Greek Thought, Muslim and Christian Interests
Alhambra, Granada, Spain
The Arabic to Latin translation movement in Spain is one of the founding myths of European culture. It occupies an honourable but perhaps somewhat too elevated a place in the history of the Old World: as initiator of the 12th century renaissance, as the real starting-point for the rise of the natural sciences in the West, as the sign of a new medieval culture of intellectuals, and as the beginning of the prolonged dominance of the Aristotelian world view in the Occident or, otherwise expressed, of the long Middle Ages which were only to end with the decline of feudal agricultural society. And yet the occurrence itself is more often described than explained, more often referred to than understood. One reads about the routes knowledge is said to have taken, from Athens by way of Alexandria and Baghdad to Toledo, and hears about such great translators as Gerhard of Cremona, but little about causes and motivations. This is not surprising; in fact it constitutes the character of what is for us today a mythical process.
Historical research is not yet able to prescribe to modern writers with complete confidence how this wave of translations should be put into perspective. In recent decades Spanish and English researchers, such as Francisco Hernández and Charles Burnett, have led the way in assembling from the sources fresh details about the lives and work of the translators. The difficulties of such research become apparent if one considers, for instance, how many people in medieval Castile were called Johannes and might be the translator Johannes Hispanus. The availability of sources relating to the general intellectual environment is similarly unfavourable since disappointingly little contemporary documentation has survived that makes any mention of the translations, thereby providing us with an external view of the phenomenon. (...)
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