Map of Knowledge

fancied myself a classical scholar for a few years. I spent many hours in libraries. During my grad school years, I literally spent many more time at Memorial Library than I did at home. The idea of finding and preserving the wisdom of the ancients was more than exciting. The idea of scholarly centers had a spiritual significance. I got over that the extreme case, but not completely and I am still very much interested in centers of innovation, which is similar but not the same, as I will explain below.

“The Map of Knowledge” came as kind of an echo from my past both because of the subject and because I found it at a physical bookshop, the new Barnes & Noble near our house. I have been buying mostly at Amazon lately, although I have determined to buy at the physical location more often. Must support what I think is good.

As the title implies, the book maps the movement of centers of scholarship from around AD 500-1500 and describes centers of learning, such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo & Venice. I was a little surprised that the author left out Constantinople, but the author explained that Constantinople was an imperial capital and a place where lots of texts ended up but was never particularly a center. Beyond that, her narrative sort of depends on the idea of the moving center that preserved the wisdom of the ancients.

Alexandria was the home of the great library. It was partially destroyed when Julius Caesar attacked Alexandria, but restored, but it fell into decline even before the fall of the Roman Empire. The problem was Christianity. We rightly think of Christian monasteries are centers of learning, where monks copied manuscripts to preserve knowledge, but when Christianity was still competing with Paganism, Christian leaders viewed ancient wisdom with less enthusiasm. It was associated with paganism and in fact the great literature WAS pagan. Many of the books were destroyed by a Christian riot in AD 415, where the mob also killed the famous female pagan philosopher Hypatia. The Muslim conquest finished the job. Alexandria stopped be a center of learning.

Bagdad was a true center of learning and they assembled the largest library up to that time. The catchment area was larger than Alexandria’s, since Baghdad pulled in wisdom from the East, from India, as well as from the West. It was at this time that the Hindu-Arabic numbers we use today were developed, along with the widespread use of zero. It was an organized “House of Wisdom.” It was all destroyed when Mongol armies destroyed the city in 1258. The Mongols burned and tossed manuscripts into the river. It was said that the water turned black from the ink, mixing with the red from all the blood. It was probably the worst destruction of knowledge in human history. Many of the texts were lost forever.

Cordoba was a wonderful and diverse place with Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars. In addition to texts, the rulers of Cordoba developed practical arts like the use of water, irrigation and agriculture. The Muslim rulers of Spain brought in seeds and seedlings of arid adapted plants, and semi-arid Spain was one the most productive places in the world. Cordoba’s time in the sun was bright but brief. A coup brought an aggressively narrow minded ruler. He came under the influence of Muslim fundamentalists and destroyed all the texts they could get, except those associated with medicine or mathematics. Some books survived when scholars fled with them to neighboring cities like Seville, Granada, Zaragoza & Toledo.

Toledo became the center translation and transmission to the West. Scholars from Western Europe came to look for old texts and translate them from Greek or more often Arabic.

Salerno and Palermo became centers for learning largely due to the influence of the Normans. The Normans were among the most interesting people in the middle ages. They were the descents of Vikings, given land by the King of France in return for keeping other Vikings out. Most of us know them from William the Conqueror and his 1066 conquest of English, but other branches of the family were active in the Mediterranean. They ruled Sicily and Southern Italy for nearly 200 years and were very open to all sorts of influences.

The last center mentioned in the book is Venice. Venice for a long time was the link between east and west. When the Turks finally conquered the Byzantine Empire, many of the scholars fled to Venice. Of course, the Venetians already had a fair amount of Byzantine stuff both from trade and from their pillaging of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. The famous bronze horses at San Marco were plundered from Constantinople.

After the development of printing, knowledge was more widely distributed and the centers for learning and copying became less important. Experience of Alexandria, Baghdad & Cordoba indicate that a better strategy is to spread texts out rather than concentrate them in one place where they might be destroyed all at once.

The centers of learning idea beg a question of whether it was always a good idea to preserve the knowledge. I am talking about the science here, not the literature or art. Ancient science was wrong, and its persistence may have held back innovation and progress.

Medieval people had too much respect for authority. Most would accept the anatomy of Galen or the astronomy of Ptolemy w/o checking it themselves. This was a problem even before the fall of the Roman Empire, when the texts were easily available. Science stagnated. When you think you have found the final truth, you stop looking, and people thought they had found the final truth.

Near the end of the book, the author quotes a German scholar called Paracelsus, who in 1527 told his medical students to throw away the old books and instead turn to the “great book of nature,” i.e. look for themselves.

Maybe that goes too far. It would be better to use the old texts skeptically and critically. But when you treat books as precious, a type of dogmatism develops. It is possible to be too respectful.

Anyway, the book is worth reading and it got me thinking.

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