Passing the Texts: From Script to Print
By Richard D. Flavin
Caution: Work in Progress
David Diringer (Cambridge, Reader in Semitic Epigraphy).
Dr. David Diringer’s The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (Diringer 1948) introduced a theory proposing that the “alphabet follows religion,” based in part on the influential work of Alfred L. Kroeber (University of California-Berkeley, anthropology) concerning evidence for idea transfer, that is “idea” or “stimulus” diffusion (Kroeber 1940). Such an approach helps us to better understand a history for scripts and writing in general, as well as the transmission or diffusion of knowledge and assists in placing classical works being translated in the Middle Ages into a clearer context. The passing of the texts has always been important and it seems we're getting better at it.
Fig. 1. Proto-Elamite economic tablets with text and numerical notations ca. 3000 BCE.
For brevity, let’s not debate priority at this time for or against a single invention of the concept of writing, but rather agree and admit that sometime around ca. 3000 BCE scripts appeared in what is today's modern Iraq, Egypt, and Iran. Proto-Elamite (var. Proto-Iranian) [Fig 1], still undeciphered, first appeared a few to several centuries after the emergence of cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) writing [Fig. 2] in Šumer which evolved from a previous numbering and product identification marking system used during the late Uruk period, ca. 3400-3200 BCE. The origin of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing [Fig. 3] is so near to the earliest dates for cuneiform that many believe the idea of writing diffused from Iraq to Egypt. It’s an open investigation and certainly a worthy topic for a rainy day at the library.
Fig. 2. Proto-cuneiform from Uruk. Fig. 3. Early Egyptian writing from Abydos, ca. 3000 BCE.
As an amateur alphabetologist, I’ve long been fascinated with the invention of the alphabet as a writing system based upon the acrophonic or “top-sound” principal and a single phoneme or unit of speech (passim Gordon 1970). The sublime, yet extraordinary, invention of the alphabet occurred ca. 1700 BCE in Sinai [Fig. 4] with a group of Semites later associated with trade caravans to and from India (Myres 1947; Buccellati 1977). The alphabetic technology was a wonderful tool whose usage soon spread beyond the desert (passim Warner 1980).
Fig. 4. Proto-Sinaitic inscription from Serâbit el-Khâdin, Sinai Pennisula ca. 1700 BCE.
The ancient city-state of Ugarit, located in today’s Syria, was a rich port for overland and maritime trade and used several writing systems to communicate with its diverse economic partners. One group which favored the alphabet, assuredly a Canaanite crowd, necessitated an adaption of the alphabet for cuneiform writing. As archaeology essentially examines what has accidently survived the passage of time, often with serendipity, evidence of the Ugaritic alphabet is nearly contemporary with the oldest extant examples of the alphabet itself (Cross & Lambdin 1960).
Fig. 5. Abecedary from Ugarit, Syria ca. 1400-1200 BCE.
Yet, by no means was the alphabet the only writing system used in the region, as a couple of hundred years later along the coast of today’s Israel, the so-called “Sea-Peoples” we refer to as Philistines may have possessed a linear script or, at the very least, created marks and characters which closely resemble writing [Figs. 5 & 6].
Fig. 6. Examples of so-called Philistine Linear ca. 1200 BCE.
Fig. 7. Gezer Calendar ca. 950 BCE. Fig. 8. Phoenician tomb inscription from Cyprus ca. 845 BCE.
Though the alphabet would eventually become the most popular writing system in history (in areas other than the Far East with Chinese characters or sinographs, that is, logograms or ideograms), during the late second and early first millenniums BCE several unique writing systems were invented throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia whose usage was significant, though short-lived in that they ultimately faded into obscurity because of the ongoing minimalist utility of the alphabet. [Figs. 9 & 10]
Fig. 9. Urartu cuneiform inscription ca. 810 BCE from near Ushnu, Iran.
Fig. 10. Elymaean script ca.1st - 2nd cent. CE from Shīmbār, Khūzistān, Iran.
We divide the initial variants of the alphabet into the North and South Semitic scripts. The South Semitic script inspired the Brahmi alphabet of the mid-fourth century BCE in India and allowed the preservation of both the words of Buddha and, through Sanskrit, the Hindu Vedic epics.
The North Semitic script, however, was the basis for the many adaptations of the alphabet we’re most familiar with (e.g. Roman, Cyrillic). Nabataea (in modern Jordan) was the home of an ancient Semitic people after 312 BCE centered around the city of Petra (Joukowsky 2002) [Fig. 11] with settlements in Syria and Arabia (Starcky 1955). When the Nabataeans enter 'history' they either usurped or absorbed Edomite culture and land, used the Syriac alphabet, though soon after created their own culture and script (Bienkowski & Van der Steen 2001). It’s believed the Nabataeans were the immediate ancestors of the Arab people.
Fig. 11. Nabatean fom Petra ca,. 40 CE., "Pharaoh's Treasury," and a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
As the Nabataeans furthered their presence, profited from a great location on the East-West trade routes and became recognizable and respected, their sophistication (and Hellenization) is easily demonstrated by their use of Greek writing. From the third century BCE to the sixth century CE, concurrent with the known period of Nabataean individuality, the Greek alphabet is attested alongside of Nabataean inscriptions and manuscripts. [Figs. 12-14]
Fig. 12. Greek and Nabatean inscriptions from Sinai ca. 100-200 CE.
Fig. 13. Aramaic/Nabataean with Greek including early Arabic characteristics dated 267 CE.
Fig. 14. Greek document on papyrus from Petra 538 CE.
