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JTMS 2015; 2(2): 325–334

Sonja Brentjes
Participant and Observer Narratives about
Medieval Cross-Cultural Knowledge
Transfer. Missing, Single or Multiple
DOI 10.1515/jtms-2015-0030

A conference on issues of cross-cultural transfer via translation with particu-

lar emphasis on historical as well as modern narratives on such events was
the main activity in the second year of the International research project
“Relatos de intercambio intercultural de conocimiento en la Edad Media y
temprana Edad Moderna. Narradores e interlocutores, objetos y prácticas,
valores y creencias” (FFI2012-38606). It took place on November 21 and 22,
2014 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, of which
the director Jürgen Renn and Sonja Brentjes are partners and participants in
this project. The PI of the project is José Luis Mancha, Department for
Philosophy, Logic and History of Science at the University of Seville. Further
members are Jésus Garay and José Ferreíros of the same Department, Maribel
Fierro, CSIC, Madrid, Rafael Ruiz Azuar, Archaeological Museum, Alicante,
Víctor Pallejà de Bustinza, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Jens Høyrup,
Roskilde University, Anne Tihon, Catholic University Louvain, Menso
Folkerts, Bavarian Academy of Science, Munich, and Tony Levy, CNRS,
Paris. Partners of this project are Efthymios Nicolaidis, National Hellenic
Research Foundation, Institute for Neohellenic Research, Athens, Alexander
Fidora and Matthias M. Tischler, Autonomous University of Barcelona,
Bellaterra, and Antoni Malet, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona.
The project questions the main observer narratives about medieval and early
modern cross-cultural exchange of knowledge via translating as created in the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries by comparing them with narratives of
participants in such acts, questioning the representation of those participants
in historical as well as modern sources and by asking in which manner the
standard perspectives on those activities need to be recentred and rephrased.1
The conference of November 2014 served to discuss recent research on such

Corresponding author: Sonja Brentjes, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin,

Germany, E-mail:

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326 Sonja Brentjes

issues in other disciplines than history of science, medicine and technology, to

present new methodological reflections on individual research avenues by the
project’s members, those of its partners and colleagues from neighbouring fields
and with comparable interests. Geographically, the conference focused on
Byzantium, the Iberian Peninsula, ‘France’ and Antioch. With respect to
disciplinary themes, the papers discussed issues pertaining to the history of
mathematics, astronomy, philosophy including encyclopedic approaches to
knowledge and nature, medieval Christianity and Syriac, Byzantine and
Ottoman Studies. In addition to six members of the project (Mancha, Garay,
Azuar, Pallejà, Høyrup, Brentjes) and two of its partners (Nicolaidis, Tischler),
five external colleagues contributed to this meeting (Johannes Niehoff-
Panagiotidis, Free University, Berlin; Isabel Draelants, CNRS, Paris; Cécile Bon-
Mariage, Catholic University Louvain; Matteo Martelli, Humboldt Unversity,
Berlin; Dirk Grupe, independent researcher, Munich).
Brentjes, in her introductory survey on new research publications, focused
primarily on issues of methodology. She pointed out that broadening the
perspective to translations beyond scientific, medical and philosophical texts
and investigating the terminological, cultural and social meaning of the concept
of translation has brought important new insights about the multiplicity of
linguistic practices, for instance in the case of Bruce R. O’Brien’s study of
translations in England between 800 and 1200.2 This issue was taken up and
contextualized impressively by Niehoff-Panagiotidis from the perspective of the
minorities in Byzantium and the languages they used when speaking and those
they used in writing.
Based on a survey of major editorial projects of medieval Latin translations
from Greek and Arabic, Brentjes highlighted four issues for further considera-
tion: (1) the silence of observer narratives outside specialized research literature
about translation activities in the second half of the thirteenth century in other
than the standard centres like Toledo in the Iberian Peninsula and the impact
that such a streamlining of narrating medieval translating has for our
understanding of the thematic and human choices in particular for privileging
the role of participants from outside the Iberian Peninsula to the detriment of
analyzing the contributions of local contributors in the Mozarab and Jewish
communities; (2) the unclear or at times contradictory specifications of the
actors (patrons, translators, support personnel, readers), their contributions,
skills and relationships in participant narratives and the need to contextualize

