Ibn Butlan




The "Chessboards of Health" is traced back to an Arab manuscript of the High Middle Ages. The first German translation appeared in Strassbourg in 1533. The work of a second Arab physician, Ibn Gazla, dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment and healing of diseases, accidents and other ailments, was added to the work of Ibn Butlan in this edition. The third part is again written by Ibn Butlan and summarises his health rules.

Both Ibn Butlan and Ibn Gazla use a new type of representation, the table, which had previously appeared only in astronomical and legal works, but not in medical works. These "boards" are each located on the left side of the book, while the right side provides the same content as text. Ibn Butlan's dietary part contains 40 tables. Matching woodcuts are visible in a border at the lower margin of the right side of the book. The second, medical part by Ibn Gazla deals with diseases in 44 tables.


The original Arab manuscript of Ibn Butlan was never printed. It consisted exclusively of tables, which is why it received the name Takwim, which is "board" or "table" in Arabic. The first Latin translations from the 13th century seized on the title and changed it to Tacuinum. This made the work accessible to the Latin-speaking world of European scholars, among whom Arab medicine was held in high regard.

The document aroused great interest, as attested by the numerous surviving copies: 25 manuscripts and several ornately decorated codices have been found in Europe.

The Latin "Tacuinum Sanitatis" was first printed in 1531. The German translation, illustrated with woodcuts by Hans Weiditz, followed only two years later. The translator, Michael Herr, gave the work the name "Schachtafelen der Gesuntheyt" (Chessboards of Health) because the unusual presentation of the contents in tabular form reminded him of a similarly partitioned chessboard. He also played with the word "table", which, on the one hand, referred to the unusual presentation, but on the other hand was a common word for dining table and thus highlighted the nutritional advice.


Ibn Butlan (died 1066) was an Arab Christian physician and philosopher whose full name was Abu al-Hasan al-Mukhtar ibn al-Hasan ibn ‘Abdun Ibn Sa’dun ibn Butlan. He was called Elluchasem Elimithar in Europe. Ibn Butlan belonged to the Nestorian Christian tradition, whose members had been persecuted by the church of the Roman Empire for centuries. He was a scholar who was already famous in his lifetime and who expanded the canon of knowledge of that time. As a border crosser between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds, he sought harmony between the religious communities.

Ibn Butlan was born in the thriving cultural city of Baghdad where he studied and practised medicine. In February 1049, he left for Egypt and stayed in Cairo for three years. His medical debate with the Caliph of Cairo's personal physician that led to his flight from Cairo is well documented. He travelled on to Constantinople, where he recorded his experiences in the autobiographical work "The Physician's Banquet". Then he moved to Aleppo and took over the leadership of a Christian community. In 1063, Ibn Butlan worked as a hospital physician in Antioch and died in a nearby monastery in 1066.

Ibn Gazla (died 1100) was younger than Ibn Butlan and was also an Arab Christian physician-philosopher from Baghdad. In contrast to Ibn Butlan, he converted to Islam.


"Regimen sanitatis" means something like "guidelines for health". This health guide, which became its own literary genre in Europe in the 13th to the 15th centuries, focused on offering an alphabetised overview.

"Dietetics" encompassed a much wider area than the current term "diet". According to Galen's doctrine of the six "Res non naturales", the regimen regulated the six areas of life that can be deliberately influenced: Light and air (aer), food and drink (cibus et potus), movement and rest (motus et quies), sleeping and waking (somnus et vigilia), excretions (secreta et excreta) and affects (affectus animi). Regulation of these areas of life had to correspond to the influence of the heavenly bodies, as well as the respective type of individual.

Ibn Butlan's "Regimen sanitatis" does indeed teach moderation, although not hostility towards the senses. Areas of life such as body cleansing, beauty care and sexuality are discussed just as seriously as the fight against diseases.

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