The Use of Knowledge & Skills of Civilization Developed by Arabs Book Report

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I’m working on a history question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

In Parts 3 & 4 of the House of Wisdom, Lyons brings focus to both the sharing of knowledge and the “willful forgetting.” Select one example of how this has happened in your own education. Explain what that examples means to you in relation to your goals in education. How does his argument make you think about world history?

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How the Arabs Transformed
Western Civilization
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Lyons
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
For information address
Bloomsbury Press,
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010.
Published by Bloomsbury Press, New York LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The house of wisdom: how Arab learning transformed Western civilization / by
Jonathan Lyons.—1st U.S. ed.
p. cm.
Other title: Insurance company insider speaks out on how corporate PR is killing
health care and deceiving Americans
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-1-59691-459-5 (hardcover)
1. Civilization, Western–Arab influences. 2. Learning and scholarship–Arab
countries–History–Medieval, 500–1500. 3. East and West. I. Title.
CB251.L96 2009
First published in the United States by Bloomsbury Press in 2009
This eBook edition published in 2011
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60819-058-4
To the memory of my father, Will Lyons,
who introduced me to the power of ideas.
Title Page
Prologue: Al-Maghrib/Sunset
PART I: Al-Isha/Nightfall
1 The Warriors of God
2 The Earth Is Like a Wheel
PART II: Al-Fajr/Dawn
3 The House of Wisdom
4 Mapping the World
PART III: Al-Zuhr/Midday
5 The First Man of Science
6 “What Is Said of the Sphere …”
7 “The Wisest Philosophers of the World”
PART IV: Al-Asr/Afternoon
8 On the Eternity of the World
9 The Invention of the West
Note to Readers
Significant Events
Leading Figures
Selected Bibliography
A Note on the Author
FEW HAD ANY doubts that God had sent the earthquake to punish Antioch for its
wanton and profligate ways. The residents of this Christian outpost not far from
the eastern shores of the Mediterranean were notoriously corrupt and flouted
their solemn obligations to God. “Certain men who hated fasting and loved
lavish banquets, slaves to gluttony for enticing foods, were eager to copy the life
and life-style not of those who lived well but those who ate well,” scoffs Walter
the Chancellor, a cleric and longtime Antioch functionary whose firsthand
account of life in Antioch is dotted with references to Christian scripture and
well-worn quotations from Ovid and Virgil.1 The women reveled in scandalous,
low-cut tunics and draped themselves in unseemly adornment. Some—“or so
gossip has it,” Walter says with a wink—even commissioned local artisans to
have “coverings carefully made in Arab gold and a manifold of precious jewels
for their shameful parts, not to clothe the appearance of their shame or to restrain
the flame of lust, but so that that which was forbidden might inflame more hotly
those people who did not desire legitimate pleasures.”2 Others prostituted
themselves for sport, soliciting friends and neighbors alike from the town streets.
If a plague of locusts two years earlier had failed to stem this tide of
dissolution among these Western newcomers to the Near East, then perhaps the
very tremor of the earth would command the attention of the wayward populace.
On November 13, 1114, an earthquake struck the outlying town of Mamistra,
inflicting great damage and foreshadowing the destruction to come. Sixteen days
later, “in the silence at the dead of night, when human frailty was accustomed
more suitably and sweetly to sleep,” Antioch itself felt the wrath of the Lord.
“The city was a scene of destruction,” Walter tells us, “with many killed in their
homes. Others, indeed, were terrified; they abandoned their homes, scorned their
wealth, left everything, and behaved as if demented in the streets and squares of
the town. They stretched their hands towards the heavens because of their
manifold fear and powerlessness, and cried tearfully without ceasing in different
languages: ‘Spare us, Lord, spare your people.’ ”3 The next morning, chastened
survivors filed into the central St. Peter’s Church, miraculously untouched by the
violent swaying of the ground, and forswore the pursuit of earthly pleasure.
The Antiochenes were not the only ones to have their world turned upside
down. Huddling for shelter on a stone bridge in Mamistra was a young country
gentleman far from home. Adelard of Bath had not made the arduous journey
from England’s West Country for the celebrated wedding of King Baldwin of
Jerusalem to Adelaide of Sicily. He was not interested in the debaucheries of his
fellow Europeans. Nor had he followed in the footsteps of the conquering
crusaders sixteen years before him to Outremer, literally “the lands beyond the
sea.” Unlike those fearsome holy warriors—that “race of Franks” unleashed by
Pope Urban II—who had raped and pillaged their way across Central Europe
even before they had gotten to the Holy Land, Adelard was determined to learn
from the Muslims rather than kill them under the sign of the cross. Where the
crusaders had seen only evil in the Muslim infidel, Adelard sought the light of
Arab wisdom.
Antioch—today the provincial Turkish town of Antakya—must have been
irresistible for the restless Adelard, who as a young scholar had already decreed
the value of traveling far and wide in the pursuit of learning: “It will be
worthwhile to approach teachers of different people, to commit to memory what
you may find is most finely expressed among each of them. For what the French
studies are ignorant of, those across the Alps will unlock; what you will not learn
amongst the Latins, eloquent Greece will teach you.”4 The city, founded in the
fourth century B.C., had once been the leading metropolis of Asia. Its memory
was particularly dear to the Christian world: Here the name “Christian” had first
been applied, and Saint Peter had served as the city’s first bishop, a point the
ever-touchy, status-conscious popes of Rome preferred to overlook.5 It had once
flourished under Muslim rule but was now controlled by crusading Normans.
This new principality of Antioch comprised the fortified central town, the
surrounding plain, and the seaports of Alexandretta and St. Simeon. The land
was very rich, its fortunes resting on the manufacture of fine silks, carpets,
pottery, and glass.
Like Adelard himself, the city that awaited him stood on the cusp between
East and West. Antioch had long been an important stopover on the lucrative
caravan trade route from Mesopotamia, traditional commerce that scrupulously
ignored the inconvenient religious warfare of the Crusades and carried on much
as before. Most of the city’s inhabitants were Christians—Eastern Orthodox,
Jacobites, Nestorians, and Armenians. The predominant language was Arabic,
but religious and cultural affinities also ensured a place for Greek and Latin,
creating a living Rosetta stone that eased the exchange of books and ideas across
sectarian, cultural, and ethnic lines. Now, the principality found itself a vital link
between opposing worlds, thrust together by the religious and political struggle
for control of the holy city of Jerusalem, almost three hundred miles to the south.
A few years before Adelard’s arrival, combined Norman and Genoese forces
had captured the nearby city of Tripoli from the Banu Ammar, its refined
Muslim princes. The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades, a contemporary Arab
account, recorded that among the booty carted off from Tripoli by the victorious
Christians were “the books of its college and libraries of private collectors.”6
Thousands of these works ended up in the hands of Antioch’s merchants, now
within easy reach of the man from Bath.
Still, nothing had prepared Adelard for what he found in his dogged pursuit of
what he called the studia Arabum, the learning of the Arabs. Here at last were
the secrets of the ages, buried for six centuries beneath the chaos of western
Christendom. This peripatetic Englishman immediately grasped the power of
Arab knowledge to remake the world as he knew it. Adelard left his native
England a young scholar thirsting for wisdom only the Arabs could supply. He
would return as the first Western man of science and help change his world
If, as Adelard now learned from his Arab teachers, the heavens moved to
regular and immutable rhythms, then what role remained for God Almighty?
Could he suspend these laws of nature? Did the universe have a beginning and
an end, as written in the Bible and the Koran? Or was it eternal, neither created
in time nor subject to change, as the Muslim philosophers said? If this “new
logic” was correct, then what was one to make of the sacred teaching of
creation? To Adelard, the world suddenly seemed a new and unfamiliar place.
Such questions had engaged Arab thinkers for centuries, as they struggled to fit
their own monotheistic faith into a growing understanding of the universe
around them. This great struggle between faith and reason was about to come
crashing down on an unsuspecting Europe.
The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard
and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West
into a scientific and technological superpower. Like the elusive “elixir”—from
the alchemists’ al~iksir—for changing base metal into gold, Arab science altered
medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries,
Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it. This encounter with Arab science
even restored the art of telling time, lost to the western Christians of the early
Middle Ages. Without accurate control over clock and calendar, the rational
organization of society was unthinkable. And so was the development of
science, technology, and industry, as well as the liberation of man from the thrall
of nature. Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from
ignorance and made possible the very idea of the West.
Yet how many among us today stop to acknowledge our enormous debt to the
Arabs, let alone endeavor to repay it? How many recognize their invaluable
bequest of much of our modern technical lexicon: from azimuth to zenith, from
algebra to zero? Or the more mundane Arab influence in everything from the
foods we eat—apricots, oranges, and artichokes, to name a few—to such
common nautical terms as admiral, sloop, and monsoon? Even the
quintessentially English tradition of the Morris folk dance is really a corruption
of Moorish dancing, harkening back to a time when Arab minstrels entertained
the nobility of Muslim Spain.
The names al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, al-Idrisi, and Averroes—giants of Arab
learning and dominant figures in medieval Europe for centuries—today invoke
little if any response from the educated lay reader. Most are forgotten, little more
than distant memories from a bygone era. Yet these were just a few of the
players in an extraordinary Arab scientific and philosophical tradition that lies
hidden under centuries of Western ignorance and outright anti-Muslim prejudice.
A recent public opinion survey found that a majority of Americans see “little” or
“nothing” to admire in Islam or the Muslim world.7 But turn back the pages of
time and it is impossible to envision Western civilization without the fruits of
Arab science: al-Khwarizmi’s art of algebra, the comprehensive medical
teachings and philosophy of Avicenna, the lasting geography and cartography of
al-Idrisi, or the rigorous rationalism of Averroes. Even more important than any
individual work was the Arabs’ overall contribution that lies at the very heart of
the contemporary West—the realization that science can grant man power over
The power of Arab learning, championed by Adelard of Bath, refashioned
Europe’s intellectual landscape. Its reach extended into the sixteenth century and
beyond, shaping the groundbreaking work of Copernicus and Galileo. This
brought Christian Europe face-to-face with the fact that the sun—not the earthly
home of God’s creature, man—stood at the center of the universe. Averroes, the
philosopher-judge from Muslim Spain, explained classical philosophy to the
West and first introduced it to rationalist thought. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine
remained a standard European text into the 1600s. Arab books on optics,
chemistry, and geography were equally longlived.
