Lost and found? The rediscovery of a missing Avicenna manuscript

The story of an annotated copy of Avicenna's medical writings in Hebrew translation that was thought to be lost for almost one and a half centuries and turned out to be hiding in the University of Manchester Library.

Do not think of manuscripts as mere texts. They are complex physical objects, which often bear the imprints of many generations of people who interacted with them. The Medical Manuscripts Collection of the University of Manchester Library holds a codex that speaks volumes about its users (MMM 23/2/14). It contains medical works by the Persian physician and philosopher Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, otherwise known as Avicenna (980-1037), in Hebrew translation. For centuries it was in the possession of the Ibn Sanchi family who inscribed their names into its pages.

At least three generations of the family refer to their ancestor Ephraim ben Abraham Ibn Sanchi as the scribe of the manuscript. In fact, the codex is a composite one probably copied by two people: Ephraim and a certain Isaac ha-Kohen (if I decipher the name correctly). Isaac signed his name himself, while Ephraim is only referred to by his descendants.

The two different handwritings: Isaac’s on the right, and Ephraim ibn Sanchi’s on the left; MMM/23/2/14, folios 36b-37a.

Signature of the scribe at the end of the treatise on cardiac drugs; MMM/23/2/14, folio 36b.

The book opens with the first tractate of Book II of the Canon, penned by Ephraim, on the temperament and constitution of drugs, and on the collection or preservation of herbal and other remedies (folios 1-16). It is followed by a short treatise (20 folios) on cardiac drugs (Adwiyat al-qalbīyah or Sefer ha-samim ha-leviim; folios 17-36). The last and longest section contains parts of Book IV of the Canon dealing mainly with fevers.

The Ibn Sanchi family

The manuscript is heavily annotated and one of the people who added notes in the margins was Ephraim’s son, Abraham. See for instance his extensive comments towards the beginning of Book IV on fevers, introduced by his name.

Later generations also left their mark on the manuscript. At the beginning of both books of the Canon, as well as at the very end of the codex, there are several ownership inscriptions. You find signatures by Nissim ben Abraham (the grandson of Ephraim), Judah ben Nissim (the great grandson of Ephraim), Samuel ibn Sanchi, Eliezer ibn Sanchi, and Shabtai ibn Sanchi. Some of these inscriptions have a date: the earliest is by Judah from 1610/1611 and the latest is by Eliezer from 1767/1768.

They were all very proud of having had the privilege to read the manuscript written by their ancestor. As Nissim ben Abraham puts it at the beginning of the codex:

“This is the handwriting of my grandfather the honourable Rabbi Ephraim blessed be his memory, ibn Sanchi, and I have been granted the privilege to read it. His grandson, the insignificant, Nissim ibn Sanchi” (כתיבת ידו זקני כמהר”ר אפרים ז”ל ן’ שנג’י וזכיתי לקרוא בו הצעיר נינו נסים ן’ שנג’י)

Note by Nissim ibn Sanchi; MMM 23/2/14, folio 126b.

We can find some members of the Sanchi family popping up in quite a few other documents. Ephraim’s son Abraham, the physician who annotated our manuscript, also copied manuscripts. One of the volumes he produced is a bible commentary by Zechariah ben Moses ha-Kohen, dated 1530 and today held in the National Library of Israel (Ms. Heb. 8°931). Another manuscript copied by him is the ʿEn ḳoreʾ by Joseph ben Shem Tov (London, British Library, Or 10550). We can find his colophon at the end of this latter volume, with an added line by his son, Nissim. The date of the colophon seems to be amended by Nissim, and reads Adar [5]297, that is, 1537 CE.

ʿEn ḳoreʾ by Joseph ben Shem Tov, copied by Abraham ben Ephraim ibn Sanchi; London, British Library, Or 10550, folio 69r. Credit: The British Library.

Nissim also signed his name in several other codices, for instance in a copy of the Gate of Heaven by the Spanish kabbalist and philosopher Isaac ibn Laṭif (London, British Library, Or 1102) and in a miscellaneous volume (Paris, Ms. hebr. 983).

