Latin scholars in the 12th century recognised that not all cultures are equal. They were painfully aware that with respect to science and natural philosophy, their civilisation was manifestly inferior to that of Islam. They faced an obvious choice: learn from their superiors or remain inferior forever. They chose to learn and launched a massive effort to translate as many Arabic texts into Latin as was feasible. Had they asumed that all cultures were equal, or that theirs was superior, they would have had no reason to seek out arab learning and the glorious scientific legacy that followed would not have occured.
Whatever the causes, the effects of the 12th century Renaissance were dramatic. It was a time of broad based cultural change across Europe in almost every field. The Gothic style of art developed and along with it the age of the great cathedral building. In religion, reforms occurred. The Cluniac reforms and the Cistercian reforms both originate from this period. Changes also occurred in language and literature. The vernacular became used more and more often in literature and song. Similarly, in music, in law, in education, there were new reforms going on everywhere. In the case of the history of science the most important development was the initiation of a widespread translation movement. In the Middle East one of these had occurred when Arabic culture had availed itself of Greek learning. Now it was the turn of European scholars to come into contact with and build on, the philosophical and scientific traditions of antiquity and Islam translating by their corpus from Arabic into Latin.
The earliest translations appear to have been made in Northern Spanish monasteries in the tenth century. There are manuscripts that exist now in Barcelona which came from the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees. These talk about things like the use of the astrolabe and Arabic mathematics. The texts are in Latin, so clearly the people at this monestary had availed themselves of some of the learning around them. Gerbert of Aurillac (945-1003) was a teacher, and future Pope, who went to Spain and showed a particular interest in mathematics and astronomy (an account of his life can be found in chapter 2 of God's Philosophers). There he learned how to use the astrolabe and properly introduced the instrument back to Latin Europe. He also wrote a treatise on the abacus. These 10th century translations seem to have had very little impact. They were not widely spread outside of Spain. It was only with the political and social stability of the 12th century that an extended appropriation and assimilation of Arabic learning would take place. This would happen predominantly on the Iberian Penisula.
In the 11th century, Christian forces made substantial gains into the Islamic Empire which increased awareness of Arab learning. In the year 1085, the city of Toledo was taken, capturing a large chunk of northern Spain for the Christian west. Spain provided the prime location for translations for three reasons. Firstly, there was a settled Arabic culture. Toledo had been under Islamic occupation for 375 years, Cordoba had been ruled by the Islamic empire for 500 years. The second factor which made Spain a prime location was the presence of numerous Christian communities which had been there since the Islamic conquest. These were known as Mozarabs and they produced the first translations. These native Spaniards like John of Seville were born in Arab south but moved to the Christian north and began the translations early on. Another was Hug of Santia who was patronised by the Bishop of Tarragona in the Kingdom of Aragon. The third was the ease of travel to Spain. It is a lot easier to cross the Pyrenees from France than it is to get on a boat and go to Baghdad or Cairo.
What were the motivations of the translators?. Many of them note that their activity was aimed at curing what they called the ‘poverty of the Latins’. They recognised the riches of Arabic civilisation, learning and libraries and wanted to bring them to their native Latin culture. For example, when Robert of Ketton translated the first treaties on alchemy in 1144, he writes in the preface:
‘this is because alchemy, what it is and what its goals are, are hitherto unknown to my Latin people’.
Medieval Latins readily acknowledged the superiority of Arabic intellectual culture. In fact Arabic authorship of a text became more or less a mark or guarantee of it’s quality. This was so pronounced that in the 12th and 13th century there were Latin authors trying to pass themselves off as Arabic authors by signing their texts with pseudo Arabic names. This gave them the authority of the Arabic world. The most productive of the translators was Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187), an Italian. His students wrote of him that he:
had come to a knowledge of all of this that was known to the Latins; but for love of the Almagest, which he could not find at all among the Latins, he went to Toledo; there, seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language, on order to be able to translate.
He would spend the rest of his life there in Toledo and taught his students how to translate and carry on his work. He would eventually translate over 70 books on astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicine, classical works and Arabic works. He translated six works of Aristotle, Euclid's elements and the algebra and mathematics of al-Khwārizmī. (It was hard to translate al-Khwārizmī’s name so it became Algoritmi from which the word Algorithm comes). He translated the work of Al kindi on optics and vision, Thabit ibn Quarra’s very technical treatise on Astronomy, eight books of Galen on medicine; works of alchemy by Jabir ibn Hayyan(Geber) and by the pseudo Al-Razi.
Floods of translators emerged from all parts of Europe, from England, Italy Germany and even from Slavic lands to translate works into Latin. But Spain was not the only place for this type of work. Sicily in the 12th century had a stable, multi-ethnic and trilingual culture. This was because a kingdom had been set up there by the Normans. They had conquered Sicily from the Muslims and set up a court in which the languages were Latin, Greek and Arabic. There they had a very multicultural atmosphere, for example Roger of Sicily invited Arab scholars to come and work at this court, the most famous being Al-Idrisi who was a cartographer. His maps are some of the only ones which uniformly put south at the top and north at the bottom (see the image on the right).
In the 13th century a second phase of the translation movement began and the attention turned eastwards towards the Byzantine Empire. By now the Latins had a taste for classical literature and thought it would be better to get the original sources. In some sense this was right. Translation was not the high art it could have been. The greatest translator here was William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican who lived most of his life in Greece. He was the bishop of Corinth and was encouraged by his friend St Thomas Aquinas to find better translations of Aristotle (Aquinas was unhappy with the quality of those that were in Europe at the time – many sentences were incomprehensible). William translated 50 books, including everything we have now of Aristotle. He also translated everything he could find of Archimedes.
Interestingly not much classical literature appears to have been translated in these paticular movements. Instead the focus was primarily on logic and natural philosophy which indicates there was a strong demand for these in the 12th and 13th centuries. There was some need that had to be filled by natural and philosophical works, a need fuelled by the schools started by Charlemagne’s edict. These schools developed as important centres of learning and rapidly replaced rural monastic centres as the focus of intellectual study. The educational institutions which developed in the 12th and 13th centres in turn would give rise to a peculiarly medieval institution, the university.
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