The West’s willful forgetting of the Arab legacy began centuries ago, as antiMuslim propaganda crafted in the shadow of the Crusades began to obscure any
recognition of Arab culture’s profound role in the development of modern
science. This message comprised four central themes, a number of which still
resonate today: Islam distorts the word of God; it is spread solely by violence; it
perverts human sexuality, either by encouraging the practice of polygamy, as in
the famed harems of the sultans, or through repressive or excessively prudish
attitudes; and its prophet, Muhammad, was a charlatan, a tool of the Devil, or
even the Antichrist.
The thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon, one of the earliest Western
proponents of the scientific method, praised the Muslims for their intellectual
innovations, a subject he knew well: “Philosophy is drawn from the Muslims.”8
Yet the same Roger Bacon was just as enthusiastic in denouncing aspects of
Muslim life of which he had no real knowledge or experience: The Arabs, he
asserted confidently, “are absorbed in sensual pleasures because of their
polygamy.”9 Soon such fanciful notions completely displaced all others in the
popular imagination.
These views gained further currency in the Renaissance, when the West
increasingly looked for inspiration to an idealized notion of classical Greece.10
Eager to claim direct descent from the likes of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and
Archimedes, Western thinkers deliberately marginalized the role of Arab
learning. “I shall scarcely be persuaded that anything good can come from
Arabia,” wrote Petrarch, the most prominent of the early humanists, in the
fourteenth century.11 Western historians of science have largely carried on in this
vein; many cast the Arabs as benign but effectively neutral caretakers of Greek
knowledge who did little or nothing to advance the work of the ancients.
Such accounts are grounded in the persistent notion of the West’s “recovery”
of classical learning, with the clear implication that this knowledge was
somehow the natural birthright of Christian Europe and was merely misplaced
during the Middle Ages. They are also profoundly colored by a Western
consensus, often invoked to explain the state of the Muslim world today, that
Islam is inherently hostile to innovation and became all the more so from the
early twelfth century onward.12
Chapter One
THEY COULDN’T EVEN tell the time—this uncountable army of believers.
The warriors of God pushed on to the gates of the imperial city of
Constantinople, their arrival heralded by a plague of locusts that destroyed the
vines but left the wheat untouched. Their leader, an implacable cleric who had
appeared from nowhere to great popular acclaim, exhorted his charges to holy
war against the infidel with promises of a home in paradise. Disease and
malnutrition were rife. Medical care often involved exorcism or the amputation
of injured limbs. Torture and other ordeals settled criminal cases.
Few had any learning at all. What education there was back home consisted
of memorizing outdated texts under the watchful eyes of hidebound doctors of
religion. They had no understanding of basic technology, science, or
mathematics. They could not date their most important holy days, nor chart the
regular movements of the sun, the moon, and the planets. They knew nothing of
papermaking or the use of lenses and mirrors, and they had no inkling of the
prince of contemporary scientific instruments—the astrolabe. Natural
phenomena, such as an eclipse of the moon or a sudden change in weather,
terrified them. They thought it was black magic.
The arrival of this fanatical army horrified the locals. Who were these paleskinned, blue-eyed barbarians, marching under the sign of the cross, and what
did they want on Arab shores at the dawn of the twelfth Christian century?
“The whole West, and much of the land of barbarian peoples as lies beyond
the Adriatic Sea up to the Pillars of Hercules—all this … was bursting forth into
Asia in a solid mass, with all its belongings, taking its march through the
intervening portion of Europe,” records Princess Anna Comnena, daughter of the
Byzantine emperor, in Constantinople, the empire’s capital.1 Among their ranks
were true believers and righteous folk, notes the chronicler Albert of Aix, but
also “adulterers, homicides, thieves, perjurers, and robbers.”2 Their leader, Peter
the Hermit, rode a white mule and promised the remission of sins for all who
joined the cause.
A small, ugly man, Peter effortlessly touched the hearts of the common
people, who snatched hairs from his lowly mount to preserve as holy relics as he
preached the Crusade across northern France. Many sold what meager
possessions they had and set out behind him for the ends of the earth. Some
brought their entire families; others simply abandoned wives, children, and aging
parents. Crops were left untended and chores unfinished in the haste to follow
Peter’s call. The hermit kept his arms and feet bare, and he wore a rough wool
shirt, covered by a mantle that reached to his ankles. “He lived on wine and fish;
he hardly ever, never, ate bread,” reports Guibert of Nogent, in one of the
earliest accounts of the Crusades.3
The diminutive monk appeared suddenly, voicing a populist echo of the great
call to arms by Pope Urban II, who appealed to the princes of Christendom on
November 27, 1095, in the French town of Clermont to end their ceaseless
warring and turn their murderous energies on the unbelievers of the East. “Let
those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the
faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory. Let those who have
been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way
against the barbarians,” the pope told an overflowing crowd gathered to hear his
sermon. “Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now
obtain the eternal reward.”4 Within months of Urban’s summons, as many as
eighty thousand people, city residents and country dwellers alike, left for the
A combustible mixture of church politics, theological dispute, domestic
concerns, and world affairs fueled Urban’s call to crusade. In recent decades the
church had struggled with Europe’s secular rulers over rights and privileges,
most notably the power to invest new bishops and outfit them with the symbols
of office, the ring and staff. Urban and his supporters within the church saw the
Crusade as a way to restore the authority of Rome at the head of the Christian
world, without reliance on unruly monarchs.
For some time now, a number of religious thinkers had been arguing that
religious violence was both permissible and justified. Pope Gregory VII—Urban
the Crusader’s mentor—had had a longstanding interest in warfare on behalf of
the church, and he had even proposed the creation of a Militia of St. Peter
composed of European knights, the need for which was made all the more
pressing by the emerging struggle between secular kings and the papacy. Bishop
Anselm II of Lucca, a loyal partisan of the pope, had collated the writings of St.
Augustine on theories of just war in support of Gregory’s endeavors.6 These
reformers were also influenced by the notion that the church had to bring itself
closer to the people; this in turn supported the phenomenon of papal armies that
could provide believers with the chance to defend the faith in return for the
remission of sins.7
Global events played their part, too. In 1074, Gregory wrote a series of letters
calling for the liberation of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, who had suffered a
major military defeat three years before at the hands of the Muslim Turks at
Manzikert, in eastern Asia Minor. Establishing a clear link between fighting for
the church and the practice of indulgence, Gregory promised “eternal reward”
for those who took part.8 The West’s anxieties were further heightened by
reports—largely untrue but widely accepted as fact—that the modest but steady
flow of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem was being systematically impeded, or
worse, by the strict Seljuk Turks, who had taken control of the holy city in 1070
from the more relaxed Fatimids of Egypt.
Peter the Hermit himself may have been manhandled by the local Muslims as
he attempted without success to reach Jerusalem on a personal pilgrimage some
years before the Crusades. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess, says Peter
“suffered much at the hands of the Turks and Saracens,” before making his way
back to Europe only “with difficulty.”9 In some versions of the story, Jesus
appears to Peter in a dream and commands him to return home, gather an army
of believers, and liberate the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Muslim
control; in others, the patriarch of Jerusalem deputizes Peter to make his way to
Europe to summon help for embattled eastern Christians. The late twelfthcentury Song of Antioch depicts Peter, “whom God made messenger,” as the sole
survivor of an earlier campaign who then returns to Europe to raise a great army
and lead the Crusade.10
Peter’s exact role in launching the Crusade remains uncertain, although later
medieval chronicles are notable for the increasing prominence they give the
hermit as inspiration and even prime mover behind the entire enterprise. Popular
accounts celebrate Peter for aiding the poor and providing dowries for prostitutes
so that they might marry. One twelfth-century text, The Rosenfeld Annals, says
the hermit’s arrival on the scene was foreshadowed by an impressive celestial
display: “One evening … with not a cloud in the air, balls of fire, as it seemed,
shone forth in different places and reconstituted themselves in another part of the
sky. It was observed that this was no fire but angelic powers which, by their
migration, were signifying the movement and foreshadowing the departure of
people from their places, which later seized nearly all the Western world.”11
With Urban II, protégé of the bellicose Gregory VII, on the throne of St.
Peter, there was no more holding back the disparate forces pulling the church
toward war. Reformers grouped around the pope were locked in battle for
influence and power with both internal and secular rivals. A long and varied
history of Christian teachings on permissible war in defense of the faith and the
growing popularity of martial metaphors in religious writings eased the way. As
those around the pontiff recognized, the call to Christian arms would allow the
pope to exercise enormous personal authority and help unite his fractious flock
in a sacred mission; it seemed like the answer to their prayers. The result was
Christian holy war on a massive scale, an attempt by an atavistic West to remake
a changing world in its own image. Although they would ultimately end in
failure, the Crusades nonetheless paid significant dividends by bringing the Latin
world face-to-face with the scientific and technological prowess of the Arab
East. They also fired the imagination regarding things Eastern among many in
Europe, including Adelard, who was in his teens at the time of Urban’s
momentous appeal.
The pope had envisioned a long, careful buildup to a proper military
campaign under the command of his appointed lieutenant, the papal legate, and
backed by the ruling families of the West. But the tide of humanity that quickly
fell in behind Peter the Hermit and a handful of other populist leaders had no
interest in the prelate’s cautious timetable, or the church’s broader political,
social, and theological goals. This People’s Crusade, a prelude to the main
military effort, would wait for no man. “Deus vult!” the crowds had chanted in
Clermont in response to the pope’s fighting words. “God wills it!” The faithful,
eager to escape lives of degradation, violence, and disease, soon set off by the
tens of thousands without waiting for their betters. “Therefore, while the princes,
who felt in the need of many expenses and great services from their attendants,
made their preparations slowly and carefully, the common people who had little
property, but were very numerous, joined … Peter the Hermit, and obeyed him
as a master while these affairs were going on among us,” says the account of
Guibert of Nogent.12
The majority comprised simple peasants, but there were townspeople, too,
and even some impoverished knights, renegades, debtors, and outright criminals.
