The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 28th June 2017

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Nothing contrasts more the discrepancies in learning as the place of books. When Muslim libraries abounded with books, some containing even tens of thousands, and where students, scholars and any curious mind found a place, there was hardly anything of worth in any part of the Christian West, not just the British Isles. Even by the early so-called Renaissance (around the late 15th century) few books existed in Christian Europe excepting those preserved in monasteries...


Von Grunebaum remarks:

Modern Muslim society as a whole is lamentably ignorant of the origin, development, and achievements of its civilisation. This ignorance is due partly to a defective educational system.”[1]

Which raises two interesting issues:

First, the obvious, Muslim society, as a whole, has little, if any, idea at all of the impact its civilisation has exerted on the modern world and modern science and civilisation. Hardly will it occur to most Muslims that the English speaking world, which dominates our modern civilisation, had at some point acquired its learning and science from the Muslims. Which is a lamentable state, indeed.

The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England
Figure 1. Manuscript from the medical treatise of Al-Zahrawi in the General Library in Rabat, Morocco (Source)

Secondly, equally obvious, if the Muslims themselves ignore their contribution, why should others acknowledge it for them. Hence the general great silence from the English speaking world, just as from others, about the Islamic contribution to their scientific revival. In fact, one is wrong to refer to the great silence of the non Muslim world in respect to the impact of Muslim civilisation. Indeed, had it not been for non Muslim scholars and historians, Muslims today would know near to nothing about anything, including their own history and the impact of their civilisation on the modern world.

Whilst these words are harsh, they express a lamentable reality and weakness on the part of Muslim scholarship and other elites and institutions meant to inform or teach, an issue on which this author has no wish to dwell, and also this not being the right venue. One, however, must note the few exceptions such as such great figures of Muslim scholarship in the field: Sezgin, Rashed, Djebbar, Al Hassan, Ihsanoglu, and a few others who achieved a considerable amount in the field, and also some Muslim institutions such as Al Furqan of London, IRCICA of Istanbul, and the web-site muslimheritage. What should be stressed, indeed, is that, if it weren’t for scholars of the calibre of Sarton, Haskins, and many other so called Orientalists (Gibb, Amari, Guillaume, Arnold, Carra de Vaux…) our knowledge of both Islamic history and civilisation would be near nil. If it weren’t for many scholars of today, also, especially those from the Anglo-Saxon world, America and England, primarily, the likes of David King, Donald Hill, Thomas Glick, Andrew Watson (from Canada), Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, Fairchild Ruggles, D.C. Lindberg, Harley and Woodward, and few others to be named gradually as this essay progresses, poor, indeed, would be our grasp of the vast Islamic contribution to the rise of modern sciences and civilisation.[2] Whilst we are on this Western scholarly contribution, and in relation to our specific subject, i.e the impact of Muslim learning on England, if it weren’t for someone like Charles Burnett, as an instance, our knowledge of such an impact would be utterly incomplete and flawed.[3]  Besides Burnett, other scholars, such as Melitzki, Cochrane, Harvey, Sweetman, and a few more, have enlightened us on the vast impact Islamic civilisation and sciences had on the British Isles, and England, most particularly.[4]  Some books such as Briffault’s Troubadours, and G.A. Russell’s edition of The Arabick Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth Century England, are absolute gems which are necessary for anyone to understand some issues of fundamental importance as far as such an impact went.[5]

Relying on such a Western scholarship, the following essay will outline how Islamic civilisation impacted on the rise of science and learning, and the arts and architecture of England.[6] It will also show other aspects of impact, including the arts of gardening, and how England owes a great deal of its richness in the field thanks to the imports of many plants and flowers from the Muslim world, Turkey, most particularly.[7]   

Before this is done, first and foremost, journey must be made to the days when such a transfer began, and explain the conditions of both civilisations, Muslim and British/English, and the sharp contrasts between the two, so as to appreciate fully the scope of the Muslim impact.

Contrasts Between Islamic and English/British Isles Societies:

The glimmering lamp of knowledge was sustained when it was all but ready to die out. By the Arabians it was handed down to us [says Draper.]”[8]

A brief statement, which means everything. Scott, Haskins and Metlitzki help in this respect to highlight the dire state of learning and civilisation in the West, including England, and how it was the Muslims who kept them before they passed on some such light of knowledge.

Tenth century Andalusia [Scott tells us,][9] was traversed in every direction by magnificent aqueducts; Cordova was a city of fountains; its thoroughfares, for a distance of miles, were brilliantly illuminated, substantially paved, kept in excellent repair, regularly patrolled by guardians of the peace. In London, in contrast, there were no pavements until the fourteenth; at night the city was shrouded in inky darkness; that it was not until the close of the reign of Charles II (17th century), that even a defective system of street lighting was adopted in London. The mortality of the plague is a convincing proof of the unsanitary conditions that everywhere prevailed; the supply of water was derived from the polluted river or from wells reeking- with contamination.

[In Muslim Spain, then, Scott pursues,] the annual receipts of the state from all sources under Abd-al-Rahman III, in the first half of the tenth century exceeded three hundred million dollars (late 19th century value); the revenues of the English Crown at the close of the seventeenth century were fifteen million. The inhabitants of England at the death of Elizabeth were about four million; the population of Muslim Spain six centuries previous to that date could not have been less than thirty million. In 1700, London, the most populous city of Christian Europe, was only half as large as Cordova was in 900, when Almeria and Seville had each as numerous a population as the capital of the British Empire eight hundred years afterwards.”[10]

Medieval Muslim visitors to Christian towns complained-as Christian visitors now to Muslim towns do of the filth and smell of the “infidel cities.”[11] At Cambridge, now so beautiful and clean, sewage and offal ran along open gutters in the streets, and ‘gave out an abominable stench, so… that many masters and scholars fell sick thereof.’[12] In the thirteenth century some cities had aqueducts, sewers, and public latrines; in most cities rain was relied upon to carry away refuse; the pollution of wells made typhoid cases numerous; and the water used for baking and brewing was usually-north of the Alps-drawn from the same streams that received the sewage of the towns.[13]

At the dawn of the eleventh century, [resumes Scott] the Muslim dominions of Sicily and Spain presented a picture of universal cultivation and consequent prosperity, where industry was promoted and idleness was punished; where an enlightened spirit of humanity had provided asylums within whose walls the infirm and the aged might pass their remaining days in comfort and peace. Six hundred years afterwards what are now the richest and most valuable agricultural districts of Great Britain were unclaimed and uninhabitable bog and coppice, abandoned to game and frequented by robbers; and one-fourth of the inhabitants of England, incapable of the task of self-support, were during the greater part of the year dependent upon public charity, for which purpose a sum equal to one-half of the revenues of the crown was annually disbursed. In the middle of the tenth century there were nine hundred public baths in the capital of Moorish Spain; in the eighteenth century there were not as many in all the countries of Christian Europe.[14]

Figure 2. Some of the Islamic/Arabic dirhams found at Torksey [Torksey is a small village in the West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England.] Photograph: © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Source)

As for learning, the situation in England, as elsewhere in Western Christendom, was in a lamentable condition. King Alfred had complained of the English ignorance of Latin, the language of literature and moral culture.[15] The chief centres of culture, Haskins tells us, were the monasteries ‘islands in a sea of ignorance and barbarism saving learning from extinction in Western Europe at a time when no other forces worked strongly to that end.’[16] `When we remember,’ Lane Poole notes, `that the sketch we are about to extract from the records of Arabian writers concerning the glories of Cordova, relate to the tenth century, when our (English) Saxon ancestors dwelt in wooden hovels and trod upon dirty straw, when our language was unformed, and such accomplishments as reading and writing were almost confined to a few monks, we can to some extent realize the extraordinary civilisation of the Moors.’[17]

From what his friends told him of England, Adelard of bath (fl.1106), the first English scientist, on whom plenty more further down, gathered that:

Violence ruled among the nobles, drunkenness among the prelates, corruptibility among the judges, fickleness among the patrons, and hypocrisy among the citizens; mendacious promises were given lightly, friends were invidious, and almost all whom one met courting favours.”[18]