1 BRENTJES e. a. 2014.
2 O’BRIEN 2011.

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Participant and Observer Narratives 327

such incomplete information by studying the intellectual, cultural and economic

life in the communities of the participants at the time and place of the transla-
tions; (3) the insufficient differentiation between various types of translations
(single, multiple, invented, incomplete, anonymous, attributed, retro-transla-
tions etc.) and how such a broader perspective on the character of the transla-
tion results would modify the current view of a translation movement in the
Iberian Peninsula and in the Provence or even replace it with the image of a
cluster of individual and group activities of largely independent, local and only
occasionally interdependent character; (4) the economic and institutional con-
ditions that shaped the later distribution of specific translations made from
Arabic or Greek and their respective combination with texts of other provenance,
authorship or thematic affiliation; the specifically discussed example was that of
the reproduction of texts studied at the University of Paris and the question of
how to learn more about comparable processes elsewhere.
The discussion focused first on Simone Van Riet’s challenge of Marie-Thérèse
d’Alverny’s interpretation of the cooperation between Dominicus Gundissalinus
and some Abraham ibn Da’ud.3 As a result, issues were raised that concern our
current knowledge about (1) the evolution of spoken languages in environments of
translation, (2) the linguistic boundaries between members of different commu-
nities and the conditions under which the participants in translating could learn
to speak, read and write the various linguistic registers, (3) the linguistic proper-
ties of the source texts and the degrees of their accessibility to local and foreign
participants in translating in the Iberian Peninsula or in the Provence, and thus (4)
the problem of how to understand, unpack and interprete the cooperation
between members of different linguistic and faith groups in specific acts of
translating. Information about research in these and related problems outside
the sphere of cross-cultural exchange of knowledge via translating was provided.
In particular, new research was highlighted about the translations of adminis-
trative and diplomatic texts during the thirteenth and fourteenth century in the
Iberian Peninsula and the decisive role of Jewish, Muslim and converted person-
nel in these activities as well as linguistic developments with regard to the
vernaculars and the usage of different linguistic registers in various communities.4

3 D’ALVERNY 1954–1956; VAN RIET 1972, p. 90*–105*, especially p. 95*–98*. Yet see now on this
specific philosophical dialogue in Toledo FIDORA 2003, p. 98; FIDORA 2004a; FIDORA 2004b.
4 For the important role of Jews, Muslims and converts in translation activities in adminis-
trative and diplomatic contexts: JASPERT 2008, p. 159–161, 179, 186 und 188. For Arabic skills in
late medieval Toledo: MOLÉNAT 1994. For the linguistic map of the medieval Iberian Peninsula:
BOISSELLIER e. a. 2012.