For many, the quest for the Holy Land was guided more by superstition and
popular frenzy than by any true understanding of the faith or the goals of church
leaders. “They asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and
that a she-goat was not less filled by this same Spirit,” records Albert of Aix,
clearly mortified by the very words he is writing. “These they made their guides
on this holy journey to Jerusalem; these they worshipped excessively; and most
of the people following them, like beasts, believed with their whole minds that
this was the true course.”13 Sexual license also ran rampant among the crusaders.
“These people … joined up in one force, but did not abstain at all from illicit
unions and the pleasures of the flesh; they gave themselves up to gluttonous
excess without interruption and amused themselves without interruption with
women and young girls who had also emigrated from their homes to give
themselves to the same follies.”14
By the spring of 1096, the ill-disciplined mobs that constituted this People’s
Crusade were sweeping through the unfamiliar lands of Central and Eastern
Europe with predictably disastrous results. The Jews of the Rhineland,
forewarned by their brethren in France who had successfully bribed Peter and
other leaders to leave them alone, braced for the worst. “At this time arrogant
people, a people of strange speech, a nation bitter and impetuous, Frenchmen
and Germans, set out for the holy city, which had been desecrated by barbaric
nations, there to seek their house of idolatry and banish the Ishmaelites [the
Muslims] and other denizens of the land and conquer the land for themselves,”
recounts The Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson, left behind by a little-known
Jewish writer. “Their ranks swelled until the numbers of men, women and
children exceeded a locust horde covering the earth.”15 Another account, written
by an anonymous Jewish author from Mainz, then a center of learning, was
recorded shortly after the events. It tells us that Jews all along the Rhine began to
fast, to repent their sins, and to beseech God for help. Some sought the
protection of the local Catholic bishops, while others tried to emulate their
French brethren and pay the crusaders to go away. Their appeals, sacred and
profane, went unheeded.
The worst depredations were carried out by the forces under the local German
count Emicho as they marched eastward up the Rhine. At Worms, in May 1096,
they killed five hundred Jews who had sought the protection of local Catholic
leaders. Another thousand were killed in Mainz, amid anti-Jewish rioting in the
city. Again, the local church leadership failed to restrain its flocks or honor
earlier promises to the Jews of sanctuary.16 Jewish leaders organized mass
suicides rather than let their charges fall into the hands of the attacking crusaders
and face the prospect of forced conversion. “They all cried out together in a loud
voice, … ‘Whoever has a knife, come kill us for the honor of the unique eternal
God, and then pierce himself with his sword in the neck or belly, slaughter
himself,’ ” the anonymous chronicler reports. “And the pure women were
throwing money out [the windows] to delay the enemies a bit, until the women
could slaughter their own children; the hands of merciful women were strangling
their own children, to do the will of the Creator, and were turning their
children’s tender faces to the Gentiles.”17
Pope Urban’s call to crusade had fired the religious zeal of Christians across
Europe with its appeal to battle the “enemies” of Christ. This was a dangerous
development at a time of growing tensions in the Rhineland between Jews, long
seen in the European imagination as Christ’s tormentors, and non-Jews over
access to expanding trade and commerce.18 Popular Christian tracts accusing the
Jews of scheming with the far-off Muslims, often in fantastic ways, only
aggravated matters further. “Emicho the wicked, enemy of the Jews, came with
his whole army against the city gate, and the citizens opened it up for him.
Emicho, a German noble, led a band of plundering German and French
crusaders. The enemies of the Lord said to each other: ‘See, they have opened
the gate for us; now let us avenge the blood of the crucified one,’ ” writes
Solomon bar Simson.19 Volkmar, another populist leader, attacked the Jews of
Prague at the end of June, while more massacres took place near the Hungarian
border. By the summer, the crusaders had left the Rhineland and were headed for
Constantinople, much to the relief of the local Christian rulers who wanted them
out of their lands as quickly as possible.20
No wonder Anna Comnena recounts with awe the fanatical tide of humanity
—dirty, ill fed, sick, and exhausted—that poured into the realm in the summer of
1096, on the way to battle the Muslim infidel to the south. It was, she notes
gravely, “a matter greater and more terrible than famine.”21 Most of Peter’s loyal
followers were slaughtered by the Turks on October 2I at Civetot, not far from
Constantinople. They had set off against the counsel of Emperor Alexius—
Anna’s father—and without the protection of the organized armies of
Christendom that were still in transit from Europe. The hermit, however, was not
present at the disastrous end to this People’s Crusade. Contemporary European
accounts are contradictory: Either he remonstrated unsuccessfully with his
followers not to take on the well-trained Turkish forces, or he cowered in the
safety of Constantinople to avoid the slaughter he knew was inevitable. Anna’s
version has him whisked to safety by Byzantine forces. In any event, Peter
eventually reached his beloved Jerusalem with the main contingent of knights
three years later. One of Peter’s chief lieutenants was less fortunate. His coat of
mail pierced by seven arrows, he died at Civetot at the head of his fanatical
Along the eastern Mediterranean and into the Syrian heartland, the arrival of
the crusaders appeared to confirm the worst fears of the local Arabs and their
Jewish and Christian subjects. Medieval Arab geography customarily divided the
world into seven zones, or climates. The central third and fourth zones—the
Arab world, North Africa, Iran, and parts of China—enjoyed the greatest balance
and harmony. The northerly sixth zone was home to the Slavs, the Turks, and the
European Christians, the latter known among the Arabs simply as al-Ifranj, or
the Franks. All three were warlike, filthy, and inclined toward treachery.22 In the
case of the Franks, their northerly provenance also made them unstable. Other
notable qualities included profligate sexuality, a lack of jealousy, and a general
propensity for violence.23
The Arab geographer al-Masudi blamed the absence of sunlight for these
personal shortcomings. At the same time, his assessment betrayed a grasp of
astronomy—if not, perhaps, of meteorology—that was well beyond that of his
subjects, the crusading Franks:
As regards the people of the northern quadrant, they are the one for whom
the sun is distant from the zenith … The power of the sun is weak among
them because of their distance from it; cold and damp prevail in their
regions, and snow and ice follow one another in endless succession. The
warm humor is lacking among them; their bodies are large; their natures
gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues
heavy … Their religious beliefs lack solidity, and this is because of the
nature of cold and the lack of warmth.24
The debacle of Peter and his populist campaign was soon eclipsed by the arrival
outside Constantinople of the main Christian fighting force. Here were trained
military men, led by members of Europe’s royal houses and subject to both the
new religious zeal of the day and more traditional political and economic
interests of their own. This jumble of kings, princes, and other nobility from
across Europe often left the fortunes of the First Crusade hostage to internal
rivalries, personal ambition, and the lack of a single recognized authority or
commander. At first Emperor Alexius successfully exploited these differences
and used the crusaders’ military prowess and enthusiasm to reestablish his own
grip over western Asia Minor, which he had lost earlier to the Muslims. In one
such campaign, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse, captured the
Syrian port of Latakia from the Arabs and then handed it to the Byzantine ruler
in line with an oath he and other crusader lords had taken at Alexius’s insistence.
But the princes of western Christendom were not all so pliable. Many were
intent on performing their religious and military duty as quickly as possible
before hurrying back to their dominions at home. But a select handful, including
some of the leading lights of the First Crusade, such as Godfrey of Bouillon and
the wily Norman commander Bohemond of Taranto, had ill-disguised territorial
designs of their own. Pope Urban had, at least in part, used the First Crusade to
export the endless bickering and warring of such minor princelings from an
exhausted and violence-racked Europe. He had said as much at Clermont. Both
the church’s higher ambitions for the Crusades and Alexius’s own dream of
restoring Constantinople’s hold over Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean
with the help of the zealous arrivals had to compete with the more mundane and
secular concerns of the individual crusaders.
Almost immediately, fissures opened in the Latin ranks. The push south from
Constantinople to the Holy Land—the stated objective of the entire venture, after
all—was threatened by the decision of Baldwin of Boulogne, a prominent
French nobleman, and a handful of others to split off temporarily from the main
body in search of territory they could call their own. Baldwin had carefully
studied the social and political complexities of the Armenian lands along the
nearby Euphrates. He and his men, accompanied by Armenian political advisers,
headed eastward to make their fortune. They may have taken some comfort in
the notion that such a campaign would further the crusaders’ mission by
protecting the eastern flank of the drive for Jerusalem. But it was clear that
Baldwin, as astute a diplomatic and military operator as any of the crusader
commanders, had sensed opportunity amid the traditional political and religious
intrigues of the region, particularly in Edessa, then a predominantly Armenian
town in what is today southern Turkey. He was not about to let the demands of
Christian holy war stand in his way.
As Baldwin and his aides had been led to expect, the local Armenian
Christian population at once welcomed the crusading Franks with open arms.
They had grown tired of constant Turkish military raids and were restive under
the rule of the former Byzantine official Thoros, a fellow Armenian who
followed the Eastern Orthodox Church of hated Byzantium rather than the
national rite. Unpopular at home, increasingly unsuccessful at war, and childless
in marriage, the aging Thoros offered to adopt the popular Baldwin as his heir
and immediately made him coruler. The pair even underwent an adoption ritual,
clearly designed for young children, in which they both wriggled into a single
oversize shirt or tunic and rubbed their chests together; Baldwin then repeated
the process with Thoros’s wife, now his adoptive “mother.” The Chronicle of
Matthew of Armenia reports that a plot to remove Thoros was soon hatched and
that Baldwin was informed, although his overt role as instigator, if any, remains
murky. On March 7, 1098, the conspirators whipped the population into a frenzy
of rioting and brought down the hapless Thoros. Three days later, the town
notables invited Baldwin to take his place. Thoros, we are told, was caught
trying to escape and was torn to pieces by the mob.25
Edessa, the first territory to fall to the crusaders and the first to slip from their
grasp again, was little more than a sideshow to the West’s campaign for control
of the Holy Land. Yet it played an outsize role in the early history of the socalled Latin East. First, it showed how skillful diplomacy and a healthy dose of
intrigue could easily tip the region’s fragile balance among competing ethnic,
linguistic, and sectarian factions, groups, and nations. Second, it created a
powerful if fleeting example of what an ambitious prince and a handful of
knights—Baldwin’s initial force was said to number just sixty horsemen—could
accomplish, inspiring acquisitive rivals to strike out on their own rather than
struggle on toward the holy city.