The coming anarchy of the reign of Stephen was on its way. Nothing seemed more distasteful to Adelard than to submit to this `misery’. Being unable to avert `this moral degeneration,’ he decided to ignore it, holding a unique consolation-his enthusiasm for Arabum studia’ (Arab Studies).[19]

Adelard returned to England `in the reign of Henry, son of William,” having left it before 1100 to spend seven years learning in the Muslim East. His Quaestiones Naturales which he composed for the benefit of `his nephew,’ praises Muslim learning, to contrast with his feeling of misery about learning in England. The Quaestiones Naturales, in the form of a dialogue between him and his imaginary nephew, is essentially a report of Adelard’s grand tour and reflects ‘his excitement at the new scientific outlook of the Muslims which had left the Latin schools far behind.’[20]

Nothing contrasts more the discrepancies in learning as the place of books. When Muslim libraries abounded with books, some containing even tens of thousands, and where students, scholars and any curious mind found a place, there was hardly anything of worth in any part of the Christian West, not just the British Isles.[21] Even by the early so-called Renaissance (around the late 15th century) few books existed in Christian Europe excepting those preserved in monasteries; the royal library of France consisted of nine hundred volumes, two-thirds of which were theological works; their subjects were limited to pious homilies, the miracles of saints, the duties of obedience to ecclesiastical superiors,—their sole merit consisted in the elegance of their chirography and the beauty of their illuminations.[22] Even the illustrious Santa Maria de Ripoll, at its height under Abbot Oliva (1008-46), when we have a catalogue of its notable library of two hundred and forty six titles.[23] In England itself, in the highest seat of university learning, Oxford, we are told its ‘library’, before the year 1300, consisted only of a few tracts, chained or kept in chests in the choir of St. Mary’s Church.[24] Warton, in fact enlightens us more on this subject:

Although the invention of paper, at the close of the eleventh century, contributed to multiply manuscripts, and consequently to facilitate knowledge, yet even so late as the reign of our Henry the sixth, I have discovered the following remarkable instance of the inconveniencies and impediments to study, which must have been produced by a scarcity of books. It is in the statutes of St. Mary’s college at Oxford, founded as a seminary to Oseney Abbey in the year 1446.  “Let no scholar occupy a book in the library above one hour, or two hours at most; so that others shall be hindered from the use of the same.” The famous library established in the university of Oxford, by that munificent patron of literature Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, contained only six hundred volumes.’ About the commencement of the fourteenth century, there were only four classics in the royal library at Paris. These were one copy of Cicero, Ovid, Lucan, and Boethius. The rest were chiefly books of devotion, which included but few of the fathers: many treatises of astrology, geomancy, chiromancy, and medicine, originally written in Arabic, and translated into Latin or French: pandects, chronicles, and romances. This collection was principally made by Charles the fifth, who began his reign in 1365. This monarch was passionately fond of reading, and it was the fashion to send him presents of books from every part of the kingdom of France. These he ordered to be elegantly transcribed, and richly illuminated; and he placed them in a Tower of the Louvre, from thence called, La Toure de la Librairie. The whole consisted of nine hundred volumes. They were deposited in three chambers which, on this occasion, were wainscotted with Irish oak, and cieled with cypress curiously carved. The windows were of painted glass, fenced with iron bars and copper wire. The English became masters of Paris in the year 1425. On which event the Duke of Bedford, regent of France, sent this whole library, then consisting of only eight hundred and fifty-three volumes, and valued at two thousand two hundred and twenty-three livres, to England, where perhaps they became the ground-work of Duke Humphrey’s library just mentioned. Even so late as the year 1471, when Louis the eleventh of France borrowed the works of the Arabian physician Rhasis from the faculty of medicine at Paris, he not only deposited by way of pledge a quantity of valuable plate, but was obliged to procure a nobleman to join with him as surety in a deed by which he bound himself to return it under a considerable forfeiture.”[25]

Under Muslim rule, it was difficult to encounter even a Muslim peasant who could not read and write; during the same period in Europe many great personages could not boast these accomplishments. And from the 9th to the 13th century, the Spanish Muslims possessed an educational system ‘not inferior to the most improved ones of modern times.’[26]

It was at the peak of such contrasts, when Cordova was the city of light in the midst of darkness, that there descended to that same city European envoys, soon to turn into early European scholars, one man in particular from Lorraine, where the revival of the West, including of Britain, would begin.

Early Contacts:

The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England
Figure 3. Latin translation of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (Source)

During the period when elements of this composite Arabian culture began to penetrate the Latin West, France was the seat of Latin civilisation, and its schools occupied the leading position in the cultural life of the Latin world. Englishmen were at the heart of this `Gallic’ territory. From the time of Alcuin of York, the first French minister of education, the activity of English teachers and students at the French schools was ever increasing, and in the diffusion of Saracen learning throughout the West, English scholars were the pioneers.[27]

English contacts with Muslim learning began via a third party: Lorraine (then known as Lotharingia), in today’s north-eastern France. Contacts between Lorraine and the Islamic world date from the 9th century.  A century after such early links, there took place the famed trip by John of Gorze (Abbot at Gorze (970-74), near Metz, in today’s Lorraine. The trip to Spain was the result of exchanges between Abd al-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba, and the German emperor Otto the Great. On his return, John brought back with him the first elements that were going to stir the scientific awakening in Western Christendom in the Lorraine region.[28] John had just spent three years in Cordova. There, he had encountered a Jew, named Hasdeu (Hasdai ibn Shaprut) who understood Latin, and of course, was acquainted with Arabic. A man of intelligence and culture, very deeply interested in mathematics and astronomy, John in all probabilities brought back with him manuscripts of Islamic scientific nature, as he did from his previous trip to Italy.[29] This is all the more certain as Cochrane notes, the original point of contract between Islamic science and the Christian West being the result of Carolingian interest in manuscripts to be found in Cordova.[30] John was certainly helped in his enterprise by acquiring knowledge of the Arabic language from the Spanish Jews who understood Latin (amongst them Hasdai).[31]

Studies by Haskins, Thompson and Welborn,[32] the latter two most particularly, show that mathematical and astronomical learning quickly expanded in Lorraine, a learning that was based on Islamic sources. Thompson and Welborn show this Islamic influence in minute detail in places, needless to dwell upon here. What is important is how did this learning pass on to England. Here, worth returning to Haskins who stresses a crucial point, that is the role of the monasteries as islands of learning. It is through these places that Muslim learning voyaged between the two countries (Lorraine and England), carried by men of religion. Many early Muslim manuscripts in fact were located in monasteries and cathedrals. The reason for this, as it must be reminded, is that at the time, unlike in the Islamic world, where learning was universal, the learned in the West were the men of religion alone. John of Gorze was himself an Abbot.

Mathematicians and astronomers of Lorraine, now well versed in Muslim science, and the first Western Christians, if we do not take into account those of Muslim Spain, began to carry their learning to England mainly thanks to one crucial factor: the preference of King Knut the Great, the English king, for churchmen from Lorraine.[33] From his time, on through many generations, scholars from Lorraine were very popular in England, and were appointed as bishops and masters of the schools.[34] Before the death of Knut, Duduc (from Lorraine) had already become Bishop of Wells, Hermann, another man from Lorraine had become Bishop of Ramsey; and Leofric, who had also been educated in Lorraine was bishop of Exeter (1046-1072). Under Edward the Confessor there was another group of these clerics, all of whom interested in learning and many brought books with them from their own country.[35] Earl Harold, too, encouraged learning from Lorraine. He had travelled extensively and had discovered that the schools of Lorraine and the nearby German cities were not only much better than those of England, but also than those of France and Northern Italy at that time.[36] He appointed Walter as Bishop of Hereford (1060-1079) and Gisa as Bishop of Wells (c.1060). However, his most important appointment was that of Athelard of Liege as the head of the College of Canons, which he established at Waltham. During the times of the first Norman ruler (1066) William the Conqueror, and following him, under William Rufus, more men from Lorraine arrived to England, including Robert of Lorraine, a distinguished mathematician who was finally made Bishop of Hereford (1079).[37] Other figures included Walcher of Malvern, Walcher of Durham, Thomas of York, and Samson of Worcester.[38]