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328 Sonja Brentjes

Starting from an early twentieth-century linguistic map of the region called

today Macedonia,5 Niehoff-Panagiotidis reflected on the possible distribution of
spoken and written languages across the Balkans and Greece during the Ottoman
and later-medieval Byzantine Empires. He emphasized the linguistic differences
between the various country sites and cities as well as between the communities
that made up the urban populations. Turkic idioms entered the analyzed regions
in the fourteenth century and acquired different levels of distributions and
relevance as the spoken language of tribal groups migrating towards the West,
the language of commerce, administration and law, and as language of literature
and education. The cities on the Balkans significantly differed linguistically from
their surrounding country sites. Ioannina, for instance, despite its Slavic name,
was grecophone, while the people of the villages spoke Albanian and forms of
Romance (vernacular derivatives from Latin). Yet as in the case of Turkic, such
vernaculars were also spoken by nomadic groups about whom Byzantine sources
report since the eleventh century. A different linguistic situation prevails in
another major city of the Greek mainland during the Ottoman period. Saloniki
was dominated by Judaeo-Spanish because of the expulsions from the Iberian
Peninsula since the late fifteenth century. Other linguistic groups in the city were
speakers of Bulgarian, Greek and Albanian. The populations outside of Saloniki
spoke predominantly a Bulgarian vernacular and forms of Romance. Other exam-
ples complicated this already complex picture. Niehoff-Panagiotidis explained
the mélé as results of multiple migrations from the North and the East, already
testified to in Byzantine sources, among them Slavic and Turkic tribes. The
presence of other language forms like Albanian or the group of dialects called
Aromanian (vernaculars derived from Latin) is less clearly understood.
Such a polyphony of plurilinguistic minorities in urban settings makes
discussions of translating much more challenging than what is known so far
about Western regions of Europe. Yet their practices of writing and speaking can
provide important insights into the socio-cultural conditions of translating ver-
sus plurilingual communication, the emergence of new writing tools like alpha-
bets, the arrival or creation of new languages like Judeao-Spanish or Judeao-
Greek and the migration of languagues across groups of populations. Moreover,
the highly complex situation of Southeastern Europe suggests looking for col-
leagues who are mapping the linguistic developments in other parts of Europe
and studying the impact that these linguistic changes have on the creation of
written literatures. A research project where such a study is undertaken for Italy
and France is the project “Babel Eve. Émergence du vernaculaire en Europe”,

5 WEIGAND 1924.

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Participant and Observer Narratives 329

guided by members of the Universities in Chambéry (Université de Savoie,

LL-Labors), Lyons (Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3, CEDFL-GADGES), Grenoble
(Université de Grenoble – 3 Stendhal, CERHIUS-ILCEA), Turin (Università degli
Studi di Torino), Milan (Università degli Studi di Milano), and Alessandria, Novara
and Vercelli (Università del Piemonte Orientale).6
Garay and Nicolaidis discussed other topics related to translation in Byzantium.
Garay spoke of the fate of Proklos’ works and the cultural translations or transfor-
mations demanded at different moments in time when Christian scholars engaged
with the œuvre of ‘pagan’ writers. Until the eleventh century, his texts were not
taught at Byzantine schools. However, they were transmitted partially and in
modified forms in the works of Christian writers. In the eleventh century, Michael
Psellos rehabilitated his name and doctrine and taught them in Constantinople.
One of his students, Johannes Italos, was a well-known Neoplatonist, who was
condemned for his teachings and his public behavior as a heretic. Garay also spoke
about other Neoplatonists, among them the author of the first Georgian translations
of and commentaries on Proklos’ works, Ioane Petritsi (eleventh to twelfth
Nicolaidis surveyed what we know about Byzantine translations of Arabic
and Persian astronomical texts. In his view, the representation of Ptolemy in
Byzantine sources as ‘our astronomer’ and of other astrologers/astronomers as
‘charlatans’ provided an effective barrier against the translation of such texts
from Arabic for a long time despite their technical and observational superiority.
Another consequence of this kind of evaluation was a pragmatic use of some
elements of Arabic astronomical texts such as tables, while ignoring entirely the
theoretical debate among astrologers and philosophers in Islamicate societies.
The further depiction of foreign authorities in Byzantine sources was their
description as ‘new’ or ‘modern’. This terminology was sometimes used as a
negative opposition to the appreciative representation of Ptolemy.
Nevertheless, there were a number of Byzantine translations of astrological
treatises, astronomical tables, and – as is well known – in the late thirteenth and
early fourteenth centuries of theoretical reflections on planetary models.
Nicolaidis proposes to classify these different translations according to their
different time horizons as more or less independent enterprises (eighth, eleventh
and fourteenth centuries) with possibly different addressees and functions.
In addition to these translation activities regarding Arabic and Persian
sources, two further source languagues can be found among Greek translations
made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: Latin and Hebrew.