Most important, it saw the emergence under Baldwin, who had proclaimed
himself Count of Edessa, of a model of state and society for the rest of the Latin
East, one that the irrepressible Norman would later implement more widely as
king of Jerusalem. According to this approach, Frankish princes and their vassals
were allocated the top positions of government, but plenty of room was left for
the talents and ambitions of the locals, whether Christian or Muslim. This would
prove a successful system, well adapted to the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of the
Middle East, but it stood at odds with the militant notions of crusading as
preached by Pope Urban two and a half years earlier.
Like the future Count of Edessa, Bohemond of Taranto seemed more
concerned with immediate earthly pursuit than future heavenly reward. One of
the ablest commanders of the First Crusade, this Norman adventurer from
southern Italy took no direct role in the march to Jerusalem in 1099. Instead, he
overrode the objections of his colleagues and ignored his own oath to Emperor
Alexius by setting out to take Antioch, gateway to the Holy Land, from the
Muslims and keep it for himself and his heirs. Once outside its walls, he
repeatedly thwarted joint crusader efforts to seize the city, whose defenders soon
recovered from their initial dismay at the arrival of the large Christian army.
Bohemond’s tactic cost the crusaders the chance to seize the city immediately
and forced many months of delay in the main host’s push for Jerusalem, but it
successfully ensured that the spoils of victory would ultimately accrue to him
The city and its surrounding lands were a rich prize. It sat at the crossroads of
lucrative East-West trade and had periodically changed hands among the Arabs,
Byzantines, and Seljuk Turks. The Arab physician Ibn Butlan, far from his
native Baghdad, found the bazaars of Antioch overflowing with goods, while
residents enjoyed civic water supplies and other conveniences, including a
public clepsydra, or water clock, near one of the city gates.26 Now, with the
Byzantine emperor helpless back in Constantinople and the local Muslims
deeply divided, Antioch’s impressive defenses were all that stood between the
ambitious Bohemond and his dream of establishing his own royal line. “So
fortified was it with walls and towers and barbicans, that it had no need to fear
assault of any machine or the attack of any man, not even if all mankind were to
come together against it,” says the Frenchman Raymond of Aguilers in his
firsthand account of the First Crusade.27
After a long and ineffectual siege, Bohemond’s agents managed to bribe a
disgruntled tower guard to look the other way as a small force of crusaders
climbed one of the walls and then threw open Antioch’s massive gate. The local
garrison fled to the city’s impressive citadel, while a considerable Muslim relief
force under the command of the Turkish general Kerbogha approached
menacingly from the east. The crusaders, by now tired and suffering from a lack
of supplies, mounting desertion, and general low morale, found themselves
unable to take the citadel and faced with the mortal threat of Kerbogha’s
looming counterattack. Food supplies soon ran low, and the depleted countryside
had little left to offer the hordes of scavenging crusaders. Fulcher of Chartres,
loyal chaplain to Baldwin of Edessa, describes how many were reduced to
subsisting on barely cooked thistles, bean shoots, and the meat of horses,
donkeys, dogs, and rats. “We believed that these misfortunes befell the Franks,
and that they were not able for so long a time to take the city, because of their
sins. Not only dissipation, but also avarice or pride or rapaciousness corrupted
them.” An army council resolved to send the women away “lest they, stained by
the defilement of dissipation, displease the Lord.”28
It is emblematic of the Crusades that a religious vision, even one doubted by
almost all of the prominent figures present, saved the day for the Christians.
Peter Bartholomew, a lowly pilgrim, claimed divine inspiration had revealed the
location in the city of the Holy Lance, which tradition said had pierced Christ’s
side as he hung from the cross. The pilgrim directed the increasingly desperate
crusaders to the local cathedral of St. Peter, patron saint of Antioch and its first
bishop. Sure enough, a little digging in the floor of the cathedral uncovered what
the searchers were convinced was the tip of this valued relic. The discovery
transformed the morale in the crusader camp, inspiring a remarkable victory on
June 28, 1098, against the much larger attacking force of Kerbogha, which had
already been weakened along the way by a failed attempt to retake Edessa from
Baldwin. The Muslim armies fled in disgrace.
Bohemond, who had skillfully outmaneuvered all his European and
Byzantine rivals, including Emperor Alexius and his top generals, now
controlled Antioch. The local Arab princes, chiefly the rulers of the nearby
towns of Aleppo and Shaizar, were unprepared to set aside their own
longstanding feud to challenge the establishment of this crusader statelet.
Instead, they saw Christian Antioch as just one more player in a crowded
geopolitical field that also included Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim factions, as well as
their mutual rivals of long standing, the Byzantines.29
In the far-off Muslim capital of Baghdad—three weeks’ ride by camel under
the desert sun—the caliph was not impressed by accounts of murder and
mayhem at the hands of these cold-blooded crusaders. Not even the fall of
Jerusalem, on July 15, 1099, and its attendant slaughter of Muslims, Jews, and
eastern Christians, could stir the court. “How dare you slumber in the shade of
complacent safety, leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your
brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the
bellies of vultures?” demanded Abu Saad al-Harawi, who had made the long
journey from Damascus to warn the caliph of the danger posed by al-Ifranj.30 AlHarawi, who had discarded his traditional judge’s turban and shaved his head as
a sign of mourning, got nowhere.
There was, the caliph’s court concluded, little cause for alarm, but those in
the direct path of the marauding Ifranj were appalled by what they saw and heard
of the barbarians from the West. One learned Arab knight, Usama ibn Munqidh,
summed up local reaction to these Christian interlopers, setting a tone that still
strikes a chord across the Muslim world: “Glory be to the Creator, the Maker!
Indeed, when a person relates matters concerning the Franks, he should give
glory to God and sanctify Him! For he will see them to be mere beasts
possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting, just as beasts have only the
virtues of strength and the ability to carry loads.”31
The Christians’ reliance on trial by ordeal offended the sensibilities of the
Muslims, with their highly evolved system of legal disputation and formal
schools of religious law. Western notions of medicine were based largely on
superstition and exorcism, in sharp contrast to the Arabs’ advanced clinical
training and understanding of surgery, pharmacology, and epidemiology. The
newcomers lacked any real knowledge of hygiene and sanitation, a deep affront
to Muslims who performed ritual ablutions before each of the five daily prayers.
Muslim observers thought very little of what they saw of Frankish culture. From
their perspective, the Ifranj had no understanding of even basic technology,
except perhaps for the engines of war, no proper science, medicine, or
mathematics, and no real philosophical inquiry. Moreover, the crusaders’
reputation for cruelty was sealed by an outbreak of cannibalism after the sack of
the Syrian town of Mara, in the winter of 1098. “Our troops boiled pagan adults
whole in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them
grilled,” writes Radulph of Caen, a witness to the atrocities at Mara.32 Fellow
chronicler Albert of Aix captures the full horror of the incident in a single, banal
aside: “Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens,
they also ate dogs.”33
Usama, scion of the local Muslim dynasty the Banu Munqidh, came to know
the crusaders intimately, fighting with some and befriending others. His highly
personable memoir, The Book of Contemplation, condemns the Christians for the
barbarity of trial by ordeal and chastises them for their loose morals, poor diet,
and general bad habits. As the title suggests, the book falls within the classical
Arabic genre of adab, works designed to instruct the reader more than to convey
literal truths.34 Still, The Book of Contemplation provides a fascinating window
on the crusaders’ world as seen by the Arabs. In one passage, Usama recounts an
Arab doctor’s tale of two Christian patients who died needlessly after the
physician’s sage advice was spurned and more primitive Western techniques
applied. Ignoring the Arab’s pleas, the Franks lopped off a knight’s mildly
infected leg with an ax and made an incision in the shape of a cross into an ill
woman’s head, before rubbing her skull with salt; both died on the spot. At this
point, the doctor dryly remarked, “So I asked them, ‘Do you need anything else
from me?’ ‘No,’ they said. And so I left, having learned about their medicine
things I had never known before.”35
Usama does grudgingly acknowledge some useful facility with medicinal
plants among the Christians, and he becomes sufficiently familiar with them to
study their ways and habits firsthand. A crusader acquaintance on his way back
from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land even offers to escort Usama’s fourteen-yearold son to Europe so that the boy might learn proper “reason and chivalry”
among the knights of Christendom and then return “like a truly rational man.”
Ever the gentleman, Usama quickly makes a polite excuse and deftly sidesteps
the offer, but he reveals to his Muslim readers his true thoughts at the very
notion: “And so there fell upon my ears words that would never come from a
truly rational head! For even if my son were taken captive, his captivity would
not be as long as any voyage he might take to the land of the Franks.”36
He also notes, with obvious satisfaction, that those of the Ifranj who have
lived the longest among the local Muslims are somewhat less objectionable than
the boorish new arrivals. “Among the Franks there are some who have become
acclimatized and frequent the company of Muslims. They are much better than
those recently arrived from their lands, but they are the exception and should not
be considered representative.”37 To bolster his case, Usama then tells a number
of amusing tales of these bumptious newcomers, including one account of a
knight who tries to forcibly “correct” the direction in which the local Muslims
pray by turning them eastward and away from Mecca.
Such easy interaction between putative enemies reflects a central reality of
twelfth-century life in the Levant, which was marked by periods of
accommodation and cooperation, both personal and political, interspersed with
bouts of enmity and outright conflict. Hamdan bin Abd al-Rahman, an Arab
physician, served some of the early crusaders. He was rewarded with a village in
the principality of Antioch after successfully treating one of the Christian lords.
