14.10.14, Wisnovsky, et al., eds., Vehicles of Transmission

Main Article Content

Charles Burnett

The Medieval Review 14.10.14

Wisnovsky, Robert, Faith Wallis, Jamie C. Fumo, and Carlos Fraenkel. Vehicles of Transmission, Translation, and Transformation in Medieval Textual Culture . Cursor Mundi, 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. 433. ISBN: 9782503534527 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Charles Burnett
Warburg Institute, University of London

This book has arisen out of the project 'Transmission, Translation, and Transformation in Medieval Textual Cultures,' based at McGill University, Quebec. The project and its workshops have brought together people from different disciplines--history, philosophy and literature, Latin Christendom, Jewish studies and Islamic civilization--thus providing ample opportunities to explore how ideas were transmitted in medieval texts. The aim of the project leaders (who are also the editors of this book) has been to 'constitute a prolegomenon to a new cultural history of the medieval world.' Emphasis is on the activity and interactivity of cultural legacy in the Mediterranean world: medieval civilisations did not merely pass on what they inherited from the classical world: they transformed it and developed it in new and interesting directions. It was not only the different religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity that transformed these Mediterranean cultures, but also non-Mediterranean elements: Germanic-Celtic culture for northwestern Europe, Persian and Indian culture for Islam. The project leaders see this approach as replacing the older paradigm of the 'survival/revival of the classical tradition' and as becoming increasingly prevalent in recent scholarship (a helpful bibliography is provided on pp. 3-6). This volume represents the results of the first workshop in this project--a workshop devoted to the 'vehicles' of the transmission, translation and transformation, these vehicles being the 'repertory of textual forms and practices' used.

A brave attempt has been made to make sure that the contributions complement each other, both through the discussions arising in the workshop and between the authors and editors afterwards, and through their arrangement in the volume. One may add to the different options of arrangement explored in the preface (pp. 8-9), that of the alphabetical order of the authors' names. But the editors, wisely, chose to employ two orders: that of subject matter, in summarising the articles in the introduction, and that of chronology, in their arrangement within the book itself.

It would be a mammoth task to summarise the seventeen, very diverse, contributions to this book, and unnecessary in that the editors have already provided such summaries (pp. 10-22) and integrated the articles into the general stream of ideas of the book. All I can do is to highlight the most interesting aspects of the contributions. In respect to 'transmission,' the articles include: the origins of enquiry into the sources of Avicenna's Canon in the sixteenth-century notes of Benedetto Rinio to Andreas Alpago's revision of Gerard of Cremona's twelfth-century translation of the Canon (Raphaela Veit); the keenness of English monks to keep abreast (and indeed lead the way) in classical scholarship in the late Middle Ages (James Clark); the popularizing of Peripatetic philosophy in Hebrew in the Middle Ages (James Robinson), and the reaction to this trend by Hasdai Crescas, who, in criticizing Aristotle in Hebrew and apparently being aware of arguments put forward by Nicole Oresme, actually understood Aristotle better than his supporters (Warren Zev Harvey); the transformation of a passing reference to the notion of a 'vague individual' in Avicenna's Arabic Kitab al-Shifa', into a a kind of universal intelligible in Latin thirteenth- and fourteenth-century philosophers (Deborah Black); the surprising likenesses between textual transmission and the biological genesis (Robert Wisnovsky). For 'translation' we have: an exploration of the significance of the word 'translation' in the Middle Ages, especially in respect to Chaucer's contemporary renown as a 'translator' (pp. 13-16); medieval Jewish translators' self-awareness of what they are attempting (Steven Harvey); the reasons for re-translating the same text a second time (Faith Wallis); the phenomenon of abbreviation in Latin translations from Arabic (Dag Hasse); the social and political circumstances of translations of medical texts from Arabic into Greek in Byzantium (Alain Touwaide); and the reason why William Caxton pretended he was translating Ovid's Metamorphoses directly from Latin, when, in fact, his work was based on a highly 'interpreted' French version of the text (Jamie Fumo).

For 'transformation' we have: the ancient sources of the medieval Arabic, Jewish and Latin interpretation and completion of Aristotle's concept of the intellect (Sara Magrin); that Christians and Jews integrated philosophy into their religions in ancient Alexandria on the model of Plato's political philosophy (Carlos Fraenkel); the transformation of Christian Syriac commentaries on the Bible into Jewish commentaries on the Bible written in Arabic, which received further influence from Koranic exegesis and Greek philosophy (Sarah Stroumsa); the means of setting a masterpiece of pagan Roman literature (Ovid's Metamorphoses) within a Christian framework (Frank Coulson); the nuances of the idea of 'universal' in the universal histories composed in late Antiquity and in the Byzantine, Syriac, medieval Latin and Islamic worlds (Hervé Ingelbert); and the transformation of Jewish apocalypticism in medieval Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Gerbern Oegema).

The high calibre of the contributors, and the competence of the editors in their respective languages and subjects ensures the reliability of this collective volume. The cumulative bibliography (pp. 371-413) and comprehensive index, which includes subject matter alongside proper names (pp. 415-33), reflect the coherence of the volume and the interpenetration of the studies it contains. Altogether the reader is richly rewarded by new research, elegantly and accurately presented.

Article Details

Author Biography

Charles Burnett

Warburg Institute, University of London