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In Search of the “Book of Figures”: Medicine and Astrology in Montpellier at the Turn of the Fourteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Joseph Shatzmiller
Department of History, University of Toronto, TorontoCanada M5S 1A1
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The exchange of letters between Abba Mari of Montpellier (fl. 1300) and Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret of Barcelona (ca. 1235–1310), collected in the book Minfiat qena'ot [Zealous Offering], opens with a controversy over medical astrology. While the outcome of this controversy, the ban issued in the summer of 1305 in Barcelona against premature study of philosophy, constitutes a well-known event in Jewish history, it is not at all that clear why Abba Mari chose to attack his adversaries, the students of philosophy, by raising the issue of their alleged medical-astrological practices. The data in his first letters to Ibn Adret hint at what might have been the extent of these practices in Montpellier of 1300 as well as who the personalities that he had in mind might have been.From the very first letter we learn that at the source of all the trouble were some Jewish physicians in Montpellier–the name of Isaac de Lattes is specifically mentioned–who employed an astrological talisman which was supposed to bring relief to an ailing right kidney. To his great astonishment, Abba Mari came to learn in about the year 1300 that Ibn Adret was not ready to condemn such a practice and that he actually approved of it, while Abba Mari considered it to be straightforward idolatry.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1982

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1. Abba Mari Moses bar Joseph, Sefer Minhat qena'ot(Pressburg, 1838). There is no translation of the letters into any European languageGoogle Scholar. However, in Renan, Ernest and Adolph Neubauer, Les Rabbins français du commencement du qualorzième siècle(Paris, 1877), pp. 647695Google Scholar, there is a comprehensive summary of each of these letters. On the controversy of 1303–1306, see, among others, Baer, Yitzhak, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1971), 1: 289305Google Scholar; Saracheck, Joseph, Faith and Reason(Williamsport, Pa., 1935), pp. 195264; Charles Touati, “La Controverse de 1303–1306 autour des études philosophiques et scientifiques,” Revue des études juives127 (1968): 21–37.Google Scholar

2. Minhat qena'ot, no. 5, p. 32. Abba Mari reports to Ibn Adret: “All the authorities here are inclined to ban [the talisman] including the honorable Master Isaac de Lattes who produced and conceived this figure. He said to us: 'It is true that I made this figure although it is forbidden to do it in my opinion. But what can I do if the great master Ibn Adret permittedIn Ibn Adret's Responsawe have what is in all probability the first answer the sage of Barcelona sent to Montpellier concerning the “figure of the Leo controversy.” See Solomon Ibn Adret's Responsa, 1vols. (B'nai Brak, 1958), 1: 61–62. It is my conjecture that it was in response to a letter by Isaac de Lattes. In the Bodley Library of Oxford see Adolph Neubauer's Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in the College Libraries of Oxford, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1886, 1906), 1: 731–33, no. 2133 (Marsh. 347 [Uri 422]). and 1: 740–42, no. 2142 (Laud. 113 [Uri 496]), there are listed two short medical works by Isaac de Lattes.

3. Minhat qena'ot, no. 1, p. 21.

4. Ibid, no. 5, pp. 33 and 36. See below for full translations of these statements.

5. Ibn Adret, Responsa, 1:61, no. 167. See also note 32 below.

6. Minhat qena'ot, no. 5, p. 37.

7. See the data gathered in my article, “Contacts et échanges entre savants juifs et Chrétiens de Montpellier vers 1300,” Cahiers de Fanjeaux12 (1977): 337–44 and David Romano, “La Transmission des sciences arabes par les juifs de Languedoc,” Ibid, pp. 363–86. See also the next note.

8. Demaitre, Luke E., “Theory and Practice in Medical Education at the University of Montpellier in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth centuries”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 30 (1975): 103123, especially pp. 108–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9. Demaitre, Luke, Doctor Bernard de Gordon: Professor and Practioner(Toronto, 1980), pp. 1011, 67–68.Google Scholar

10. Wickersheimer, Ernest, Diclionnaire biographique des médecins en France au Moyen Age, 2 vols. (Geneva, 1979), 1: 76, 2: 640.Google Scholar

11. Demaitre, Doctor Bernard de Gordon, p. 10. In my opinion, Jacob refers to this collaboration in his Hebrew introduction stating (Ernest Renan, Les rabbins francais du commencement du quatorzième siècle[Paris 1877], p. 617): The Latin translation of this statement reads (Ibid, p. 618): “ad amicorum meorum et generaliter ad omnium utilitatem.”