Hamdan was later made administrator of a local district on the crusaders’ behalf,
before entering the service of Imad al-Din Zengi, the Muslim ruler of nearby
Aleppo. Hamdan, who died in 1159, recorded his own observations and exploits
in The Way of the Franks Who Went out to Syria in Those Years, but no copy has
ever been found.38
Usama ibn Munqidh had good reason to look down upon the Army of the Cross
and to shrink at the notion of his son learning the “reason and chivalry” of the
Franks, for he and his fellow Arabs were the beneficiaries of a glorious Muslim
civilization created over the course of hundreds of years. By the mid-eighth
century, the Abbasid caliphs had established themselves at the head of a huge
empire. At its height, it stretched from the Atlantic to Afghanistan and created an
enormous expanse of shared values, outlook, and opportunity. The Abbasids
sought to legitimate their rule as rightful and worthy heirs to the classical
traditions of Greece, Persia, India, and Mesopotamia, launching perhaps the
most ambitious effort in history to gather and assimilate the world’s learning. In
southern Spain, their Arab rivals the Umayyads and their successors produced
some of the greatest of the Arab philosophers and scientists, thinkers whose
works would one day shake the foundations of Christian Europe. Known among
the Arabs as al-Andalus, this region served as an important staging ground for
ideas and technology that began to trickle into Western Europe as early as the
tenth century.
None of that, of course, held any interest for Peter the Hermit, his legion of
followers, or the Christian kings and knights who soon established the
principalities of the Latin East in and around the Holy Land. The crusaders,
abandoning Christ’s theology of love for the pope’s theology of war, slaughtered
the local urban populations, mostly Muslims and Jews, in their zeal to “reclaim”
Jerusalem for the one true faith. Eastern Christians, with their unfamiliar dress,
language, and customs, often fared little better.
One Muslim traveler, venturing far from his native Spain, had found
Jerusalem in the years shortly before the First Crusade to be an intellectual
melting pot “teeming with scholars.” His account details the competing schools
of Islamic law and the famous intellectuals who gathered to debate around the
central mosque: “We entered the Holy Land and reached the Aqsa mosque. The
full moon of knowledge shone for me and I was illuminated by it for more than
three years.”39 The city, he adds, provided an ideal meeting place for experts in
all three of the great monotheistic faiths.
That all disappeared in the flash of a sword. The city’s scholarly class was
killed wholesale, along with much of the rest of the populace. Raymond of
Aguilers, chaplain to Raymond of Saint-Gilles, who led the crusaders of
southern France, records the carnage: “Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be
seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies
of men and horses. But these were small matters compared with what happened
in the Temple of Solomon. What happened there? If I tell the truth, you would
not believe it. Suffice to say that, in the Temple and Porch of Solomon, men rode
in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”40
The extremes of violence that characterized the First Crusade—such as the
cannibalism at Mara or the frenzied slaughter at the Temple of Solomon—
reflected the potent Christian propaganda machine behind the campaign. At the
time, the West knew little of Islam and its teachings, but church ideologues
successfully sowed the seeds of holy war by painting a highly damaging portrait
of the Muslims. The peoples of the Near East—Muslim, Jew, or “schismatic”
Christian—were left to reap the whirlwind. Antipathy for the followers of Islam
was particularly charged in those parts of Western Europe most distant from
Muslim life. Attitudes in southern Italy, Spain, and Sicily—areas actually
bordering on the Islamic world—were considerably more relaxed.41 The less the
Christians knew about the infidel, the more they hated him.
Charges against the Muslims of idolatry and reliance on violence and
coercion were central to the crusader narrative. Another key element was the
generalized claim that Jerusalem and the Holy Land were Christian, or more
precisely Latin Christian, by right and always had been so. They had been seized
and defiled by the Muslims—“seduced,” in the language of some propagandists
—and violence was necessary and even justified to right this great historical
wrong. Similar language was applied to the Muslims in southern Spain. Here,
church historians and others linked contemporary Christian kings to the earlier
reign of the Visigoths before the coming of Islam. Only armed force could
restore their rule; thus, the sacred notion of Reconquista, akin to the Crusades of
the East, was born. Contempt was reserved for those kings who would not fight
for the faith. The ninth-century Chronicle of Alfonso III, for example, bitterly
denounces one local Christian ruler, Silo of Asturias, who “had peace with the
Looking eastward, the ever-enthusiastic Dominican theologian Humbert of
Romans argued that in a proper Crusade there could be no innocent victims; all
Muslims were guilty, for they destroyed both the body and the soul of pious
Christians. Crusading, Humbert said, represented a just war, grounded in divine
right and fought for faith, not spoils. He also dismissed the arguments of some
traditionalists that Christianity had always opposed violence of any kind. In its
early days, the church had been weak and thus had had to rely on miracles and
humility. Now the military might of the Christian West allowed an armed
response to its enemies.43 To Humbert, it seems, Christ’s teachings were just an
exercise in realpolitik.
Clerical resentment at the use of real or imagined Christian holy sites as
places of Muslim worship also ran deep.44 The carnage at the Temple of
Solomon, which at one point continued despite attempts by a senior crusader to
protect the defenseless Muslims sheltering on its rooftop, should have come as
no surprise. Witness the frank accounts of the contemporary Christian
chroniclers, who display no real unease at the bloodshed and at times express
their satisfaction that the brutal killing, such as that of the vanquished foe at the
Temple of Solomon, was legitimate. “Indeed, it was a just and splendid
judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the
unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was
filled with corpses and blood,” concluded Raymond of Aguilers.45
The epic Song of Antioch captures many of the prevailing themes of Crusades
propaganda: the rightful recovery of the Holy Land, the godlessness of the
Muslims, the home in heaven for the fallen martyrs, and the perfidy of the Jews.
In one passage, Christ on the cross tells his fellow prisoners of the future coming
of the crusaders: “ ‘My friends,’ he said. ‘The people are not yet born who will
avenge my death with their steel lances … They will regain my land and free my
country.’ ” One of the prisoners, a robber crucified to the right of Jesus, says
simply: “It would be good to see yourself avenged on these treacherous Jews
who torment you.”46
Not all Muslims were as indifferent to the arrival of the crusaders as the caliph
and his court in distant Baghdad. Many Arabs had no doubt that the capture of
Jerusalem and the creation of the crusader states along the Syrian coast were part
of an ominous pattern of Christian expansionism that had to be resisted. From
the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the legal scholar and preacher Ali ibn alSulami sounded the alarm. In his Kitab al~Jihad, or The Book of Holy War,
published six years after the Muslims were first driven from Jerusalem, alSulami linked the coming of the crusaders to their earlier success against Muslim
rule in Sicily. He saw the Christian campaign as a religious war against Islam.47
And he blamed the crusaders’ successes on infighting among the Muslims and
their inability to adhere to their faith, particularly their abject failure to unite to
defend the lands of Islam from nonbelievers. “This interruption [in waging
defensive jihad] combined with the negligence of the Muslims toward the
prescribed regulations [of Islam] … has inevitably meant that God has made
Muslims rise up one against the other, has placed violent hostility and hatred
among them, and has incited their enemies to seize their territories.”48
Al-Sulami understood that the crusaders were intent on holding Jerusalem
and would seek to expand their control of the region to secure the city and its
prized Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But The Book of Holy War also rightly
identified the enemy’s vulnerabilities, in particular the crusaders’ long supply
lines back to Western Europe. And it predicted that a united Muslim ummah, or
community of believers, could successfully drive the invaders into the sea. “One
knows for sure their weakness, the small amount of cavalry and equipment they
have at their disposal and the distance from which their reinforcements come …
It is an opportunity which must be seized quickly.”49
The Ifranj would soon discover just how prescient al-Sulami had been. The
Army of God had failed to grasp that its remarkable military successes, however
honestly won on the battlefield, were largely a reflection of the fractured, almost
anarchic, state of affairs across Syria and Asia Minor. Within forty-five years,
the Muslims began to roll back the Christian advances, a turn of events crowned
by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in 1187 of the political and military leader
Saladin at the head of a unified force from Egypt and all of Syria.
Long supply lines and a unified Islam were not the only problems facing the
Christian forces. Born in the West of iron and blood at the close of the eleventh
century, the crusader movement immediately found itself deeply enmeshed in
the life of the Muslim East in ways that would have horrified men like Peter the
Hermit and Pope Urban II, who died just days before the news of Jerusalem’s
capture could reach his sickbed in Rome. As countless attackers had before it,
the Army of the Cross discovered that the very act of invasion and conquest left
its mark on the besiegers as well as the besieged. There would be numerous
campaigns to come—even the enduring mystery of the so-called Children’s
Crusade of 1212, which, legend has it, ended in death by shipwreck or
enslavement in Muslim lands—but the idea of crusade and crusading would
never really be the same.
At first, such changes appeared relatively insignificant: Usama ibn Munqidh’s
bemused accounts of how the Muslims had quickly begun to civilize the
Europeans; or the way the Christians slipped so easily into the local factional
disputes, even siding at times with Muslim warlords and against their
coreligionists. Other, more powerful factors soon came to the fore, including the
spectacular growth of East-West trade. The church clearly recognized the danger
that such trade posed to its anti-Muslim agenda, and papal orders and outraged
church councils periodically sought to crack down on commerce with the infidel,
particularly in such strategic goods as wood for shipbuilding, iron, arms, and
even foodstuffs.50
Still, money from this new trade with the East began to pour into the
merchant leagues of southern Europe. Genoa came to dominate commerce with
North Africa and the Black Sea region, while Venice maintained a moneyspinning stranglehold on trade with Egypt and Syria.51 Along with shipments of
oil, perfumes, textiles, and precious metals came new ideas, technologies, and
systems of thought. Our modern Arabic numerals were popularized in the West
thanks in large measure to trade documents and contracts drawn up between
Muslim merchants and their Italian counterparts. Trade terms in numerous
European languages still bear the mark of Arabic and Persian commerical usage:
for example, check, tariff, traffic, arsenal, and the French douane, or
“customs.”52 Long-haul seaborne commerce required navigational aids, such as
sophisticated maps, charts, and instruments, all areas where the medieval
Muslims excelled. One measure of the growing economic ties between East and
West was the appearance in European royal treasuries, as far away as England,
of considerable quantities of Muslim gold. The minting of gold coins, halted in
ninth-century Europe for lack of bullion, resumed in the Italian city-states four
centuries later, once supplies from the East were secured.53
The new rulers of the Latin East soon began to realize that their own fates
were bound up with those of the Muslims, Christian Arabs, Jews, and others who
populated the region; there would be no significant reinfusion of European
Christians to help colonize the crusader states. The ever-adaptable Normans took
on the best aspects of Arab life even as they expelled Muslim rulers from the
eastern Mediterranean, creating sumptuous courts whose learning and culture
began to rival those of the great caliphs. At the same time the symbolic value of
Jerusalem as a place worthy of fighting, slaughtering, and dying for began to
fade—if only gradually—in the face of these new economic, political, and
cultural realities.
