The Muslim caliphates

The Toledo School of Translators


Once Toledo was captured in 1085, it became the most important city in Christian Spain and its cultural and intellectual center. Christians from all over al-Andalus took their refuge here, but intellectually speaking the city served more as a bridge than as a spearhead. The scholars who ended up in Toledo were often Arabic speaking and they relied on Arabic sources in their work. Coming into contact with western Christendom, where Latin was the only written language, it became necessary to translate this material. This was an exciting task since the Arabs had access to many works, including classical Greek texts, which European scholars had heard about but never themselves read – works by Galen on medicine, by Ptolemy on geography, by Aristotle on philosophy, and so on. Europeans no longer knew Greek, and in many cases the texts themselves had simply disappeared. In the first part of the twelfth-century, Raymond, the arch-bishop of Toledo, set up a center in the library of the cathedral where classical works were translated, together with the commentaries and elaborations provided by Arabic scholars. Gerard of Cremona was the most productive of the translators, translating more than 87 works on statecraft, ethics, physiognomy, astrology, geometry, alchemy, magic and medicine. Scholars from all over Europe gathered here to read the translations, and as they returned home, they took copies of the texts with them.

The translation movement of Toledo of the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries thus parallels the translation movement of Baghdad of the ninth- and tenth-centuries. The Arabs translated the classics from Greek into Arabic, and now the same texts were translated from Arabic into Latin. Instead of being lost, the books had survived, first in Baghdad and other Muslims centers of scholarship, and then, making the trip around the Mediterranean, they showed up in Spain. From here they continued straight into a new European institution – the university. The first European universities were established in the twelfth-century, and they used the new translations as their first textbooks. This is how Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas came to read Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, how Roger Bacon was inspired by the scientific methods of Ibn al-Haytham, and how Nicolaus Copernicus came to consult the tables, based on the works by Greek and Arabic astronomers, which allowed him to see that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system. Renaissance means “rebirth” and what was reborn in the Renaissance, in the fifteenth-century, in Italy and elsewhere, was more than anything the scholarship of classical antiquity – as saved, translated and elaborated on by the Arabs and by the scholars of Toledo.