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Balādhur (Marking-nut): A Popular Medieval Drug for Strengthening memory1

  • Gerrit Bos (a1)


According to the medieval medical concept, ultimately going back to Galen, memory is a psychical faculty located in the posterior ventricle of the brain. When this faculty is affected by a disturbance of the balance of the four bodily humours, i.e., by too much moisture and/or coldness of the brain, forgetfulness will be the result. One way to treat this affliction is to restore the humoral balance by administering warm drugs. A popular but also notorious drug for forgetfulness was balādhur (Semecarpus anacardium L; marking-nut), indigenous in India, and called by the Arab physicians ‘ḥabb al-fahm’ (nut of apprehension). The popularity of the marking-nut is sometimes explained from the fact that its juice when exposed to the air turns into a black corrosive fluid which was used as an indelible ink for marking linen and woollen clothes. Another explanation is that the nut has the shape of a heart, cf. the Latin ‘anacardia’ and the Arabic epithet ‘ḥabb al-qalb’. The black, resinous, viscid and acrid juice of the nut is called ‘honey’ by the medieval physicians; it is, according to them, hot and dry in the fourth degree and is recommended for a variety of diseases, but above all forgetfulness.



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2 The name balādhur derives from Sanskrit bhallātaka, cf. Schmucker, Werner, ‘Die pflanzliche und mineralische Materia medica im Firdaus al-Ḥikma des ՙAlī ibn Sahl Rabban aṭ- Ṭabarī’ (Dissertation, University of Bonn, 1969), no. 137.

3 According to Aristotle, the heart had an important function in the production of memory, since it received all externally derived impressions and then transmitted them to the brain where this information was stored. And although, from the Alexandrians Herophilus and Erasistratus on, the brain became the centre of all neurological activities and the heart only had warmth and ‘vital spirit’, the metaphoric use of ‘heart’ for memory persisted, cf. the Latin ‘recordari’; see Carruthers, Mary, The Book of Memory (Cambridge, 1990), 4849.

4 For balādhur see Schmucker, op. cit., no. 137: ‘Semecarpus anacardium L. (Anacardiaceae), zu den Sumachgewächsen zählender Ostindischer Tintenbaum, Merkfrucht-baum; Merknuss, Elefantenlaus, Vogelherz, Malakkanuss’; Löw, Immanuel, Die Flora der Juden, 4 vols. (Vienna/Leipzig 19281934), I, 202203; Issa, Ahmed, Dictionnaire des noms des plantes en latin, français, anglais et arabe (Cairo, 1930), 166.

5 For an extensive survey see Nadkarni, K. M., Indian Materia Medica, revised and enlarged by A. K. Nadkarni, 2 vols. (repr. Bombay, 1982), I, 11191125.

6 See Sivarajan, V. V. and Balachandran, I., Ayurvedic drugs and their plant sources (New Delhi, 1994), 85.

7 Ishāq b. Ḥunayn, al-Risāla al-shāfiya fī adwiya al-nisyān, MS National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, A3; the text of three leaves (numbered 1–3) features after Ibn al-Tilmīdh's Aqrāb¯dhīn and after an additional fragment of 3 leaves of a treatise on theriacs; see Sommer, F. E. (and Schullian, Dorothy M.), A catalogue of incunabula and MSS in the Army Medical Library (New York, 1950), 297298 (Sommer ascribes it erroneously to Ḥamīr b. Isḥāq); it should be noted that while the introductory title page and the end (fol. 3) ascribe the text to Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn, the beginning of the text itself ascribes it to Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq; Hamarneh, Sami, Health sciences in early Islam, Collected Papers, ed. Anees, Munawar A., 2 vols. (Blanco, Texas, 1983), I, op. 339, remarks that ‘others have suggested that it was written by Galen and translated by Ishaq’.

8 The Arabic original is, unfortunately, sometimes very hard to read because the ink has faded away partly or completely, or because of stains. Moreover, the margins are very small, so that part of the text is missing. Luckily, the text also survives in an anonymous Hebrew translation which is extant in MS Munich 275, fols. 16b–17b, copied in 1483 by Elasar Parnas (see Steinschneider, M., Die Hebräischen Handschriften der K. Hof- und Staatsbibliothek in München (2nd revised and enlarged ed., Munich, 1895). The same translation also features in MS Munich 302, fols. 259a–260a, which was, according to Steinschneider, copied in the year 1484/5. The Hebrew translation diverges considerably from the Arabic text as far as the sequence of the different sections is concerned, and the controversy mentioned by Galen is recorded in a much more concise way. My quotation is based on the Hebrew translation.