A component of the Nabataean culture located at its northern most area of influence established itself as a separate 'people' during the second century BC. The Kingdom of Osroene at Edessa (southeastern Turkey or Kurdistan) used a distinct language and alphabet [Fig. 15] known as Syriac (Frothingham 1884). Some historians have previously speculated that the Arabic alphabet is derived from Syriac and though some borrowing is granted, today most relegate Syriac as partially influential and maintain that Nabataea was the primary source of Arabic culture, writing, and tribal traditions.
Fig. 15. Syriac inscription from Sumatar, Turkey 476 CE.
It’s assumed that a unique Proto-Arabic alphabet was in use in the third century CE (Owens 1998), though our oldest extant inscription dates from 512 CE. [Fig. 16] Pre-Islamic inscriptions in Arabic, of which a mere half dozen have been discovered, demonstrate a conclusive separation between Arabic and other cultures (e.g. Nabateans and local tribal groupings). And, as to be expected in the Hellenized Near East, inscriptions in Greek, bilinguals with Greek and Arabic, and trilinguals with Arabic, Greek and Syriac, all help in an appreciation that throughout its emergence and its subsequent development Arabic culture maintained familiarity with the Greek language and its script.
Fig. 16. Earliest extant Arabic inscription 512 CE.
Fig. 17. Church flagstone depicting cross with Greek letters, Arabic inscription, and later sandal image ca. 700-900 CE.
Fig. 18. Papyrus document in Greek and Arabic dated 675 CE.
A study of the history of writing, from script to print, is needed to properly understand the transfer of classical works from ancient times to the present and to establish a context for a relationship between what we know (theory and sources) and how we know it (evidence and texts).
Some writing systems last while others are lost and the same may be said about technology and knowledge. Archaeology allows for little miracles with each discovery as only a small fraction of any given historical period will survive the indifference of time. For over three thousand years Mesopotamian cuneiform was used to express various languages and then, ingloriously, faded into history and the ability to write and read cuneiform passed away for more than a millennium and a half. Bilingual tablets of Assyro-Babylonian with Greek provide evidence of eventuality, change, and adaptation (Sollberger 1962). [Fig. 19] The transmission of ideas in antiquity was accomplished through diverse means involving orality, art, hand-crafted scripts and other formats (e.g. coinage). With the invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century of the Common Era the means to share literature and science was exponentially increased in an unprecedented manner. Recently, we’ve entered a period of electronic communication and, turning history around for a look into the future, we're limited to guessing at the way in which those who will follow us will exchange information, passing the texts forward beyond our current speculative ability.
Fig. 19. Bilingual teaching tablet with cuneiform and Greek ca. 1st cent. BCE.
Several cuneiform horoscopic “almanacs” from the first century of the Common Era are known with the latest dated to the year 385 of the Seleucid Era or ca. 75 CE (Sachs 1976). [Fig. 20] The astrological texts contain “frequent errors” which have caused some to speculate that they were probably composed utilizing older information and formulas (Hunger and Pingree 1996, p. 166). It’s believed that isolated pagan religious communities may have maintained the ability to read cuneiform into the late second or early third centuries of the Common Era (Geller 1997).
Fig. 20. Obverse and reverse of a Babylonian almanac ca. 75 CE.
A similar, though slightly different, scenario played out with the expiration of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The magical formal writing system of the Egyptians had already been superceded by cursive hieratic and demotic variations when the invention of the Coptic script occurred around the second century BCE which applied the Greek alphabet (with the addition of five demotic characters) to express the Egyptian language. [Fig. 21]
Fig. 21. Papyrus with hieratic, demotic and Old Coptic ca. 200 CE. Fig. 22. The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, ca. 396 CE.
The successive encroachment on Egyptian culture and writing by the Greeks, Romans, and Christians slowly eliminated scribes capable of producing hieroglyphic texts. An inscription containing mention of the “Birthday of Osiris, year 110" is believed to refer to the reign of Diocletion and calculated as August 24, 396 CE (Griffith 1937). [Fig. 22] This last known example of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was found at the temple complex of Philae, a sacred island near the First Cataract of the river Nile. The Emperor Justinian conducted a zealous program against paganism and Philae was captured and Christianized in 535 CE (passim Harl 1990). Pagan priests were killed, idols were broken and Egyptian religious texts were burned. This was, of course, not the first time that one religion had destroyed the writings of another religion, nor would it be the last. It does, however, encapsulate the problems encountered when literature and knowledge are preserved in a perishable medium. The Library of Alexandria and its various destructions would be a straightforward example of such.
Fig. 23. Engraved imagining of the ancient Library of Alexandria.
We have later descriptions of Demetrios paying for the initial construction of the library as well as an associated building dedicated to the Muses (our “museum”), perhaps to transform Alexandria into a replica of Athens. Also, the addition of yet another library, the Serapeum, being constructed after Demetrios was miraculously cured of blindness by the syncretic Syro-Persian and Hellenistic-Egyptian god, Sarapis, under the rule of Ptolemy I (or, as some accounts have it, Ptolemy II). When Julius Caesar burned the Ptolemaic fleet in the eastern side of the Alexandrian harbor in 47 BCE, flames spread from the ships to several nearby warehouses and dock-buildings. It’s said 40,000 scrolls stored in one of the warehouses were destroyed, but the accident is usually down-played as a minor tragedy with several larger collections surviving inland.
No historical accounts are known to describe the library during the first and second centuries of the Common Era. The Emperor Aurelian, a recent convert to the cult of Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”), recaptured Alexandria from local control around the year 274 CE and he’s thought to have given the city a heavy handed once-over, with special viscousness allocated to the Serapeum.
Despite this significant loss, Alexandria retained a respectable assortment of collections of texts which, after an edict against heresy and paganism issued by the Emperor Theodosius, inspired the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, to lead an attack against the Serapeum in 391 CE (Saradi-Mendelovici 1990; Weitzmann 1971, p.121). In all likelihood, whatever large libraries or temple texts which existed in Alexandria at that time were destroyed. [Fig. 24]
Fig. 24.King Demetrius Phalareus, Julius Caesar, Emperors Aurelian and Theodosius.