12. See note 7 above.

13. See Wickersheimer, , Dictionnaire,1:40–41 and Danièlle Jacquart, Supplément au Dictionnaire(Geneva, 1979), pp. 2526; Antonio Cardoner-y-Planas, Història de la medecina a la corona d'aragó (1162–1479)(Barcelona, 1973), pp. 40–41, 50. See also note 7 above.Google Scholar

14. Thorndike, Lynn, “Date of the Translation by Armengaud Blaise of the work on the Quadrant by Profacius Judaeus”, Isis 26 (1977): 306309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. See Renan, Ernest, Les Ecrivains juifs français du XIVe siècle(Paris, 1898), pp. 403409. See also Kaftor va-ferah, ed. Abraham Moses Luncz, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1899), p. 351: “As was explained by my relative, my teacher R. Jacob ben Machir ben Tibbon” , p. 352: “I got it from my teacher, my relative” , pp. 699–700; “My relative R. Jacob ben Tibbon wrote” .Google Scholar

16. For up to date bibliography on this illustrious man, see Jacquart, Supplément(as in note 13), pp. 28–31.

17. See Carreras, Joaquin y Artau, “Arnaldo de Villanova, apologista antijudaico”, Sefarad 7 (1947): 4961.Google Scholar

18. See Steinschneider, Moritz, Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mitlelallers und die Juden als Dolmetscher(Berlin, 1893), p. 780.Google Scholar

19. See MS Escorial G-III-20, fol. 46v:

20. I owe this important piece of information to Pierre Paul, “Mémoire pour le diplome de langue et culture régionales de l'universite de Provence,” diss., 2 vols., Université d'aix, 1980, 1:4.

21. See Steinschneider, Die hebräischen Ubersetzungen, pp. 780 and 801; Renan, Les Ecrivains, pp. 655–66.

22. See Bruno Delmas, “Médailles astrologiques et talismaniques dans le Midi de la France (XI1I-XVI siècle),” 96° Congrès national des sociétés savantes archéologiques(Toulouse, 1971), pp. 437–54, especially p. 450 and also Alexandre Germain, De la médecine et des sciences occultes a Montpellier dans leurs rapports avec lastrologie et la magie(Montpellier, 1872), pp. 14–15 and p. 21 where evidence is brought on the authority of Gui de Chauliac.

23. Heinrich Finke, Aus den Tagen Bonifaz VIII(Munich, 1902), pp. 205–7 and especially the document on pp. xxx and xxxi: “Dixerunt michi etiam aliqui cardinales, cum revelarentur michi predicta, quod papa etiam dixit eis, quod magister Arnaldus modo mense Julii preterito, dum sol esset in signo Leonis, fecit quendam denarium et quoddam bracale pape, que cum portaretur malum lapidis amodo non sentiret. De quo dicti cardinales valde mirati fueruntum turn de magistro, qui se talibus immiscebat, et de papa, quomodo poterat talia publicare vel etiam sustinere.”

24. See the text in Bruno Delmas's “Médailles astrologiques,” (note 22 above), pp. 450–51, note 45. The ProvenÇal text reads: “ e VII emprecios de leon empremadas en aur, e XI en coire que valon contra dolor de ronhon, majormen aquelas de l'aur” (fol. Sr).Jean Blaise adds: “et d'aquestas enprecions ieu porte alcunas a la fibla del braier et alcunas ves totas,” which Pierre Paul translates: “et de ces mèdailles moi-meme, j'en porte quelques unes à èpingle de la ceinture [du calÇon].” See also Pierre Paul (as in note 20). The well-known document was also published recently by Hauck, Diedrich, Das Kaufmannsbuch des Johan Blasi 1329–1339(Saarbruck, 1965).Google Scholar

25. See note 7 above. The De sigillisis published in many sixteenth century editions of Arnold's Opera.The Robarts Library in Toronto has the Basel edition of 1585, where it is found on pp. 2037–42. Alexandre Germain published the work in his De la médicine el des sciences occultes áMontpellier(note 22 above), pp. 15–18 following the Lyons Edition of 1509.