6 Their results are being published in the electronic Journal Corpus Eve. Émergence du verna-
culaire en Europe:

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Translations from Latin included translations of Arabic astronomical tables and

other treatises made at Cyprus in about the third quarter of the fourteenth
century by Greek native speakers in the service of the Crusader dynasty of
Cyprus, the Lusignans. The same phenomenon of indirect transmission or multi-
ple cross-cultural transmission can be observed among the translations made by
the Jewish community of Karaites in Constantinople.
While these activities are relatively well studied, except for aspects of the
activities of the Karaites, there are a few other Byzantine translations of Arabic
astrological and astronomical texts (Abū Ma’šar; Ibn al-Mutannā) which have
not been investigated so far and may belong to other contexts. Other desiderata
concern the use of astrology and of astronomical instruments, in particular the
astrolabe, by Byzantine scholars.
Grupe’s summary of his study of Stephen of Antiochia’s Latin translation of
Ibn al-Haitam’s treatise On the configuration of the universe met with Nicolaidis’
presentation in so far as he too spoke about translating in a Crusader State.
Several surprising features came to the fore. Stephen appears to be a competent
student of theoretical astronomy, who not merely understood Ibn al-Haitam’s
text with his efforts to ground Ptolemy’s mathematical models of the planets in
natural philosophy, but set out to improve these efforts and complete them in
those parts, which the eleventh-century scholar had left undiscussed. Stephen
also executed observations of the sky and apparently introduced new technical
devices to overcome some of the contradictions between the two areas of knowl-
edge. Grupe claimed that Stephen already invented the so-called Tusi couple.
Hence, a publication of his research is of great importance since it will not only
offer information about astronomical activities in Crusader Antiochia and the
most likely cooperation of Stephen with local experts, but can challenge a
central part of the current understanding of the development of planetary
modeling in Islamicate societies.
Høyrup offered a glimpse into what he called advanced arithmetic in al-
Andalus through an anonymized Latin translation called Liber mahameleth. This
text is seen as a translation either made by Gundisalvi in the later twelfth
century or by someone closely connected with him. If the translator intentionally
veiled his authorship of the translation, this would be one of the rare texts
known for such a procedure. While there are many anonymous translations of
scientific and other texts, none of them has been so far described as intention-
ally anonymized. No proposals have been made so far for why Gundisalvi or his
ally might have chosen to do so. The main part of Høyrup’s paper focused,
however, on the other feature of his description of the text, namely its presenta-
tion of commercial mathematics from a position of a more advanced mathema-
tical practice. Høyrup described this higher level of approach to practical

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problems and techniques as incoporating systematic variations of properties and

conditions of problems, the application of three kinds of methods (algebra,
Euclid’s Elements, Book II, theory of proportions), and generalizations.
The following talks discussed Syriac alchemy in its current stage of research
(Martelli), methodological problems in the study of Ramon Llull’s Llibre de
bèsties (Pallejà), scientific, ritual and other objects produced or acquired in the
Iberian Peninsula in different communities and transformed through their use
by other Iberian groups for other purposes or audiences (Azuar), the representa-
tion of Toledo as a centre of translation acitivties by thirteenth-century Latin
authors of encyclopaedias (Draelants), and various modes of transfer of biogra-
phical material on Muḥammad’s life in Latin sources (Tischler).
Martelli outlined the problems of the study of alchemy in Syriac, highlighted
the close connection of alchemical and medical texts in various manuscripts,
which seem to point to an integration of textual practices if not more between
alchemy and medicine in some Syriac circles. A similar component seems to
characterize the main cultural contexts of Syriac alchemical texts – their presence
within collections including Sergius of Reshaina’s translations of Greek medical
texts, which probably circulated in important Syriac cultural centres between the
seventh and the ninth century (monasteries, schools). A third reflection of the
possibly close relationship between alchemy and medicine in Syriac circles is the
representation of Zosimos of Panopolis as a physician and of Hippocrates of Chios
as an alchemist in two Syriac manuscripts in London. Since there is no ancient
connection of Hippocrates with alchemical doctrines and practices, this new
image emerged clearly in a different context whose contours are obscure.
Pallejà criticized strongly the orientalizing tendencies among previous
researchers with regard to Llull’s bestiary. He proposed to look for biblical
inspirations in Hebrew, in particular the Talmud, and in Llull’s activities in
elite aristocratic education in Paris.
Azuar presented a survey of a variety of objects which where used in
different faith communities across the Iberian Peninsula and in other parts of
the Mediterranean world. His main effort was to determine their possible routes
of movements in the Mediterranean and across the Peninsula.
Draelants posed the question whether the idea of Toledo as a centre of Arabo-
Latin translations already was a myth in the thirteenth century. She proposed
to consider its emergence as promoted by Toledo’s role as a centre of studies in
the disciplines of the quadrivium and in particular, of one discipline, which was
seen as a derivative of these mathematical sciences, which were identified as astral
sciences – negromancy, that is the science of the magical properties of stones,
plants and animals. It is this feature that Draelants also considers as the base for the
vernacular translations undertaken in the thirteenth century at the court of Alfonso

