Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge (2019)

This fascinating book begins by introducing the work of three ancient writers on scientific subjects, Euclid on geometry, Galen on medicine, and Ptolemy on astronomy, and goes on to show how their works were transmitted in subsequent centuries. We pass from Alexandria, where these scholars wrote, to Baghdad, where their works were translated into Arabic; Cordoba, where Arab learning derived from the Greeks flourished; Toledo, where the Arabic translations of Greek texts began to be retranslated into Latin; Salerno, where medical texts became available; Palermo, where texts were translated into Latin directly from the original Greek; and Venice, where the translations found their way into print. The many copies of books printing made possible meant that the courses of transmission, sometimes fragile, by way of manuscripts described by Moller were no longer necessary, and in a final chapter she surveys the subsequent fortunes of the ideas of her three authors. Galen’s concepts were refuted by Vesalius on the basis of dissection, and Ptolemy’s understanding of the earth being at the centre of the universe was overthrown by Copernicus, whose observations led him to place the sun there. Euclid, on the other hand, fared much better.

It was a wonderful idea to structure the book along the lines of a travelogue. We are transported to one exotic place after another, all of them beguilingly described. In Cordoba, for instance, ‘scrupulously clean streets were lit with lanterns at night, the scent of delicious food and fragrant spices filled the bazaars, while water flowed through the irrigation system into countless fountains in the shady courtyards of Cordoban houses.’ Such writing took me back to the rainy and cold day when, a research student in the north of England, I pulled off the library shelves a copy of Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, and found myself a long way away. But there is always more to be said, and perhaps two comments could be made about the arguments advanced in this book.

I miss serious engagement with the thought of Byzantium, which emerges as significant only towards the end of Moller’s study, where it is a source for manuscripts taken to Italy by emigres from Constantinople after the capture of that city by Turks in 1453. But just as there was among the Arabs, there was a long tradition of copying and commentating on the work of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy in Constantinople. In particular, Leo the Mathematician was such an eminent student of the sciences that the calif Ma’mun invited him to join him in Baghdad, a circumstance that reveals not only ongoing competence in such fields in Byzantium but awareness of this among the Arabs. Similarly, in the tenth century the Spanish caliph al-Hakam ordered books from Constantinople, among them a text of the herbal of Dioscorides. I suspect that one of the reasons behind the early intellectual success of the Arabs was that they had the good fortune to occupy the most intellectually lively provinces of the Byzantine Empire, but their debts to its culture did not stop there.

Placed next to the intellectual liveliness of the world of Islam, the scholarly culture of contemporary western Europe in the Middle Ages cuts a poor figure, but this is a case where the obvious explanation may not be the correct one. Placed next to the intellectual liveliness of the Greeks, the scholarly culture of the contemporary Romans cuts a poor figure. Despite their enormous resources, there is scarcely any sign that the Romans took the achievements of the Greeks any further; they did little but paraphrase and summarize. In other words, the disappointing scientific culture of the Western Middle Ages simply continued what had been there before. It is tempting to blame the influence of Christianity for the backwardness of the medieval West, and Moller’s enthusiastic references to the work of Catherine Nixey gesture towards such an interpretation. But, to refer to no higher a source, a quick glance at the Wikipedia article on her book The Darkening Age should be enough to dispel any notion that such a line is free of difficulty. I think it was Theodore Mommsen who said that the true pupils of the Greeks were not the Romans but the Arabs, and if we accept the central thesis of Moller’s most welcome book we are well on the way to exonerating the scholars of medieval times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *