Medieval Knowledge of Classical Authors in the West

David Vagamundo

Ad Honorem
Jan 2010
4,439
Atlanta, Georgia USA
Last night I was rereading Lewis' Islam and the West, and he made the usual statement that Europe had lost touch with the Greek and Latin classics until the Muslims reintroduced them. While I realize this is the "received wisdom", I have also read that the classics were preserved in Europe during the "Dark Ages"- Mont Saint Michel, I recall, was one of the depositories.

Anyone have any detailed knowledge one way or the other on this?
 
Mar 2014
8,881
Canterbury
'The west lost touch with the classics' mantra is highly-outdated, and personally I think it's complete rubbish, as classical authors turn up time and time and time again in the reading-lists of western scholars from the 6th to the 11th centuries. Ptolemy, Galen, Isidore, Gratian, Augustine, Herodotus, and Vegetius were copied and quoted constantly. William of Malmesbury read literally hundreds of classical authors.
 
Last edited:

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,886
Blachernai
As Domhnall has said, it's an outdated idea not worth entertaining. Heloise clearly knew Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero, and many of the Latin classics were copied already in the Carolingian era. Notably, this is in contrast to Byzantium, that civilization where classical culture apparently never died out, where the classics don't seem to get re-copied until the 11th or 12th century.
 

BenSt

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
4,565
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
I think, based on my own reading, where this myth arises is that there were some of the classical works which were preserved in Egypt and in the Middle East that were lost in the West, and were reintroduced... but certainly not all of them. I understand that many of Aristotle's works were re-found by scholars visiting Constantinople, whereas only one of his works showed up in Arabic in Cordoba. Much of Plato's works were very compatible with the Church's teachings, and certainly the works of Galen were a cornerstone of the medical system of Christendom. I echo what Kirilax and Domhnall is saying
 
Apr 2015
627
Paris
There seems to be a difference between Latin and Greek Classics. If the Latin authorities continued to be copied through all the Middle Ages, the Greek authors were scarcely available in the West, where the language was all but unknown till the XIth c. Plato was known at Charlemagne's court, with Plotinus' traduction, but Aristotle (except works translated by Boecius in latin) was not.
 

BenSt

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
4,565
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
There seems to be a difference between Latin and Greek Classics. If the Latin authorities continued to be copied through all the Middle Ages, the Greek authors were scarcely available in the West, where the language was all but unknown till the XIth c. Plato was known at Charlemagne's court, with Plotinus' traduction, but Aristotle (except works translated by Boecius in latin) was not.
This makes total sense though, since the Bishop of Rome worked to become dominant in the west, while the Patriarchs of the East were tied to the Patriarch of Antioch or Constantinople. I know that Italian scholars would go into Byzantine lands inorder to try and find books, but mostly the Western Church relied on those already in their system. I'm sure after the schism, the interest in cementing Western identity was strong and so they focussed on Latin and Christian writers which supported Catholic doctrine.
 
Sep 2013
485
Colonia Iulia Augusta Faventia Barcino
The Classic written works that were preserved in the West during the Middle Ages were the ones written in Latin; and the reason for it was that Latin kept its place as the language of culture in western Europe until the Modern Era. As such, Latin works could always be read in their original version by cultured people. Also, not all Latin works were read, copied and preserved in the same way. Given the limited extension of literacy, the capacity for copying and keeping books was limited, and the higher priority was given first to Christian Latin books (Tertullian, Augustine, Orosius, Isidore, etc.) and then to "pagan" or "secular" books that were not too offensive to Christian sensibilities and that were of higher literary value, as they were appraised as an example of good Latin writing, and they were valued for their pedagogical worth. The works of Horace, Virgil, Tacitus, Cicero, etc. fell into this cathegory. From Suetonius, only his "Lives of the Twelve Caesars" have survived, while his most "mundane" or "indecent" books (for Christians, like his "Lifes of Famous Prostitutes") have been lost.

