The Jewish Physician in Medieval Iberia: New Directions

The Jewish Physician in Medieval Iberia: New Directions

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The Jewish Physician in Medieval Iberia: New Directions

By Maud Kozodoy

Paper given at the 2010 Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (2010)

Introduction: Archival work by social historians like Michael McVaugh and Joseph Shatzmiller has demonstrated the vastly disproportionate number of medical professionals among the Jewish minority in late medieval Castile, the Crown of Aragon, and Provence. In the early fourteenth century, Jews made up a third of all doctors listed in the archives of Barcelona, a city whose Jewish population stood at approximately 5% of the total and this proportion was not unusual. It has been estimated that after the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, 20-30% of the medical professionals serving the Christian community in Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, and Majorca were Jews. Next to money-lending, medicine was the most common form of employment for Jews.

But archives do not tell the whole story. Much can be gleaned from the hundreds of medical manuscripts from medieval Iberia and Provence remaining in libraries around the world. Most are still unedited and unpublished, even those as significant as Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine in its Hebrew versions. Nevertheless, in recent years, thanks to scholars like Gerrit Bos, Lola Ferre, Gad Freudenthal, the late Luís García-Ballester, and Tzvi Langermann, among many others, important texts have been identified, catalogued, and described, works have been published in their original languages and in translation, linguistic studies have been undertaken, and some thematic issues have been explored. Despite the remaining lacunae, we now know far more about what it meant to be a Jewish physician in medieval Iberia, what sorts of medical knowledge were valued, the significance of Arabic and the Occitan/Catalan vernaculars in the transmission of this knowledge, and something of the degree to which practicing physicians were familiar with Latin. We are thus in a far better position to capture the range and characteristics of those Jews who engaged in medical practice in medieval Iberia.

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