Just named amongst the men from Lorraine was Walcher of Malvern, possibly the greatest figure of learning from Lorraine to reach England about 1091.[39] Walcher, scholar, and monk, of course, was the first native student of Arabic learning in England, and was the first Latin critic of the work of translation from Arabic.[40] He was the first English astronomer; and also the first of his nation (or one of the very first) to translate or adapt a Muslim treatise.[41] Walcher had observed lunar eclipses in Italy in 1091 and 1092, and compiled lunar tables about 1109.[42] The tables of Walcher’s first treatise are worked out by the clumsy methods of Roman fractions, but in the second, written in 1120, he uses degrees, minutes, and seconds, and the more exact observations, which he had learned, evidently in England, from Petrus Alfonsi who was then King Henry I’s physician,[43] and on whom more further down. Walcher had already adopted the Arabic methods of astronomical calculation and has transposed them to the meridian of England, the country in which he lived.[44] Walcher’s tables call to mind others compiled a little later, about 1140, by Raymond of Marseilles. These were simply an adaptation of al-Zarqali’s tables.[45]

Walcher had come into possession of the astrolabe, and for the first time, in Latin Europe, on 18 October 1092, he used such instrument to determine the time of lunar eclipse that he had observed in Italy.[46] This clear bit of evidence is of some importance as confirming specifically, what we know in general from treatises on the astrolabe commonly ascribed to Gerbert and Hermanus Contractus (who both preceded Walcher (Gerbert died Pope Silvester II, in the year 1003) and containing numerous Arabic words,[47] that an acquaintance with this instrument had in some unknown way passed into Latin Europe in the course of the 11th century, thus preceding considerably the arrival of Muslim astronomy as a whole.[48] Walcher had become interested in astronomical observations after experiencing the darkness of an eclipse in Italy and then discovering on his return to Malvern that the selfsame eclipse had been observed in his own monastery at a different time of the day.[49] Whatever knowledge of Arabic or Arabic terminology Walcher had it transmitted to him by Petrus Alfonsi.[50] Petrus shared Walcher’s respect for real experience, dismissing the mere book learning of those who presumed that they could learn astronomy by reading Macrobius and other Classical sources.[51]  Which leads to Petrus and other Spanish links.

The Spanish Connections:

Petrus Alphonsi was a Spanish Jew convert to Christianity.[52] He was born in Huesca, Aragon, Spain, in 1062 or 1063, and lived in the learned court circle in the Muslim ruled cities of Huesca and Zaragoza, where he received a good scholarly education.[53] When the Christians took Huesca in 1097 and Zaragoza in 1118, Petrus converted to Christianity.[54] Educated in Hebrew and Arabic, his writings show familiarity with the Talmud, with texts of Arabic astronomy, medicine and philosophy, and with ‘the Arabic wisdom traditions.’[55] In 1110 Petrus Alfonsi appended a nearly accurate description of the tenets of Islam to his Dialogi contra Judeos, which gained a wide readership across Latin Europe in cultivated circles. Alfonsi, Tolan correctly notes

Could provide the fairer assessment because he relied not on the Church’s teachings, rather on his own Arabic education and personal experience in Andalusia, where adherents of all three monotheistic faiths regularly interacted.”[56]

Petrus himself held that:

The ignorant have to be educated in Islamic science, and that he (Petrus) has labored hard-`magno labore…. et summo studio’ to translate Islamic works `for the benefit of the Latin.”[57]

He even expressed a `sense of mission’ in spreading Islamic astronomy among `the Latin in the land of the Franks.’[58]  Like Daniel of Morley, nearly a century after him, sometime in the 1120s, it seems, he was in France, as he wrote an Epistola ad petrus alfonsi peripateticos in Francia (‘Letter to the peripatetics in France’), in which he complains of his lack of students, professes his expertise in the art of astronomy, and lambastes Latin intellectuals for preferring the study of grammar and logic to the ‘hard science’ of astronomy.[59]

His admonition addressed to Latin scholars (to acquire Islamic science) became part of the Western heritage, and was now being handed down to a young Englishman of royal blood.[60] He was one of King Henry’s physicians in England from 1112 to 1120.[61] Thanks to this privileged position, Petrus introduced to the West knowledge completely unknown then, including astronomy, cosmology, cosmogony, elemental theory, meteorology, psychology, and medicine.[62] Most significantly, though, Metlitzki notes, are the twelve dialogues (Dialogus) between Peter and `one Moses,’ which reflect the Islamic astronomical learning, which Petrus was first to carry to the attention of the Western Christians on their own ground.[63] It was Petrus who introduced Islamic astronomy to England, and translated texts from Arabic for the first English scientists.[64] Two of his students in England are known by name: Walcher of Malvern and Adelard of Bath. Walcher composed a text on how to predict eclipses, based on the teachings of Alfonsi, and Adelard revised and improved Alfonsi’s Latin version of al-Khwarazmi’s text.[65] Evidence of his astronomical contributions is contained in a treatise preserved in Oxford where he put a set of chronological tables based upon Islamic ones, including a concordance of eras for the year 1115; also a series of tables for the various planets and an explanation of the use of the chronological tables.[66]

The Muslim Spanish connection was very much diverse. In Muslim Spain, Scott notes, there was not a village where `the blessings of education’ could not be enjoyed by the children of the most indigent peasant, and in Cordova, there were eight hundred public schools frequented alike by Moslems, Christians, and Jews, and where instruction was imparted by lectures. The Spanish Muslim received knowledge at the same time and under the same conditions, Scott points out, as the literary pilgrims from Asia Minor and Egypt, from Germany, France, and Britain.[67]

Besides these students/pilgrims, other agents of dissemination of Muslim science were the Mozarabs, i.e Christians living under Islamic rule.

Bad as it was from the point of view of Christianity [Metlitzki remarks], the cultural assimilation of the `would be Arabs’ the Mozarabs played a vital part in the transmission of Arabic learning to the West and may well have left traces in early England which still elude us.”[68]

More importantly, many manifestations of Islamic civilisation travelled through the courts, or more properly via the ruling families, who married members of the ruling monarchies of Spain (Aragon and Castile principally). Eleanor, King Henry II’s wife, is a good case. She and her entourage, `much like her grandfather and his crowd, were familiar visitors to their relatives in courts where, since knowledge of Arabic was often de rigeur, translations from the Arabic were not as important as they were in London.’[69]A daughter of Eleanor and Henry II had married into the royal family of Castile, and as the wife of Alfonso VIII of Castile and an eminent figure in Toledo, this other Eleanor (she had been named after her mother) `welcomed visitors from throughout Europe who came to Toledo to drink from its fountains of knowledge-and to take much of that knowledge back to England, France, and Germany.’[70] The ruling family members spread many of the symbols of Islamic civilisation, then a mark of sophistication, aped by the higher echelons, at court and amongst society at large.[71] 

Muslim scientific influence also travelled through clerks belonging to royal households who moved to and fro on diplomatic missions.[72] Some served both in England and in Spain, like Godfrey of Everseley who was in the employ of Edward I and also Edward’s brother in law, Alfonso of Castile in 1276-82, at the very time when the learned king was producing the scientific treatises and the Alfonsine astronomical tables which have ‘immortalised his name.’[73]

The Spanish connection was even stronger as a result of the translation effort from Arabic into Latin, done in large measure in the 12th century. It must be reminded, that after they took Toledo, in 1085, the Christians came across the abundance of Muslim scientific treatises left there. The beginning of the disintegration of Muslim rule in Spain, Metlitzki observes, had finally brought the Latin and Islamic worlds into intimate contact. [74] The scientific activities that developed after the fall of Toledo were described by Valentin Rose in 1874 as “nursery (Pflanzstätte) of the ‘doctrina Arabum’” for all Europe.[75]  A vast translation effort was undertaken as the flower of Western scholarship descended onto the town and were organised under the patronage of the local religious authorities. Amongst these scholars/translators were Englishmen. The transmission of Arabic science to England is ‘in full swing’ with Robert of Ketton, Daniel of Morley, Roger of Hereford, Alfred of sarechel, and Michael Scot who continued Adelard’s aim of `Arabum studia scrutari’. Most of these Englishmen went to Spain in search of astronomical and mathematical treatises and took an active part in the systematic work of translation in which Latin, Mozarab, and Jewish scholars collaborated at Toledo and other seats of learning in the valley of the Ebro and the region of the Pyrenees.[76]

This vast translation effort, through the 12th century explains the decisive changes that took place in 12th century in Western Christendom, the so called 12th century Renaissance, and the rise of university learning in the Christian West.[77] It must be reminded, here, that the crusaders were also in contact with the Muslim East exactly in the 12th century; and with Sicily in the same century, which indeed, explains why things changed in Western Christendom in this crucial century.