A curious rumor arose after the 645 CE Islamic conquest of Egypt which has the Caliph Umar in response to a plea from the Christian monk and grammarian, John Philoponu (some claim John of Antioch), reasoning the destruction of any remaining collections in Alexandria with some variation of: ".if what is written in them agrees with the Quran, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them...” The scrolls were said to have been used to heat the public baths (Joseph 1911, p. 336), some say for three days and others have them burning for six months (Qifti 1903, pp. 354-356).
While various thirteenth century CE Islamic historians debated when the rumor arose, some now suggest it may have been very early “scholarly but heretical Moslems” with an overzealous appreciation of Greek culture (Mackensen 1935, p.121). Nearly all modern historians, however, agree in the falsity of the story, especially in light of several travel accounts and correspondence from the fifth through seventh centuries CE (e.g. Rufinus of Aquileia, Paulus Orosius, John Moschus and Sophronius) which make no mentions of any sizable assemblage of scrolls then existing in Alexandria.
Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162 –1231 CE), an Islamic historian and medical writer, seems to be the earliest author to report this ridiculous falsity (Latif 1965), though his contemporary, Ibn al-Qifti (1172-1248), is credited with the first detailed description, which unfortunately only survives as an epitome by Al-Zawzani, written a year after Al-Qifti’s death (i.e. 1249 CE). In 1286, a Syriac Christian bishop, Abul Faraj bar-Hebraeus, composed an abridgement of his own Syriac Chronicle, a summary of history from the creation of Adam to the beginnings of Islamic scientific work. The Arabic text of Faraj contains the tale of Umar and the Library of Alexandria (Mackensen 1935, pp. 116-118), yet isn’t found in any extant Syriac versions. Faraj closely followed Al-Qifti and it’s this account which soon spread to Islamic and Coptic historiographers.
The above overview of the destruction of the various ancient libraries of Alexandria (real and imagined) should serve as an example of the antithesis of transmission and diffusion. Through accident, religious intolerance, or reasons not yet suggested, the largest assemblage of literature and knowledge in the Hellenistic, Roman and early Late Antiquity periods was deprived of posterity and lost to the whims of time. Diana Delia White (Rhode Island College, Associate Professor of History), paraphrasing the late Franz Rosenthal (Yale, Professor of Semitic Languages), has written: “whereas Arabs assiduously preserved ancient Greek treatises on philosophy, the natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, geography, musicology, and mechanics, the great works of Greek literature remained virtually unknown to them except for the little gleaned indirectly through the works of Aristotle and Galen... (Delia 1992, p.1466 Note #83).” Still, the passing of texts occurred and toward that end even the minuscule may be regarded as important.
Fig. 25. Alcuin. Fig. 26. Alcuin with minuscule letters. Fig. 27. Carolingian ms. with minuscule lettering.
A shifting of focus from epigraphy to calligraphy in Western tradition required uniformity and the alphabet needed one final adjustment. The earliest alphabets, or ‘abjads’ and ‘abugidas’ (Daniels 1996, p. 4), were consonantary and armchair debates continue concerning whether or not the Greek introduction of distinctive letters to represent vowels is sufficient to merit a claim that the Greeks invented the alphabet. Choosing baldness over the splitting of hairs, I’d suggest the alphabet was invented by Syrian Semites in Sinai ca. 1800 BCE (Petrie 1905; Butin 1928, p. 21) and was refined by later peoples and cultures (passim Cook and Woodhead 1959). Our present Roman-based alphabet underwent its last significant change in the late eighth century with the scribal systematization of minuscule letters to ensure a more exacting readability.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”) has been referred to as the “Father of Europe” and his dedication to learning, libraries, and the law has justly earned him a respectable place in Western history (Bullough 1970). Though reportedly he couldn't read and only began to write shortly before his death, Charlemagne actively promoted education and assembled scholars from across Europe to revive learning. One of those scholars, Alcuin of York (var. Ealhwine, Alhwin, Alchoin; Latin Albinus, also Flaccus), wrote ca. 796 CE to Charlemagne about “ancient learning,” commenting: “...your servant lacks the rarer books of scholastic learning, which in my own country I used to have (Carpenter 1896, pp. 301-302).” [Fig. 25] In another letter, he mentioned the establishment of a “new Athens,” idealizing Classical Greek culture like Demetrios had in Alexandria (Alberi 1989, p. 36). Charlemagne began a program to acquire copies of as many ancient works as possible and, with Alcuin’s guidance, the copies were exceptional in style (or script) and translation.
For some years there had been scribal forays into adapting the common Roman Half Uncial script for uniformity reasons (or, as in the case of the Irish, to squeeze more letters onto a page and save costly vellum). The addition of minuscule letters, as actively promoted by Alcuin, soon became the standard throughout Europe (Duckett 1965, pp. 255-261; Daniels 1996, p. 319). [Figs. 26, 27] ‘Carolingian Minuscule’ became so successful and utilized that ...twelve hundred years afterwards it serves as an essential component of the Western typography we use today.
Yet, whatever script or font is used, the passing of texts requires preservation before transmission may occur. The “rarer books of scholastic learning” mentioned by Alcuin must have survived from ancient times in someone’s care. We must ask, who saved the Latin and Greek authors which have come to be deemed essential to the Western standard of higher education? An obvious, though incomplete, answer would be the Latins and Greeks or those who could read and write in those languages. A better answer on how ancient texts survived would contain mentions of what material the texts were written on, where the texts were geographically located, why some texts were considered essential and others were dismissed as unimportant, and who the intended readership was.