Changes in the behavior and tactics of the crusaders were also striking. Later
campaigns, which continued off and on for centuries, were either largely
defensive affairs designed to claim territory already retaken by the Muslims or
else perverted by raw political ambition and outright greed, such as the sack of
Christian Constantinople in 1204 at the instigation of the powerful merchants of
Venice. One “Crusade” involved a negotiated and temporary transfer of
authority over Jerusalem, a favor by Muslim sultan to Christian king—a
circumstance few could have predicted at the time of Clermont. At other times,
crusading armies were offered control of Jerusalem, once the object of their most
fervent desires, in exchange for Muslim territory seized elsewhere; they declined
only to leave the Near East empty-handed.
The steady success of Christian forces in Spain and the reemergence of
Christian military power in the Mediterranean, especially the capture by the
Normans of once-Muslim Sicily, had already brought the worlds of Islam and
Christendom into close contact and direct competition. But the First Crusade
opened a third pathway between East and West, one in which brute military
struggle would slowly give way to a web of commercial, cultural, and
intellectual bonds between two rival but ultimately inseparable worlds. By the
time Adelard of Bath arrived in Antioch around 1114, Arab culture—if not
Muslim military might—held sway over much of life in the so-called Latin East.
Chapter Two
SEVEN YEARS BEFORE the earthquake that shook the moral foundations of crusader
Antioch, Adelard surveyed the world around him and pronounced it rotten. His
recent studies at the famed French cathedral school at Tours had provided him
with the best education of his day. He enjoyed the support and patronage of the
powerful bishop of Bath, the French court physician and scholar John de Villula.
He practiced the art of hunting with falcons, a sign of his noble rank and the life
of leisure it generally afforded. And he was an accomplished musician, who
years later still fondly recalled the time he had been invited to play the cithara, a
forerunner of the guitar, for the queen.
In short, Adelard of Bath was the model country gentleman. His father,
Fastrad, was one of Bishop John’s richest tenants and most senior aides,
ensuring a life of privilege for his son. The family appears sporadically in
official documents of church and state. The Pipe Rolls, or royal accounts, later
list Adelard as the beneficiary of a pension from the revenues of Wiltshire, in
southwest England. Still, young Adelard saw little of value in the contemporary
world, and he despaired at the state of Western learning in particular. “When I
examine the famous writings of the ancients—not all of them, but most—and
compare their talents with the knowledge of the moderns, I judge the ancients
eloquent, and call the moderns dumb,” he proclaimed in the opening line of his
coming-of-age essay and first known work, On the Same and the Different.1
Adelard’s disdain for “the moderns” was understandable, for the West at the
end of the eleventh century was a mess. Daily life staggered under the burden of
rampant violence and social instability. Bands of mercenaries, answerable to
neither king nor God, prowled the countryside, their commanders’ word the only
law of the land. Across Europe, primitive farming techniques could no longer
keep pace with a growing population, while antiquated inheritance laws left
many impoverished and desperate.2 Violence—inflamed by the weakness of
central political authority and uninhibited by the tenuous moral grip of the
Catholic Church—was the currency of the day. As Pope Urban II had
acknowledged at Clermont when he called for the First Crusade, religious
leaders were helpless to halt the chaos across the continent. The best the church
could do was to redirect its flock’s baser nature against the infidels to the East.
Not even Adelard’s remote corner of England was immune to the troubles. It
was not long since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and political and social strife
still plagued the land. The uneasy relationship—for centuries punctuated by
bouts of armed conflict—between what today comprise the distinct nations of
England and France was a regular feature of late medieval life. At the same time,
political, cultural, and personal ties ran deep, and so it was not surprising that
Adelard could pursue higher education in Tours and that many leading officials
and courtiers, like Bishop John, hailed from the European mainland. In 1086, as
a young child, Adelard had seen his native West Country town, including its
once-proud abbey of black-robed monks, burned almost to the ground during an
uprising against the heir to the throne, William the Red. The rebels had hoped to
secure the rule of William’s brother, Robert of Normandy, but their bid for
power had ended in bloody failure and considerable destruction. Robert, eldest
son of William the Conqueror, later died a royal prisoner.
Things were little better inside the elite cathedral schools. The chaos and
disorder that had swept in with the Germanic invasions of the western Roman
Empire, beginning in the fourth century A.D., had just about destroyed formal
education and the perpetuation of classical knowledge. The Muslim conquests
around the eastern Mediterranean three hundred years later sealed the West’s
isolation by choking off easy access to the Byzantine Christians based in far-off
Constantinople, where some traces of the Greek intellectual tradition could still
be found.3 The wonders of classical learning were all but forgotten, or at best
pushed to the extreme margins of European consciousness. Invaluable texts were
lost through inattention, destroyed in war, or rendered unintelligible by the
general ignorance of would-be scholars or simply by the lost ability to read
Greek. The aristocracy of the Roman Empire read the Greek masters in the
original, so there was no need at the time for Latin translations of the philosophy
of Plato and Aristotle, the engineering wonders of Archimedes, or the geometry
of Euclid. The wholesale disappearance of Greek as the language of learning
meant centuries of knowledge virtually vanished from the collective mind of
Latin-speaking Europe.
There were a few outposts—scattered monasteries in Ireland, northern
England, Catalonia, and southern Italy—where the monks labored to keep the
classical traditions alive. Yet the results were meager in comparison with the
heights once scaled by the Greeks, or with the new and exciting work being
carried out in the Arab world. At the West’s leading center of mathematical
studies, the cathedral school of Laon, the best minds of Adelard’s day had no
grasp of the use of zero. The masters at Laon taught the latest techniques
employed by King Henry I, who ruled both England and Normandy in the early
twelfth century, to manage his treasury. These included the use of a special
tablecloth, marked out in rows and columns like a chessboard and based on the
principles of the abacus, which had reached France from Arab Spain some years
before. The cloth was known as the scaccarium, Latin for “chessboard,” and was
the origin of the English term for a national treasury, exchequer. Despite the
importance of this royal mission, the standard of learning at Laon remained very
low; one contemporary textbook reveals consistent errors in even the most basic
More vexing than sloppy royal accounting was the inability to measure the
hours of the day or keep the calendar. Even by the sleepy standards of medieval
Christendom, time was a serious business, linked as it was with the pursuit of
heavenly salvation. The Rule of St. Benedict, which governed thousands of
monasteries from the sixth century onward, required eight sets of prayers at
specific times every twenty-four hours. The practice was based on a reading of
two verses in Psalm 119: “Seven times a day I praise thee” and “At midnight I
rise to give thee thanks.”5 This was relatively simple during the day, when the
changing position of the sun could provide a rough guide to the hour, but at night
the monks of the Latin West were left literally in the darkness of their own
Crude methods of timekeeping evolved to fulfill the demands of the rule. It
was found, for example, that a twelve-inch wax candle of a certain diameter
would last about four hours.6 A handful of the more prosperous monasteries
employed elementary water clocks, in which the regulated flow of water into a
container measured the passage of a given unit of time. In an early example of
practical astronomy, the sixth-century prelate Gregory of Tours offered a rule of
thumb, possibly Babylonian in origin, that accounted for the changing length of
the days by beginning at nine hours of daylight in December and adding one
hour per month from December to June, to make fifteen hours. The process was
then reversed from June back to December. Popular in its day for its simplicity
and ease of use, the system is nonetheless undermined by a lack of scientific
understanding: The ratio of fifteen to nine is better suited to the latitudes of the
Mediterranean and the Near East than it is to the northern climes of Tours.7
Gregory presented a similar method for keeping track of the changing phases of
the moon through the course of the month, but he made no provisions for
seasonal changes. And he identified some constellations in the northern sky—
taking pains not to use their pagan names—that could be used on clear nights to
help regulate the prayers.8
Other attempts at attacking the problem suffered well into the Middle Ages
from flaws similar to those that marred Gregory’s early efforts. A Saxon sundial
at a church in Yorkshire dating to 1064, for example, divides the day into eight
equal units, or “tides,” but it fails to take into account the fact that Yorkshire’s
latitude requires that these tides vary in length.9 Lacking any real understanding
of the theory behind techniques borrowed from the southern Mediterranean of
the Middle East, the Latins did not realize they had to adjust their approach to
account for their own more northerly locales, such as Adelard’s own town of
As late as the thirteenth century, monks in France relied on informal systems
such as local observational markers that could be aligned with the constellations
to correspond to certain prayer times. A text written on a piece of slate found at
the Cistercian Villers Abbey, near Namur in Belgium, explains how to estimate
the time by tracing the sun and stars as they appear at various windows.10 Most
common of all, perhaps, was the appointment of a senior and respected monk as
the significator horarum, who would chant a set number of psalms to note the
progress of the hours and then awaken his brethren for their vigils, to be held at
the “eighth hour of darkness.”11 This had the obvious advantage of functioning
even when the stars were obscured by the clouds. But the method was so
imprecise that theologians were forced to concede that ordinary monks should
not be held responsible for any resulting failure by the significator to start the
required prayer on time.