Focus here is on Robert of Chester, also known as Robertus Castrensis, Cestrensis, Retinensis, Ketenensis, Ostiensis, Astensis, Anglicus; Robert the Englishman, Robert de Retines. He was an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and translator from Arabic into Latin.[78] He lived in Spain about 1141-1147; was archdeacon of Pamplona, Navarre, in 1143; and lived in London about 1147-1150.[79] He translated a number of treatises; notably one on alchemy (1144), one of the earliest works of its kind to be imported from Islam into Christendom. However, he is chiefly remembered because of his versions of the Qur’an (1143), and of al-Khwarizmi’s algebra (1145).[80] In regard to the translation of the Qur’an, it was the leading Christian figure, Peter the Venerable, the Abbot of Cluny, in France, who commissioned both he, Robert, and Herman the Dalmatian, to translate the Qur’an into Latin. With its publication in 1143, ‘serious students of Islam no longer had to rely on Scripture or myth.’[81] This was the first translation ever, but it was far from perfect, and not for good intentions, either, Peter’s aims being to study the text so as to make a more sustained attack on Islam.[82] The abbot of Cluny could not have made better choice for his purpose, for both Robert of Chester and Herman the Dalmatian were well versed in Arabic, and they also had access to Muslim  `chests’-armaria (libraries joined with mosques) and had gathered an abundance of material.[83] We know from Robert himself that he was deeply engrossed in astronomical and geometrical study when he was interrupted by Peter.[84] Robert was a man of higher intellect, and was attracted by the more scientific side; witness his translation of a treatise on the astrolabe, his compilation of tables for the longitude of London (1149) derived from those of al-Battani and al-Zarqali, and his revision of the tables translated by Adelard of Bath. ‘His main claim to our esteem,’ Sarton says, however, was his translation of the algebra of al-Khwarizmi (1145).[85] Like his translation of the Qur’an, this latter one ‘broke completely new ground Western Christendom.’[86] The Book of Algebra and Al-Mucabola (of `making whole’ and `balancing’) introduced the name and function of a new branch of mathematics-algebra, from Arabic jabara, to restore.[87] The name of the author, al-Khwarizmi, was itself becoming a new concept from the opening sentence (`Dixit algoritmi’) of another of his works, the Arithmetic. The concept is algorism. [88] It was ‘a fundamental landmark in the history of that subject, as it may be considered the beginning of European algebra,’ Sarton notes.[89] In his translation, Robert copied even Al-Khwarizmi’s introduction:

Praise be to God, beside whom there is no other. Here ends the book of restoration and opposition of number which in the year 1183 (Spanish era) Robert of Chester in the city of Segovia translated into Latin from Arabic.”[90]

Two years later, in 1147, Robert is back in London, writing, like Adelard, a treatise on the astrolabe, which by now is the standard trademark of every English ‘Arabist.’[91]

The French Connection:

One of the links between France and England, other than Lorraine, already mentioned, was through Aquitaine. Aquitaine, in the French south-west, was a part of the English crown in France. Richard the Lionheart, as a boy, had been brought up in Aquitaine, where, as Glubb shows to great length, the influence of Muslim culture had been strong.[92]

The ease of Richard’s relationships with Salah Eddin was doubtless largely due to the growing extension of Arab manners in Western Europe. In the same manner today, a Syrian or Iraqi diplomat would mingle easily with Americans in the United States, if he had been educated in the American University of Beirut [adds Glubb.]”[93]

Further down, this essay will look at the great role the South West of France region played in the dissemination of Muslim culture, poetry and other aspects of literature in particular, and the same Richard, just as his mother, playing a central role in this.

The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England
Figure 4. Notre-Dame de Paris (Source)

There were three great schools in Paris at the beginning of the 12th century, Sarton tells us.[94] That of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that of the canons regular of St Victor, and that of the Abbey of St Genevieve across the river. All contributed to making Paris the leading intellectual centre of Christendom, ` a city of teachers,’ but it is chiefly from the cathedral school that the university sprang; gradual and imperceptible transformation. By 1170 the university was taking shape. University learning, as already noted, was fundamentally based on the translated material from Arabic. In Paris, the earliest college was established about 1180 by an Englishman, Josce of London. Little by little, masters and students grouped themselves in four faculties: arts, theology, law medicine.[95]The connections between Paris and the foundation of the English universities have been studied by a variety of sources.[96] We note how Paris gave birth to Oxford University, which itself gave birth to Cambridge; Oxford and Cambridge being the first two English Universities. It can be noted how the Muslim very system and structures of higher learning were passed on.[97] That is where the influence of Paris ends, for as we shall see further on, learning in Paris was stale and moribund, and Daniel (of Morley) one the earliest English scientists, could hardly wait to leave the place for the more exciting Toledo where Muslim learning ruled. Daniel eventually taught at Oxford, and certainly supplied it with books of science, which, of course, he had imported from Toledo.[98] 

The French city of Montpellier stood as a major centre for the study of Muslim medicine, but also Muslim astronomy. This was due to its vicinity to Muslim Spain, and also the large presence of learned Muslim, and above all Jews educated in the land of Islam.[99] Montpellier, moreover, was an offshoot of the first university of Western Christendom: Salerno. Salerno had burst into life in the late 11th century following the arrival of Constantine the African who had brought with him a whole cargo of medical books from Qayrawan in Tunisia, which he translated from Arabic into Latin, and which triggered the beginning of medical higher learning in Western Christendom.[100] Montpellier attracted students from other parts to the study of the subject as early as 1137. One such student was Robert the Englishman, who flourished in Montpellier (c. 1271;) and who wrote a treatise on the astrolabe (De Astrolabio canones), and a treatise on the quadrant.[101] Both astrolabe and quadrant were Muslim instruments par excellence. But it was in medicine that the influence of Montpellier was the strongest. Prominent members of the Arabist school of Montpellier included the leading representative of Anglo-Norman medicine, Bernard de Gordon, Richard of Wendover, Gilbert the Englishman, and John of Gaddesden, as well as the leading exponents of Arabo-scholastic surgery, Guy de Chauliac `the restorer of surgery’ and Henry de Mondeville (or Hermondeville).[102] Bernard de Gordon (a Scottish professor) taught at Montpellier from 1285 to 1297, and wrote the Lilium medicinae which he began in 1305 and is said to have completed in 1307; this was a characteristic Arabist textbook on the practice of medicine.[103] Gilbert the Englishman (Gilbertus Anglicus (c.1290), who though not the first English writer on practical medicine, certainly was among the earliest whose writings have been preserved to us. He was the author of many medical writings, by far the most important being the compendium  (or Lilium medicinae) (according to Sarton) Medicinae of Laura Anglica, a work very like Bernard’s Lily, says the much earlier source, Friend as quoted by Campbell.[104] The work, all agree, is a very comprehensive outline including good pathological descriptions and two chapters on the hygiene of travel very much inspired from Muslim works.[105] Giles Compendium is divided into seven books:

1) Fevers; 2) diseases of the head, the hair, and nerves; 3) of the eyes and face; 4) of the external members; 5) and 6) internal diseases; 7) genito-urinary diseases, gout, cancer, skin diseases, poisons… The surgical part (fifty chapters) of the compendium follows closely the Chirurgia of Roger of Salerno, which is itself derived from al-Zahrawi’s surgery. Gilbert emphasised the importance of the surgical treatment of cancer (as described by al-Zahrawi).[106]

He was ‘a decided Arabist,’ and had a leaning for the works of Constantine, Ibn Sina, and Isaac Judaeus. Gilbert also quotes Ibn Rushd, and takes the bulk of his writings from Muslim scholars, often transcribing whole chapters of Al Razi.[107]

