Mont Saint-Michel or Toledo: Greek or Arabic Sources for Medieval European Culture?

In a recent book, Sylvain Gouguenheim has caused a furore in claiming that European culture owes nothing to Arabic culture. The following article by Professor Charles Burnett, an eminent scholar in the intellectual context of the Middle Ages and of the intricacies of the Arabic-Latin transmission, explains the arguments of this debate and sheds light on salient aspects of the transmission of Islamic learning to Latin Europe. Concluding that we must acknowledge both Mont St Michel and Toledo as contributors to European culture, and warning that Gouguenheim's focus on the true roots of ‘Christian Europe' runs the danger of ethnicity, that is of replacing a racial purity of blood with a textual one, he shows how both Greek and Arabic sources enriched the intellectual world of the Middle Ages and in what way Islamic culture contributed to shape Western European civilization.

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By Professor Charles Burnett*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. The controversial context of the debate
3. Academic evaluation
4. Critical evaluation
5. Conclusion

* * *

The original form of this article was delivered as a lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, on 23 October 2008. I am very grateful to Professor Jan Ziolkowski for inviting me to give the lecture, and for the comments of various members of the audience.

1. Introduction

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Figure 1: Professor Charles Burnett interviewed by FSTC, with the logo of 1001 Inventions behind him, during The First International Conference on the History of Science among Muslims and Arabs at the University of Sharjah, UAE, in March 2008.

Sylvain Gouguenheim has recently caused a furore, especially in French academic circles, in claiming that European culture owes nothing to Arabic culture, but that the successive renewals of learning of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were entirely of Greek inspiration (Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l'Europe chrétienne, published by Editions du Seuil in March 2008) [1].

The argument of his book is basically this: Greek culture was never lost in the West (a succession of popes between 685 and 752 were Greek and Syriac, Pépin the Short had Greek works sent to him, including the Rhetoric of Aristotle etc.). Christianity is Greek (the Gospels and the Church Fathers were written in Greek). Greek texts were translated into Arabic, but by Christians (especially Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who translated more than 200 works of Galen, Hippocrates etc.) and only a very small number of Arabic writers were interested in Greek philosophy, and conspicuous among them, too, were Christians. Greek culture had very little effect on Islamic society, politics and law; reason was never placed above revelation. The very structure of the Arabic language made it incapable of assimilating the structure of demonstrative reasoning (the syllogism). And the Arabic concepts of ‘reason' and ‘science', anyway, are different from those in the West. Muslim civilisation received only a ‘superficial hellenisation'. Europe, in turn, was not indebted to Islam for much-certainly not much that is essential. It was never ‘Islamicized'.

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Figure 2: Front cover of Ibn Baklarish's Book of Simples. Medical Remedies between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain, edited by Charles Burnett (Oxford University Press, 2008).

The book owes its title to supposed revelation by Gouguenheim that almost all the Greek works of Aristotle were translated into Latin at Mont St Michel by James of Venice, in the 1120s, several decades before the same works were translated from Arabic in Toledo by Gerard of Cremona in the 1170s and 1180s (p. 50). His evidence is based, first, on the testimony of Robert of Torigny, abbot of Mont St Michel from 1154 to 1186, that ‘James the cleric, of Venice, translated from Greek into Latin certain books of Aristotle and commented on them, namely the Topics, Prior and Posterior Analytics, and Sophistici Elenchi, although an older translation of the same books is extant (‘Jacobus clericus de Venecia transtulit de graeco in latinum quosdam libros Aristotelis et commentatus est, scilicet topica, analyticos priores et posteriores, et elencos, quamvis antiquior translatio super eosdem libros haberetur') [2], and secondly on the existence of early manuscripts of the Greek-Latin translations of Aristotle in the library of Mont St-Michel (now preserved in the Bibliothèque municipale of Avranches). This just proves, in Gouguenheim's eyes, that Europe owed its knowledge of the full range of Aristotle's works (the core of the philosophical curriculum) directly to the Greeks, and not to the mediation of the Arabs.

2. The controversial context of the debate

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Figure 3: Front cover of Abu Ma‘shar's The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology: Together with the Medieval Latin Translation of Adelard of Bath, edited and translated by Charles Burnett et al. (Brill, 1994).

Gouguenheim is consciously reacting against a trend in modern research (especially French research), which emphasizes that medieval culture is not just the heritage of the Classical Latin and Greek tradition, together with the Judaism of the Bible, but also of the Arabic tradition. As he writes in his preface: ‘the dark days (les âges sombres) of the Middle Ages have returned. The cultural history of Europe, however much it has been illuminated for several decades by the work of numerous medievalists, is becoming the object of revision. It is now replaced by the biased image of a Christianity which lags behind an ‘Islam of Enlightenment' (un Islam des lumières) to which it owed its rise, thanks to [3].

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Figure 4: Statue of Ibn Rushd in Cordoba (Source).

One result of this was that, for three years, the principal subject of the French agrégation (the competitive examination conducted by the State for admission to posts on the teaching staff of lycées and universities) was this Arabic/Islamic patrimony, and textbooks on this subject were written.

