Daniel of Morley and Adelard of Bath, the coming of Arabic science to England in the 12th-Century Renaissance

Frontispiece of an Adelard of Bath’s Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements, the oldest surviving Latin translation of the Elements. Illumination from a 14th-century MS, British Library Burney MS 275, f293

We are being told the story how Europe pulled itself out of the dark Middle Ages by stumbling upon some Latin and Greek texts around the year 1500. This is, however, a cultural myth which has been told over and over again to empower feelings of European superiority. The real scientific stimulus came from Muslim Spain and Sicily in the 12th century. What happened around 1500 was, that in a truly fundamentalist frenzy, all the scientific accomplishments made through contact wit the Arabs was “ethnically cleansed” to look all-Greek, all-Latin, and all “European”. This period was not at all one for the progression of science, but rather was a regression into a narrow frame of mind. This gradually softened in what is called the “Scientific Revolution”, but Europe would never be released from the myth of its “Greek and Latin origins”. This myth is these days again being put to use to segregate Muslims as “parasites” on our great European accomplishments — the historical situation in fact being quite the reverse. The quotes below are famous for giving an insight into the real Renaissance, the 12th Century Renaissance, emanating from Toledo in muslim Spain.

‘I hurried there as quickly as I could, so that I could hear the wisest philosophers of the world’: Daniel of Morley

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 bands 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 a similar petrifaction and I was seriously worried that the liberal arts, which illuminate the Bible, were being skipped over, or read only in exam cribs. But when I heard that the doctrine of the Arabs, which is devoted almost entirely to the quadrivium, was all the fashion in Toledo in those days, I hurried there as quickly as I could, so that I could hear the wisest philosophers of the world…

Eventually my friends begged me to come back from Spain; so, on their invitation, I arrived in England, bringing a precious multitude of books with me.

Cited by Burnett, Charles. The Introduction of Arabic Learning into England. The Panizzi lectures, 1996. London: British Library, 1997, p. 60-61.

‘For I have learnt one thing from my Arab masters’: Adelard of Bath

For I have learnt one thing from my Arab masters, with reason as guide, but you another: you follow a halter, being enthralled by the picture of authority. For what else can authority be called other than a halter?

As brute animals are led wherever one pleases by a halter, but do not know where or why they are led, and only follow the rope by which they are held, so the authority of written words leads not a few of you into danger, since you are enthralled and bound by brutish credulity. Hence too, certain people, usurping the name of an authority for themselves, have used too great a license to write, to such an extent that they have not hesitated to trick brutish men with false words instead of true.

For why should they not fill pages, why not write on the back too, when these days you generally have the kind of listeners who demand no argument based on judgment, but trust only in the name of an ancient authority? For they do not understand that reason has been given to each single individual in order to discern between true and false with reason as the prime judge.

Adelard of Bath, Conversations with His Nephew, Ch. Burnett, trans., Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

The quotes and image are from prof. John Tolan’s presentation at the conference “Britain and the Muslim World”, University of Exeter, 17-19 april 2009: Daniel of Morley, English seeker of Arabic wisdom in twelfth-century Toledo.

Read more on the coming of Arabic science to England: Salah Zaimeche, The Impact of Islamic Learning and Science on England. Foundation of Science, Technology and Culture, Manchester 2004. (pdf)

Watch Bettany Hughes’ BBC documentary When the Moors Ruled in Europe.

Categories: Muslim Heritage

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