We owe it all to the East: The revival of Natural Philosophy in 11th and 12th century Europe

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, On the Consolation of Philosophy, 1385, courtesy of the Special Collections Library of Glasgow University.

Author: Sunnie Habgood

Sub-editor: Vita Banducci

The splitting of the Roman Empire and emergence of early Christianity as the dominant authority in 11th and 12th century Europe, resulted in a significant loss of knowledge, namely from Ancient Greek natural philosophers. Interest in natural philosophy reignited in the early 11th century, a revival which many factors contributed to. On the European side of things Boethius – a Roman senator – ventured into translating Aristotle’s work despite a greater Roman negligence of its importance. Furthermore, the establishment of cathedral schools within Europe led to old treasure troves of knowledge being unearthed.

However, history consistently fails to recognise that we primarily owe this revival – and all the developments which followed it – to the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the East, whose Greek/Islamic scripts contained stellar information previously lost to the Latin-speaking West (despite Boethius’ attempts to translate them). These scripts dated back to the Golden Age of Greek Philosophy, and without the translations of Boethius and other 11th century academics, the West would be unrecognisable today. Where Christianity had previously stifled ancient knowledge which did not comply with their philosophies, Islam utilised the Greek knowledge in order to build a better society. We do indeed owe everything to the East. 

The foundations of European society were built upon the Roman Empire, which conquered almost all of the continent and fostered economic growth, cultural roots and Europe’s coming together as a broader society. However, not everything the Empire achieved can be shown in such a positive light. With the rise of Christianity within the Empire, almost all knowledge of the Greek natural philosophers was lost as Christianity became an alternative authority and source of information. Previously, as the Empire still thrived but preferred paganism, the Empire’s knowledge of science and natural philosophy had been inherited from the ancient Greeks, which in itself had been founded upon pagan learning. With Christianity being so dominant not just as a religion but as a school of thought, the triumph of Christianity in the Empire during the late 4th century changed everything. The Neoplatonic school in Athens was shut down by Emperor Justinian in 529 CE in a bid to expel all paganism from the Empire, and many of the great thinkers and their works were lost or migrated eastward. From this point onwards in Europe, Christianity dominated education and thought. This period came to be known as the ‘Dark Ages’ (450-1450 CE), as ‘literacy, learning and especially science’ were threatened under the Christian regime. The new sources of authority were ‘emanated from Sacred Scripture, the Bible, and the fundamental belief that an omniscient and omnipotent God had created our world from nothing’. This left natural philosophy null and void under a new regime which oppressed any thoughts outside of God’s authority. 

Education was now primarily available for those in the clergy or wishing to become priests, and ‘learning for its own sake had no legitimate role’ in that there weren’t any schools established for the primary purpose of educating – most education now took place in monasteries. The European tradition of learning did not at this point even encapsulate the seven liberal arts. Things began to change in 800 CE as the newly crowned emperor of the Romans, Charles the great (Charlemagne), called for the establishment of schools in monasteries and cathedrals; and though this at first primarily served the education of the clergy, this ruling was the start of natural philosophy’s revival within Europe. 

By the 11th century CE, educational activity had fully shifted into these schools connected to cathedrals and was now attracting laymen who wished to become educated in Latin which was useful in law, medicine, and civil practises. These cathedral schools started to appear in major cities; they began expanding their teachings and eventually intertwined the basis of the seven liberal arts into some of their available subjects, as each different cathedral school offered different expertise. At this point in history, European scholars could no longer ignore the treasure trove of knowledge the ancient Greeks had once possessed due to the translations by Boethius which were circulating the academic sphere. As the liberal arts thrived, there became a yearning for reason and logic within these schools. This is when the revival of interest in natural philosophy was sparked for many European scholars. As more and more men became educated, they became aware of their previous ignorance. The development of cathedral schools ignited an interest in natural philosophy and were therefore partly responsible for its revival in 11th and 12th century Europe. 

Boethius’ commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation was written in the early sixth century Common Era (CE) as a part of his project to bring the Latin-speaking world ‘knowledge of Plato and Aristotle’. Up until Boethius ventured to do so, the Romans had never been sufficiently motivated to translate the Greek works to Latin, which were lost within Europe after the collapse of the Empire. Boethius discussed Aristotle’s ‘propositions [that] truth and falsity are not divided in a fixed and definite manner’, amongst other ideas that led to Aristotle being considered the authority on logic. While the cathedral schools were established, scholars had access to these very limited works which sparked an interest in natural philosophy amongst them, and Boethius’ works filled an intellectual void which was eventually replaced by the much more substantial Greek/Islamic volumes. So, while Boethius’ texts had been available for centuries and did not necessarily contribute to the revival of natural philosophy, it is indispensable to note that without Boethius’ work there would have been no knowledge of natural philosophy’s existence in the first place and no basis for the revival. 