An author that Gouguenheim mentions prominently by name, however, as promoting the ‘Arabic' claim to an unreasonable extent is Alain de Libera (pp. 9 and 140). If one reads his La philosophie médiévale (first published in 1993, before the Council of Europe report), one will see that it covers, in equal measure, the philosophy of the Byzantine Empire, that of both Oriental and Occidental Islam, and that of the Jews, before dealing with Latin philosophy from the High Middle Ages through to the fifteenth century. But what is most telling is his introduction to twelfth-century Latin philosophy, in which he raises a paradox:

‘That which distinguishes Western Latin philosophy is not its presenting itself as the heir to the Greeks. On the contrary, in Christian lands the Western difference (difference occidentale - the emphasis is de Libera's: we may say: ‘what makes the West different') derives from the Latin-speakers' Arabic sources and roots. At the other extremity of the Christian world, Byzantium isolates itself, in continuing, alone, Hellenic ‘Romanness'. The particularity of Byzantium arises from the fact that in the 12th century, Byzantium is more western in the modern sense of the term than the Latin-speaking world: Greek-speaking, the Byzantine world remains closed to the philosophical culture of the land of Islam; its intellectual richness, its tradition, its heritage exempts it from looking elsewhere. The Latin world, on the other hand, is philosophically poor and its poverty makes it open and receptive. Once they are masters of Toledo, the Christians start to translate' [4] (and elsewhere de Libera insists that it is only when a culture is translating texts from another culture that it grows and develops - Muslim philosophy stagnated when it ceased to incorporate through translations new texts).

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Figure 5: Page from the Commentarium magnum Averrois in Aristotelis De Anima libros, the Great commentary by Ibn Rushd on Aristotle's Book of the Soul, translated into Latin from Arabic by Michael Scot. French manuscript, third quarter of the 13th century, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS (Source).

Gouguenheim takes an even more confrontational phrase of De Libera in his slightly earlier Penser au moyen âge (1991, pp. 114-6): that it is to Islam that the West owes reason and rationality, to which Gouguenheim counters that ‘the exercise of reason is universal, but the practice of demonstrative reasoning (which is crucial for the rise of modern science) was born in Greece [5].

Unfortunately, Gouguenheim gives prominence, in a first ‘Annexe', to another author, Sigrid Hunke (1913-99), whose book, Allahs Sonne über dem Abendland (‘The sun of Allah illuminates the West') advances the thesis of the Western world being corrupted by Judaeo-Christianity and owing its science, civilisation and art of living only to the Arabo-Muslim world. Arabic-Islamic civilisation, in other words, rescued Europe from Judaeo-Christianity. Somehow she managed to associate Islam with the values of ‘pagan Germany', uncorrupted by the oriental religion of Christianity. Gouguenheim may be quite right in attributing the distortions of her book to her allegiance to the Nazi party (hence the title of the Annexe: ‘L'amie d'Himmler et le ‘soleil d'Allah'), but it is really rather unfair to hold up this clearly biassed book as representative of the pro-Arabic view.

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Figure 6: Ibn Rushd in the paiting Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas by the Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto (Florence, second half of the 14th century) (Source).

In view of this politicizing of the question it is not surprising that reaction, especially among French scholars, has been rather passionate. About forty historians and philosophers of science, led by Hélène Bellosta (CNRS), published a text: ‘Taking old moons for new stars, or, how to rewrite the history of knowledge today'. An international group of 56 researchers added their signatures to an article in Libération on 30 April 2008, entitled: ‘Yes, the Christian West is in debt to (redevable) the Islamic world'. Alain de Libera of course responded, with a letter fully of cutting sarcasm, published in Télérama (a weekly French magazine owned by the French daily newspaper Le Monde), which includes, among other things: ‘The hypothesis of Mont St-Michel as a missing link in the history of the passage of Aristotelian philosophy from the Greek world to the Latin world… has as much importance as the re-evaluation of the role of the genuine Mère Poulard in the history of the omelet'; and concludes ‘This Europe is not my Europe. I leave it to the ministry of immigration and national identity and the vaults of the Vatican [6].' In response to these attacks, the publisher of the book speaks of an ‘inquisition' against the book and others spoke of a ‘fatwa' against the author. On 17 October an article appeared in Le Monde (supplément ‘des livres') on ‘L'Affaire Gouguenheim', mentioning the establishment of a committee of experts charged with examining the book (which sounds very much like inquisition and a revival of the Vatican Index!)

3. Academic evaluation

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Figure 7: Front cover of Penser au Moyen âge by Alain de Libera (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1997, 408 pages).

But, leaving politics aside, is there some merit in Gouguenhim's approach? It might seem petty to point to factual mistakes in the book, although there are in fact many.

