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Although history has mainly remembered the names of the authors who wrote the works and of the princes who protected them, it is important to try to reconstruct the “chains of collaboration”, to use Howard Becker’s term about the art world, and find the translators and their protectors, the copyists and bookbinders, all those who made it possible for learning to flourish, accumulate and spread.

In the tenth century, Gerbert d’Aurrillac, the Archbishop of Rheims who became Pope in 999 under the name Sylvester II, was one of the first to spread Muslim-Arab knowledge in the West, especially abacus calculation, which originally came from India. He introduced so-called “Arabic” numerals to Europe and under his influence treatises on the astrolabe were written in the West.

In the eleventh century, Constantine the African arrived in southern Italy by boat from Kairouan. Was he a merchant or a doctor? A Muslim convert to Christianity or a Christian who belonged to the small Christian community that still survived in Kairouan at that time? Constantine’s life remains something of a mystery and accounts of it differ. As soon as he arrived in Italy, he went to the monastery of Monte Casino, became a monk and, with the assistance of a small group of Benedictine scholars, began to translate into Latin numerous Arabic medical treatises, works that he had brought with him from Kairouan, mainly containing the theories of Hippocrates and Galen. These works were disseminated throughout southern Italy, notably to the School of Medicine at Salerno, which attracted students from all over Europe, and then followed the networks of men of science to the monasteries and cathedral schools in France, England and Germany. They proved decisive for the development of western medicine. The way was now open to receive all fields of learning. Everywhere in western Europe scholars began to learn Arabic and set to work in Toledo or Palermo to make the contributions of Arab philosophy and science accessible and introduce them to the Latin Christian world.

A few of these scholars have escaped anonymity, their name appearing by chance on a manuscript. Adelard of Bath was one: after studying at Tours, he went to Sicily to study Greek culture and probably learned Arabic. On his return to his native city of Bath in England, he translated a great many scientific texts from Arabic into Latin with the assistance of Pierre Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity from Aragon. Adelard was a pioneer in the dissemination of astrological works and above all, made the first full translation Euclid’s Elements, the starting-point for his famous work as a geometer. Many aspects of Aristotle’s thought interested Muslim and Christian philosophers alike and translation of his work intensified in the twelfth century.

Scholars, men of science, in many cases clerics, these men were not mere translators. Their purpose was to bring new learning into a Christian vision of the world. It is often difficult to establish the textual history of the translations or reconstruct the contacts very precisely, but there is no doubt that the main agents of transmission and dissemination of the new learning were itinerant scholars with enquiring minds who had come to learn, or the translators themselves. Catalonian libraries played an important role in the initial dissemination of Arab science in the Latin world.

It is interesting to remember that under the Abbasids translation was a very lucrative activity, very far from the image of the poor scholar sacrificing everything for his studies: “The Greek taught in Syriac schools was inadequate for the requirements of the new patrons of translation and translators therefore had to invest time and effort in learning Greek properly because translation from Greek had become a lucrative a lucrative profession … The Banû Mûsâ paid five hundred dinars a month for ‘a full-time translation’.

The Crusaders who settled in the East married eastern Christians, such as Armenians, and often adopted an eastern lifestyle, although they rarely learned Arabic, were also in their way purveyors of culture. The Crusades were a time of brutal mutual discovery by the Christian West and the Islamic East, but they should not be allowed to obscure the numerous diplomatic and above all commercial relationships forged between East and West in the Middle Ages. The most active purveyors of culture were the merchants, who helped to spread certain financial and maritime techniques in the West. The thirteenth century Pisan merchant Leonardo Fibonacci was probably the greatest mathematician of the European Middle Ages. He wrote a treatise on arithmetic, Liber abaci, and a book on geometry, Practica geometriae, for which he drew mainly on Muslim-Arab sources.

While the names of the men of science and the poets have come down to us, history has forgotten those of the master craftsmen who worked by palace walls or in royal workshops making the great many fine objects used by the sultan and his court. Coming from far and wide and of every confession, often converting to Islam when they entered the prince’s service, they contributed to the emergence of a dazzling material culture. In the palaces, where rooms did not always have a specific use but changed function with the seasons, particular attention was paid to furnishings, which were taken from one residence to another. The carpets, chests, ceramics and inlaid metal objects (basins, trays and candelabra), often bearing the name of their owner in neat calligraphy, were true works of art. In the luxurious setting of the court life of the rulers of Islam, a certain lifestyle was born that was celebrated on every possible surface in profane iconography showing hunters and their prey, musicians and dancers, diners with their goblets of wine. The Koranic prohibitions on wine and representation were deliberately ignored. This lifestyle, which exalted the wealth of the Islamic courts and the power of their rulers, made a great impression on the Crusaders.

For further reading

"Abû Ali Ibn Sîna (980-1037)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Abû Bakr Ar-Râzî (865-935)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Abû I-Qâsim Az-Zahrâwî (936-1013)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Albert le Grand", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Al-Fârâbî (vers 870-950)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham (965-1041)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Al-KindÎ (801-866)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Averroès", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Averroes et l'interprétation de la loi", Ali Benmakhlouf, Université Paris-Est Créteil

"Avicenne", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Bernard de Chartres (XIIème siècle)", Ahmed Djebbar, Université de Lille

"Gilles de Rome", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Godefroid de Fontaines", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Grégoire de Rimini", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Guillaume d'Ockham", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Henri de Gand", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Jean de Jandun", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Jean Duns Scot", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"La civilisation arabo-musulmane: textes croisés", Youssef Seddik, EHESS, Paris

"La doctrine de la connaissance sensible selon Avicenne et son influence sur la pensée latine médiévale", Meryem Sebti, CNRS

"La doctrine de la guerre d'Averroès", Maroun Aouad, CNRS

"Le cycle du savoir selon les auteurs arabes", Charles Genequand, Université de Genève

"Les disciplines historiques dans le monde musulman et en Occident", Abdessalam Cheddadi, Université de Rabat

"Les grandes figures: Al Afghani, Muhammad Abduh et Al Kawakibi", Abdennour Bidar

"Mathieu d'Acquasparta", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Mohammed Iqbal", Abdennour Bidar

"Sohrawardi et Ibn Arabî: lumières d'Orient", Ali Benmakhlouf, Université Paris-Est Créteil

"Thomas d'Aquin", Alain de Libéra, Collège de France

"Traduire et transmettre: la traduction comme moyende diffusion du savoir", Ali Benmakhlouf, Université Paris-Est Créteil