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Thu Jul 25, 2019, 01:30 PM

"The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found"

Historian Violet Moller’s “The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found” re-creates the pathways by which scientific and philosophical texts were passed down from the classical world to the modern era. After the decline of the western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., most of what is now Western Europe was in fragments. The rise of Christianity led to the destruction of libraries and nonreligious (hence “pagan”) texts, and “by the year 500, secular book production had effectively gone underground.” Moller enhances our understanding of the period from late antiquity until the Renaissance by highlighting the many cities where knowledge continued to thrive during the Medieval era, and where important manuscripts were lovingly translated and protected while elsewhere they had been reduced to ashes.

Baghdad, the Mesopotamian “cradle of civilization,” is the first stop on the map of this journey. In the prosperous court of the Abbasid caliphate (750 to 1258), paper, a necessary tool of the scholar, arrived in 793 from China via the Silk Roads. Along with other innovations in bookbinding, it allowed for an impressive output of research, writing and translation.

In Muslim Spain, Cordoba and Toledo were important centers of knowledge. Cordoba was a major site of exchange for scientific ideas originating in the Middle East, and Moller describes the routes of translation as well as the new studies in science, philosophy and medicine that fed Cordoba’s impressive production of 70,000 to 80,000 books per year in its heyday. As Cordoba’s prominence began to wane, Toledo rose to importance. Located at the edge of Muslim and Christian lands and reconquered by Christians in 1085, Toledo attracted scholars from all over Europe.

Finally, Moller describes how Salerno, Palermo and Venice became epicenters of medical and scientific knowledge in Italy from the 11th century onward. Particularly entertaining is how conquest became intertwined with learning in Palermo, as Norman conquerors with a sense of curiosity encouraged scientific inquiry. However, in Salerno, something peculiar was beginning to happen: Authors were taking credit for Arab scientific ideas without attributing them. It’s possible, Moller asserts, that this was done because of attitudes toward Muslims during the Crusades, but nonetheless, this erasure of sources led to the suppression of Muslim contributions to the history of science. “The Map of Knowledge” goes a long way toward restoring our understanding of their role.

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