03.12.23, Williams, The Secret of Secrets

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Carol Poster

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.023


Williams, Steven J.. The Secret of Secrets: The Scholarly Career of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text in the Latin Middle Ages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 481. ISBN: 0-472-11308-9.

Reviewed by:
Carol Poster
Florida State University

Williams' The Secret of Secrets (hereafter TSS) is an extensively revised version of his 1991 doctoral dissertation, which contains an exhaustive study of the Latin translation and reception of the pseudo-Aristotelian Arabic texts of The Secret of Secrets (hereafter SS) which claim (falsely) to be translations of a work written by Aristotle to accompany Alexander on his campaigns. SS is a compendium of useful information, including substantial sections on kingship, health, astrology, and the occult sciences. Like numerous other practical handbooks, both the Arabic originals and the Latin translations exhibit significant variations in contents and arrangement. The material includes significant element s from the Peripatetic tradition (especially echoes of the Nicomachean Ethics), late Greek neoplatonism, and later Arabic materials. Williams, however, does not expand his already quite long volume to discuss the sources or contents of SS at length, but rather focuses exclusively on its Latin translation and reception.

TSS consists of seven chapters, covering the contents and origin of SS (Chapter 1, 24 pages), the first partial Latin translation of SS by John of Seville, the complete Latin translation by Philip of Tripoli, its initial circulation, the textual history of the Latin translations, two chapters on the scholarly reception of SS, a brief conclusion, and five appendices, one each covering two prologues to SS, the extant manuscripts of the Latin SS, commentaries on SS, and its early printings. It is a work which gathers together an enormous amount of information and will be a necessary part of the personal library of anyone working on the Latin SS, and of major research libraries. While it will be extremely useful as a reference to those interested in the medieval reception of Aristotle, it is unlikely to be read in its entirety by any but specialists concerned specifically with the SS and its reception. The clearly written conclusion will suffice for most readers.

In his Introduction, Williams points out that the SS was a quite popular medieval text--over 600 Latin manuscripts and numerous vernacular translations are extant -- but its reception has been little studied compared with that of the authentic Aristotelian corpus. While both his arguments for its importance and comparative neglect are convincing, and the supporting evidence he marshals for even the least of his claims voluminous, this introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book in not making substantial and explicit connections to broader issues in intellectual or book history, thereby limiting its potential audience.

Chapter 1 summarizes the Arabic versions of the SS, which fall into two main types, a short and a long form and the probable origins and sources of the Arabic manuscript. The summary and discussion of the contents of SS are relatively short; the majority of the chapter focuses on authorship and relationship to the Peripatetic tradition. Those readers (such as myself) not intimately familiar with the SS, will need to keep a copy at hand to follow TSS.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss prosopographical issues concerning the first two Latin translations of SS, namely the identities, lives, and education of their authors and dedicatees, examining minutely both medieval primary sources and the state of current scholarship. Williams argues that the John of Seville who translated the Epistola (the short Latin SS) was identical to the one who translated numerous astrological works and that the "T" to whom it was dedicated was Teresa, the illegitimate daughter of Aphonse VI, wife of Henry of Burgundy, and Queen of Portugal. He identifies Philip, the translator of the complete Latin SS, as a prebendary of Tripoli in the time of Pope Innocent IV and nephew of Ranerius (patriarch of Antioch 1219-25), and Philip's patron, Guido, as a Bishop of Tripoli (possibly the successor of Bishop Robert). Although some of the arguments in this section are necessarily circular (using as evidence conclusions drawn from conjectures not entirely proven), such a method is unavoidable due to the nature of the primary resources.

Chapter 4 attempts to reconstruct the early history of the circulation of the Latin SS. The sheer number of references Williams accumulates is impressive, but often it takes the form of an undigested (albeit encyclopedic) list and some of the points which would be of greatest interest to the majority of medievalists, such as the differences and similarities in reception of Aristotle in royal, papal, academic, and popular circles, are discussed only as supporting evidence for specific conclusions about the SS, rather than as significant questions to which the study of reception of the SS might contribute.

In his fifth chapter, Williams is concerned primarily with the textual history of the Latin SS, especially with disproving the claim of official censorship. The specific argument is well- supported, but again, this seems to be a site of missed opportunities -- the implications of the textual history of SS for our understanding of general variability of texts of technical handbooks (especially pseudonymous ones) would, I suspect, be of interest to a wider audience than conclusions which only address the history of the SS per se.

Chapters 6 and 7 (after some 183 pages of preliminary investigations) discuss the central problem of the reception of the Latin SS. Chapter 6 (115 pages) covers evidence for widespread knowledge of SS in the Middle Ages, and then Chapter 7 (46 pages) corrects the impression given in the preceding chapter, by showing that 1) SS was not as well known as similar Aristotelian works, or even more significant spuria and 2) that the interest in the SS increased gradually during the thirteenth century, peaked in the fourteenth, and declined in the fifteenth and sixteenth. The reasons for the decline in the popularity among scholars is shown to have several causes: 1) the heretical nature of some of its contents (Aristotelian cosmology, magic, etc.); 2) its pseudonymous nature (which Williams points out was widely discussed in the fourteenth century); and 3) its not addressing in any particular detail the matters of most interest to the scholastics. The material on heresy is particularly interesting and well-presented and like the excellent section on book production in Chapter 6 seemed worthy of its own chapter (or book!). Williams devotes only a few sentences to non-scholarly medieval audiences for SS and the vernacular translations. Overall, the scholarship in these chapters on specific matters of prosopography and SS's reception is quite substantial [[1]].

The brief conclusion provides a clear summary of the earlier arguments of the book and probably should be read first, to provide a roadmap through the book. The substantial appendices and bibliography will prove extremely useful to any scholar working on the topic.

While TSS represents a very solid accumulation of information about the Latin SS, and may remain the standard work on the topic for some time, it still bears marks of its origin in a dissertation in spending unnecessarily numerous pages agreeing or disagreeing with minute points in secondary scholarship, and supporting minor, subsidiary, or obvious points with an arsenal of references worthy of the most complex and debated issues. Williams's habit of listing of numerous names, dates, and titles with minimal explication of how each fits into some larger pattern does not make for particularly pleasant reading and his prose style, while appealingly clear and jargon-free, is not elegant. A greater emphasis on how study of the Latin SS could contribute to a more general intellectual history of the period, and more detailed explanations of why particular pieces of information are significant, would, I think, have resulted in a work of interest to a broader audience, but given TSS's already substantial length, perhaps such matters are best reserved for future scholarship and I suspect we can look forward to outstanding future work by Williams on this or related topics.


[[1]]. One difficulty occurs on p. 132, where Williams appears somewhat puzzled by some medieval authors' claims that Aristotle was acquainted with Moses. Patristic claims that Plato (Aristotle's teacher) had learned his wisdom from Moses were common (e.g. by Clement of Alexandria) and Moses is often named in Greek magical papyri (magic being an area of expertise SS assigns to Aristotle).

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Carol Poster

Florida State University