The earliest manuscript in England of one of Constantine’s Arabic translations can be found at Bury St Edmunds.[108] This manuscript is now Wellcome 801A, a manuscript of the medical collection known later as the Articella, which included Constantine’s translation of the ‘Questions on Medicine’ by Hunain ibn Ishaq (The Isagoge of Johannitius).[109] The manuscript is written in the Beneventan script of Southern Italy in the early to mid 12th century. Bury St Edmunds also possessed at least two manuscripts of Constantine’s Pantegni, one of which survives in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.[110] One English doctor, Herbert, is also known to have given Durham Cathedral Library in the third quarter of the 12th century works translated by Constantine: Liber Febrium and Liber Urinarum (both of which were written by the Al-Qayrawan doctor Ishaq al-Israeli), Kitab al-Malaki by Al-Madjusi, and by another doctor from Al-Qayrawan: Ishaq Ibn Imran’s work on melancholy.[111]

It is in architecture that French regions acted as a powerful link between Islam and England.  It is worth noting, how Sir Banister Fletcher praises the Muslim style, that has `reached peaks of accomplishment that rank high among man’s achievements.’[112] Equally, in his book Architecture[113] William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931) summarises the qualities that the `Arab’ style represents for him: `elasticity, intricacy and glitter, a suggestion of fountain spray and singing birds’.[114] More remarkable to Briggs, ‘is the incontrovertible fact about Muslim architecture, that in all countries, and in all centuries it retained an unmistakable individuality of its own.’[115] Cochrane remarks that the building of purely Gothic churches had been preceded in the 11th century by the occasional use of pointed arches, which happened in Monte Casino, before the idea was pursued at Cluny (France).[116] From Chartres and the Ile de France, Durant explains, the Gothic style swept into the French provinces, and crossed frontiers into England, Sweden, Germany, Spain, at last into Italy. French architects and craftsmen accepted foreign commissions.[117] England welcomed such architecture because she was in the 12th century half French; `the Channel but a river between the two sides of a British realm.’[118] The transition from Romanesque to Gothic, Durant pursues, was almost simultaneous in England and France; about the same time that the pointed arch was being used at St. Denis (1140) it was appearing in Durham and Gloucester cathedrals, at Fountains Abbey and Malmesbury.[119] Henry III (1216-72) admired everything French, envied the architectural glory of St Louis’s reign, and taxed his people into poverty to rebuild Westminster Abbey.[120] Cochrane also touches upon the Islamic linkage of geometry and construction, and its resulting impact on the West, observing how careful study of pre Norman churches in England, so many of which have skew chancels, shows that builders found it difficult to achieve true rectangles.[121] She notes how the transition in England was rapid following the First Crusade in particular (the other route of influence other than France directly.)[122]

France and England were brought together much closer by the Norman factor, whether via the Norman arrival in England in 1066, and in respect to the role of Islam through the Norman conquest of Sicily from the Muslims between 1060 and 1090.

Sicily and the Norman Route:

Sicily was taken from Muslims by the Normans between the years 1060-1090. It was a slow protracted affair, and the Norman conquest was helped by Muslim infighting, for the Normans were but a few adventurers, mainly. So on the conquest of the Island, they had neither the numbers, and definitely not the learned skills to run one of the most sophistically administered places in Western Europe.[123] Scott remarks how Muslims stood high in the confidence and favour of the conquering Norman princes (Roger I principally); Muslim councillors stood in the shadow of the throne; they collected taxes and administered the public revenues. They conducted important negotiations with foreign powers, ‘whilst their impress on the customs of social and domestic life was deep and permanent. The prevailing language of court and city and city alike was Arabic.’[124] The Cadi, retaining the insignia and authority of his original official employment, was an important member of the Sicilian judiciary, and was frequently the trusted adviser of the monarch. Muslim institutions remained very influential throughout the provinces of the Norman kingdom. Even in Apulia and Calabria, the original seat of the new dynasty, the same conditions prevailed.[125] Hence a very strong Islam influence permeating administration and institutions, and at all levels.

In Norman England, scholars with Islamic learning held some of the highest positions of influence. The role of Petrus Alphonsi in the court of Henry I has already been seen. After Henry II acceded to the kingdom in 1154, scholars continued to be attached to his court,[126] and these included Roger of Hereford and Daniel of Morley, both Justices of King Henry.[127]

It must be reminded, the Normans ruled Sicily, but also parts of France, and above all England, which they had taken in 1066. The intercourse between Norman Sicily and Norman England was very strong. The influences that were transmitted from `the tripartite culture of Sicily,’ Metlitzki remarks, flourished in England and were encouraged by royal patronage as is clear from the many learned and scientific works dedicated to Henry II, including Adelard of Bath’s treatise on the astrolabe.[128] There was a constant to and fro between Norman England and Norman Sicily. Royal policy encouraged the presence of Englishmen at the Sicilian court and there was continuous interchange in administrators, clerks and scholars among whom Peter of Blois as the common teacher of both William II and Henry II held a special place.[129]

Your king is a good scholar, but ours is better [writes Peter of Blois to Walter Ophamil, archbishop of Palermo, another ecclesiastic from England.] I am well acquainted with the abilities and the performance of both. With the English king there is daily study, constant conversation with the best scholars and eager discussion of all questions. [No wonder that the English court under Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine reflected a new cosmopolitan aspect.]”[130]

Movements of people between the Normans north and south, quite dense, involved trade, family ties, pilgrims; inter-marriage, and `no list can be attempted of Norman and English students at Salerno,’ and `Salerno was not alone,’ notes Haskins.[131] The chroniclers of Mont St Michel and Bec were likewise well informed concerning events in the south, as were English historians of the close of the century. [132] An Englishman, Robert of Salesby, stood as the head of King Roger’s (Roger II (1111-1154) Chancery. He was not a great scholar himself, as we know from John of Salisbury. But his lavish hospitality to visiting Englishmen, ‘which delighted John of Salisbury when he was his guest in the summer of 1150, must have surely helped those who had literary and scientific interests like John of Salisbury himself.’[133] Under William the Good (1166-1189) four prelates of English origin are known.[134] Menocal highlights such links and their disseminating Muslim learning:

The expansion of Norman political power in the late eleventh century and its consolidation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries played an important role in the dissemination of learned Arabic texts in translation. The blood ties, as well as the political and cultural interactions among courts scattered from Sicily to England, with France in between, meant that there was a considerable amount of free exchange of intellectual and artistic activity, much of which, in any case, tended to be carried out by peripatetic scholars and artists.”[135]

One area of impact is again architecture. Henry Gally Knight in his Normans in Sicily (1838) had affirmed the stylistic richness in his illustrations of Siculo-Norman-a style that was Muslim in its arches, and that, the Muslims, through the Crusades, were responsible for the pointed arch style of the Continental Europe.[136]

The Crusades were one route for the introduction of this arch, symbol of Gothic into Europe. The Gothic style had found its way into Europe, mainly in the 12th century, via a diversity of routes, Sicily was one such route.[137] To explain the journey of the pointed arch from Sicily to England, no better than Harvey, who reminds us of the Islamic origins of such arches as outlined here.[138] Pointed arches had been known in the Muslim world for several centuries, and by the “Arabs” had been introduced to Sicily. Following their conquests (1066 in England); (1060 and 1090 in Sicily); (Bohemund and his nephew Tancred in the East). By the year 1100 Norman dynasties were firmly settled at the centre and both ends of the world of western Christianity.[139] And it is important to note, Harvey insists, that before this date there had been no occurrence of the pointed arch in the West.[140] Yet within a generation it had begun its triumphal course, and in two it was established at the core of a new art: the Norman realm of Sicily; the earliest combination of pointed arch and ribbed vault in Normandy and in England; the earliest flying buttresses, albeit hidden, again in Norman England; ‘in fact, that the whole cultural movement that we know as Gothic should have followed immediately upon the great expansion of Norman power.’[141]

Haskins notes how we must bear in mind the possibility of a connexion between the Norman Domesday Book, which made an inventory of all the wealth of England in the 11th century, the first of the sort, for purposes of taxation; this and the fiscal registers which the south, i.e Sicily, had inherited from its Byzantine and Muslim rulers.[142]

