Friday 18th April 2014,
Frontiers Magazine

Washington Irving and the rediscovery of the lost centuries of knowledge

Howie Firth March 11, 2013 Going Further
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The journey of two friends in Spain nearly two centuries ago began a process of rediscovery that continues today: the awakening of Europe’s knowledge of an ancient heritage – and of lost centuries in the history of science.

It happened in the spring of 1829, and they were both working in embassies in Madrid, and one was American and the other Russian.

The Russian was Prince Dimitri Ivanovich Dolgorukov, later to be envoy to the court of Persia. The American was Washington Irving, who had already made his name as a writer, with tales like the story of Rip van Winkle who slept for a hundred years. For that story he had drawn on a legend from his father’s home in Orkney. Washington Irving had an Orcadian love of travel and meeting people, and with his Russian friend he had decided to make a holiday journey from Seville to Granada.

This was quite a challenge to take on. For a start, the road was difficult and dangerous, sometimes winding round the edge of sheer cliffs, sometimes running along the floor of ravines, and there was an ever-present danger of bandits. The travellers’ only protection was a young Biscay lad with a carbine which turned out to be usually unloaded; but he was an expert in finding good inns on the way.

Washington Irving tells of their first night from home, in an inn where they distributed some cigars in friendship and were warmly welcomed by the company within. There were people of the village, a group of traders travelling by mule, a patrol of soldiers scouring the land for robbers, and they all sat and talked and told stories. Then came the notes of a guitar and a click of castanets, and then singing and dancing. It was, said Washington Irving, a scene for a painter.

What a country is Spain for a traveller,’ he declared, “where the most miserable inn is as full of adventure as an enchanted castle!”

The travellers’ delight in company and stories meant that they would stop and share their meals with the people they met. On one occasion it was a solitary beggar, walking with a staff, looking like a pilgrim on the road. As he sat with them and accepted their offer of bread and wine, he began to tell them of the people who had once lived in the land of Andalucia. And when the travellers reached their journey’s end, the town of Granada and the old ruined palace of the Alhambra, their courtesy to a man in a shabby cloak led to even more fascinating accounts of older times.

They learned of the people who had built the palace and so much else besides – gardens with roses and orange-trees and sparkling fountains, courtyards with flower-beds and pavements of white marble, and towers rising high up amongst the trees to stand out clearly against the often snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

It was the story of a lost civilisation – of kings and queens in their palace of the Alhambra, of princesses dressed in crimson velvet and gold and pearls, of warriors with lances and scimitars and polished armour that flashed in the light. It was the story of the people called the Moors who ruled Spain for over seven hundred years. Washington Irving, a born storyteller, set it all out in a book that has stayed in print to this day. In fact, Tales of the Alhambra is one of the standard books on sale for visitors to the great palace of Granada, along with pens and notebooks with Washington Irving’s signature.

The book transformed attitudes to Spain’s past. The government began to preserve the historic buildings which until then had been falling into ruin, and indeed this was the start of modern Spanish tourism.

But the story of the Moors of Spain is not only a story of adventure and romance. It is an essential key to understanding the growth of science and scholarship in medieval Europe.

The road to Andalucia

In the years after the death of the prophet Mohammed, Islamic armies swept westwards, across North Africa and on to its Atlantic edge. They crossed into Spain and it was only the victory of the Frank Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732 that stopped them penetrating deeper into western Europe.

But within a few years of Poitiers, a remarkable event occurred. A revolution brought a new family to power in the Muslim world. This family, the Abbasids, were Arabs, with a love of philosophy and science and the arts, and they laid the foundations for a rapid rise in prosperity and learning.

They decided to build a new capital at Baghdad, at a crossroads of trade routes, and the new town grew rapidly to become an international trading centre, with camel caravans and sailing ships bringing on wealth on a colossal scale. There was silver from the east, silk and paper and porcelain from China, spices from south-east Asia, tin from Malaysia, rubies from Sri Lanka, and gold and timber from East Africa. This was the city of Sinbad the Sailor and the Tales of the Arabian Nights, but it was also the city where scholars gathered.

The legacy of the ancient Greeks had been lost to much of Europe as the Roman Empire has declined. Indeed the teaching of the classic thinkers had been stopped dead in its homeland when the Eastern Emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the schools of pagan philosophy on Athens in the year 529. In the west, the monasteries of Ireland were ‘the one flickering candle’ of light, but it was in the Islamic world that the writings of the Greeks were preserved and studied and translated.

Baghdad became the cultural centre where scholars of different lands and cultures worked side by side, and a stream of books resulted. Many were translations, from Aristotle and Euclid and Archimedes, but there were also a growing number of commentaries on the original, expanding and building on their ancient texts.

In the west, the Spanish territories which the Moors called al-Andalus soon became a virtually independent state, but the land of Andalusia stayed as an integral part of the rich cultural mix of the Islamic world, and its cities became centres of scholarship. For a long time Christian Europe lived with little realisation of the treasury of learning which lay on its borders. Then gradually across the religious divide, contacts began.

We find mentions of manuscripts coming from Cordoba to a monastery in Lyons, and Lorraine developing as a centre for the spread of Arabic ideas. The development of Lorraine was assisted by a man called Gerbert of Aurillac, who spent some of his early years in Spain, and who in the year 999 became Pope Sylvester II.

