Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
17.12.23, Langermann and Morrison, eds., Texts in Transit in the Medieval Mediterranean

17.12.23, Langermann and Morrison, eds., Texts in Transit in the Medieval Mediterranean

The essays in this collection illuminate the richness of intellectual life in the medieval and early-modern Mediterranean. As Y. Tzvi Langermann and Robert Morrison state in the introduction, texts offer us an avenue through which to understand communications between cultures more broadly (2). Certainly, the wide-ranging content of the essays make this larger point clear. Scholars of the medieval Mediterranean in general, as well as specialists in science, philosophy, and medicine, will benefit from the larger conclusions of this volume.

Robert Morrison's chapter treats a Hebrew text, Sefer Meuqqaq (The Purified Book). He argues that the fifteenth-century author, Moses ben Elijah the Greek, translated the text from Arabic through oral transmission, from a Muslim named Mevlānā Aḥmet. From this, Morrison furthermore makes the case that Ottoman scholars, such as Moses ben Elijah, felt they had something to gain from learned Jews. Morrison certainly deserves praise for his close reading of a technical text, while also bringing forth larger conclusions about the importance of oral transmission in pre-modern intellectual life.

Byzantine Jews, Ofer Elior demonstrates, actively read Spanish-Provençal philosophical rationalism (30). He focuses upon Rabbi Yedidyah Rakh, who understood, after reading the interpretation of Maimonides' Provençal students, a confusing biblical passage in which Ezekiel heard celestial sounds: these students (and Rakh), by way of Aristotle, argued that sound did not travel in the heavens. Indeed, Morrison illuminates a dialogue between Rakh and Rabbi Michael ben Shabbetai ha-Cohen (1411- after 1480), also known as Balbo, in which Rakh defends Maimonides and the Guide for the Perplexed against Balbo's objections.

Y. Tzvi Langermann offers a thorough reading of Abraham bar Ḥiyya's Scroll of the Revealer. While interpreting theories of light, Ḥiyya (c. 1065-1136) mixed Hellenistic philosophy with passages from the Guide for the Perplexed as well (57). Medieval Jewish philosophers thought of divine light differently than terrestrial light, and indeed Bar Ḥiyya employed this theory to understand the creation story in Genesis and the destruction of the Second Temple, which was for him an important eschatological event (61).

Leigh Chipman has treated cryptography in the late medieval Mediterranean world. The authors whom she has read closely lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: Ibn Duyanīr (d. 1229), Ibn ʿAdlān (d. 1268) and Ibn al-Durayhim (d. 1368). While this essay's content reads quite differently than some of the others in the collection, it too illuminates how people moved texts, even when encoded. The essay concludes with somewhat tentative conclusions, to my mind, that Italian Renaissance cryptographers likely gathered their knowledge from Arabic texts. Further research will enrich our knowledge of how Renaissance humanists approached Arabic and Hebrew, for Jews likely helped transmit these texts as well (80-81).

Leonardo Capezzone's essay dovetails quite nicely with Chipman's. Drawing upon several Muslim authors, such as Pseudo-Ibn al-Muqaffa (fl. tenth century), Capezzone makes clear how Abbasid authors remembered ancient Greece and Iran before the Islamic conquest. Indeed, they linked these memories with the adab (often translated as belles lettres) courtly culture in which Abbasid writers flourished. Furthermore, Cappezzone has made a case that humanism--a wide-ranging term--can help us understand "the values embodied by adab culture" (86). This provocative conclusion requires a little more explanation, or at least a stronger definition of what he means by humanism and adab. This is all the more important because of the fascinating yet technical content of his sources.

Brian Becker, meanwhile, offers a case study in the movement of religious texts from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Latin West. Riccoldo da Montecroce, a Dominican friar who spent many years in Muslim lands and in the well-stocked library at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, wrote a letter on the fall of Acre in 1291. Quite interestingly, Becker states that for Riccoldo "pilgrimage can also be undertaken through book-based study, wherever that happens to take place" (105). This friar transmitted texts by preaching, and he furthermore makes clear in his letter the ready availability of Latin books in the Eastern Mediterranean, albeit at times in the hands of Muslims, as spoils of war. All of this therefore adds to our understanding of Riccoldo, whose knowledge of Arabic and Islamic culture informed the Latin West, by joining his considerable book learning with that which he saw in Muslim lands.

