chapter  12
A Context for Simon of Genoa’s Medical Dictionary (Clavis sanationis)
Medicine at the papal court in the later Middle Ages
ByPeregrine Horden
Pages 12

Among the numerous works of the great thirteenth-century polymath Ramon Llull is the prose romance Blanquerna, which has some claim to be considered the first novel in European vernacular literature. 1 Recounting how his eponymous hero becomes pope, Llull refers to ‘un escriva en Arabic’ at the papal curia, one of the great Christians of his age, seemingly a man with an international reputation for learning. It is possible that Llull was referring to Simon of Genoa. If so, it is welcome testimony. We otherwise know very little about Simon beyond what he divulges in the preface to the Clavis. He held benefices in Padua and Rouen, and became sub-deacon, chaplain, and personal physician to Pope Nicholas IV. He tells us that he travelled for almost 30 years gathering materials for his vast and magisterial glossary. He was still active in the early pontificate of Boniface VIII, completing his work before the death in 1296 of Campano of Novara, whom he thanks in the preface. And that is virtually all we know of his biography. 2 The details of Simon’s clerical career and intellectual development – including the real extent of his knowledge of Arabic – remain controversial. 3 So also do the circumstances in which the Clavis was commissioned and prepared. Was this work the fruit of Simon’s own initiative or, as seems more likely, of papal patronage? What were his sources and where did he find them, and who helped him in the endeavour beyond the local informants to whom he occasionally refers? Although the Simon Online project to study the Clavis has identified 37 or more of those sources, it is still not clear which libraries Simon used. Only one extant codex, the Laurentian Celsus (plut. 73,1), 4 has been identified as a manuscript that he read – although it is also possible that one or other of two extant Spanish witnesses to an Arabic translation of Dioscorides was among his resources. 5