Louis-Jacques Bataillon has recently scoured the third chapter, which gives the book its title - Le moines pionniers du Mont-Saint-Michel: l'oeuvre de Jacques de Venice' (‘the pioneer monks of Mont St-Michel: the work of James of Venice') [7], and pointed out a number of misidentifications of the Greco-Latin translations and incorrect dates of the manuscripts containing them at Mont-St-Michel. More serious is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence that James of Venice himself was at Mont-St-Michel. One of the manuscripts crucial to Gouguenheim's thesis—Avranches 232, was brought to Mont-St-Michel from somewhere else in Northern France (from the evidence of its handwriting), and some of the Aristotelian texts in it (Ethics Bk 1, Physics, De memoria, De longitudine et brevitate vitae) were copied in the 13th century. Moreover, Gouguenheim was unaware that the translations of the De generatione et corruptione and the Ethics (bks 1 and 2), also in Avranches 232, were not made by James of Venice, but by the scholar Burgundio of Pisa, for whom there are ample records that he spent his whole career as a professional notary in Pisa. So the texts were brought to the abbey, not translated on the spot.

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Figure 8: Toledo Alcazar, beautiful Muslim building in Toledo, Spain (Source).

One could add: One of the two early (mid-twelfth century) manuscripts of Mont St-Michel manuscripts mentioned by Gouguenheim as manifesting this Greek-Latin translation movement ‘decades' before Gerard of Cremona was translating in Toledo does, in fact, also contain works translated from Arabic (I refer again to Avranches 232, which contains parts written in the late 12th century, and others in the early 13th century): De differentia spiritus et animae of Qusta ibn Luqa (13th cent.), and the Aphorisms of Mesue (12th century), alongside Peter Abelard's Tractatus de intellectibus and Galen's De elementis secundum Hippocratem in Burgundio of Pisa's translation –both 12th. century– completely mixed in with the works of Aristotle [8]. The Qusta ibn Luqa text was translated by John of Seville, and dedicated to Raymond, archbishop of Toledo in 1125-51, the Mesue text was probably translated by Constantine the African (died before 1098) or one of his pupils (both these being long before Gerard of Cremona). One could propose a different line of transmission for these texts: Hermann of Carinthia, in June 1143, dedicates a translation from Arabic of the theory behind the astrolabe (Ptolemy's Planisphere) to Thierry, the chancellor of Chartres, whom he addresses as his teacher. In it he advertises translations of important texts on the science of the stars that he and his colleague Robert of Ketton have been translating from Arabic, probably being aware that Thierry had been collecting the most important texts and up-to-date for the study of the seven liberal arts in his Heptateuchon (This two-volume set already includes two ‘modern' translations from Arabic: a portion of Euclid's Elements and the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi). Hermann of Carinthia knew the De differentia spiritus et animae, which he quotes in his original work De essentiis, written later in 1143. It is quite plausible that the text reached Chartres through his agency. In 1167 John of Salisbury, who was to become bishop of Chartres in 1176, asked his former teacher in Paris, Richard Bishop, for copies of Aristotle's works. Richard had moved from Paris to Coutances, where he was archdeacoin from 1163 to 1170 (he became bishop of Avranches in 1170). Coutances and Mont St-Michel were close to each other, and Richard knew Robert of Torigny, abbot of Mont-St-Michel, very well. One should rather see Mont-St-Michel as a place to which texts originating in Italy and Spain had been brought by scholars interested not only in the natural science of Aristotle, but in the related subjects of medicine and astronomy. If one were to look at Chartres, rather than Mont St-Michel in the same period (1140s) one would get an even better impression of the mix of the new learning that was combined, without concern as to whether it came from the Greeks or the Arabs. Not only are there the translations included in Thierry's Heptateuchon, but also there are several medical works, translated from Arabic by Constantine the African and his school, an introduction to astrology by al-Qabisi, and other Arabic astrological texts, and works on the construction and use of the astrolabe - all predating the translations by Gerard of Cremona [9].

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Figure 9: The Emperor Frederick II, pictured in his court in Palermo, Sicily, continued the fruitful contacts with Muslim scholars initiated by his father, Roger II, even during time of war. He furthered learning by financing translations of Arabic works into Latin. © Stiftung Maximilianeum, Munich (Source).

Inaccuracies on the Arabic side include the fact that the Syrian Christian scholar and theologian Theodore Abu Qurra is throughout conflated with the Sabaean (‘pagan') Greek-Arabic translator and mathematician, Thabit ibn Qurra (p. 97, 98), whilst the greatest of the Greek/Syriac translators into Arabic, the Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq, acquires even more stature by being conflated with the Jewish doctor, Ishaq Israeli (p. 48).

More serious are the facts that Sylvain Gouguenheim passes over in silence. He points out that Arabic philosophers never attempted to learn Greek. But the same can be said about medieval Latin scholars. And Aristotelian philosophy met resistance on the part of Western Christians, just as it did from Islamic monotheists. More importantly, he completely disregards the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe, which is the time at which texts translated from Arabic may be claimed to have had the most effect.

4. Critical evaluation

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Figure 10: Book cover of Alhacen's Theory of Visual Perception. First Three Books of Alhacen's de Aspectibus, by A. Mark Smith. Vol. 1: Introduction and Latin Text. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2001, Paperback, 520 pp.

But maybe we are missing the point. Should we be responding to Gouguenheim by saying that he has got his facts wrong and that scores of translations were made from Arabic into Latin, including several decades before the time of Gerard of Cremona? Sylvain Gou