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Recovering Ancient Texts

Recovering Ancient Texts


Arab Preservation of Learning. One of the positive outcomes of the Crusades was the new cultural interaction among the worlds of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Because most educated Romans read Greek as well as Latin, many ancient Greek philosophical works were never translated into Latin, and in the chaos that followed the fall of Rome many Greek texts were lost to the Latin West. They survived in the East, however, and many were translated into Arabic. Beginning in the early twelfth century, through exchanges with Jewish and Islamic scholars, western Christian scholars in Spain, Sicily, Antioch, and Tripoli came to know about all the works of Aristotle, which had survived in Arabic-language translations, and they discovered manuscripts in the original Greek as well. Furthermore, they discovered ancient scientific texts, such as Claudius Ptolemy’s first-century Almagest (Great Mathematical Synthesis, a name acquired from the Arabic versions) in the Kingdom of Sicily. Other texts, in both Arabic and Greek, were also found and examined.

Translators. As scholars began the task of translating these works into Latin, they launched a major revival of learning in western Europe. Early translators, such as the Englishman Robert of Chester and Herman of Carinthia (in modern Austria and Slovenia), dealt with texts in astrology. In the Spanish city of Toledo many Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars interacted. One of the significant translators working in Spain was John of Seville and Limia, who translated Arabic works on mathematics, astronomy, meterology, medicine, and occasionally philosophy. The major translators of philosophical works include the Italians Gerard of Cremona and James of Venice, Michael the Scot, Herman the German, and especially in the thirteenth century, the Belgian William of Moerbecke who translated Aristotle from Greek directly into Latin.

New Books for Scholars. Between 1120 and 1280 all the known works of Aristotle were made available in Latin to students in the schools of western Europe. Many scientific works—including Ptolemy’s Almagest and Optics, Euclid’s Optics, and other works of astronomy—were translated. Many English scholars went to Spain in the early twelfth century, including Adelard of Bath, Daniel of Morley, and Robert of Chester. These scholars brought books back to England, where Robert Grosseteste established a school of translators in Lincoln, which prepared a new version of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius as well as other Latin versions of Greek philosophical works. By 1249 Grosseteste had achieved a major breakthrough: he had translated a major work of Western ethics, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

The Rise of European Universities. The massive influx of works from the Arab world partially motivated a reorganization

of the educational curriculum and institutions. After the foundation of the medieval universities toward the end of the twelfth century and prior to 1255 some schools specialized in individual subjects, philosophers, or movements. For example, the University of Bologna became the center for the study of Roman law. The schools at Salerno and at Montpelier became centers for the study of medicine. Oxford and Cambridge emphasized training in logic and natural philosophy. In the thirteenth century the University of Paris became the main graduate university for theology students, but in the fourteenth century the Oxford theology curriculum gained in prestige, and European scholars began to travel to England for theological study.


A. B. Cobban, The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organization (London: Methuen, 1975).

Jacques Verger, Les universites en Moyen Age (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1973).

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