Fig. 28. Cicero palimpsest ca. 5th cent.CE. Fig. 29. 10th cent.CE Byzantine ms. containing portions of Nicander’s On Serpents.
If libraries were kitchens one could expect to find inscriptions on stone or metal in the cupboard and manuscripts of papyrus and parchment in the refrigerator. Climate control has long been a major factor in the preservation of perishable items, as archivists and cooks know, though history now recognizes that even the most carefully prepared manuscript will one day become spoiled and of no use to anyone.
The Romans preserved their texts in a variety of ways (Montague 1890), preferring the unique qualities of Egyptian papyrus, but eventually adopted parchment as their writing surface of choice. During the Late Roman period, ca. 200 - 400 CE, the majority of the ancient texts we possess today were recopied from papyrus to parchment. This process is now regarded as fortuitous and believed to have been a significant contribution to the preservation of ancient texts. However, even the change to parchment couldn’t save some ancient texts, as (in modern terms) ...the market dried up.
During its peak, Rome had many private and public libraries, a fine education system, and a competitive book-trade (Marshall 1976). As Rome experienced her Gibbonian ‘decline’ with a poor economy and low literacy rates, there was little work for scribes and the once vibrant Roman book-trade ceased. With the ascendency of Christianity, the Roman senatorial bourgeoisie “recycled” itself as an ecclesiastical class and interest in antiquity waned (Rouse 1992, p. 44). Private collections which held texts that didn’t further Christian goals (e.g. Cicero, Apuleius) no doubt existed in rural farming estates, but also in such major cities as Rome and Milan. [Fig. 28] Copies of ancient texts were still produced during the fifth through seventh centuries CE, but often with corrections and commentary termed ‘subscriptions’ (Zetzel 1993, p.106-109). Though most Christian monasteries contained small libraries, usually containing works pertaining to matters concerning the Christian religion, some monasteries held larger collections that preserved non-religious pagan Latin (and some Greek) texts. Indeed, even the main residence of the Roman Popes, the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran, had an extensive library which began to circulate its books in the seventh century to as far away as England (Rouse 1992, p. 46).
The preservation of ancient Greek texts is a smidgen more complicated, though much better documented. The spread of Hellenism with Alexander the Great had lasting effects on Europe, Asia and Africa. Greek mathematics and astronomy was spread to distant India (Pingree 2003), the Greek language became the common tongue throughout the Mediterranean region for hundreds of years and with the Greek speaking Syriac Christians, directly resulted in saving Greek texts from demise (Griffith 1997).
With the founding of Islamic civilization in the seventh century CE a longing for knowledge came forth and Islam needed to look no further than the Christian monasteries in Syria and the libraries of Byzantion (var. Byzantium and Constantinople) for ancient Greek texts on astronomy (Pingree 1973), geometry (Hogendijk 1973) and medicine (Meyerhof 1930). [Fig. 29]
Though Islam has an integral religious directive to pursue knowledge in all its forms, during its first centuries Islamic scholars, scientists and engineers limited themselves to Greek works which were in accord with their main scripture, The Quran (see Delia’s paraphrasing of Rosenthal above). Many of the Greek texts which passed from Syriac Christians into the Islamic world were subsequently edited and combined with extensive commentaries (much like the Latin “subscriptions”). However, the stewardship of Greek learning by the East didn’t last long and the ancient knowledge soon returned to the West. And, most appropriately, that return didn’t take place at either end of the Mediterranean where Islam bordered Christian lands, but rather it was in the middle that science spread from northern Africa to southern Europe.
Fig. 30. Early depiction of Constantine the African. Fig. 31. Design by Petrus Alphonsi.
By the tenth century of the Common Era, schools in Baghdad were teaching a combination of old Greek and new Islamic medicine which soon afterwards became disseminated throughout Islamic nations. Wishing to benefit from these teachings through patronage (Mitter 2005), the Emir of Tunisia, Abu Muda Ziyadat Allah III, sponsored a Jewish physician from Cairo, Ishaq ibn Sulaiman al-Israili ("Isaac Judaeus"), who was familiar with the latest Islamic advancements (Meyerhof 1938). Al-Israili then became the personal physician to the next ruler of Tunisia, the Fatimid caliph, Ubaid Allah al-Mahdi, and also founded an informal medical school which was attended by Muslims and Christians (O’Leary 1952, p. 56). He was the author of many minor treatises on a variety of topics, but his four medical books (especially his work about fevers) quickly became necessary reading for Islamic physicians.
A contemporary of Al-Israili, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Jazzar (var. Ibn al-Jazzar), also wrote about fevers and, following Al-Israili, encouraged the examination of a patient’s urine, “listening” to the complainants of a patient, and other prudent medical practices. Al-Jazzar also wrote a section on `ishq or “passionate love” in his Zad al-musafir that elaborated on the observations of Galen, Rufus of Ephesus and others, which was presented as a condition capable of afflicting both the poor and the rich man (Wack 1987, p. 324). Later, lovesickness as heros morbo (heros = lord, noble or baron and morbus or disease; contrast Hero, the beloved of Leander who drowned herself ) in Medieval Europe would become associated strictly with the privileged class (e.g. heroic or “knightly” love as found in Chaucer and Shakespeare)
Approximately a century after the death of Al-Israili, Constantine the African (thought to have been born in Tunisia) translated Al-Israili’s major works and introduced them to southern Europe. [Fig. 30] Though he remains somewhat controversial (race, religion, plagiarism, etc.) and biographical information is scanty (Singer 1917), historians acknowledge his position as secretary to Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, his years teaching at the medical school in Salerno, and agree that he retired as a monk and is thought to have spent his final years in manuscript preparation.
The role of Constantine the African in the revival of scientific practice in Europe should not be understated. That he likely put his name to works by such notable Islamic scholars as the Persian physician, Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi (Burnett and Jacquart 1994, pp. vii-ix), shouldn’t negate his accomplishments in the least. The translations of Galen, Hippocrates and other Greek and Islamic medical texts into Latin (Green 1994, pp. 121-160) was of tremendous importance to Europe and the Renaissance which was soon to follow.
As Jewish scholars with Islamic patrons had reintroduced ancient Greek learning into Sicily and southern Italy from North Africa, so too did transmission take place in Spain with Jews (and conversos) assisting the early scientists of France and England. Petrus Alphonsi (b. Moses Sepharadi) was a personal physician to King Alfonso VI of Castile before he traveled to England ca. 1112 CE, perhaps became a court physician to King Henry I, and met with Dr. Walcher of Malvern, an “abacist” and astronomical mathematician, who is thought to have possessed an Arabic astrolabe as early as 1092 CE (Haskins 1915, p. 56). [Fig. 31] The next few decades would see an extraordinary infusion of Greek and Islamic science into France and England (passim Haskins 1925).
Working at the same time as Alphonsi and Walcher, Abelard of Bath, a natural philosopher, translator and traveler, brought many essential texts and scientific ideas from the East to the West (Cochrane 1994; Hackett 2003). Though his works and topics covered were diverse, two stand out as exceptional: the translations of Al-Khwarizmi's astronomical tables from his Zij al-Sindhind, based upon work originating with Al-Fazari and Indian sources (Pingree 1973, p. 40), and the first Latin text of Euclid (Clagett 1953), which was later printed in Venice in 1482. [Fig. 37]
Al-Khwaraizmi’s works were again translated into Latin less than two decades after Abelard of Bath by Robert of Chester, who may be said to have conveyed ‘algebra’ to England (Sarton 1948, 2: 126). Robert of Chester, today termed an Arabist, was a distinguished and versatile scholar who, while traveling in Spain with his learned companion, Hermann of Dalmatia, was approached by an abbot from Cluny (Burgundy, France), Peter the Venerable, who requested them to translate The Quran into Latin ca. 1143 CE (Burman 1998). Other works by Robert of Chester followed with his translations of the Greek geographer and mathematician, Ptolemy, as well as the Islamic authors, Al-Kindi and Al-Battani (Haskins 1915, pp. 62-65).
There was much passing of texts during the twelfth and thirteen centuries. Greek and Islamic science (algebra, astronomy, alchemy, etc.) diffused throughout Europe as schools and universities began to flourish. The Latin authors were present as well, as recent scholarship has focused on the extracts from the works of Macrobius, Aupuleius, Pliny, Cicero, Sidonius, and Aulus Gellius as found in the Florilegium Angelicum (Goddu and Rouse 1977), a “bouquet” of ancient learning for the English (ironically composed at Orleans, France). As if by cue, to facilitate such transmission a new ink “recipe” made its way from India into Islamic lands, passed through Spain, France and, as “all roads lead to Rome,” a gall-based ink reached the Italians just in time for ...all “Hell” to break loose (Carvalho 1971).
Fig. 32. Dante. Fig. 33. Petrarch. Fig. 34. Boccaccio. Fig. 35. Niccolò Niccoli ms. ca. 1420.
Durante Degli Alighieri (var. Dante), a Florentine politician and poet, completed his masterpiece, Commedia, shortly before his death in 1321. [Fig. 34] Dante’s description of the Christian 'afterlife' dwellings of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are recognized as literary genius, though I would opine his formalization of the Italian language (combining Tuscan and Sicilian dialects with the vernacular Latin in use at the time), along with his early Humanist ideas, were far more contributory to Western culture and civilization. In a letter to Petrarch, Dante wrote: “May you climb the heights that I could not and not become attached to the insignificant politics of the day, as their only mission is to break down societies and break down the calm and peace that invigorates the mind. We are a new breed of thinkers as will be those who come after us. We are born and flourish under persecution and repression, not the stability and the thirst for knowledge that the Arab society flourished under. Go out and collect the manuscripts that they have coveted so much, for it increased their wisdom while we here are blind to it.” Dante possessed an accomplished familiarity with the classical literature of the ancient Graeco-Roman authors (Hudson-Williams 1951) and passed his passion for learning on to Petrarch, who enthusiastically accepted the gift.
Francesco di Petracco (later, Petrarca), referred to as the “first modern scholar,” collected around two hundred books and had what is thought to be the largest personal library in Europe at the time (Petrarca 1898, pp. 11, 26). Petrarch’s library was dearly collected, as his father sold and later burned some of his books (Symonds 1911, p. 311), his library was victimized by theft (Ullman 1923, p. 25), and, a decade before his death, the library was promised to the Most Serene Republic of Venice, though this transfer is believed never to have taken place (Hollway-Calthrop 1907, pp. 241-242). [Fig. 33]
The bibliophilia of Petrarch is near legendary. Though he spent much of his life collecting books, it was costly to both his fortune and to his health, as it’s said he once “complained of his arm being lamed from copying [Cicero’s] pro Plancio,” as some manuscripts Petrarch encountered were not for sale and had to be transcribed by his own hand (Leighton 1890, p.70). Such love for the written word compelled Petrarch to purchase Greek texts of Plato and Homer in deference to his never having learned to read Greek (Kibre 1946, p. 260). Greek texts of Homer dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries CE in Rome are extant (Allen 1890), though as to the age of the manuscripts Petrarch owned is anyone’s guess, as remnants of the ancient Roman book-trade were still available. Petrarch’s desire to read the Iliad and the Odyssey in their entirety, unsatisfied with brief quotes and passages as found in the works of other classical authors, necessitated a translation of Homer into Latin before he could enjoy Europe’s earliest epics. Homeric scholarship had continued from the classical period into the twelfth century CE with the grammarian Johannes Tzetzes of Constantinople and Eustathius, the Archbishop of Thessalonica, though Petrarch would never have thought to journey to Islamic lands, as he unfortunately maintained an intolerance toward the Muslim faith (Bisaha 2001). A fortuitous meeting with a Greek scholar along with the assistance of a fellow bibliophile made the much needed Latin translation of Homer possible.