It was the wizard

It was Gerbert of Aurillac who has been described as ‘the first to set Europe on the path to science’, a millennium ago. He brought to the West the instrument called the astrolabe, which by sighting stars and taking the sun’s angle assisted not only the development of the science of astronomy, but also the growth of navigation. It was Gerbert too who had learned in Spain of the Hindu numerals used by the western Arabs. This elegant number-system, with its concept of zero as a place-marker, is the one that we continue to use today, and its introduction opened the way for the development of mathematics in Europe.

It was risky work bringing in such ideas. William of Malmesbury described mathematics as ‘dangerous Saracen magic’ and suggested that what Gerbert had actually brought back from Spain was ‘the art of calling up spirits from hell’.

That image was never far away from those who travelled in the Moorish lands in search of the new learning. Two centuries on from Gerbert, a young Scot called Michael went to the city of Toledo, where teams of translators, Christian and Jewish and Muslim, worked together on the classics. Toledo had fallen to the Christian kingdom of Castile in 1085, in a process that was eventually to end with the reconquest of all Spain, but when Michael went there, around 1217, the city still maintained a tradition of tolerance, with each of the three religious communities keeping its own laws and practices and living peacefully with its neighbours.

It was from Toledo that the works of Aristotle reached the west in translation. And Michael the Scot was a pioneer, with translations of works in physics and biology – works by Aristotle himself and also commentaries by some of the great Muslim scholars such as Averreoës and Avicenna, To do it, he had to master Arabic, and then translate into Latin; and that was how the works of Aristotle were brought back to Europe, to dominate western science.

Michael is remembered in the western world not as a scholar but as a wizard – the man who raised three spirits to split the Eildon Hill in three, says one Borders legend. And by the year 1627 we find a Scottish writer explaining that Michael Scot’s books could not be opened without summoning fields from hell. Further on still, Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem called The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in which Michael Scot’s magic book, buried with him, is removed from the grave. There is a wonderfully chilling description of its eventual return, when a flash of lightning blazes out and a voice is heard. ‘Some saw an arm, and some a hand, and some the waving of a gown,’ says the poet, and one of that number saw even more – a shape wrapped in clerical dress, with a Spanish belt across his shoulder,

 Like pilgrim from beyond the sea;

And knew – but how it matter’d not –

It was the wizard Michael Scot.

Silk and sugar and Gothic arches

The sheer wealth of Muslim learning that inspired the 12th-century European renaissance is such that it difficult to find a single aspect of life that it did not permeate. There were skills brought from the East, such as the production of silk and cotton and their use for clothing, and the cultivation of plants from spinach to sugarcane and from rice to citrus fruits. There were irrigation systems and the building of dams and bridges. The secrets of Syrian glassmaking gave Venice a tradition of craftsmanship which continues today. There were musical instruments such as the lute (al-‘ud), the guitar (qitara), the rebec (an ancestor of the violin), and the shawm (ancestor of the oboe). There was musical notation, and even the notes of the scale: the Arabic alphabet for them is Dal–Ra–Mim–Fa–Sad–Lam–Sin–Dal.

The pointed Gothic arch that enabled the cathedrals of the Middle Ages to soar to breathtaking heights came from the Muslim world, possibly as an onward transmission from India. With such techniques, the cathedral at Strasbourg reached over 140 metres – the height of the modern 40-storey skyscraper.

The writer and art historian Jean Gimpel has captured the spirit of the time in his book The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. He tells how a great feeling of excitement and progress began to sweep Europe as the pace of new discoveries began to grow. “Every day a new instrument and a new method is invented,” wrote the surgeon Theodoric in 1267. “Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end of finding them,” said the Dominican Fra Giordano some decades later. And Gilbert of Tournai wrote: “Never will we find truth if we content ourselves with what is already known.”

And the quest for the new knowledge brought the scholars of the west onto the roads. “I hurried to Toledo as quickly as I could,” said Daniel of Morley around 1180, “so that I could hear the wisest philosophers in the world.” The knowledge that they spread developed into the 12th-century renaissance of learning.

Rediscovery today

The story of the lost centuries of knowledge is today travelling the world in an award-winning exhibition, 1001 Inventions, which has been visited by record numbers at venues ranging from the Science Museum in London to the New York Hall of Science.

A short film featuring Sir Ben Kingsley highlights some of the topics.

The accompanying book – 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization – in a new National Geographic edition with a foreword by Prince Charles, has a wealth of information about the developments that came to medieval Europe from the Muslim world, from cameras to clocks, chess to cheques, water-raising to windmills.

Orkney Science Festival was one of many organisations making a contribution to 1001 Inventions, coming up with the name of the exhibition itself and also finding for the project one of the co-editors of the book, writer Elizabeth Woodcock.

The exhibition’s American tour, launched by Hillary Clinton, attracted half a million people in Los Angeles. It has now begun a tour of Malaysia.

The range of topics covered by the exhibition is highlighted in a YouTube video clip, uploaded by Queen Rania of Jordan and presented by historian Bettany Hughes.

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About The Author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.