From the Ibn Sanchis to Manchester

As I said, the last dated note in the manuscript is from 1767/8. The next information we can find in the manuscript itself is from 1877. According to a note, the Manchester Medical Society bought the manuscript in Leipzig on 5 February 1877 at the sale of the library of Georg Heinrich Pertz (1795-1876). Pertz was a German historian and the first editor of the Monumenta Gemaniae Historica, an important publication of primary sources related to medieval German history. He also served as the principal keeper of the Royal Library in Hanover and as chief librarian of the Royal Library in Berlin. Following his death in 1876, Pertz’s library went on sale (probably handled by the famous Weigel book dealer dynasty), and this is when the Manchester Medical Society acquired it. By 1877 the Society’s library had acquired a fine collection of manuscripts and early printed books. In 1930, the library was handed over to the University of Manchester, and its collection later became part of the Medical Manuscripts Collection of the University, where the manuscript is held today.

Thomas Windsor’s note on the front pastedown; The University of Manchester, Medical Manuscripts Collection, MMM 23/2/14.

Lost and found

So where was the manuscript between 1767/8 and 1877? In 1998, Myron M. Weinstein published an article on the correspondence of Dr. Abraham Ibn Sanchi preserved in a codex held in the Library of Congress, Washington (Hebr. Ms. 222). Discussing documents on the Ibn Sanchi family, Weinstein refers to the famous bibliophile Moritz Steinschneider who saw an Avicenna manuscript heavily annotated by Abraham and signed by several of his descendants, which later disappeared (“qui ubi nunc exstet nescio” says Steinschneider). It is most probable that our Avicenna copy is the same Steinschneider was talking about!

Thanks to Steinschneider, we know that this annotated copy of Avicenna was sold in 1854 by Salomo Zalman ben Jacob Netter (1801-1879) a book publisher and bookseller active in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (see Steinschneider, Catalogus Librorum Hebraeorum, volume 2, coll. 2831-2832). Who was the seller and who was the buyer? Sadly, Steinschneider does not provide these details. If our copy is indeed the missing manuscript Steinschneider and Weinstein were talking about, could it have been G.H. Pertz who purchased it from Netter is 1854?

Moritz Steinschneider on Abraham Ibn Shangi (Sanchi); Catalogus librorum hebraeorum: [in bibliotheca Bodleiana]. Volume 2, Berlin: Ad typis Friedlaender, 1860. Source: Google Books.

There is one more clue in the manuscript regarding the provenance: a description of its contents by Tobias Theodores, the Professor of European and Oriental Languages at Owens College (predecessor of the University of Manchester). The Manchester Medical Society must have asked him to provide a description. Theodores was a Prussian born linguist, a prominent member of the Jewish Reform movement and a founding member of the Reform Synagogue in Manchester. His correspondence with the also Prussian born rabbi Gustav Gottheil (member of the Synod of Leipsic in 1871 who moved from Manchester to New York in 1874) is kept in the Special Collections of the University of Manchester. Could it have been Gottheil or Theodores himself, both with German ties who drew the attention of the Medical Society to this precious manuscript and suggested its purchase?

There are many yet unanswered questions around the provenance of this codex, but it seems that we have found one of the missing pieces from this puzzle. “What has become of this manuscript?” asked Weinstein in 1998. We can now reply: it is here in the John Rylands Library, Manchester!

Further readings

Beit-Arie, Malachi. “Publication and Reproduction of Literary Texts in Medieval Jewish Civilisation: Jewish Scribality and Its Impact on the Texts Transmitted.” In Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion, ed. Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni, 234-235. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Freudenthal, Gad. “On the Biography of Rabbi Salomon Zalman Netter (1801-1879).” Alei Sefer 26-27 (2017): 257-264 [Hebrew].

Wienstein, Myron M. “The Correspondence of Dr. Abraham Ibn Sanchi.” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 20 (1998): 145-176, esp. 168 n25.

Wildermuth, Miriam. “Rediscovered: The Tobias Theodores Papers,” Rylands Blog, 6 April 2018.

Steinschneider, Moritz. Catalogus librorum hebraeorum: [in bibliotheca Bodleiana]. Volume 2, Berlin: Ad typis Friedlaender, 1860.

“Our history” on Manchester Medical Society website.

Curator of Global Manuscripts, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, specialised in Hebrew manuscripts, but enthusiastic about all book cultures.

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