Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arabic Science Comes to the West

To write my most recent book, The Abacus and the Cross, I traveled throughout Europe interviewing experts on medieval science around the year 1000, focusing especially on the interests of the Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac: Arabic numerals, the astrolabe, celestial spheres, the acoustics of organ pipes, and astrology. None of this material made it into the final book, but in coming weeks I'll be sharing here a few vignettes of "the writer at work":

I was in the manuscript reading room of the National Library of France in Paris, a bright, hushed room, floor-to-ceiling bookcases to my left, floor-to-ceiling windows to my right, ranks of long tables studded with wooden bookrests and velvet rolls to gently prop open the fragile parchment pages. Most of the chairs were filled with hunched-over scholars. 

To be admitted I had to write ahead and state my credentials, submit to an interview, show my passport, prove myself a "scholar" by handing over a letter from my publisher, be photographed (at another desk), get a plastic ID card, go down to the cashier and pay seven euros for the card to be activated for three days and to get three paper tickets. Up to the manuscript room, where I handed the ID card and one ticket to the clerk. She gave me a key to a locker, where I had to leave all my belongings except one pencil (not a pen, with which I could deface a manuscript) and a notebook. Reentering the reading room, I had to display my pencil and notebook to the clerk to get back my ID card and the ultimate prize: a plastic block with a number on it. I was then permitted to sit in a chair -- but not look at any manuscripts, yet.

A medieval astronomer. From a
manuscript in Avranches, France.

David Juste, the medievalist from the University of Sydney who had invited me to meet him there, sat down beside me. "What you will see here," he whispered, "is the earliest Latin manuscript to contain Arabic words. The earliest proof of the transmission of Arabic science to the West. Now I will order the manuscript."

He filled out a form and took it to another desk. 

Ten minutes later, the manuscript arrived from the vault. "Believe it or not," Juste said, "I think I have seen two thousand manuscripts in my life, and this was the very first one I saw." 

It was a rather thin little book, with a newish leather binding. The parchment was off-white with brown letters, undistinguished. Juste turned the page, did the classic French kissing of the finger tips: "This is it." 

It was made in Limoges, he told me, slipping on the de riguer white gloves, a hundred miles north of Aurillac, between 978 and 1000 -- during Gerbert of Aurillac's lifetime. Parts were copied from an earlier manuscript, now lost, that Juste believes came from Catalonia; other parts came from Fleury, including a work by Abbot Abbo of Fleury (Gerbert's worst enemy) on cosmology. Most of the book, however, is about fortune-telling and astrology, not what we would call the science of the stars. 

Juste looked around nervously. "Wait a minute. We have to be very careful. I expect we'll get in trouble. We are not supposed to consult the manuscripts together. Why? It's the rules. The rules are very strict. I have an idea." He got up. "I'll try something." He intercepted a different clerk, a young woman who had just come from a back room. She studied me, then curtly nodded. He hurried back and swept up the manuscript.

"This way. I asked for special permission to talk." We went into the back room, where a trio who looked like professor and students were discussing another manuscript. We sat down at the opposite end of the long table; the clerk closed the door.

Juste relaxed. He began flipping through the pages, pointing to letters, running his finger along a line, thumbing pages back and forth -- for all the hoopla, he didn't treat "the earliest proof of the transmission of Arabic science to the West" as a sacred object. It was a book.

photo captions: A medieval astronomer. From a manuscript in Avranches, France. Bernward of Hildesheim presenting his book
to the Virgin (Dom Museum Hildesheim).

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