Writing in the English Historical Review, early in the 20th century, Haskins reflected:

This article is concerned primarily with an examination of those elements of the Sicilian government which are significant for comparison with Anglo Norman institutions…[143]

It is plain [Haskins pursues] that both William the Good and Henry II had ample opportunity of keeping themselves informed regarding contemporary conditions in each other’s kingdom, while with respect to the administrative system of King Roger’s time, Henry had an ever ready source of information in a Sicilian official whom he had called to his side, his almoner and confidential advisor, Master Thomas Brown.”[144]

Haskins enlightens us on the English career of this Thomas Brown in the English Exchequer. Thomas Brown (Qaid Brun) was a Muslim refugees from Sicily, who had to leave Sicily on the accession of William the Bad (1154-1166). He probably reached England by 1158, when he is mentioned in the Pipe Roll.[145] As an official of both King Roger and Henry II, he was as a connecting link between the fiscal systems of the two kingdoms[146] Contacts between the two kingdoms, both Norman, very important `as to affect matters of trade and culture, ‘ notes Haskins. ‘ A restless experimenter like Henry II was not the man to despise a useful bit of administrative mechanism because of its foreign origin.’[147] As an official of both King Roger and Henry II, Thomas Brown has a special interest for the student of international relations in the twelfth, and the influence which has been ascribed to him as a connecting link between the fiscal systems of the two kingdoms.[148] Prior to reaching England, In December 1149 we find him, as Kaid Brun, in still another branch of the government, the Diwan, where, with the secretary Othman, he attaches his alama to a transcript from the record of the bureau,[149] and his title of Master probably indicates that he was one of the high officials of this department.[150] Following his arrival in England, the duties which Master Thomas performed in the service of Henry II (of England) are only partially known, although the substantial wages which he received in 1160 indicate that from the outset his position was one of importance. It may have been in this year that he received the office of king’s almoner which had been vacant in December 1159, but not until 1165 does he bear the title in the Pipe Rolls, in which he continues to be so styled until after 1175.[151] Thomas Brown sat at the exchequer table, and with the assistance of two clerks kept a watch on all proceedings in the upper and lower exchequers. A third roll is kept by him as a check on the rolls of the treasurer and chancellor, and this role, doubtless intended for the private information of the king, Thomas carries about him wherever he goes.’[152] In his concluding remarks, Haskins refutes the claims as made by Niese, that it was England which influenced Sicilian legislation.[153]

Now, of course, there are scholars who deny this Muslim impact, just as many other Muslim forms of impact are gradually taken away from them (the Gothic, the influence on Provencal and Western poetry and literature come to mind). Of course this denial would mean that Haskins lacks in erudition compared to this modern scholarship (which to any intelligent mind would be nearly blasphemous). Things are what they are, nonetheless. This website not being the right venue for controversies amongst scholars, let’s not get bogged down in the argument, which incidentally is addressed by this author elsewhere. Let’s just use a little historical common sense to confirm Haskins in his genius and modern scholars who disagree with him in their error. It makes indeed utter historical sense that Thomas Brown was no other than Qaid Brun, and Muslim, because:

  1. Everyone (one or two intransigent persons aside) agrees at least that the Sicilian system of administration was much more sophisticated than anything England ever had before the arrival of Master Thomas Brown.[154]
  2. Any study also shows that the Sicilian system was borrowed from Muslim antecedents (proof of this the so many words in Arabic attached to this system.) As Bresc pertinently reminds, the shortage of well read personnel explains why, still, as late as 1240, functions of the Duana Secretis in Sicily were still filled with Muslim scribes.[155]
  3. We are left with the issue why did Thomas Brown leave Sicily for England in 1158? Here, a little knowledge of history helps. William the Bad came to the throne following Roger in 1154 (William would rule until 1166). Setting aside the cruel way Philip of Mehdia was put to death by Roger for reasons of High Treason (his secret adherence to Islam when he was supposed to have become or was a good Catholic,) still on the whole, Muslims were fairly treated under the same Roger, especially those within the ruling quarters, including at the court and in high administration. However, when William arrived to power, things got horrendously wrong for Muslims, and their massacres became widespread, especially amongst the courtiers, and those in the various offices close to power.[156] Hence, it makes absolute historical sense for someone in the position of Master Thomas, if a Muslim, under threat, and whose skills were very much needed, to sail north to the welcoming English shores. That’s what everyone has always done.

The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England
Figure 5. A modern translation and copy of al-Idrisi’s Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (Source)


The Early Precursors: Adelard of Bath and Daniel of Morley:

When in the 12th century, the Muslim and Christian worlds came into firm contact via the Spanish/Christian advance in al Andalus, the Crusaders progress into Syria and Palestine, and the Normans asserting their power over Muslim Sicily, the two cultures, ironically in this time of extremely bloody conflict, came closer, and at last Europeans discovered the foes’ richness in all its shapes and forms. Often in the midst of battle, frequently during interludes, or some distance away from the scene of killing, Westerners grasped and grabbed all they could or deemed of worth. There won’t be anything said here about any form of grabbing except that of learning. The following lines from O’Brien capture the scene of how early Western scholars felt; amongst them our English men:

Lettered Europeans scrambled to absorb this torrent of new knowledge pouring in from their rivals.[157] Those who could, journeyed to loci of Islamic erudition. “Since at present the instruction of the Arabs…is made available to all in Toledo,” explained Daniel of Morley, “I hastened there to attend the lectures of the most learned philosophers in the world.”[158] Adelard of Bath travelled to the Levant to learn Arabic, study Arab texts and carry the newly acquired knowledge back to Europe.[159] Daniel chastised his culture as “infantile.”[160] Adelard was livid with disgust for his own people: “violence ruled among the nobles, drunkenness among the prelates, corruptibility among the judges, fickleness among the patrons, and hypocrisy among the citizens.” He looked forward to but one thing in this sorry place: “Arabum studia.”[161] “Philosophy is the special province of the unbelievers: we have it all from them,” declared Bacon.”[162]

Adelard of Bath and Daniel of Morley are the two most influential early English scientists, not just because they were amongst the very first, but also because they brought in some fundamental elements into English and Western intellectual life.

Adelard of Bath (active 1116–1142,) could be said to have championed Islamic learning more than any other early scientist, the most `Arabist’ of all scientists.[163] He, Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253) and Roger Bacon (d. 1292), may be regarded as the three foremost English scholars of the period.[164] He was born in Bath, studied at Tours (France) and taught at Laon (France).  After leaving Laon he spent seven years in study and travel, and can be traced in Cicilia and Syria. He might have visited Spain and Sicily before 1116 and probably before 1109; and was by 1115 in Palestine. As summed up by Mercier, after long sojourns in Laon, Tours, Salerno and perhaps Syracuse as well as Tarsus and Antioch, he returned to England in 1120.[165]

It is to Burnett and Cochrane that we owe more information on Adelard’s so important travels, which shaped/formed his science. Adelard’s travels had begun soon after his formal training in the Latin schools. He embarked on a journey, which took him to Magna Graecia and the principality of Antioch. It is this seven year journey which he describes, famously, as his quest for the studia Arabum (the studies of the Arabs), which he contrasts to the Gallica studia (French studies). `Arab’ studies based on reason rather than authority.[166] Cochrane notes that it is probable that Adelard made his way to Syria via southern Italy, Sicily and Greece. In De eodem, which he dedicated to the Bishop of Syracuse, he mentions both Greece and Salerno; whilst in his famed Questiones he describes being shaken by an earthquake as he crosses a bridge at Mamistra (modern Misis) near Adana on the way to Antioch. He speaks of the bridge itself and of the whole region as shaking violently with the movement of the earth.[167] Adelard’s mentioning of the earthquake, Cochrane notes, is very useful in establishing a date for his journey. The earthquake took place in 1114, affected Anatolia, and caused great damage to Antioch, which is one hundred miles from Misis, and as far away as Edessa. It was the time of the first crusade, when the Franks were under serious threat from forces being raised against them by the Seljuk Sultan Mohammed. Roger of Salerno was Prince of Antioch and personally supervised repairs to the fortifications.[168] Cochrane, then, highlights some very interesting points, on how Adelard witnessed the Seljuk fixing bridges damaged by the earthquake, and how their techniques were soon after to be seen in England.[169]