Monastic timekeeping, however, was not only a matter for the soul. With no
reliable way to measure the passing of the hours, Western man’s imagination—
and his very existence—remained hostage to the shifting cycles of night and day
and the organic phases of planting and harvesting. Accurate timekeeping would
one day free society from the dictates of sunrise and sunset and recast the day or
the hour as an abstract notion distinct from daily existence. This would
eventually foster a new way of looking at the universe as something that could
be measured, calculated, and controlled, opening up the realms of science and
technology. The regular ringing of the monastery bells, governed by the rhythms
of the monks’ devotional and practical duties, provided one of medieval daily
life’s very few sureties and marked the tentative beginnings of an organized
social order.12
Like the counting of the hours, accurately setting the date for the movable
feast of Easter—the holiest day in the Christian calendar and the reference point
for the entire ecclesiastical year—proved beyond the abilities of even the most
learned of monks. While politics, tradition, and regional and sectarian rivalries
invariably intruded throughout the centuries, the essential problem in fixing
Easter lay in its ties to the astronomical cycle of the solar year, which was out of
step with the calendar of daily life. Majority Christian opinion puts Easter on the
first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. This could be
determined only by observation and advanced calculation. For a world alienated
from the very idea of science by its own focus on the afterlife and cut off by
choice and circumstance from the great intellectual traditions of the classical
world, both accurate calculation and meticulous observation were in short
supply. The result was endless wrangling over the very notions of time and date.
Estimates of the spring equinox, for example, often varied by as much as two
Naturally enough, the early church fathers adopted the Roman system of
dates that prevailed in their day. The so-called Julian calendar was created by the
Greek astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria and imposed with a few minor
changes by order of Julius Caesar forty-six years before the birth of Christ. But
there was a hitch: The calendar rests on a year that is roughly eleven minutes and
fourteen seconds too long, a well-known flaw that would not have escaped
Sosigenes and his fellow astronomers. The spring equinox fell on March 25
when the Julian calendar was first introduced, but it was slipping “backward” at
the considerable rate of about one full day every 130 years, threatening to take
Easter and the rest of the church calendar with it.
As the young Christian community grew and expanded its reach, it naturally
sought uniformity in the celebration of its most holy day. “What could be more
beautiful … than that this feast day, from which we receive hope of immortality,
be observed by all according to one and the same order and certain rule?”
Emperor Constantine asked in 325 from his place of honor at the Council of
Nicea, which nonetheless failed to resolve the Easter controversy.13 Still, church
leaders were eager to head off disputes like the one that later erupted in England
between Christians of the so-called Roman conversion and followers of the older
Celtic tradition from Ireland.14 This required either the command of a recognized
central religious or political authority or an agreed-on set of principles—
scriptural or astronomical—clearly spelling out the proper day to celebrate the
Resurrection. Lacking all of these, Christendom instead came to rely on the
computus, a system of practical astronomy that evolved slowly over the centuries
to provide rough approximations of date and time. The calculations themselves
were arithmetic, and so there was no need to master the geometric concepts,
such as the circle and the sphere, so integral to the proper study of astronomy.
Even where explicit guidance from the ancients was on hand, the West
proved beyond help. A Latin translation of a simplified, step-by-step guide by
the great classical Greek astronomer Ptolemy for determining the positions of
the sun and the moon survives in the form of a medieval manuscript dating from
around 1000. This would have greatly improved the work of the “computists” in
fixing Easter and related calculations. But apparently, even the rudimentary
understanding of astronomical terms needed just to use Ptolemy’s Handy Tables,
much less to understand his full text, was well beyond the reach of contemporary
scholars.15 It was not until the late sixteenth century that the Christian West
could mobilize enough scientific firepower to begin to gain control of time and
grapple successfully with the problem of calendar reform. By then, the equinox
had drifted backward about two weeks, to mid-March.
Given the magnitude of Europe’s political, social, and spiritual woes, it was
perhaps remarkable that anything at all remained of the arts and sciences by the
time Adelard left Bath to pursue his advanced education in France, around 1100.
Yet a handful of cathedral schools had managed by this time to assemble a
course of study based on the so-called seven liberal arts. Borrowed from a lateRoman convention, the seven disciplines were commonly depicted as enticing
young maidens. The basic course of grammar, rhetoric, and logic comprised the
trivium; its elementary character is reflected today in the word trivial. The more
advanced program was the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and—
Adelard’s personal favorite—astronomy. The entire edifice rested on a shaky
and uncertain foundation provided by the Latin encyclopedists, who centuries
earlier had collated, synthesized, and simplified classical works of science and
philosophy and then presented them for a relatively broad audience.
An unfinished collection by the Roman patrician Boethius, whose execution
around 524 on trumped-up charges of treason cut short his lifework, preserved
some crumbs of Aristotle’s logical system, several treatises on music, and a few
basics of practical geometry. Boethius had planned to translate into Latin all the
writings of Plato and Aristotle, but his untimely death condemned this great
legacy of natural science, metaphysics, and cosmology to limbo for more than
six hundred years. The available teachings of Plato were reduced to one partial
Latin translation and an accompanying commentary. This gave medieval Europe
its only real glimpse of natural philosophy until the twelfth century.16 Virtually
nothing was known of metaphysics or cosmology. Surviving manuscripts of
Pliny’s Natural History captured other tidbits of classical works, as did a few
other similar books that circulated haphazardly.
By far the most popular Western textbook was an encyclopedia of halfremembered knowledge and often far-fetched explanations of natural
phenomena compiled in the seventh century by Isidore, bishop of Seville. In his
Etymologies, Isidore laid out in twenty volumes every bit of knowledge he
thought worth preserving in the face of what he feared was a rising tide of
barbarism threatening his native Spain. This included, among other things,
discussions of grammar and rhetoric, arithmetic and astronomy, zoology,
agriculture, theology, and military science. The bishop was well read and
industrious, but his actual understanding was a bit suspect. He was clearly no
critical thinker, for he accepts the material of his various sources without
question and—in keeping with the spirit of his times—is more interested in
allegorical meaning than in any underlying truth.
Etymologies was a runaway success and a staple in medieval Christian
libraries for centuries. Readers generally preferred it to the original sources,
which it soon consigned to oblivion; ignored and unwanted, many were lost
forever. Printed editions of Isidore’s work appeared well into the Renaissance.
His teachings were followed so slavishly that his assertion—based on the
author’s elementary mistranslation of classical sources—that the earth was flat
and “resembles a wheel” long retained a hold on many in medieval Europe, even
if a handful of scholars and learned monks knew otherwise. This popular notion
contradicted the classical Greek and Arab conception of the universe—as a
series of spheres and wheels moving in a mechanical dance of circular motion,
with the earth at its center—and inhibited the West from participating in the
huge enterprise of cosmology. It made no difference that the prevailing model,
codified by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. and studied ever since, was
wrong; the important thing was to take advantage of the enormous opportunity
for fruitful scientific research that it nonetheless afforded.
The Venerable Bede, who died in 735 after a long life of study inside the
walls of his monastery in northern England, was perhaps the most subtle and
sophisticated thinker of this early intellectual cohort. Bede’s The Reckoning of
Time was an important early attempt at the Easter computus, the calculation of
the hour, and solutions to related problems. From his careful reading of Pliny, he
concluded that the earth was a sphere—a teaching hopelessly obscured by
Isidore’s far more popular claim to the contrary—and he had some
understanding of the varying hours of daylight and the behavior of the tides.
Bede’s knowledge was rudimentary, but it was so far ahead of its day that his
fame soon resonated across Christendom. Few had seen anything like him
before. “God, the Orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the
fourth day of Creation, in the Sixth Age of the world has made Bede rise from
the West as a new Sun to illuminate the whole Earth,” gushed Notker the
Stammerer, a monk in far-off Switzerland.17
It fell to the French cathedral schools to slowly shape the early building
blocks left behind by the encyclopedists and a handful of like-minded monks
into a coherent, if still incomplete and deeply flawed, body of knowledge. At the
behest of Charlemagne, Alcuin of York had created a basic curriculum for the
first of these institutions in the late eighth century to provide Charlemagne’s
empire with competent, trained functionaries. Adelard’s alma mater at Tours was
the first such school, and it gradually emerged as something of a European
intellectual center.18 Other schools were founded at Chartres, Laon, and
elsewhere. By Adelard’s day, these cathedral schools had already been in
existence for centuries. They attracted some of the best scholars from among the
small educated religious class and drew ambitious young students from different
parts of Europe. Bishop John himself had come from Tours, and he used his
personal and church connections there to secure a coveted place at the school for
his protégé. The preference of the teachers at the cathedral schools for the
quadrivium, in particular for mathematics and astronomy, had a profound
influence on young Adelard’s own outlook and interests.19 These in turn
determined the ideas he would later adopt from among the teachings of the
Arabs and bring back to the West.
The early epicenter of Europe’s medieval intellectual activity was the former
kingdom of Lotharingia. Once the heart of Charlemagne’s empire, it comprised
parts of western Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Its hub, Liege
in present-day Belgium, was known as the “Athens of Lotharingia” for its
serious scholarship.20 For decades, the kings of England had relied on a steady
supply of Lotharingian clerics to fill high royal and ecclesiastical posts. Bishop
John’s predecessor had come from the region, as had Adelard’s father, Fastrad,
and a number of other influential figures in eleventh-century English intellectual
and religious life. The schools and monasteries of Lotharingia had emerged as
the first tentative repositories of Arab science and technology, including the
Arabic number system; with no suitable educational institutions of its own, the
English crown was forced to rely on well-trained imports to meet a growing
Among the earliest Western proponents of intellectual innovation, including
that invaluable calculating device, the abacus, was Gerbert d’Aurillac, one of the
day’s finest minds and the future Pope Sylvester II. Raised as an oblate, or
monk-in-training, in the monastery of St. Gerard, the precocious Gerbert soon
outgrew the limited learning available in his native France; there was simply no
one among the local monks sufficiently versed in mathematics or astronomy to
further his education. In 967, his superiors sent him for three years of advanced
studies at the monastery of Vich in Catalonia, then a distant Christian frontier
outpost abutting the scientific and cultural powerhouse of Muslim Spain.
Catalonia enjoyed good trade relations with the Western Caliphate, based in
the imperial city of Cordoba. Muslim traders were a common sight in Catalonian
markets, and cultural trends, ideas, and inventions passed easily enough across
this border between Muslim East and Christian West. The Arabs’ advanced
science of the stars, the game of chess, the earliest representation of what came
to be called Arabic numerals, and the Muslim astrolable—the most potent analog
computer until the modern era—were all awaiting “discovery” in Catalonia.22
Here, all seven of the liberal arts were available for study.