Leonzio Pilato (var. Leozio Pilatus), or Leontius, a student of Barlaam of the Greek colony of Calabria, first met Petrarch in the winter of 1358-1359 ((Ross 1927, p. 341) and it may be assumed that a discussion of the works of Homer took place. Petrarch would later complain about Leontius’ conduct and manners and, perhaps again revealing intolerance, commented that Leontius pretended to be an Italian when he journeyed abroad and presented himself as a Greek while in Italy. Personal differences aside, Petrarch took advantage of the chance meeting with the traveling scholar and together with his friend, Boccaccio, engaged Leontius to undertake a translation of the Greek works of Homer into Latin.
The Italian humanist author and poet, Giovanni Boccaccio, was a dedicated scholar in his own right (e.g. Boccaccio 1965, Boccaccio 1976) and agreed with Petrach that a Latin translation of Homer would be a welcome undertaking. [Fig. 34] The joined sacrifice and commitment by Petrarch and Boccaccio to regain the ‘lost’ ancient Greek authors are precious examples of the ongoing willingness of humanity to better itself. Though, like his “teacher,” Petrach, Boccaccio was intolerant of Islam (passim Kirkham 1987), perhaps would have acknowledged the role that Islam and its scientific contributions played in the passing of the Greek texts had it been explained to him, Boccaccio ought to be considered a cultural victim of the Crusades, as too with Petrarch.
Born just a half dozen years before the death of Petrarch (it’s oft repeated that he died alone in his library), Niccolò de' Niccoli of Florence, a wealthy bibliophile and acclaimed scribe, may be regarded as an example of the modern idiom that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Period accounts describe Niccoli as quarrelsome and unwilling to accept reproving evaluation. His inability to read or write Latin fluidly was often cited by his critics, yet his bibliophilia allowed him to seek out and collect various ancient Latin (and Greek) texts (Robinson 1921), and his method of dividing long literary works into ‘chapters’ is commonly thought of as passively significant. Of sure accomplishment was his adaptation of the so-called Italian humanist minuscule script which we call today, the Italic script. Fine penmanship, Niccoli; well done! [Fig. 35]
As the East reached out to the West and created a ‘smaller’ world, an invention by a German goldsmith was soon to change history by ...printing it.
Fig. 36. Ca. 1450 Donatus printed by Gutenberg. Fig 37. 1482 Euclid trans.by Abelard of Bath. Fig. 38.First page of 1497 Aldine Press Aristotle.
Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, is generally thought of as the inventor of the ‘moveable type’ method of printing. There is evidence that Gutenberg may not have had a “Eureka!” moment and that the ‘invention’ was the result of experimentation and the gradual perfection of his new method. Credit is often shared with the use of moveable type in China several centuries before, though all arguments of the transmission of the Chinese technique through Marco Polo or other means into Europe have thus far failed to become accepted due to a lack of evidence. One may as well give credit to the ancient Cretans who were responsible for the enigmatic Phaistos Disk (Ephron 1962, p. 1) which utilized essentially the same method as Gutenberg.
A possible challenge to Gutenberg’s priority could be made with the efforts of Procopius Waldvogel, a goldsmith (some say jeweler or silversmith) from Prague who visited Avignon, France in 1444 and was engaged in raising money for new system of “artificial writing.” Purchases of wood, iron, tin and steel, all the components necessary for making an operable printing press, were made by others, Latin and Hebrew texts were planned, though it’s believed no works were actually ‘printed’ (Lockwood 1894, p. 565). Conjecture could allow for an exchange either directly or indirectly between Waldvogel and Gutenberg, or someone familiar with Waldvogel’s plans and Gutenberg, or it could be yet another example of independent invention and parallel thinking.
Gutenberg formally began his printing career printer with a German poem about the Judicium Universale or 'Last Judgment' called “Weltgerichtsgedicht,” produced a calendar for 1448, and shortly afterwards printed an edition of Aelius Donatus’ Ars minor, a standard scholastic Latin grammar. [Fig. 36] Gutenberg’s 1454 or 1455 edition of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (Biblia latina) has become one of Western Civilization’s most honored (and valuable) icons.
The invention of moveable type printing greatly expanded the “knowledge industry” and the result is still difficult to classify and describe with a sentence or three (passim Eisenstein 1970). Fifty years after the production of Gutenberg’s Bible there are thought to have been around two hundred similar printing presses operating across Europe with approximately a half million printed books in circulation. Historians use the term 'incunabula' (Latin for swaddling-clothes) to designate books printed before 1500, perhaps to infer that printing was in its infancy, yet the authors chosen by the early printers reveal a sophistication that seems mature and reasonable.
An edition of Euclid using a translation by Abelard of Bath was printed in 1482 [Fig. 37], and between 1495 and 1498 a five volume edition of Aristotle was released by the Aldine Press, using a typescript based upon the handwriting of Petrarch. [Fig. 38]. In a list of popular incunabula authors offered by George Sarton (Harvard, History of Science) the names of such ancient pagan Greek and Roman authors as Hippocrates, Galen and Pliny the Elder appear as old friends equally alongside such new acquaintances as the medieval Islamic authors Razi, Avicenna and Averroes (Sarton 1938, pp. 183-184).
Fig. 39. An example of Columbus's letters announcing his 1492 discovery printed in 1494.