26. See Luke Demaitre, Doctor Bernard de Gordon, (note 9 above), p. 181 (item 37) and 194 (item 74). 1 wish to thank the Austrian National Library in Vienna and the Hessische Landesbibliothek in Wiesbaden for sending me xerox copies of these MSS, respectively Cod. Vidob. 3162, fols. 239r–241r and MS Wiesbaden 79, fols. 54r–56r. This last MS is dated, according to Demaitre's information, 1518–1520. The Vienna MS, on which I rely henceforth in my references, dates from the fifteenth century. Generally both manuscripts agree in the readings.

27. Minfiat qena'ot, no. 1, p. 21. In square brackets I present additions and better readings than the printed edition's readings according to manuscripts of Minḥat qena'otin the Vatican, fol. 16- and Parma (no. 1348), the end of no. 19. I am thankful to my friend Prof. Bernard Goldstein of Pittsburgh University for helping me with the translation of this passage:

28. Minḥat qena'ot, no. 5, p. 33. For the Hebrew text see the following page. For the sake of the translation, the above mentioned manuscripts offered some slight variants. It is note worthy that while the printed edition and MS Neophiti 12 (fol. 29) read MS Parma 1348 reads which conforms more to the Latin.

29. A microfilm of it (no. 17496) is deposited at the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the National Library, Jerusalem. I take this opportunity to thank its staff for the assistance they always extend so generously.

30. Fol. 96r

31. Responsa, 1: 145, no. 413; readings from Minḥat qena'ot, no. 3, p. 23 are added in square brackets:

32. Fol. 95v:

33. MS Vidob. 3162, fol. 239v. MS Wiesbaden 79, fol. Sirreads: “Et est opinio magistri Moyses.”

34. MS Add. 1741, fol. 95v:

35. See notably his responswnto the sages of the community of Marseilles in Qoves teshuvot ha-RaMBaM ve-'iggerotav, ed. A. L. Lichtenberg (Leipzig, 1859), fols. 24–26 and Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)(New Haven, and London, 1980), pp. 481–82.

36. Ibn Adret, Responsa, 1: 145, no. 413:

37. Responsa, 1: 61, no. 167:

38. See Aron Freiman, Union Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts and Their Location, 2vols., (New York, 1964, 1973) no. 9416: , and Moritz Steinschneider, Die hebräischen Handschriften der K. Hof und Staatsbibliothek in München(Munich, 1895), p. 177: Gershom Scholem, “Chapters from the History of Cabbalistical Literature” [Hebrew] Kiryat Sefer4 (1928): 286–327, suggests (pp. 319–20) that the talisman in MS Oxford Neubauer 1539, fol. 95 is the same as the one to be found in Jerusalem MS 8' 330, fol. 209 and might perhaps be attributed to Nahmanides. The medical personality and possible medical-astrological activity of Nahmanides is still to be studied. For the time being, see C. B. Chavel, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, His Life, Times and Works[Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1973), pp. 37–38 and notes 47, 48; David Margalith, Hakhmei Yisra'el ke-rofe'im(Jerusalem 1962), pp. 128–35 and Samuel Kottek, “Nachmanide médecin, (1174–1270),“ Revue d'histoire de la médecine hébraĺque20 (1965): 23–28. Also see Amos Funkenstein, “Nahmanides' Typological Reading of History” [Hebrew], Zion45 (1980): 35–59, especially p. 50.

39. Fol. 96v.

40. Fol. 96r-v: Garshowitz kindly checked the readings of this manuscript and made a number of helpful suggestions.

41. On the Gháyat al-hakimand the Picatrixsee David Pingree's article, ”Some of the ources of the Gháyat al-hakim,“ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes43 (1980): -15 as well as his article ”Between the Ghayaand PicatrixI: The Spanish Version,“ Journal of he Warburg and Courtauld Institutes44 (1981): 27–56.

42. Prof. Pingree kindly made me aware also of the fact that ”there are two fragmentary lanuscripts in the Adler collection in New York of a Hebrew translation of the Latin Picatrix;s date and provenance are not as yet established; nor is it known whether it contains the lermetic treatise at the end of Book II. But it is clearly a possible source for the Hebrew:xts.”

43. For a medical explanation of the possible working of the device, see the Hebrew article of David Margalith about Nahmanides as a doctor in his yakhmei Yisra'el ke-rofe'im, pp. 133–39. See also Samuel Kottek, “Le symbole du lion dans la médecine de l'antiquite et du Moyen Age,” Revue d'histoire de la médecine hébraique20 (1967): 161–68.

44. See especially Responsa, 1: 145, no. 413, such statements as: