The three nodes in this series have actually been published now. If you want to cite, use:
C. P., 'The Historical Context of Arabic Translation, Learning, and The Libraries of Medieval Andalusia', Library History, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 73-87, July 2002.
1. A Preliminary Statement on the Inherent Textual Difficulties of Medieval Andalusia
The line between written and oral culture
, between spoken memory
woven into a cultural narrative
and codified historical document
, can be a wavering distinction even at the best of times, and certainly difficult to maintain through extended periods over a culture’s shifting story of itself. In other words, what begins as myth can frequently end up history
. This is all the more true in circumstances where a written record becomes patchwork and when the infrastructure of cultural memory wavers. The day-to-day manner of official historiography
, under tumultuous societal conditions and in an era of fierce cultural competitions, is put under great strain (or in some cases dispensed with entirely). The great events which comprise most notions of world history
- war, civil revolt, religious schism or economic upheaval - have become the enemy of its upkeep. As Michael Harris logically surmises the written record, in the form of libraries, ‘will flourish generally in those societies where economic prosperity
reigns, where the population is literate
and stable. 1
When these conditions falter or fail, the linearity of localized history, particularly the history of day-to-day life, and a people’s learning and literature in general, is seriously threatened. Political historian Frederic Jameson
reminds us, the texts of culture are vital to its sense and control of selfhood, because 'the vast majority of history is inaccessible to us except in textual form
' and 'can be appropriated only by way of prior re-textualization.' 2
Given the myriad threats to the fragile texts of history and culture, what do we make of the words which have come down to us? How do these fragile lines of communication
across the eons survive? A turn-of-the-century codicologist
, Ms. Gertrude Rawlings, marvels 'not that we have so few ancient writings in our present possession, but that we have any.' 3
Yet these are the bookish mysteries and miracles that arise from the examination of dark historical periods, those times where the textual evidence is no longer extant: victim to the decay of time, fire of conflict or cold silence of indifference. Each demon
to written history, yet as unalike as each form is in quality, all do tend to converge
on some unlucky periods, including that of the present study. Given the difficulties of direct historical reconstruction for those locales which have succumbed to a succession of disasters (as Rawlings' sentiment hints), it is often no less than astonishing historians have been able, both methodically and convincingly, to establish a chain of events using frequently scanty textual evidence. Islamic Spain
in the 11th and 12th centuries is both the matter of our present study and one such historically 'problematic' period. Though the city-centers of Cordoba
are widely accepted to have been deeply textual and literary milieus, there followed in succession two vastly disruptive events: the Christian re-conquests and crusades beginning in the late 11th century and the Papal Inquisition
s of the mid-13th century, both of which shattered the relative social stability found in Andalucia
(i.e. Moorish Spain
) for the four centuries previous.
2. A Brief Aside about Cultural Collapse and Textual Transmission
The discussion of a colony
culture (considered quite separate from its 'mother' civilization 4
) presents certain historical puzzles, particularly when that culture is eventually driven out or subsides, as colonial societies so often do. Whether an occupied area succumbs to indigenous revolutionary
by an exiled force, or withdraws from the satellite area on account of weakened support from its political homeland, its historical circumstances are unique; medieval Spain
is no exception. One society in a sense dies, while another was born. In archeologist Joseph Tainter’s comparative work on societal devolution, The Collapse of Complex Societies
, the reader is presented with no less than eleven major themes of societal collapse, namely:
1. depletion or cessation of vital resources, 2. establishment of a new resource base, 3. insurmountable catastrophe, 4. insufficient response to circumstances, 5. other complex societies, 6. invaders, 7. class conflict/societal contradiction/elite mismanagement or misbehaviour, 8. social dysfunction, 9. chance concatenation of events, 10. mystical factors and/or 11. economic factors. 5
Many of these factors came into play as the Umayyad Dynasty
in Andalusia began to crumble. Societal instability rarely bodes well for a written culture or its storehouses of writings, as the written record of medieval Spain shows. As early as 778
, the armies of Charlemagne
began to encroach on the territory of Iberian peninsula
which Arab armies had occupied for almost seventy years, and by 844
warships began to land with increasing and disruptive frequency on the coastline around the center of Seville
. However, it would not be until 1085
(Saragossa) would fall to Christian armies, and not until 1248
that the major cities of Eastern Spain would be under control of Fernando III
. Yet despite these turbulent times, there was still enough social energy and impetus on behalf of the Arab rulers to foster a rich, scholarly culture, one which drew medieval luminaries such as John of Gorse
), Gerbert d’Aurillac
, later to become Pope Sylvester II
), Daniel of Morley
), Michael the Scot
a.k.a. Michael Scotus (ca. 1220
), Raymund Martin
) and Raymund Lulli
) into its academies to study the literature and science of the Arabs. 7Peter Abelard
(ca. 1110) journeyed to Spain specifically to consult and translate into Latin an uncorrupted copy of Euclid
, which until then had been lost in the West. 6
He was soon followed by Robert of Chester
, who returning to England may have been one of the first Englishmen to reveal the new concepts of algebra
and the zero
Given the impact these figures had upon Medieval Scholasticism
and the Italian Renaissance
and that the libraries of Cordoba
alone offered up certain writings of Antiquity
to Europe, closer examination of this period’s intellectual exchange (along with the institutions and figures which fostered them) is presently needed. Some very strong claims have been made about the philosophical and scientific knowledge residing in Andalusia
during this period, with several historians going so far as to decree,
…it was chiefly from Moslem Spain that Arab culture advanced to interpenetrate the Christian culture of the early Middle Ages to produce the civilization which we inherited…between the middle of the eighth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries…the Arabic-speaking peoples were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilization throughout the world, the medium through which ancient science and philosophy were recovered, supplemented and transmitted to make possible the renaissance of Western Europe. 9
There is much truth to such a summation, as many historians seem to agree 10
, but it clearly leaves aside other well-documented repositories during the period in Italy, Gaul, Ireland, England and most significantly, Byzantium
Monastic centers in these regions had been developing their own collections since the early sixth century, and although literacy
sank to perilously low levels throughout these societies, the infrastructure of learning supported by the Church through its monasteries was a crucial conservator of many texts. Of the early Syrian monasteries of the 4-5th centuries, Diringer writes,
It is commonly believed that the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the treasures of classical antiquity, took place in the fifteenth century AD…this conception is misleading. The ‘renaissance?began in the Dark Ages with the translation of Greek works into Syrian and Arabic…the original works were known to but a few, and since then many of them have been lost. The part played by the Syrians in the east may be compared to that the Arabs and the Jews played in western Europe. 12
Not Asleep Yet? Keep Reading?
Harris, M. History of Libraries in the Western World
(London : Scarecrow, 1995), 5.
F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious : narrative as a socially symbolic act
(Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1981 ), 82; Harris concurs on p.6 (ibid.), "…libraries, well-stocked and managed, have been viewed as both a reflection of, and a tool of, the construction of a distinguished cultural identity."
Rawlings, G. The Story of Books
(New York : s. n.
, 1904), 12.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism
(New York : Vintage Books, c1994).
Tainter, J. A. The Collapse of Complex Societies
(New York : Cambridge University Press, 1990), 42.
Dannenfeldt, Karl H. "The Renaissance Humanists and the Knowledge of Arabic," Studies in the Renaissance
, v.2 (1955), 99; several of these later figures, however, had to be extremely careful about the way their academic interest in the Arab sciences was interpreted, for as early as 1150
Church authorities attributed numerous heresies, including the resurgence of the Cathar
cults, to the influence of the Arabs in Europe. This suspicion led to the Inquisitions of the early 13th century.
Imamuddin, S. M. Some aspects of the socio-economic and cultural history of Muslim Spain, 711-1492 A.D.
(Leiden : E.J. Brill, 1965), 190-191.
See Robert of Chester's Latin translation of the Algebra of al-Khowarizmi
, with an introduction, critical notes and an English version by Louis Charles Karpinski ... (London, Macmillan and Company, 1915) and Robert of Chester's redaction of Euclid's Elements, the so-called Adelard II version
,edited by H.L. Busard (Boston : Birkhser, 1992). Al-Khow'izmi (750-847), was of particular significant to the West insomuch as it was his works (translated in Cordoba
by Robert of Chester
under the title Algebra et Almucaba
) gave Europe, along with the zero
, the decimal
system as well, and so the means to replace Roman numerals
with the Arabic numeral
. This new mathematical system quickly revolutionized scientific and commercial computation.
Hitti, P. K. History of the Arabs
4th ed. (London, 1949), 212.
J. M. Roberts, in his History of the World
(NY: Penguin, 1985), states (333), "Arab Spain was of enormous importance to Europe, a door to the learning and science of the East" while R. N. Stromberg states, ‘contact with the intellectual riches discovered in Arabic Spain was of the highest importance as scholars flocked there from England, France, Germany and Italy, to read and translate the dazzling books of Aristotle
and others…the long night had ended…’, from History of Western Civilization
(1969), 155; Harris says, ‘without the knowledge gained from the Moslem world, it is likely the cultural development of modern Europe would have been considerably inhibited…‘, 86.
One of the motives behind the sack of Constantinople
, ostensibly one of their 'own' cities, by the European Christians during the Fourth Crusade
seems to have been at the urging of Venetian
merchants, who willingly portrayed the Emperor there as being held captive (which he was not). The motives included the elimination of commercial and naval competition, and the 'recovery' of booty
(including books, tapestries, relics and wine) though by all contemporaneous accounts the Frankish and Teutonic armies seem to have destroyed far more than they bothered to carry off after their three day frenzy, "memorable in the history of looting
" inside the city during mid-April 1204
. One historian called the siege "one massive furtum sacrum
"(sacred theft). This leads one to wonder how many books might have been left to help fuel the Renaissance. As Montague Reginald James notes, "we cannot doubt that the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders
was, in its obliteration of works of art and literature, far more disastrous than the capture of the city by the Turks in 1453
." See M.R. James, The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts
(NY: McMillan, 1919), 15; Morris Bishop’s Horizon Book of the Middle Ages (Toronto : McLennan and Stewart, 1968), 83-84, and Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades
(London: Athlone, 1987), 127-129.
David Diringer, The Book Before Printing : Ancient, Medieval and Oriental
(NY: Dover, 1982), 302.