As aforementioned, the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire was responsible for the loss of knowledge concerning pagan-fuelled natural philosophy. But this knowledge did not simply vanish – it primarily travelled Eastwards as a number of philosophers opted to continue their work in Persia. Here natural philosophy continued to thrive in the Byzantine empire, with the knowledge of the ancient Greek works from Aristotle and Plato being utilised and studied. Arabic mathematicians such as Al-Khuwarazmi raised mathematics ‘to a level that Europeans of medieval times were dumbstruck by [its] brilliance’ in the ninth century, as science thrived under the influence of the Greek works which came before them. 

Natural philosophy, apart from the limited works translated by Boethius in the 5th century, had no place in the European intellectual sphere until it came into contact with Islam in the 11th century. As Toledo in Spain was captured in 1085 and the conquest of Sicily occurred in 1091, Christian/European forces tried desperately to wrest control of it back from the Islamic forces. In doing so, they came into contact with a culture they had previously ignored or dismissed, with texts “extending from the humanities and literature to science and natural philosophy” far more advanced than anything they had previously encountered, now at the Europeans disposal. While Europe was already aware the Islamic society held a greater amount of knowledge, this was the first time in history European scholars were brought into direct contact with the knowledge from the East. This, of course, was enough to revive an interest in natural philosophy. Observing a far more advanced civilisation whose wealth of knowledge was incomparable to their own would be enough to have any society interested in what they had to offer. The Western translations of the Islamic works almost exclusively focused on science and natural philosophy in order to make up for years of lost knowledge; ideas which had been hinted at in Boethius’ limited translations – which he never finished due to his untimely execution in the 6th century CE – were now fully available to study. The translations of these works were phenomenal in themselves; to have Greek texts be translated into Arabic/Syriac and then into Latin was a feat of knowledge previously unencountered by a non-globalised society. As stated before, European cathedral schools harboured a thirst for natural philosophy as the interest had been revived. With the emergence of cathedral schools, the newly translated and accessible knowledge from the Islamic world was able to be taught to students. Not only did the Islamic/Greek translations fill the gap previously help in European knowledge concerning natural philosophy, they also further intensified the 11th and 12th century yearning for natural philosophical knowledge; they were further responsible for its spread throughout Europe as the knowledge became more accessible with Latin translations. 

Boethius’ translations, though extremely limited in their content, set the foundations for the revival as they allowed for European scholars to have a baseline understanding of the concepts explored by Aristotle. Though education was stifled by the Christian traditions of the Roman empire, the emergence of Cathedral schools in the 11th century allowed for European intellectual traditions to grow and further cemented an interest in natural philosophy. These schools were also responsible for its revival as academics and scholars yearned for more knowledge. And finally, the interaction between the Islamic and Christian worlds built a bridge between the two worlds and their knowledge, allowing the Europeans access to volumes on natural philosophy previously lost and not only fully reviving the interest in natural philosophy, but also spreading it throughout Europe. Islamic society utilised volumes which had been demonised within the Christian sphere as evil in order to elevate God’s authority. We truly do owe it all to the East. 

Image credit

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, On the Consolation of Philosophy, 1385, courtesy of the Special Collections Library of Glasgow University.

Bibliography

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Boethius. Ancient Commentaries on Aristotle: Boethius: On Aristotle On Interpretation 4-6. Edited by Andrew Smith. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011

Grant, Edward. A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Grant, Edward. God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Jaeger, Stephen. The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideas in Medieval Europe. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.  

Kaylor Jr., Noel Harold, and Phillips, Philip Edward. A companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. The Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2012.

Linberg, David C. and Numbers, Robert L. When Christianity and Science Meet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003

Umar Ali, Rabia. “Medieval Europe: The Myth of the Dark Ages and the Impact of Islam.” Islamic Studies, 51, no. 2 (2012): 155-168. URL: https://shibbolethsp.jstor.org/start?entityID=https%3A%2F%2Fidp.unimelb.edu.au%2Fopenathens&dest=https://www.jstor.org/stable/23643958&site=jstor

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