Lost and found in translation

By the 13th century, Aristotle was making a comeback in the West. Here, a 13th-century manuscript of a translation from Arabic of Aristotle’s treatise on meteorology also known as Meteora, accompanied by a Latin commentary by Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher. British Library, Harley MS 3487, ff 140v

Of all the cultural developments of the late Middle Ages in the West, none was more momentous than the (re)discovery of Aristotle’s works in the 12th and 13th centuries. Virtually every field of knowledge and inquiry was disrupted by works which had not circulated in the West for half a millennium. Essential to this were the countless translators who undertook the colossal mission of making the works of the Greek philosopher accessible to readers of Latin.

Aristotle’s philosophical, scientific and political works, what scholars refer to as the Corpus Aristotelicum, had circulated in the ancient West in the original Greek, as educated Romans would’ve been able to read those texts without the need for a translation. Once Greek ceased to be part of Western education, as it happened in the transition from late antiquity to the early medieval period, works written in Greek became irrelevant and were no longer being copied. Gradually, access to Aristotle’s works which had not been translated into Latin, such as Boethius’ partial translation of the Organon, was barred.

In the East, Aristotle’s works saw no interruption of circulation. The only interruption was that of interaction between the Byzantine East and the Latin West. But the Arabic world proved to be the bridge on which Aristotle was allowed the cross the river. In lands conquered by the Arabs, the works of Aristotle had been translated and commented on in Arabic. Most translation had been made directly from Greek, but some had passed through other languages, such as Syriac.

By the 12th century, Latin translations of Aristotle’s works which had been translated into Arabic began to appear in the West. But so did works of Aristotle translated directly from Greek, such as James of Venice’s translation of Posterior Analytics (logic), Bartolomeo da Messina’s Magna Moralia, or Robert Grosseteste’s translation of Aristotle’s chief ethical treatise, the Nicomachean Ethics.

By the time Dante wrote his Commedia, Aristotle had become the chief philosophical authority in the West, the Glorioso Filosofo. The Aristotelian age was dawning, and Europe was headed to new pastures.

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