The Transmission of Arabic Science to Europe

views updated

The Transmission of Arabic Science to Europe


After centuries of struggling to preserve the most basic elements of scholarship and literacy, in the tenth century European scholars became aware of the vast storehouse of knowledge held in the Islamic world. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, much of this Arabic knowledge, including earlier Greek works of science, medicine, and philosophy, was translated into Latin and transmitted to European centers of learning.


Beginning with the Crusades, European scholars learned of the advanced state of Arabic scholarship and the impressive collections of Greek works held within Islamic lands. Works by Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), Hippocrates (460?-377? b.c.), and Ptolemy (second century a.d.), unknown in Europe for centuries, had been carefully preserved, studied, and enhanced by Islamic scholars. In particular, Islamic studies of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine far exceeded anything known in Europe at the time.

In the eleventh century, Europe was on the verge of a cultural and economic revival. Important among the many causes of the revival were the end of Viking and Magyar invasions and the growth of strong monarchies. The resulting stability led to a growth of commerce, increased affluence, rapid population increase, and the birth of cities. Urbanization provided a centralization of wealth that encouraged the growth of schools and intellectual culture. Economic and social stability allowed money and time to be spent on leisure activities such as scholarship. The new urban schools, out of which eventually grew colleges and universities, sought to recover and master the Latin and Greek classics, and therefore provided a market and eager audience for translations of the newly discovered Arabic works.


In the eleventh through thirteenth centuries there were three main geographical areas in which contact between the Islamic world and the Latin world allowed for the transmission of knowledge from one culture to the other: Spain, southern Italy and Sicily, and the area encompassing the Holy Land. Spain was by far the most important of the three for its role in the direct transmission of Arabic knowledge into Latin Christendom. While some copies of Arabic works were brought to Europe by the crusaders, Italian traders, and ambassadors, the most important role played by Italy and the Middle East was to awaken European scholars to the intellectual riches of the Islamic empires. Stories told by crusaders and traders filled European scholars with wonder and pointed them in the direction of the Islamic world.

The place to go was Spain. Most of Spain had been under Islamic rule since the eighth century. For several centuries Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted peacefully under Islamic rule, and Arabic scholarship flourished in the eleventh and twelfth centuries under the Umayyad dynasty. Bilingual and multilingual Spanish scholars facilitated the translation of Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin. However, it was not only native Spaniards who produced translations, but foreign scholars as well who came to Spain, learned Arabic, and took their translations back to their homelands. As early as 967 the scholar Gerbert crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain to study Arabic mathematics. What began as a trickle turned into a flood as the Christian reconquest of Spain during the eleventh and twelfth centuries allowed Arabic centers of culture and libraries of Arabic books to come into Christian hands. Toledo, the cultural center of Spain, fell to the Christians in 1085 and its intellectual riches attracted scholars from as far away as Wales and Scandinavia.

The greatest of all the translators was Gerard of Cremona (1114?-1187). Around 1140 he traveled from northern Italy to Spain in search of Ptolemy's Almagest, which he had learned about but had been unable to locate elsewhere. He found a copy in Toledo and learned Arabic in order to translate it into Latin. While there, he became aware of numerous Arabic texts on many other subjects and he devoted the next 30 or 40 years to translating this corpus into Latin. He produced an astonishing number of books, between 70 and 80, including over a dozen astronomical works, 17 treatises on mathematics and optics, many works of natural philosophy, and 24 medical works. Among these translations were many great and important works, such as Euclid's (330?-260? b.c.) Elements, al-Khwarismi's (780?-850?) Algebra, Aristotle's Physics, On the Heavens, and On Generation and Corruption, and Ibn Sina's (980-1037) Canon of Medicine. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the skill with which Gerard rendered these works into Latin. Often translators resorted to literal word-for-word replacement from Arabic into Latin, which resulted in nonsensical sentences and mangled meanings. Gerard, however, had such a good command of the languages and a clear understanding of the subject matter that he was able to produce translations that were true to the original meaning and nuances of the Arabic works.

While Italy was much less important than Spain in the translation activity from Arabic into Latin, its role in the accumulation of knowledge was not insignificant. Southern Italy and Sicily were important both for the translation activity of Constantine the African in Salerno in the eleventh century and especially for the translations directly into Latin of Greek works during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There had always been Greek-speaking communities in Italy and strong ties with the Byzantine Empire. Libraries of Greek works were rediscovered and translators such as James of Venice (c. 1140) and William of Moerbeke (c. 1270) attempted to provide European scholars with new or revised Latin translations of Aristotle, Plato (427?-347 b.c.), Archimedes (287?-212 b.c.), and Euclid from the Greek.

The primary motivation behind the translation effort was utility. Astronomical and medical works were sought out and translated first. Medical treatises had an obvious value, and Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine was the most complete, scholarly compilation of medical knowledge to be found anywhere during the Middle Ages. Astronomy and its stepsister astrology were also very useful in the medieval world. Astrology was used in medicine, helping physicians and healers to determine the best time to perform cures and what general combination of humors (known as a complexion) a patient was likely to have based on astrological data. Astronomy was essential for calendar keeping and the prediction of celestial events. To fully understand and utilize complex astronomical and astrological works such as the Almagest, scholars also needed to translate and learn Greco-Arabic mathematical treatises. Moreover, medicine and astronomy both rested on certain philosophical underpinnings found in Aristotle and other Greek metaphysicians. Thus, translators who sought medical and astronomical works also found themselves delving into the natural philosophy and metaphysics of the Greeks and their Arabic commentators. At the core was Aristotle, and in Aristotle European scholars found a powerful system of logic and philosophy that could be utilized in any branch of scholarship.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, the flood of translation had slowed again to a trickle, as most of the Greek and Arabic philosophical and scientific works were by then available in Latin at the various European centers of learning. Throughout the next century and a half gaps in the translations were filled and the new learning spread to the farthest reaches of Latin Christendom, where it was incorporated into, or inspired, new educational institutions. It was at these universities and schools that the final phase of assimilation occurred, as the influx of Greco-Arabic knowledge became absorbed and institutionalized in Latin Christian theology, thought, and scholarship.


Further Reading

Benson, Robert L., and Giles Constable, eds. Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Burnett, Charles S.F. "Translation and Translators, Western European." In Vol. 12 of Dictionary of the Middle Ages, edited by Joseph R. Strayer, 136-42. New York: Scribner, 1982-1989.

Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Lindberg, David C. "The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West." In Science in the Middle Ages, edited by David C. Lindberg, 52-90. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

About this article

The Transmission of Arabic Science to Europe

Updated About content Print Article Share Article


The Transmission of Arabic Science to Europe