At a time when even the richest monasteries of France, Germany, and
England might own just a few dozen volumes of mostly outdated learning, the
Catalonian monks, particularly those of Santa Maria de Ripoll, enjoyed access to
relatively large collections that included Arabic texts and their translations.
These hinted at the secrets of ancient learning, as well as more recent Arab
science, philosophy, and medicine. Young Gerbert visited the Ripoll monastery
and may have brought back knowledge of basic Arab technology, such as the
workings of the water clock, to his native France. Nonetheless, even at Ripoll,
the standard of learning was woefully weak. The earliest Latin treatises on the
astrolabe and related technologies were peppered with errors and half-digested
Arabic terminology; the West was unable to produce its own coherent astrolabe
texts until the mid-twelfth century.23
Gerbert returned home from Catalonia to take up a series of teaching posts.
He immediately championed the very quadrivium—music, arithmetic, geometry,
and astronomy—that he had been unable to pursue as a young monk in France.
During his stay in Spain, he had acquired the translation of an Arabic book on
the stars from the archdeacon of Barcelona and a separate work on mathematics
and astronomy. Gerbert taught his students arithmetic by means of an unusual
abacus consisting of individually numbered counters, one to nine; the concept of
zero remained elusive. Soon, similar Latin abacus systems with the HinduArabic characters—the figures we use today—in place of the prevailing Roman
numerals, using crude transliterations from the original Arabic names for each
figure, began to take root. The names for the figures were likely borrowed from
the informal Arab practice of calculating on a dust board, a form of erasable
easel. It would take another 150 years for proper Arabic numerals and the
positional system of ones, tens, hundreds, and so on—fundamentally the same
system we use today—to become the accepted means of calculation.24
Gerbert and his followers were fascinated by the course of the stars and the
planets, and they insisted on the value of firsthand observation of the heavens—
work that at the very least prepared the way for the coming of Arab astronomy.
In a letter from the French city of Rheims to a fellow cleric around 978, Gerbert
makes clear that he has broken free from the flat-earth teachings of Isidore of
Seville. “In reply to your query about the sphere for demonstrating the celestial
circles and constellations, my brother, it is made completely round, divided
equally through the middle by the circumference, which has been divided into
sixty parts.”25
Medieval commentators hold that Gerbert was the first to introduce the West
to the astrolabe as a way to address the troubling problems of monastic prayer
time and the ecclesiastical calendar. This portable instrument could also measure
the height of a tower or the depth of a well, determine geographic latitude, mark
the direction of true north, and work out the position of the sun and the major
stars. The origins of the device itself are obscure, but the design and theoretical
approach were almost certainly Greek. Greek mathematicians and astronomers
in Alexandria, Egypt, wrote numerous treatises on the basics of the astrolabe. A
text by Ptolemy, now lost, detailed the underlying mathematical principles, also
vital to mapmaking, but the more advanced planispheric astrolabe used by the
Arabs was unknown in his day. Arab tradition, nonetheless, credits the great
astronomer with the accidental invention of this powerful tool. Ibn Khallikan,
writing in the thirteenth century, recounts one version: Ptolemy was out riding
one day, a celestial globe in his hand; he dropped it, and his horse crushed it flat
with his hooves, creating the planispheric astrolabe.26
Refined by the Arabs from these early Greek designs, the astrolabe was a
virtual bronze book of the stars that projected the spherical universe onto a twodimensional face. A treatise on the astrolabe, commonly ascribed to Gerbert or a
member of his immediate circle, calls the device a great gift from God but also
appears to warn against any broader usage: “[The astrolabe can be used] to find
the true time of day, whether in summer or wintertime, with no ambiguous
uncertainty in the reckoning. Yet this seems most suitable for celebrating the
daily office of prayer and to be excessive knowledge for general use. How
pleasing and seemly the whole proceeds, when with the greatest reverence at the
proper hour under the rule of a just judge, who will not wish the slightest shadow
of error, they harmoniously complete the service of the Lord.”27
The astrolabe itself was beautiful to behold—elegant in form and powerful in
function. The typical device was about the size of a salad plate, fashioned in
polished, decorative bronze. Degrees of latitude, or perhaps the hours of the day,
were commonly inscribed along the outer edge. A disk, painstakingly calibrated
for the user’s geographic location, sat atop the face of the astrolabe, with a
rotating skeinlike cutout displaying the principal stars and the sun’s annual path
affixed to that and held in place with a wedge-shaped pin known as the horse. A
pivoting pointer—the alidade, from the Arabic al-idada—was mounted on the
back to take readings while the astrolabe was held aloft, suspended at arm’s
length, by a ring at the top. In the daytime, the rays of the sun were lined up with
two pinholes or notches in the alidade; at night, the user followed the same
procedure but took aim at a known star. The position of the alidade against the
astrolabe’s scaled markings could then yield a wealth of corresponding celestial
information. The perfection of the astrolabe reflected the genius of Arab science:
it drew on classical sources but then went well beyond them to refine the device
and to address the burning questions of the day in such fields as timekeeping,
astronomy, astrology, and cartography.
As the early Latin scholars immediately recognized, however, descriptions of
the workings and utility of the astrolabe cannot do it justice. In one of the earliest
Latin references to the device, Radolphus, a teaching master at Liege, invites a
colleague from Cologne to come and handle the astrolabe for himself, rather
than rely on any written account or sketch that he might provide. “Otherwise,
only to see the astrolabe will be of no more help than drawings for the … blind,
or poultices for the gout-ridden,” Radolphus informs his learned friend in a
Word of the astrolabe and its Arab provenance began to spread slowly
throughout the West. Fulbert, a student of Gerbert and later the bishop of
Chartres and the founder of its influential cathedral school, composed a short
verse to help his pupils recall the Arabic names of eight of the most important
stars in the constellations of the Western zodiac. The result is the earliest known
use of Arabic words in a Latin text: “Aldeberan stands out in Taurus, Menke and
Rigel in Gemini, and Frons and bright Cabalazet in Leo. Scorpio, you have
Galbalgrab; and you Capricorn, Deneb. You, Batanalhaut [literally, batan
al~hut, fish’s gut], are alone enough for Pisces.”29 These same “stars of the
hours” appear in one of the earliest European works on the astrolabe, dating
from around 1000. Fulbert also prepared a glossary of Arabic and Latin names
for parts of the astrolabe, opening the door to what would soon become a flood
of Arabic terminology, concepts, and ideas in Western arts and sciences.30
Today, our constellations and planets bear Latin names, but those of many of the
major stars are Arabic in origin.
Gerbert’s influence was particularly strong in Lotharingia, and he kept up a
lively correspondence with a number of scholars in the region about the latest
mathematical trends and ideas he had picked up in Spain. Loose ties between the
local monasteries and those still active in Muslim Spain had already established
pathways for the occasional exchange of ideas, and Germany and the Western
Caliphate enjoyed periodic contact. A delegation sent to Cordoba in 954, headed
by a well-traveled Lotharingian scholar, John of Gorze, is thought to have
returned after a three-year stay with original manuscripts and a few early
translations of Arabic manuscripts. The Spanish caliph Abd al-Rahman
responded by dispatching a Mozarab, or Arabized Christian, as his representative
to the Saxon court. From the schools and monasteries of Lotharingia, Arabic
learning began to spread gradually into Germany, France, and England.31
Not everyone was so captivated by the arrival of these new ideas, with their
seemingly magical powers and their suspicious association with the infidel
Arabs. In a society where literacy and general education were rare, this same
suspicion was easily directed at any type of nonreligious book learning. This
trend would only be aggravated by the coming intellectual invasion from the
Muslim world, with its foreign terms, mysterious symbols, and unimaginable
innovations. Allegations of black magic were hurled at a number of the early
Christian scholars who sought out Arabic learning, a phenomenon that would
later see the deadly charge of heresy leveled against those who challenged
church teachings in philosophy and the natural sciences.
William of Malmesbury, a monastic librarian and historian who died 140
years after Gerbert d’Aurillac, acknowledged the late pope’s undoubted
technical skills but nonetheless remained wary of his time in Spain: “There he
learned what the singing and flight of birds portended, there he acquired the art
of calling up spirits from hell.”32 William also dismissed Gerbert’s mathematical
ideas as “dangerous Saracen magic” and claimed that his election as pontiff, on
the cusp of the millennium in 999, was due to a pact with the Devil. Another
cleric noted sourly that, like Gerbert before him, the learned bishop of Hereford,
Robert, had also wasted his time with such matters: “Mathesis [astrology] did
not prolong his life, nor did the abacus which numbers years in a different
way.”33 A thirteenth-century tradition calls Gerbert “the best necromancer in
France, whom the demons of the air readily obeyed in all that he required of
them by day and night, because of the great sacrifices he offered them.” These
same demons, it was said, taught him to use the wondrous astrolabe in exchange
for his soul.34
In Gerbert’s day, these fears of Arab science had not yet crystallized into
active clerical opposition, and they certainly did nothing to derail his brilliant
career. After an appointment as personal tutor to the son of Otto, the Holy
Roman emperor, he traveled to Rheims, where he taught logic and philosophy
and later became the head of the cathedral school. Students from far-off corners
of Europe flocked to his lectures. Yet just four years before his elevation to the
papacy, Gerbert still evoked bitter opposition in some quarters for his worldly
and unorthodox outlook. Philosophy, even what little was known of the classics,
was still suspect. “The vicars of Peter and their disciples will not have for their
teacher a Plato, a Virgil, or any other of that vile herd of philosophers,” the papal
legate protested to no avail.35
The Arab-based learning of Gerbert faced more than just the doubts of the
clergy and the fears of the superstitious masses. It was also precariously prone to
error, misunderstanding, and at times some comic confusion. Gerbert and his
students may have represented the brightest lights of their generation, but they
were wholly unable to absorb or even comprehend the full reach of Arabic
science, with its profound grounding in Aristotelian metaphysics and Greek,
Persian, and Hindu learning in general. The most basic concepts of geometry
posed a problem. Two of Gerbert’s leading pupils exchanged earnest letters
around 1025 in an unsuccessful effort to discern just what the classical
geometers might have mea…

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House of Wisdom

willful forgetting

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