Few or very few works other than these ones have survived, either in their complete or mutilated form (like Petronius' "Satyricon", a true miracle).

As for Greek works, they were forgotten in their practical entirety. The only glimps and glances at ancient Greek culture before Greek works re-entered the West from the XII century onwards were through Latin authors. But this is not such a strange development. Already in the IV century CE, knowledge of Greek among western Roman elites was becoming rarer, for example Augustine of Hippo had a very deficient knowledge of this language. And even during the I-III centuries CE, knowledge of Greek in the West was limited to Sicily, parts of southern Italy and the social elite of the city of Rome. It's doubtful that Plato, Aristotle or Euripides were ever widely read in Roman Gaul or Hispania.

Does anybody know if ancient sources talk about Latin translations of major Greek works during the Roman era? The only examples that I can think about are Christian books, especially Jerome's translation of the Bible.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
The Classic written works that were preserved in the West during the Middle Ages were the ones written in Latin; and the reason for it was that Latin kept its place as the language of culture in western Europe until the Modern Era. As such, Latin works could always be read in their original version by cultured people. Also, not all Latin works were read, copied and preserved in the same way. Given the limited extension of literacy, the capacity for copying and keeping books was limited, and the higher priority was given first to Christian Latin books (Tertullian, Augustine, Orosius, Isidore, etc.) and then to "pagan" or "secular" books that were not too offensive to Christian sensibilities and that were of higher literary value, as they were appraised as an example of good Latin writing, and they were valued for their pedagogical worth. The works of Horace, Virgil, Tacitus, Cicero, etc. fell into this cathegory. From Suetonius, only his "Lives of the Twelve Caesars" have survived, while his most "mundane" or "indecent" books (for Christians, like his "Lifes of Famous Prostitutes") have been lost.

Few or very few works other than these ones have survived, either in their complete or mutilated form (like Petronius' "Satyricon", a true miracle).

As for Greek works, they were forgotten in their practical entirety. The only glimps and glances at ancient Greek culture before Greek works re-entered the West from the XII century onwards were through Latin authors. But this is not such a strange development. Already in the IV century CE, knowledge of Greek among western Roman elites was becoming rarer, for example Augustine of Hippo had a very deficient knowledge of this language. And even during the I-III centuries CE, knowledge of Greek in the West was limited to Sicily, parts of southern Italy and the social elite of the city of Rome. It's doubtful that Plato, Aristotle or Euripides were ever widely read in Roman Gaul or Hispania.

Does anybody know if ancient sources talk about Latin translations of major Greek works during the Roman era? The only examples that I can think about are Christian books, especially Jerome's translation of the Bible.
Boethius translated Aristotle's Logic and a few other Greek works in the 6th century CE
 
Mar 2013
1,441
Escandinavia y Mesopotamia
A scholar in a certain field who comments outside his/her field should be taking with a grain salt. An Islamic scholar should not pretend he knows something about Medieval Europe. A Medievalist should neither about China’s history, nor should a sinolog assumes he knows something about Mesoamerican cultures. And so.

Medieval scholars would reject Lewis’ assertion easily. In Europe ancient texts were preserved in a far better condition than the Muslims did. It is also worth to mention that it was not Muslims themselves that translated ancient texts from Latin/Greek into Arabic. It was actually done by non-Arab Christians that previously had lived under Byazntium, as it was them who were the overwhelming majority of the translators that took the brunt in the House of the Wisdom in Bagdad where they translated the ancient texts into Arabic for the Arabs.

The author also argues that the Muslim world showed a tolerance that was unknown in the Christian Middle Ages Europe which of course also would be rejected easily by the scholars on Middle Ages. Of course, as we have evidence from Ibn Jubayr who claimed that Crusaders were better rulers for the Muslims than a Muslim one, or in Spain when the Almohads ruled.

As I stated in the beginning of my post here a scholar on Middle East should not assume he knows something about medieval Europe... or genocide topic generally in his case where he has burned his fingers completely :D