It's been suggested that with the invention of printing and the ascendency of literacy rates and scientific investigation during the European Renaissance there occurred a descent or decline of Islamic science and civilization. [Fig. 39] Such distinctions serve individual agendas rather than history. The proposal seems to be more argumentative than an attempt to better understand history and place events into a flexible context. Persia shared Mesopotamian mathematics during the peak of their wars with Greece and as violent as the many Christian Crusades were, learning continued to be exchanged by both sides. An idealist might suggest that certain terminology limits context and could describe Europe, Asia and Africa as always being open to dialogue and exchange. Such an idealist may even substitute the term “decline” with “superceded by” the European Renaissance. I’d offer that Islamic science continued and likely benefited from the Renaissance advances in technological tools and techniques, assuredly its contributions to astrological observation and theory, its mathematics, new medical procedures and practices, and much else. I’d describe any perceived decline as discounting our shared past with modern separations. We’re still sharing.
Fig 40. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Arab Republic of Egypt.
In 1974, the Alexandria University in Egypt began planning a new library mindful of history, but also looking far, far ahead. [Fig. 39] The Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened briefly in 2001 and officially in 2002. It’s Internet web-site describes the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as consisting of “11 floors with a total area of 85,405 square meters. The whole complex includes two other libraries (Library for the Blind and Young Peoples' Library), a large convention center, planetarium, four museums (science, calligraphy, manuscripts and archeological) as well as the International School of Information Studies, Center for the Preservation of Rare Books and Documents, as well as research center and exhibition areas.” A granite wall which forms the frame of the structure (said to represent the rising sun) is engraved with one hundred and twenty examples of ancient and modern writing systems. The library also maintains a duplicate of the Internet Archive, an electronic digital collection of the global Internet, ensuring that the passing of texts continues.
1) Vallet, François. 1986. "The Most Ancient Scripts of Iran: The Current Situation." World Archaeology. 17, 3: 335-347. See: p. 337.
2) Lawler, Andrew. 2001. "Writing Gets a Rewrite." Science. 292, 5526: 2418-2420. See: p. 2418.
4) Albright, William F. 1973. “From the Patriarchs to Moses II: Moses out of Egypt.” The Biblical Archaeologist. 36, 2: 48-76. See: p. 53.
5) Flavin, Richard. 1994. “The Oldest ABC's: The Ugarit Cuneiform Alphabet.” Twisted History (Flavin’s Corner). Revised 2006. Photograph by M.
Deitrich courtesy of Suleiman Sarra, Cultural Affairs, Embassy Of The Syrian Arab Republic. See: http://www.flavinscorner.com/abc.htm.
6) Dothan, Trude Krakauer and Moshe Dothan. 1992. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan. See: pp. 166, 167.
7) Diringer, David. 1950. "Early Hebrew Wriitng." The Biblical Archaeologist. 13, 4: 73-96. See: p. 74.
8) McCarter, P. Kyle. 1974. "The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet." The Biblical Archaeologist. 37, 3: 54-68. See: p. 62.
9) Loon, Maurits van. 1975. "The Inscription of Ishpuini and Meinua at Qalatgah, Iran." Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 34, 3: 201-2-7. See: p. 202.
10) Bivar, A. D. H.. and S. Shaked. 1964. "The Inscriptions of Shīmbār." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London).
27,2: 265-290. See: p. 284.
11) Moulton, Warren J. 1920. “Gleanings in Archaeology and Epigraphy.” The Annual of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem.
(1919 - 1920) 1: 66-92. See: p. 88. For the "Pharaoh's Treasury," see: Forder, A. 1901. “Sela or Petra, ‘The Strong City.’ The Ruined Capital of
Edom.” The Biblical World. 18, 5: 328-337. Photograph from p. 328. For the scene of Sallah, Dr. Henry Jones and Dr. Henry “Indy” Jones, Jr. on
horseback outside of the “Pharaoh’s Treasury” at Petra, see: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989; Lucasfilm Ltd.
12) Negev, Avraham. 1982. “Nabatean Inscriptions in Southern Sinai.” The Biblical Archaeologist. 45, 1: 21-25. See: p. 22
13) Winnett, Frederick Victor and W. L. Reed. 1970. Ancient Records from North Arabia. With contributions by J. T. Milik and J. Starcky.Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
14) Lehtinen, Marjo. 2002. “Petra Papyri.” Near Eastern Archaeology. 65, 4: 277-278. See: p. 277.
15) Segal, J. B. 1953. “Pagan Syriac Monuments in the Vilayet of Urfa.” Anatolian Studies. 3: 97-119. See: Plate X: 2. Sumatar: relief with Syriac
inscriptions (No. X).
16) Kugener, M. A. 1907. "Nouvelle Note Sur L'Inscription Trilingue De Zébed." Rivista Degli Studi Orientali. 1: 577-586. See: p. 586.
Quasi-trilingual Arabic, Syriac and Greek lintel inscription from Christian shrine. See also: Gruendler, B. 1993. he Development Of The Arabic
Scripts: From The Nabatean Era To The First Islamic Century According To The Dated Texts. Harvard Semitic Series No. 43. Atlanta, GA:
Scholars Press: Atlanta. See pp. 13-14.
17) Nevo, Yehuda D. 1989. “A New Negev Arabic Inscription.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). 52, 1:
18-23. See: pp. 19, 21.
18) Kraemer, Casper John. 1958. Excavations at Nessana Volume 3: Non-literary Papyri. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. See: pp.
180-181 No. 60. Also, see: Schick, Robert. 1998. “Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: Palestine in the Early Islamic Period:
Luxuriant Legacy.” Near Eastern Archaeology. 61, 2: 74-108.