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X. She sees support for such an interpretation of the evolution of the myth and the
particular fame of Toledo in Christian cities of Europe after the twelfth century in the
Latin encyclopaedias of the mid-thirteenth century, which used with regard to
Arabo-Latin material primarily translations made in the second half of the twelfth
and the first half of the thirteenth centuries in Toledo or in the eleventh century in
Salerno. These translations were brought to Paris from the North, in all likelihood by
English scholars. Yet not all texts came via this route. Some were apparently
accessed in the Picardie and Brabant, while in other cases, for instance Arnold of
Saxony, the provenance of his sources is unknown. In general, the material used by
the encyclopedists excluded the more technical literature from astrology, astron-
omy, algebra or arithmetic.
The combined anchorage of Toledo’s reputation outside the Iberian
Peninsula in Arabo-Latin translation activities and the study of the astral
sciences in combination with magic, divination and alchemy seems to support
the hypothesis that an interest in these disciplines motivated first and foremost
the translations of Arabic scientific, medical and philosophical texts into Latin.
Tischler paid particular attention to conceptual and methodological innova-
tions in the study of cross-cultural transfer of information in contrast to transla-
tions of scientific texts. He suggested considering the activities related to Latin
representations of Muḥammad’s life as acts of communication. Important forms
of such Latin representations were complete and partial translations of Arabic
versions of the Prophet’s Life (“as-Sīra an-nabawīya”) as well as translations and
paraphrases of the Qur’ān (“al-Qur’ān”) and partial collections of sayings attrib-
uted to the Prophet (“aḥādīt”).7 The use of such Latin versions of Islamic or
polemical writings in Arabic among Catholic clerics in the Iberian Peninsula
requires us to consider them not merely as linguistic transfers of texts, but as
communicative engagements in different traditions of faith. Such cross-cultural
activities constitute a different format of translation and need to be taken into
account when discussing the relations between the Arabic and Latin witnesses
and the contexts of such material in other textual environments. A further point,
of primary relevance in the discussion, was the terminology used to name the
act of translation and the differences between terms like “convertere”, “tradu-
cere” and “interpretari”.

7 Bibliotheca Islamo-Christiana Latina (BICL), an online repertoire of Latin testimonies of

Muḥammad’s life developed by MATTHIAS M. TISCHLER:
forschung/spanien_bicl.php, as well as TISCHLER 2008; TISCHLER 2011a; TISCHLER 2011b; DI
doctoral thesis at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve about the vernacular depictions of
Muhammad’s life in Catholic Europe.

