Scholarly Peace: Muslim, Christian & Jewish Translators in Medieval Spain (essay)


In the year 949, among the palaces and gardens of Madinat al-Zahra outside the city of Cordoba, a conference was being held. The host was the caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, and his guests were representatives from the Christian emperor Constantine VII, who had just arrived from Constantinople. Only two centuries before, the first Abd al-Rahman had fled for his life from Damascus, where his Umayyad Muslim family, of which he was the only to escape, had been massacred by their rivals in Baghdad, the Abassids. Now, in 949, the Muslims of Spain and the Byzantine Christians both had an enemy in the Abassid caliph, and they hoped to secure an alliance that would quite literally reach from the edge of the known world in Spain, to Constantinople, where Europe and Asia meet.

Credit for the conference went to the Jewish diplomat, physician and scholar, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was born around 915. Palace intrigue and power-brokering were such that members of al-Rahman’s court were frequent victims of poisonings, and Hasdai came to early fame by devising antidotes. Barely in his thirties, he gained the confidence of the caliph and became his vizier and advisor in all but name. He was also unapologetically a man of his faith: he sent a famous letter to the Jews of Khazar—whose empire, north of Constantinople, stretched between the Black and Caspian Seas—when he heard the astounding news that a Jewish community was thriving there, and begged for an exchange of information. And just as the Muslims of al-Andalus still begrudgingly relied on the scholarship and intellectual currents coming out of Baghdad, the same was true with the Jews of Spain.

Hasdai eventually had influence in both respects: his scholarship helped loosen and eventually free the the Jews of Spain from the interpretative and legal influences of Baghdad; and with Hasdai’s guidance, the Talmudic scholar Moses ben Hanoch—who had been kidnapped in Italy years earlier and sent to Spain—was freed from the ransom being asked for his release, was elected rabbi, and then put in charge of a new school in Cordoba. In addition, the Hebrew poets Hasdai gathered around himself helped usher in a Golden Age of Hebrew literature. With Hebrew previously limited only to liturgical use and scriptural study, the Jews of Spain, fully versed as they were in the Arabic poetry of wine, love, and friendship, seemed to almost accept a dare to see if Hebrew could be put to such contemporary uses. As a twelfth century scholar would later put it, “In the days of Hasdai the chief, they began to chirp.” Such would eventually blossom into the greatest song.

The Byzantine emperor, Constantine VII, who had only secured the throne for himself four years before, and only after the kind of intrigue that was familiar in the court of Cordoba, was himself a scholar and writer, and it seems he would have preferred a life of study to that of kingship. Aware of the Muslim interest in Greek scientific literature, he made sure that one of the gifts brought to the conference in Cordoba was a prized medical text written by Pedanius Dioscorides. A traveler who lived during the late first century, Dioscorides tramped through the Aegean, the near-eastern countries along the Levantine coast (he mentions the city of Petra, in today’s Jordan), as well as Egypt, living what he called a “soldier-like life.” In the end he compiled the vast, five volume De Materia Medica, describing more than six hundred plants and their medical uses, as well as remedies derived from such animals as mussels, sea urchins and scorpions. The entirety covers aromatics, roots, seeds, herbs, vines and minerals, painstakingly describing each plant or substance, and giving guidelines as to its preparation and the effects it should have on the body. A key early work in pharmacology, in the sixth century a sumptuously illustrated edition had already been produced in Constantinople. Other copies flourished as well, and De Materia Medica remained the central work upon which all subsequent pharmacopeias were based until the nineteenth century, constantly being added to, illustrated, and surrounded by commentary.

While a translation into Arabic had already taken place in Baghdad a century before the conference in Cordoba, it was so riddled with errors as to be essentially unreliable. The appearance in Spain, then, of a Greek manuscript of this work was a momentous event. The problem was, the polymath Hasdai was “only” proficient in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin, and at the time there were no Greek speakers in Spain that could be called upon. Following the embassy, then, a Greek monk named Nicholas was sent from Constantinople to Cordoba, and the translation was finally made by a committee of learned Muslims, Jews and Christians: alongside Nicholas there were also five Muslims of al-Andalus, and a Greek-speaking Sicilian Arab. Translated first from Greek into Latin, Hasdai himself apparently oversaw its translation from Latin into Arabic, giving the final text his usual literary polish.

Such translation committees became common in medieval Iberia, and the description of one group a few centuries later—who in this case were rendering Arabic back into Latin—is instructive. The rooms in which this work was being done was far from quiet, and it was as much an affair of the spoken word as of transcribing: “An Arabic speaker read the original in Arabic and then translated aloud, word by word, into Castilian (or Catalan); his partner then wrote down the translation of each Romance word in Latin…. It is also clear that the translation process was not a simple linguistic exercise but that difficult terms and words were discussed.” Depending on the challenges of each text, or the limitations of each language (Arabic for instance did not have a word for “multiplication”) the finished translation could contain a menagerie of terms from a handful of languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and the local Romance colloquial tongue, like Castilian. The act of translation, continues one historian, became “a kind of colloquium that included not just translators … but technical editors called emendadores who verified, through discussion with the translators, the meanings of difficult technical terms, and secretaries (glosadores) who wrote the translation down.”

Very little is known of the impact of the Umayyad/Christian conference that took place in 949; many histories of Byzantium don’t even mention it, while those histories of medieval Spain only mention it because it led to the translation of Dioscorides’ famous work. With this one stroke, just as the Jews of Spain had previously been freed from the influence and authority of the Jews of Baghdad, the translation of Dioscorides led to the translation of other Greek scientific texts, and now the Muslims of Spain were themselves freed from the caliph of Baghdad and the learning institutions there. As Hasdai seems to have known from the first moment, the real success of the conference was the gift of a Greek manuscript. War continued to engulf Spain and Byzantium, Europe and the Middle East—as it always has—but here as elsewhere, culture and the importance of widening one’s knowledge through language and medicine, science and poetry, found a way to sneak through.

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