Mushegh Asatrayan has skillfully reconstructed the textual history of Kitāb al-aẓilla (The Book of Shadows, tenth century). He argues that the author of a later text, the Kitāb al-kursī (The Book of the Throne), tried to copy the Kitāb al-aẓilla into his work, but had difficulties doing so in a coherent way. This chapter illuminates the difficulties in creating a new text from various textual fragments, but also the overlap between philosophical and religious knowledge, for the passages which Asatrayan has interpreted deal with God's creation of the world, and his division of the shadows into seven types (133-134), but also God's creation of intelligence (al-ʿaql, 141). As in other essays in the collection, here too we see the afterlife of a text, as a branch of Shiite Muslims, who devoted themselves to their religious leaders (imams), brought the Book of Shadows with them to Syria as they fled from Muslim persecutors in Iraq.

In her contribution, Zohar Hadromi-Allouche focuses upon feminine fertility in Islamic narratives of Adam and Eve. The majority of her chapter interprets references to wheat, which many Muslims thought to be the fruit of Paradise, and barley, which, in a ninth-century Zoroastrian text, is God's gift to the world. For many Muslims, wheat was superior to barley, yet quite fascinatingly, Hadromi-Allouche also shows how Shiite Muslims living in Persia wrote about the fertility of barley in order to undermine the above-mentioned Zoroastrian myth (121). In the larger scope of the book, this chapter makes clear the importance of reading of extra-scriptural (in this case, extra-Qurʾanic) texts by which Muslims, Christians, and Jews, among others, interpreted their holy books.

Tamás Visi makes clear how Muslim authors understood uroscopy, the study of urine, through Greek texts. As an introduction, we learn of Doeg the Edomite (fl. 1197-1199), a Jew who converted to Christianity and also translated medical texts from Hebrew into Latin, and of a thirteenth-century Jew, Nathan ha-Meati, who translated Avicenna's Canon of Medicine from Arabic into Hebrew. Yet the heart of his chapter deals with the Book of Remedies or Book of Asaf (Sefer ha-refuʾot or Sefer Asaf), which an anonymous author wrote in likely the twelfth century. Visi's linguistic command shines here, as he argues for a link between the Book of Remedies and an earlier Syriac text, which may date to the sixth century (168). The understanding of urine which the Book of Remedies offers us, he concludes, contrasts with mainstream medical knowledge in the medieval Mediterranean, in that the Greek physician Galen (fl. second century CE) did not influence it.

In his essay, Israel Sandman concludes that Italian Jews communally manufactured standardized texts of Iberian (Sephardic) Jewish texts. They then helped to bring these texts to Byzantium and Poland (216). He thereby argues against Malachi Beit-Arié, who in turn had stated manuscript copying was an individual undertaking (200). Sandman focuses upon a calendar of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, as well as Sephardic religious-scientific texts such as Samuel ibn Matut's Meshovev Netivot (Restorer of Paths). A stemma codicum would likely have helped readers see the relationship between these manuscripts, although I suspect the sheer number of codices involved here would still make for difficult reading. Indeed, while this research is quite technical, Sandman skillfully has placed this intricate reading into a larger framework of Mediterranean history.

B. Harun Küçük closes the volume by interpreting medical knowledge in the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Physicians such as Ḥasan Efendi (fl. 1720) thought that medicine was the queen science, and indeed a form of philosophy. They practiced medicine, whereas they more passively, according to their argument, created theories about natural philosophy. This new attitude toward medicine in turn bolstered Ottoman nationalism. This chronologically later essay ends the volume effectively, in part because the movement of ideas that we see in this chapter fits well with the other contributions.

As editors, Langermann and Morrison did well bringing together such wide-ranging chapters. I did find myself wondering, however, if a division of the book into various sections--say on philosophy, medicine, and religion--would aid readers through such technical material. At times, the authors also bury the importance of human agency in moving these texts and ideas, although it is true that we often know little of the people who moved them. Langermann and Morrison do indeed write that "at times a human became a text on legs," but phrases such as "texts have transited the centuries" bury this point, to my mind (2). In the larger scope of the book, this is a small point, but one worth thinking over, especially because we still have so much to learn about the movement of knowledge in the Mediterranean world.