19) Houston, Stephen and John Baines with Jerrold Cooper. 2003. "Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica."
Comparative Study of Society and History. 45: 430-479. See: p. 455. Described as Fig . 7 School tablet with bilingual cuneiform incantation excerpt
on the obverse, Greek transliteration on the reverse (Geller 1997: no. 11).
20) Sachs, A. 1976. "The Last Datable Cuneiform Tablets." Alter Orient und Altes Testament (Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in
Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer). 25: 379-398. See: Plate XIX, p. 495.
21) Houston, Stephen and John Baines with Jerrold Cooper. 2003. "Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica."
Comparative Study of Society and History. 45: 430-479. See: p.448. Described as Fig. 4 Section of Papyrus Carlberg 180, a third century a.d.
manuscript from Tebtunis of an "onomasticon" (list of significant categories). The text is in hieratic with very small supralinear glosses in demotic
and Old Coptic (courtesy Carsten Niebuhr Institutet, Iniversity of Copenhagen).
22) Photograph c. The University of Memphis, Institute of Egyptian Art & Archaeology. Used without permission.
23) Artistic Rendering of "The Great Library of Alexandria." by O. Von Corven from Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss. The
Memory of Mankind. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001 (http://www.ils.unc.edu/dpr/path/alexandria/).
24) Images of coins and culled from uncredited online sources.
25) Allott, Stephen. 1974. Alcuin of York c. A.D. 732 to 804 – His Life and Letters. York, England: William Sessions Limited. See title-page,
unnumbered p. iii (medallion depicting Alcuin from the Bamberg Bible, 9th century in the Bibliothèque National, Paris).
26) Uncredited woodcut illustration from História da Matemática na Época Medieval (Europa): Alcuino de York
27) Covi, Dario A. 1963. “Lettering in Fifteenth Century Florentine Painting.” The Art Bulletin. 45, 1: pp. 1-17. See first unnumbered page between
pp. 12-13; described as 3. Vulgate Revised by Alcuin, ca. 820-832. London, British Museum, Add. MS 10546, fol. 438v.
28) Diringer, David. 1953. The Hand-Produced Book. New York: Philosophical Library. See: p. 263; described as “Fig. VI-14 Cicero, De Republica,
palimpsest (Vatican Library, Cod. Lat. 5757). Primary script: uncials of the fourth or fifth century A.D.; written in Italy. Re-written in the seventh
century, in Bobbio, to copy Augustine, In Psalms.”
29) Weitzmann, Kurt. 1977. “The Late Roman World.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 35, 2: 2-96. See p. 45; a page from a 10th cent.
Byzantine ms. copy of a (now lost) book by Nicander of Colophon (2nd cent. BCE) on poisonous insects and animals.
30) Goodrich, James Tait. 2004. “History of Spine Surgery in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.” Neurosurg Focus. 16, 1: 1-13. See: p. 7; described
as “Fig. 11. An early illustrated work dealing with the school of Salerno. The cover shows Constantine the African lecturing to the school.”
31) A diagram of the letters of the tetragrammaton, symbolizing the Trinity. From St. John's College, Cambridge, MS E.4 f.153v; from Petrus
Alphonsi's Dialogus adversus Judaeos (12th century).
32) Gombrich, E. H. 1979. “Giotto's Portrait of Dante?” he Burlington Magazine. 121, 917: 471-481+483. Cropped image of the ‘Dante Portrait’ from
p. 474; Gombrich argues that Dante wore a beard, that the painting was done by a student of Giotto’s and was an idealized likeness rather than an
33) Trapp, J. B. 2001. “Petrarch's Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 64: 55-192. See:
p. 111; described as 79. Petrarch, Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana MS Plut. XLI.1, flyleaf. Mid-18th century.
34) From Alfred Gudeman: Imagines Philologorum (http://telemachos.phil.uni-erlangen.de/bilder/gudeman/gudeman.html);Giovanni Boccaccio:1313
(Florenz) - 21.12.1375 (Certaldo).
35) From www.kalligrafie-veertje.be; described as Uit Cicero: Orator and Brutus. Bibl Nazionale, Florence, Copv. Sopp. J.I14.
36) Ca. 1450 CE page of Ars minor; see: Plimpton, George Arthur. 1933. “Grammatical Manuscripts and Early Printed Grammars in the Plimpton
Library.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 64: 150-178. Described as “Plate III Earliest Specimen of Printing
– A fragment of the Donatus Salm Grammar printed by Gutenberg before the Bible.
37) Folio A2r from Euclid's Elements of Geometry (Special Collections, Glasgow University Library, Sp Coll BD7-c.5). See: Euclid. 1482.
Preclarissimus liber elementorum Euclidis perspicacissimi. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt. Based upon a translation from Arabic to Latin by Abelard of
Bath; edited and annotated by Campanus of Novara.
38) From IN AEDIBVS ALDI: The Legacy of Aldus Manutius and his Press (http://net.lib.byu.edu/aldine/).
39) Verardus, Carolus and Christoferi Colom. 1494 In laudem Serenissimi Ferdinandi Hispaniaerum regis, Bethicae et regni Granatæ, obsidio,
victoria, et triûphus, Et de Insulis in mari Indico nuper inuentis. Basel: Johann Bergmann de Olpe. See: folios 29 verso and 30 recto. The letters
of Christopher Columbus were printed eleven times in 1493 in various European cities. The 1494 Basel edition was printed along with a 1492
play-text praising the Catholic King Ferdinand’s victory over the Islamic Moors. Combined with Columbus’s letters announcing a new route to India,
the publication may be regarded as religious propaganda. Image from the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education of the
University of Southern Maine; see: http://www.usm.maine.edu/~maps/columbus/facsimile.html.
40) Image from www.bibalex.org/English/gallery/index.htm.
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