collation, and with what priority. The relationship between various manuscripts is represented in the form of a family tree or stemma. In other words (paraphrasing Witkam 1988), the stemma is the path along which the philologist tries to find the way back to the archetype.

The construction of a stemma relies primarily on identifying “significant variants” in various manuscripts of the same work. These variants are the result of "significant" scribal errors, i.e. not the common mistakes individual scribes are likely to make independently of each other - "significant variants" introduce a material change in the text, and if that variation appears across different copies, it can be assumed that those manuscripts are related to each other. One copyist makes an error, and if that same error appears in later manuscripts, we can tell that they were very likely copied from that original erroneous manuscript.

About this manuscript

Title: Al-qānūn fī'l-ṭibb

Classmark: Or. 7

Subject: Medicine

Author: Ibn Sīnā, al-Ḥusain b. ʿAbd Allāh (d. 428/1037).

Format: Codex

Extent: 348 folia, 330 x 200 mm.

Date of creation: Before 1475 CE (see lesson)

Language(s): Arabic

Script: Naskh

A highly influential medical encyclopedia
The Canon of Medicine (al-qānūn fī'l-ibb) is a medical encyclopedia in five books, covering the various aspects of the art of medicine of its time from A to Z, written by the polymath Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusain b. ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Sīnā (or "Avicenna", 370/980-428/1037). It has been so influential that it can serve to periodize the history of medicine as that before and after it being written (Pormann 2013, 91). Manuscripts containing parts of or the entire work were enthusiastically manufactured, copied, purchased, and engaged with over centuries; therefore, unsurprisingly, a huge number of manuscript witnesses of this work are extant today. The Arabic text of The Canon was first published in print in Rome in 1593, but the print edition conventionally in use is that of Cairo, Būlāq 1294/1877, in three volumes.

Or. 7, here in the viewer, contains the entire third book of The Canon, which is dedicated to a list of diseases specific to every organ, presented from head to toe.

Physical characteristics
Or. 7 is a hefty codex, which was carefully manufactured, intensively used and carefully restored throughout its trajectory. There is no title on the title page, the short title (كتاب الثالث من القانون) is given after the basmala and in the colophon. The author and the scribe are nowhere mentioned, but that is not surprising for a volume which was planned as the third in a series of five.

The main text is written in a neat, clear naskh, with a brown ink (iron gall ink, ḥibr) on oriental paper. The headings are registered with red ink (which becomes inconsistent after f315r), and there are red and black overlines. Some folia show traces of the use of a mistara, see for instance f 10v. The codex has a full leather cover with blind tooling of two central almonds on each side. There is sewing at six stations. The quires seem resewn and the codex rebound, with a pastedown of European paper. Two folia (299 and 340), with text written in a different hand and with different ink, seem to have been added later. There is also other evidence of rebinding and restoration: some folia are re-attached, there are paper repairs, and the paper has been trimmed. There are no catchwords, and no quire numbers (see lesson 3), but that may be the result of trimming of the paper.

The quality of the manufacture of Or. 7, and the clarity of the hand make this codex a strong candidate in a future critical edition of the Qanūn fī’l-ṭibb.

Apart from the main text (on ff 4v to 343r), the manuscript abounds in all sorts of notes which are interesting from codicological and philological perspectives. Five blank extra folia at the end as well the title page and pages before it contain miscellaneous notes such as a purchase note, recipes, fā’ida and an attempt at a table of contents.

Notes and codicology
Throughout the manuscript, there is extensive evidence of engagement with the text itself: there are correction notes in the margins, both in the same hand and ink as that of the main text and in different hands and black ink; the correction signal صح can be seen in both brown and black ink and in different hands; diacritics have been added with black ink. The notes reveal how readers read and searched the text, how they engaged with it and probably used it as learning material. There are comparison and collation notes (f 4r), notes clarifying difficult vocabulary (f 257v حواري ), comments (f 13v) and questions (f 258v: ما اوزانها وقدر شربتها).

Furthermore, readers have sometimes retraced with black ink passages they deemed almost illegible, and they added diacritics to difficult words. Note that this happened for instance on f 38r and compare f 270r and f 270v. The repairs show us, on the one hand, how the text was read. On the other hand, they have consequences for how we now read the text, as it is sometimes difficult to discern whose text we are reading, that of the original scribe or of a later reader.

Or 7 margin saved at trimming
A marginal note (by the scribe?) was saved when pages were trimmed (f15r)

The marginal notes are such an integral part of this codex that keepers of the book have sometimes spared them when they had the pages trimmed. This happened for instance with folium 15 where a few centimeters in the middle of the outer edge were saved from the knife to spare notes on both sides.

Notes and dating
The many notes will also have a role to play in all the stages towards a critical edition (i.e. recension, examination and emendation). A major factor in the evaluation of a manuscript and its possible place in a stemmatic scheme is the date of its production. According to the catalogue, there is “no indication of date” with regard to Or. 7. However, there is an elaborate purchase note on the supposed title page (f 4r) of this codex. It mentions the name of the buyer, the place where the purchase was made, the price and the date 878 AH. Although there is no date in the colophon of this manuscript, this date in a purchase note can act as a terminus ante quem, i.e. the date before which the manuscript must have been made, which could help situate it along the stemma. Furthermore, a few of the engagement notes cite sources; for instance a note on f 52r cites شرح موجز for the description it has provided. The date of the creation of this work, probably by Ibn an-Nafīs (d. 687 AH), can act as a terminus post quem for this set of engagement notes. It means that the codex was read after 687/1288 and was produced not later than 878/1475.

Notes and stemma
The construction of a stemma, which relies on significant variants, may also be informed by the notes and the later engagements with this codex. On the one hand, some notes are testimonies to a comparison between the text of this manuscript and other manuscripts, which might or might not be extant today. In any case, if some of these comparison notes contain significant variants, the compared manuscripts might end up in the stemma of The Canon of Medicine. On the other hand, the later engagement of the readers with the text, i.e. going over with black ink over the original brown ink, would affect how the philologist would read the text today. For instance, fol. 4b line 14 could contain a significant variant (قليلا vs. فليلا ), depending on how we read it beyond the intervention by the black ink. The way one reads this variant would also affect the interpretation of a rather controversial passage. This passage aims to reconcile Galen’s encephalocentrism (the idea that the brain is the seat of the mind) with Aristotle’s cardiocentrism (the heart is the seat of the mind).

Further reading

Reynolds, L. D., and N. G. Wilson. Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1991, Chapter Six, Textual Criticism, 207-241.

Rosenthal, F. The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship. Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1947.

Witkam, J. J., 'Establishing the Stemma, Fact or Fiction?' Manuscripts of the Middle East 3 (1988): 88–101.


  1. Inspect the marginal note on folio 31a closely. Is it a later addition or is it the original scribe’s correction?

  2. Inspect the marginal notes on 220a, 263a. How many hands can you detect? Can you detect a citation in one of the notes?


  1. How can the dating of this manuscript and the later engagements with it help us situate this manuscript in the stemma of The Canon of Medicine?

  2. Transcribe the first ten lines of the first page of the text (fol. 4b), which is about the usefulness of the head. Decide which readings represent what the original scribe had intended, and which are the result of later engagements with the text. Make a diplomatic edition of this passage, integrating the marginal notes to the extent possible.