Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms, vi.11: A Medieval Medical Debate on Phrenitis

In: Oriens
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This article surveys selected Arabic commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms, Book Six, aphorism 11, documenting a five century-long debate on the disease known as phrenitis. We show how this debate springs from a variant transmission of the Hippocratic lemma. The variant reading, which appears in Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s (d. 873) Arabic translation of the Aphorisms and of Galen’s (d. ca. 216) commentary on this text, clashed with Galenic theories on phrenitis. Arabic commentators formulated different theories in order to explain the problematic lemma, engaging with each other and refuting or embracing the views of earlier authors. We follow the evolution of this compelling debate on mental health and the body, paying special attention to the emergence of new ideas on phrenitis and its aetiology. We also formulate a hypothesis about the source of another variant reading of the lemma, as it appears in the commentary by Ibn Abī Ṣādiq (d. after 1068). We underscore how Arabic commentators progressively shifted their focus from the distinct aetiologies of melancholy and phrenitis to the symptoms in the affected part. We conclude that this shift in hermeneutic focus reflected an increased interest in understanding the two pathologies as mental illnesses sharing important characteristics. Finally, our article shows how medical commentaries were, for various and at times surprising reasons, venues for the re-elaboration of medical theories, as well as venues for polemic and self-promotion.

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