Once back from his journey, Adelard busied himself making the mathematics and astronomy of the Muslims available to the Western Christian world.[170] Adelard’s most important contributions were in the field of mathematics. Early in life, before he travelled to Syria and Palestine, he wrote a treatise on the abacus (Regule abaci). Two further contributions of great importance for mathematics were the translations of al-Khwarizmi’s Arithmetic and of Euclid’s Elements from the Arabic. Adelard, Sarton tells us, was an abacist at the beginning of his career, and later became an algorist, the earliest (or one of the earliest) of them.[171]

Just like Petrus (Alphonsi) he became associated with the court of Henry I. Both men were important in the transmission of Islamic science in both court and kingdom as well as much of the West. Both worked on the Zij of al Khawarizmi, although whether this was separately done, or in cooperation, cannot be proved; but it might have happened after Adelard returned from his travels.[172]  With the translation of the Zij of Al Khwarizmi in the revision by Al Majriti (d. 398/1007), he acquainted his contemporaries with a handbook of Arabic astronomy which had already developed distinctive traits.[173] The trigonometry and the trigonometric tables transmitted by the book, Sezgin remarks, prepared the grounds for a future expansion of mathematical, astronomical and geodetic knowledge in Europe.[174] Raymond Mercier, Sezgin judiciously remarks,

May be right in his comment that the Latin world was still not at all ready for such a work, resulting in the very slow pace of the process of assimilation, yet we should consider how long it would have taken the Europeans to create the knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, which they had acquired through translations from the Arabic, on their own.”[175]

Adelard’s masterpiece is a collection of Natural Questions, which gave him opportunity for publishing Islamic knowledge on a variety of subjects. It is the result of his travel amongst the Muslims in the East, mentioned, above. When Adelard left Laon he advised his `nephew’ and his other pupils to remain there and learn all they could of philosophy as it was taught in northern France. He would travel and study with the `Arabs’ and on his return they would compare notes. Quaestiones naturales is the resulting essay. The Quaestiones naturales is in 76 chapters, each dealing with a scientific question, to explain the new knowledge which he had acquired from `his Arabs.’[176] Quaestiones Naturales is in the form of a dialogue between the author, who has just returned from his Journeys and is still full of the new impressions of Muslim science thus gained, and his fictional nephew, who has had a scholastic education in France.[177] Adelard could no longer endure the prejudice against modern science which in his time was synonymous with Islamic scholarship, especially after he had spent those seven years in study and travel in order `to investigate the learning of the Arabs as best as he could.’[178] Looking at Adelard’s brief outline in Haskins,[179] and his dealing with matters of plants, natural life, geological questions, one is struck by the close resemblance they have with the works of Muslim botanists, geographers, and geologists.

Adelard also brought back a unique enthusiasm for Arabum studia.[180] He declared that from his Muslim teachers he had learned to put reason above authority in the matter of natural knowledge, since in fact the Ancients, who now possessed the authority, had gained it only by using their own reason.[181]

He says:

From the Arab masters I have learned one thing, led by reason, while you are caught by the image of authority, and led by another halter. For what is an authority to be called, but a halter? As the brute beasts, indeed, are led anywhere by the halter, and have no idea by what they are led or why, but only follow the rope that holds them, so the authority of writers leads not a few of you into danger, tied and bound by brutish credulity.”[182]

Thus, Adelard had triggered a completely new approach unknown then, the use of reason rather than authority, his line the every foundation of modern scientific thinking. His work  marking ‘a significant stage in the history of ideas.’[183]

Such eagerness and faith in human reason he declared:

`If reason be not the universal arbiter, it is given to each of us in vain.’[184]

Let no one be shocked,” warned Daniel of Morley, “if while dealing with the creation of the world I invoke the teachings not of the Fathers of the Church, but of the pagan philosophers, for, although the latter are not from among the faithful, some of their words… should be incorporated into our instruction.”[185]

It seems English based scholars (i.e the older generations), as a rule, acknowledged openly the place and influence of Islamic science. The same eagerness to declare this is found in Daniel of Morley as in Adelard of Bath. Daniel of Morley proceeded to Spain to learn mathematics and astronomy, and published the fruits of his studies and lectured at Oxford.[186] His passion for Islamic learning is well caught in his dedication of his Philosophia to John of Oxford (Bishop of Norwich from 1175 to 1200); of which lengthy extracts are taken from Burnett:[187]

When, some time ago, I went away to study, I stopped a while in Paris. There, I saw asses rather than men occupying the chairs and pretending to be very important. They had desks in front of them heaving under the weight of two or three immovable tomes, painting Roman Law in golden letters. With leaden styluses in their hands they inserted asterisks and obeluses here and there with a grave and reverent air. But because they did not know anything, they were no better than marble statues: by their silence alone they wished to seem wise, and as soon as they tried to say anything, I found them completely unable to express a word. When I discovered things were like this, I did not want to get infected by similar petrification…. But when I heard that the doctrine of the Arabs, which is devoted entirely to the quadrivium, was all the fashion in Toledo in those days, I hurried there as quickly as I could…”

Daniel pursues that he was begged to return to England from Spain by his friends, but was `disappointed’ with what he found. Asked by his friend the bishop about `the wonderful things in Toledo,’ the teaching there, and the movements of the celestial bodies, Daniel submitted a treatise for his scrutiny. Its first book was about the lower part of the universe, its second about the higher. He then begs the reader that `he should not despise the simple and clear opinions of the Arabs, but should note that Latin philosophers make heavy weather of these subjects quite unnecessarily, and, through their ignorance, have put figments of their imagination veiled in obscure language, so that their unsteady floundering in this subject might be covered by a blanket of unintelligibility.’[188]

Already, in 1180 Daniel of Morley had returned to England convinced, with Abu Al Ma’ashar (Albumasar), that he who condemns astronomy destroys science.[189] Like Adelard, he emphatically relies on the Muslims against the antiquated authority of ancient Christian authors. Abu Ma’ashar, who was as in the words of Alain de Lille, the undisputed master of stellar science.[190]

As Metlitzki remarks;

The transmission of Arabic science to England is in full swing with Robert of Ketton, Daniel of Morley, Roger of Hereford, Alfred of Sarechel, and Michael Scot who continued Adelard’s aim of `Arabum studia scrutari’. Most of these Englishmen went to Spain in search of astronomical and mathematical treatises and took an active part in the systematic work of translation in which Latin, Mozarab, and Jewish scholars collaborated at Toledo and other seats of learning in the valley of the Ebro and the region of the Pyrenees. For by the middle of the 12th century the beginning disintegration of Muslim rule in Spain had finally brought the Latin and Islamic worlds into intimate contact.”[191]

The Great 13th Century Scholars of British and European Renaissance:

The Impact of Islamic Science and Learning on England
Figure 6. The frontispiece of an Adelard of Bath Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements, c. 1309–1316 (Source)

The first wave of Western Christian scholars included Adelard of Bath, Gerbert, Petrus Alphonsi, Walcher of Malvern, Daniel of Morley, Constantine the African, and a few others. They played a crucial role in the awakening of Western Christendom. Only a brief note is made here on how daunting their task was in triggering the scientific revolution in the West in the midst of utter darkness and when, as Haskins put it above, no force worked in favour of learning, and worse, when such learning came from the land of the foe, Islam. When Gerbert (d.1003), reproached the Romans for their ignorance, he was told by the papal legate that

God had always chosen, not orators and philosophers, but peasants and illiterates.”[192]

Gerbert himself suffered for his eager borrowing of the foe’s science, and so would others, Bacon most of all, as would be seen under this heading. The point is whilst slow steps could be taken, it was always at a cost should the said steps be too fast, and lead to perceived threats. Nonetheless, thanks to the labours of the early men of science profound and widespread changes had taken place by the 13th century.[193] These changes were built upon by a new wave of scholars on whom emphasis is placed in the following, and who are part of a larger group of Western minds.  This vast group of scholars includes Roger Bacon (1220-1294), Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Albertus Magnus (1206-1280), Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), Arnold of Villanova (d.1311), and others. They were the first to adapt Islamic learning to Western ground, by Latinising such learning, not just in form (as those before them did), but also in the manner it was diffused, besides, of course, building upon it. These scholars were active in the 13th century in the wake of the translations from Arabic already discussed. All of them had links, in one form or another, with institutions or regions where Islamic learning was dominant: Southern Italy, Spain, Montpellier, and similar places. All knew some Arabic or had access to it; and evidently, all their works bear Islamic influences.

