The so-called Scientific Renaissance at the beginning of the High Middle Ages was truly a renaissance in the sense of the rediscovery or re-emergence of the, predominantly Greek, intellectual culture of antiquity albeit, much of it in this case, filtered through the medium of the Islamic intellectual culture. This latter point would play an important role in the later emergence of the Humanist Renaissance.
The initial Islamic Empire dates its beginning to Muhammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. It expanded incredibly rapidly absorbing more and more territory.
By the middle of the eighth century the Abbasid Caliphate covered most of the Middle East and a large part of Northern Africa. According to the legend a delegation from India came to the Abbasid capital in 750 CE and the Muslims became aware that their visitors were intellectually far more advanced than themselves and this awareness triggered the Islamic translation movement. With scholars actively seeking out manuscripts of Greek, Persian and Indian knowledge and translating them into Arabic. No such legend exists for the acquisition and appropriation of that knowledge from the Islamic culture by the European Christians at the beginning of the High Middle ages.
Western Europe went into decline around the fifth or sixth century CE following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the urban culture largely disappeared to be replaced by a rural culture. A bare minimum of the scientific culture of antiquity in the works of Boethius (477–524), Macrobius (fl. c. 400), Martianus Capella (fl. c. 410–420), Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) was maintained largely in the monasteries and other church institutions. Following the Carolingian unification of Europe, the situation in Europe began to improve and slowly a new urban culture began to develop. With this social and economic evolution, a thirst for knowledge also developed.
There is a popular image of perpetual war between Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages but in fact there was much exchange on many levels between the two cultures. Although the Carolingian kings did battle the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, Karl der Große (742–814) (known as Charlemagne in English) maintained diplomatic relations with Harun al-Rashid (763–809), the fifth Abbasid Caliph, and the two empires carried out economic and technological exchanges.
Through trade and other contacts, the European Christian scholars gradually became aware of the superiority of the scientific knowledge of their Islamic neighbours, who they encountered along the borders of the two cultures, in particular in Southern Italy and in Spain. Gerbert of Aurillac’s acquisition of some astronomical and mathematical knowledge in Spain in the tenth century was a precursor to the translators, who kicked off the translation movement at the end of the eleventh century.
The earliest, substantial translations from Arabic were made by Constantinus Africanus (died before 1098), a North African Muslim, living in Monte Cassino in Southern Italy. Constantinus translated a substantial body of Arabic medical treatises based on Hippocratic and Galenic concepts.
Sicily, which had been part of the Byzantine Empire until 878 and then under divided Byzantine and Islamic rule from 878 to 965. Pure Islamic rule lasted until 1091 although the Byzantines, with the assistance of Norman mercenaries reinvaded in 1038. The Normans finally achieved total control of the island in 1091, which they maintained until 1198, when the island passed through marriage into the possession of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty. This constant change of ruling cultures led to the trilingual culture, almost predestined for translations. Here Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxisand texts from Plato and Euclid were translated directly from Greek into Latin. Other important works such as Ptolemaeus’ Optics and various medical works, including Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) The Canon of Medicine, which became a standard work in Europe were translated from Arabic. Translations of individual works into Latin from Greek and Arabic continued in Italy well into the thirteenth century.
Although Italy in general and Sicily in particular produced many important translations into Latin, it was Spain that became the major centre for the translation movement and here the translations were from Arabic into Latin. Here works across the entire academic spectrum from Greek, Arabic and Indian sources found there way into medieval, Latin Europe.
The most notable centre for translations was Toledo and by far and away the most notable translator was Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187). Gerard originally travelled to Spain in search of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, which he translated from Arabic into Latin, in about
1175 1150 (see comment from CPE Nothaft). He was unaware of the earlier translation direct from the Greek made in Sicily and It was his translation that became the standard work in medieval Europe not the Sicilian one (see comment from CPE Nothaft). Gerard stayed in Toledo and is reputed to have translated a total of eighty-seven works from Arabic into Latin, including many important mathematical works such as Euclid’s Elements, Archimedes On the Measurement of the Circle, and al-Khwarizmi’s On Algebra.
Some translators actually travelled to Islamic lands outside of Europe, such as Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–c. 1152), who is thought to have travelled extensively throughout Southern Europe but also West Asia and possibly Palestine. Adelard’s interests were mostly philosophical but he produced the first Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements and the first translation of al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical tables.A notable later translator was William of Moerbeke (c. 1220–c. 1286), who made substantial translations from Greek into Latin in the thirteenth century, most notably the works of Aristotle, which became the bedrock of European, medieval university education.
Something that is often sort of half ignored is that the translation movement also brought a lot of literature of the so-called occult sciences into Europe. There was major interest in both Greek and Arabic astrology texts and Robert of Chester (fl. 1140) introduced medieval Europe to alchemy with his translation of Liber de compositione alchemiae (The Book of the Composition of Alchemy). Robert also made the first Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi’s Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing).
This is only a very brief sketch of what was a vast movement involving many scholars over a period of more than two centuries. It is important to note, as far as the translations from Arabic as concerned, that very few of the translators actually spoke Arabic. The work was carried out by groups or teams, who first translated the Arabic into a vernacular language and from there into Latin. The intermediary translators were very often Spanish Jews, who spoke Arabic. This meant that some of the original Greek works had been translated from Greek into Syriac, from Syriac into Arabic, From Arabic into an intermediary language, and then from the intermediary language into Latin. Add to this the normal copying errors from several generation old, handwritten manuscripts and the texts that finally arrived in Europe were often very corrupt and confusing. Add to this the fact that with scientific texts, each new language often lacked the necessary scientific terminology and the translator had to invent new terms and concepts in his own language making for a high level of incomprehension by the time the text had finally been translated into Latin. These high levels of text corruption and incomprehension would play a major role in motivating the Humanist Renaissance.
Another factor that needs to be taken into considerations is that, although the translators made a vast amount of the Greek, Arabic, Persian and Indian scientific texts available to the European scholars in the High Middle Ages, quite a few important texts remained untranslated and unknown. Examples are Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which although known to the Arabs remained unknown in Europe until the fifteenth century or although many of Galen’s works were translated into Latin, some of his principal anatomical works also remained unknown until the fifteenth century.
A final note is that although many technical works became available fairy early on, medieval Europe lacked the knowledge background to truly comprehend or utilise them. A good example is Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, which became available, relatively early, in two separate translations from the Greek and from Arabic. However, almost no one in Europe possessed the necessary mathematical or astronomical knowledge to truly comprehend or utilise it. Instead, European
astronomers universities relied, for teaching, on translations of Arabic astronomical tables and on Sacrobosco’s very simple introductory textbook De sphaera mundi, based not directly on Ptolemaeus but on two much simpler Arabic texts.
Europe was not yet ready to enjoy the fruits of all the treasures that the translation movement brought, and it would take a couple of centuries of further development before that was truly the case.