9 De Locis Affectis, III, 7, ed. Kühn, C. G., Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, 20 vols. (Leipzig, 18211833; repr. Hildesheim, 1967), Viii, 165; transl. Siegel, R. E., Galen on the Affected Parts (Basel, 1976), 83.

10 See Alexander von Tralles, Original-Text und Übersetzung nebst einer einleitenden Abhandlung, Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Medicin, Puschmann, von Theodor, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1878, repr. Amsterdam, 1963), II, 282. The Greek term ⋯νακ⋯ρδιον is explained in Liddle-Scott, Greek-English lexicon, Supplement, 12, as: ‘upturned twig of the mulberry-tree’ (?).

11 Paul of Aegina: Paulus Aegineta, ed. Heiberg, I. L., I–II (CMG IX), (Leipzig and Berlin, 19211924), bk. VII, 11, 38 (p. 307). Unfortunately, it is impossible to identify the Theodoretus in question.

12 For a fragment on poisons preserved in an Arabic translation see my The Treatise of Ahrun on lethal drugs’, Zeitschrift für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften Vii, 1991/1992: 136171.

13 al-Rāzī, , Kitāb al-Ḥāwī fī 'l-ṭibb, vols. 1–23 (Hyderabad, 19521974), I, 150.

14 According to Dr. Lawrence I. Conrad it probably goes back to the ninth century.

15 Budge, Ernest A. Wallis, The Syriac Book of Medicines: Syrian anatomy, pathology and therapeutics in the early Middle Ages, 2 vols. (London, 1913, repr. 1976), II, 345346; 349–50.

16 See ibid., 349–50.

17 See his al-Aqrābādhīn al-saghīr (Dispensatorium parvum), ed. Kahl, O. (Leiden, 1994), Nr. 22.

18 Facsimile edition of MS Ayasofya 3564 by F. Sezgin (Frankfurt a. Main, 1985), 159–60 (new pagination).

19 Kitāb al-Jāmiՙ li-mufradāt al-adwiya wa-'l-aghdhiya, 4 parts in 2 vols. (Beirut, 1992), part 1, 154155; idem, French translation by Lucien Leclerc, 3 vols. (Paris, 1876–1883), I, 265–6.

20 Kitāb al-Ṣaydana fī l'l-ṭibb, edited with English translation by Mohammed, Hakim Said, 2 vols. (Karachi, 1973), I, 72, ho. 18.

21 Kitāb al-Qānūn fī'l-ṭibb, 5 vols. in 3 (repr. Beirut, n.d.), n, 267.

22 The abridged version of the ‘Book of Simple Drugs’ by Gregorius Abu'l-Farag (Barhebraeus), ed. by Meyerhof, M. and Sobhy, G. P., 2 vols. (Cairo, 19321937), II, 271274.

23 The work itself is lost. Fragments are quoted by al-Rāzī; see Ullmann, M., Die Medizin im Islam (Handbuch der Orientalistik, I, Ergänzungsband, Vi, 1, Leiden/Köln, 1970), 112115; Sezgin, F., Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, Band III: Medizin — Pharmazie — Zoologie — Tierheilkunde bis ca. 430 H. (Leiden, 1970), 231236.

24 One dirham is 3.125 grams; see Hinz, W., Islamische Masse und Gewichte umgerechnet ins metrische System (Handbuch der Orientalistik, I, Erganzungsband I, l, revised and enlarged ed., Leiden/Köln, 1970), 3.

25 See op. cit., note 13 above, I, 151–2; for another quotation see ibid., xx, 134.

26 MS Dresden 209, fol. 21b.

27 Firdaws al-ḥikma, ed. Siddiqi, M. Z. (Berlin, 1928), 151, 11. 10–16.

28 op. cit., note 21 above, III, 62.

29 Kitāb Kāmil al-ṣināՙa, ed. Bulaq, II, Maqāla 5, 255–6.

30 See my Ibn al-Jazzār on forgetfulness and its treatment, critical edition of the Arabic text and the Hebrew translations with commentary and translation into English (London, 1995), 42.

31 See as well Benayahu, M., ‘Al ha-balādhur ha-yefeh la-zikkaron’, Sinai, 36, 1955, 6770, and my ‘Jewish traditions on strengthening memory and Leone Modena's evaluation’, Jewish Studies Quarterly, 1995, 39–58.