Briefly here to show the Islamic impact on Western scholarship as a whole, Albertus Magnus (a non Englishman) was the first of the Schoolmen who reproduced the Aristotelian philosophy on a systematic basis, and so shaped it as to meet the requirements of the Church in reference to dogma. He belonged to the noble family of the Counts of Bollstadt, and was born at Lauingen, in Swabia, educated in Paris and Padua, Bologna, and teacher in Cologne, and Paris.[194] In anatomy and medicine, Albert must have used the Anatomia vivorum or the translation of Ibn Sina’s Qanun by Gerard of Cremona.[195] In meteorology and climatology his views are mainly a clear summary of those transmitted by the Muslims. In geology and mineralogy, it was Ibn Sina’s De Congelatione et conglutionatione lapidum. Ibn Sina’s influence is also found in Albert’s Zoology.[196]

Another non Englishman, Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Naturale’s astronomy is a reproduction of al-Bitruji’s theory (On The Sphere) as distorted by Albert (Magnus).[197] His geological ideas, just as those of Albert the Great (Magnus), were essentially derived from Muslim sources, including Ibn Sina’s Avicennae Mineralia translated by Alfred of Sareshel (the latter an Englishman). When they explain the movements of the sea, erosion, the generation of mountains, they are simply repeating the words of Ibn Sina or of the unknown author of the De Elementis.[198]

Al-Biruni’s Tahdid nihayat al-amakin (The Identification of the End of Places), written in 1025, speaks of the alternations of dry land and sea, and in another text he remarks that the Indus valley should be considered an ancient sea basin filled with alluvium.[199] Similar views appeared in Albert the Great and Ristoro d’Arezzo (13th century); the latter even referred to fossil fishes. So did Joinville in his life of St. Louis.[200]

Enough on non Englishmen here, the point of impact of Islamic learning on the whole array of Western scholarship of the period now made.

Back to English scholars, briefly on a couple of them before focus is placed on the two most influential ones: Bacon and Grosseteste. Beginning with John Peckham (Pecham) (fl. second half of 13th century;) he was a Franciscan theologian, mathematician, and physicist. He spent his life in Paris, Oxford, Rome, and as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 to his death. His optics is largely derived from Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham; he also refers to the camera obscura, just as found in the works of Bacon and Witelo.[201] A Vatican manuscript of the Perspectiva Communis[202] of John Peckham contains four propositions added by Bradwardine, which show that the latter was familiar with cotangent and tangent and their reciprocal relations. He was also one of the earliest Western writers on trigonometry, but these notions can be found in Islamic writings of a much earlier date, e.g. those of Abu-l-Wafa.[203]

In the field of medicine, John of Gaddesden (c.1280-1361) was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He compiled the famous treatise Rosa Anglica, which was mainly based on the works of both ‘Arabists’ Bernard de Gordon and Henry de Mondeville.[204]

John of Adern (c.1350), a British physician and surgeon who practised the healing art in London during the middle of the 14th      century, wrote on both medicine and surgery, and was the first to revive the art of surgery in England.[205] John largely transcribed from Muslim scholars.[206]

Robert Grosthead or (Greathead) Robert of Lincoln, better known as Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), was born of humble parentage at Stradbrook, Suffolk, and was educated in Oxford and Paris (?). He was first chancellor of the University of Oxford; first lecturer to the Oxford Franciscans, 1224; Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to his death in 1253. His scientific works are indebted to the texts brought to England in the earlier stages of Islamic influence, records speaking of him as a Master at Hereford, where, Burnett reminds us, Muslim mathematics and sciences flourished.[207] Grosseteste’s serious study of Islamic astronomy began, indeed, when he arrived in Hereford, for the intellectual atmosphere he encountered there was permeated by this science.[208] One of the leading figures in the Hereford scientific movement was Daniel of Morley who himself was strongly influenced by Muslim learning, astronomy in particular.[209] Grosseteste astronomical ideas were partly derived from Al-Bitruji after the latter was translated by Michael Scot.[210] A Muslim author who had a great influence on Grosseteste was Abu Ma’shar, and his work Kitab al-Madkhal al-Kabir (Great Introduction) (Introductorium maius in Latin) translated into Latin by both John of Seville in 1133 and Hermann of Carinthia in 1140.[211] Abu Ma’shar’s third chapter deals with tides, Grosseteste’s Questio de fluxu et refluxu maris (De Fluxu)[212] borrows nearly everything from it.[213]  Briefly, as Laird sums up, De fluxu takes its account of tides almost entirely from those chapters: it is divided into three parts, each corresponding to a chapter in Abu Ma’shar’s Introductorium. De fluxu 1 is an account of the causes of tides, and its gist comes from Introductorium 3.4. De fluxu 2 is an account of eight causes of increase and decrease of tides; they are the same eight causes, and in the same order, as those that make up Introductorium 3.6, De fluxu 3 is a reworking of Introductorium 3.8, on the three kinds of sea and the varying effects of the moon upon them.[214] Near the end of Introductorium 3.5, Abu Ma’shar describes a method for calculating the times of daily tides, and in De fluxu I Grosseteste too describes such a method.[215] Although the two descriptions differ on details, they both depend on the assumption that the two rising tides begin with the rising and the setting of the moon and the two ebbings begin with the moon’s passing the meridians.[216] Occasionally, especially in De fluxu 1, Grosseteste imports material from other chapters in Abu Ma’shar, and he introduces here and there throughout the work small but highly interesting additions and modifications of his own.[217]

In optics, Grosseteste was an early defender of Al Kindi’s combined emission-intromission theory, and was very certainly familiar with Al-Kindi’s De aspectibus, when he wrote:

However, mathematicians and physicists [by contrast with natural philosophers], whose concern is with those things that are above nature, maintain that vision is produced by extramission.”[218]

Robert Grosseteste, and after him his more famous pupil Roger Bacon, like Peter Alphonsi, took over from the Muslims much geographical (and astronomical) lore which they interpreted and freely criticized.[219] Al-Battani, for instance, saw no reason why winters and summers should not be temperate in countries along the equator and believed that these latitudes must have, in fact, a climate not greatly unlike that of Aden and Yemen.[220] The unknown districts of the world, Al-Battani went on to explain, comprise eleven-twelfths of the whole. Though no man had ever reached them, he thought it not irrational to suppose that they were like the known parts, for the sun and stars must pass across them and produce in the same way winter and summer, the tides of the sea, and animal and vegetable life.[221]

Grosseteste was also one of the earliest English authors to be acquainted with the writings of the Salernitan school.[222] He introduced Salernitan medicine, with all its Islamic garb, in England which later on a number of his students disseminated.[223] In this way he was clearly the forerunner of his most famous pupil, Roger Bacon, and he may have influenced the whole of Western Christendom, partly through his own writings and partly through Bacon and others.[224]

Roger Bacon (1220-1294) who lectured in both Paris and Oxford used Muslim philosophers in order to make polemic points against Islam but seems genuinely to have liked what he quoted.[225] He argued that:

Our apprehension of the future life is like that of a deaf man’s of music.”[226]

He supported this from Ibn Sina.[227] Bacon was fond of this passage:

A man shall not be freed of this world and of its deceptions until, wholly taken up with that other heavenly world… the love of the things there draws him altogether away from thinking of anything lower.”[228]

Bacon was a pupil of Adam Marsh (d.1259), who derived a great deal from Arabist sources and indirectly from Grosseteste in particular.[229] Bacon, Sezgin remarks, established relationships to Arab “models without reaching up to them when he made his general observations concerning the experiment as the basis for research in the natural sciences.[230] However,