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D’ALVERNY 1954–1956
MARIE-THÉRÈSE D’ALVERNY: “Avendauth?”, in Homenaje Millás-Vallicrosa 1954–1956, 1,
BOISSELLIER e. a. 2012
STÉPHANE BOISSELLIER e. a.: Langues médiévales ibériques. Domaines espagnol et portu-
gais (L’atélier du médiéviste 12), Turnhout 2012.
BRENTJES e. a. 2014
SONJA BRENTJES e. a.: “Towards a new approach to medieval cross-cultural exchanges”, in
Journal of Transcultural Medieval Studies 1 (2014) 9–50.
MICHELINA DI CESARE: The pseudo-historical image of the prophet Muhammad in medieval
Latin literature. A repertory (Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients.
Beihefte zur Zeitschrift Der Islam N. F. 26), Berlin/New York 2012.
Vitae Mahometi. Reescritura e invención en la literatura cristiana de controversia, ed. by
ALEXANDER FIDORA: Die Wissenschaftstheorie des Dominicus Gundissalinus.
Voraussetzungen und Konsequenzen des zweiten Anfangs der aristotelischen Philosophie
im 12. Jahrhundert (Wissenskultur und gesellschaftlicher Wandel 6), Berlin 2003.
FIDORA 2004a
ALEXANDER FIDORA: “Abraham Ibn Daud und Dominicus Gundissalinus. Philosophie und
religiöse Toleranz im Toledo des 12. Jahrhunderts”, in LUTZ-BACHMANN/FIDORA 2004, 10–26.
FIDORA 2004b
ALEXANDER FIDORA: “Ein philosophischer Dialog der Religionen im Toledo des 12.
Jahrhunderts. Abraham Ibn Daud und Dominicus Gundissalinus”, in SCHWARTZ/KRECH
2004, 251–266.
Homenaje Millás-Vallicrosa 1954–1956
Homenaje a Millás-Vallicrosa 1–2, Barcelona 1954–1956.
NIKOLAS JASPERT: “Interreligiöse Diplomatie im Mittelmeerraum. Die Krone Aragón und die
islamische Welt im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert”, in ZEY/MÄRTL 2008, 151–189.
Kulturkontakte und Rezeptionsvorgänge in der Theologie des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts, ed.
by ULRICH KÖPF/DIETER RICHARD BAUER (Archa Verbi. Subsidia 8) Münster in Westfalen 2011.
Juden, Christen und Muslime. Religionsdialoge im Mittelalter, ed. by MATTHIAS LUTZ-
JEAN-PIERRE MOLÉNAT: “L’arabe à Tolède, du XIIIe au XVIe siècle”, in al-Qanṭara 15 (1994)

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O’BRIEN 2011
BRUCE ROLAND O’BRIEN: Reversing Babel. Translation among the English during an age of
conquest, c. 800 to c. 1200, Newark (De.) 2011.
Religious apologetics – philosophical argumentation, ed. by YOSSEF SCHWARTZ/VOLKHARD
KRECH (Religion in Philosophy and Theology 10), Tübingen 2004.
MATTHIAS MARTIN TISCHLER: “Orte des Unheiligen. Versuch einer Topographie der
dominikanischen Mohammed-Biographik des 13. Jahrhunderts zwischen Textüberlieferung
und Missionspraxis”, in Archa Verbi 5 (2008) 32–62.
MATTHIAS MARTIN TISCHLER: “Die Iberische Halbinsel als christlich-muslimischer
Begegnungsraum im Spiegel von Transfer- und Transformationsprozessen des 12.–15.
Jahrhunderts”, in Anuario de Historia de la Iglesia 20 (2011) 117–155.
MATTHIAS MARTIN TISCHLER: “Transfer- und Transformationsprozesse im abendländischen
Islambild zwischen dem 11. und 13. Jahrhundert”, in KÖPF/BAUER 2011, 329–379.
SIMONE VAN RIET (ed.): Avicenna Latinus, Liber de anima seu sextus de naturalibus I-II-III.
Édition critique de la traduction médiévale. Introduction sur la doctrine psychologique
d’Avicenne par GÉRARD VERBEKE, Louvain/Leiden 1972.
GUSTAV WEIGAND: Ethnographie von Makedonien. Geschichtlich-nationaler,
sprachlich-statistischer Teil, Leipzig 1924.
Aus der Frühzeit europäischer Diplomatie. Zum geistlichen und weltlichen
Gesandtschaftswesen vom 12. bis zum 15. Jahrhundert, ed. by CLAUDIA ZEY/CLAUDIA MÄRTL,
Zürich 2008.

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