32 Rosner, Fred, Medicine in the Bible and Talmud (New York, 1977), 119, states that ‘ it seems likely that he lived no earlier than the third century and no later than the seventh,’ since ‘ it does not show the slightest influence of Arabic medicine.’ The Sefer Asaph is still in MS; an extensive study and translation of sections of it has been published by Venetianer, Ludwig as ‘Asaph Judaeus der älteste medizinische Schriftsteller in Hebräischer Sprache’, Jahresberichte der Landes-Rabbinerschule in Budapest (3840), 3 parts (Budapest, 19151917); for more current research see Lieber, Elinor, ‘Asaf's Book of Medicines’, Symposium on Byzantyne medicine (Dumbarton Oaks, 1984), 233249; Newmyer, Stephen, ‘Asaph and Greco-Roman pharmaceutics’, The healing past: Pharmaceuticals in the biblical and rabbinic world, ed. Irene, and Jacob, Walter (Leiden, 1993), 107120.

33 Venetianer, op. cit., 112.

34 Moshe ben Maimon, Sammei ha-mawet we-ha-refu'ot ke-negdam, ed. Muntner, S. (Jerusalem, 1942), part 2, ch. iv, 145; English translation: idem, Treatise on poisons and their antidotes (Philadelphia, 1966), 60.

35 Löw, op. cit., note 4 above, 203.

36 MS Munich 276, fols. 11a–b; see my R. Moshe Narboni, philosopher and physician, a critical analysis of Sefer Orah Ḥayyim’, Medieval Encounters, 1/2, 1995, 219251.

37 Shevilei Emunah, ed. Warsaw (1886), 71.

38 Naḥalat Avot (Venice, 1567), 5, 12f. 81 (derived from Löw, op. cit., note 4 above, 204).

39 See Goldziher, Ignaz, ‘Muhammedanischer Aberglaube über Gedächtniskraft und Vergesslichkeit, mit Parallelen aus der jüdischen Literatur’, in Festschrift Abraham Berliner (Frankfurt am Main, 1903), 131155 (pp. 142–3).

40 ibid., 143.

41 See my Ḥayyim Vital's Kabbalah Maՙasit we-Alkhimiyah (Practical Kabbalah and Alchemy), a seventeenth century “Book of Secrets”’, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 4, 1994, 55112 (p. 78).

42 Sefer Zohar Hadash, ed. R. Margaliot (repr. Jerusalem, 1975), fol. 8b; cf. Löw, op. cit., note 4 above, 204. This work is a collection of Zoharic material found in MSS of the Kabbalists of Safed after the printing of the bulk of the Zohar.

43 See Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden, 1960ff.), I, 971972, s.v. ‘al-Balādhurī’), (C. H. Becker-[F. Rosenthal]).

44 Quoted by Ibn al-Bayṭār, op. cit., note 19 above, 1, 155, and by al-Rāzī, op. cit., note 13 above, xx, 133–4; for Abū Jurayj see Ullmann, op. cit., note 23 above, 91–2; Sezgin, op. cit., note 23 above, 208–9.

42 Fragments of this lost work survive in quotations by al-Rāzī, op. cit., note 13 above, see Ullmann, op. cit., note 23 above, 326; Sezgin, op. cit., note 23 above, 225–6.

46 One mithqāl is 4.464 grams; see Hinz, op. cit., note 24 above, 4. A similar amount is recommended by Ibn al-Jazzār in his monograph on forgetfulness and its treatment (n. 30 above); in his Zād al-musāfir, however, he recommends a dose of between half a dirham and one mithqāl, every day on an empty stomach (see note 26 above).

47 Quoted by Ibn al-Bayṭār, op. cit., note 19 above, part 1, 155.

48 Quoted by Ibn al-Baytār, ibid.

49 See my ‘Jewish traditions on strengthening memory’ (n. 31 above).

50 See op. cit., note 6 above, I, 1124–5.

51 See note 7 above.

52 For its Hebrew translation see note 8 above.

53 MS National Library of Medicine, A3, fol. 1; Hebrew translation MS Munich 275, fol. 16b.

54 See Sābūr b. Sahl, op. cit., note 17 above, Nr. 235.

55 MS National Library of Medicine, A3, fol. 4.

56 op. cit., note 30 above, 69–70.

57 The Hebrew translation (fol. 17b) reads ‘in its top’.

58 The following section is missing in the Hebrew translation.

59 MS National Library of Medicine, fol. 3.

60 The Hebrew translation reads ‘one week’.

61 Hippocrates' Aphorisms, transl. W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library, Hippocrates IV), (repr. Cambridge/Mass., 1979), 99.

62 MS National Library of Medicine, fol. 3; I thank Dr Lawrence Conrad for reading this text with me; the Hebrew translation has a different version; Galen does not take the drug himself, but orders others to take it, who as a result of this acquire much knowledge.

1 I thank Professor Vivian Nutton for reviewing an earlier draft of this paper.


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