Portion of Ibn Sīna’s Canon of Medicine folded into medieval text

Irish Translation of Ibn Sīna Medical Text Discovered in Medieval Book Binding


A recent discovery is demonstrating the influence of Islamic medicine on European physicians. A fragment from a book dating from the 1400s has revealed the influence of a Muslim Persian polymath on Irish doctors. This find is helping experts to have a better understanding of Ireland in the Middle Ages and the importance of Islamic works on the intellectual development of Europeans.

Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, a University College Cork’s expert in Gaelic, an ancient Celtic language still spoken today, became aware of the existence of a rare book produced in Medieval Ireland. It was in the possession of a family from Cornwall, England who have owned it for generations. There were many cultural and trade connections between Medieval Cornwall and Ireland. The Professor examined the book and found, according to the Irish Independent , “a sheet, full of text in Irish, cut from a 15th-century Irish vellum manuscript .”

The fragment of text translated from Persian polymath Ibn Sīna’s work, flattened out so it can be read. (Independent)

The fragment of text translated from Persian polymath Ibn Sīna’s work, flattened out so it can be read. ( Independent)

A Sheet of Islamic Medicine in the Bookbinding

Sections of old manuscripts were often stuffed into the spines of new books at that time, so the professor was not surprised to find a page from an old volume in the binding. In the interest of learning, the owners of the book allowed the page to be removed and it was digitized so that it could be studied. After reading the sheet, the professor was stunned as it provides evidence for cultural links between Ireland, one of the remotest parts of Medieval Europe, and the Islamic Golden Age.

The piece of manuscript in the binding was written in Medieval Gaelic and is a translation of Islamic medical work. According to the About Islam website, it is a “fragment of a translation into Irish of the ‘Canon of Medicine’ medical encyclopedia.”  The page has entries on the nature of the jaws, back, and how the nose functions.

Ibn Sīna (Avicenna). (Public Domain)

Ibn Sīna (Avicenna). ( Public Domain )

The Canon of Medicine is in five volumes and provides a complete overview of Islamic medical scholarship and even several hundred medicines. This work was the “standard medical text in the Islamic world and across Europe, and for more than six centuries the most respected medical textbook in medieval Europe ,” reports The Guardian .

The Genius of Persian Polymath Ibn Sīna

This immense medical work was written by the famous Persian polymath Ibn Sīna (980-1053 AD), who is known as Avicenna in the West. He was a self-educated genius from Central Asia who flourished in the Islamic Golden Age, a period when Muslims studied the works of Classical Greeks and others and made enormous cultural and intellectual advances.

Ibn Sīna wrote many major works on philosophy, logic, theology, astronomy, and science, which decisively influenced, not only the Muslim world but also Europe, as it slowly emerged from the Dark Ages . His ideas on medicine and his insistence on an evidence-based approach to healthcare have been enormously influential to this day.

The discovery of a translated page credited to Ibn Sīna’s work in an Irish book is a testament to the immense prestige of Islamic learning in 15th century Europe. It shows that medicine from the Muslim world was dominant in European societies at the time. Most likely the page was from an encyclopedia that was used to train doctors in Ireland.

Irish Medieval Culture

Prof Ó Macháin states that almost one in four works written in Gaelic at the time were on medical subjects. Irish doctors often went abroad to train and the work by the Persian author was probably brought back from the continent. In the 15th century, there was a class of hereditary Irish physicians whose skills were very respected and it seemed that this was in part because of their learning in Muslim medicine.

During that time, Gaelic learning and literature was being revived by powerful aristocratic patrons. The country was only nominally subject to the English crown, whose rule was confined to Dublin and its neighborhood, which was known as the ‘Pale’. Gaelic culture continued to flourish until the English victory in the Nine Years Wars (1592-1601), which ended in the colonization of much of Ireland.

Detail of illuminated script in a copy of the ‘Canon of Medicine’ by Avicenna. (Public Domain)

Detail of illuminated script in a copy of the Canon of Medicine’ by Avicenna. ( Public Domain )

The discovery of the sheet has established a link between Ireland the Muslim world. The find is also demonstrating that Ireland was much more culturally advanced than previously thought. It proves once again that Europe was indebted to Islamic science , medicine, and learning in the Middle Ages.

Top image: The rediscovered fragment of Ibn Sīna’s Canon of Medicine, folded into the binding of a later book. Source: University College Cork

By Ed Whelan

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