In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the transmission of knowledge from the ancient Mediterranean, via the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates and centuries of scholars and translators, from 500 CE to the European Renaissance. This summary might sound a little dry, but Moller’s semi-conversational style and the content made her overview of a thousand years of history highly readable. Outside of academia, I don’t know that many people know how much of a debt we Westerners owe to the ancient world. The ancient Greek and Graeco-Egyptian scholars gave us (again, Westerners) our start on the scientific method, philosophy, geometry, medicine, and so many other topics. We would have lost so much if it hadn’t been for medieval Arab scholars and translators. At the same time, however, I lament what we lost anyway to time and deliberate destruction.
Moller was inspired to write this book while working on her dissertation. She visited the library of Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, who helped create an English translation of a hugely influential book: Euclid‘s The Elements. She started to think about the long journey the text had taken for the centuries and dug into the historical and bibliographic history of The Elements; The Almagest, an astronomical text by Claudius Ptolmey; and the physician Galen‘s enormous body of work. Even though Ptolemy and Galen have been subject to heavy revision since the Renaissance, these three books represent the ancient foundation of a lot of Western science and thought. Moller begins her chronology in Alexandria, an early center of scholarship and learning—as well as a particularly aggressive book acquisition program that makes me, as a librarian, blush.
From Alexandria, which collapsed as a place of scholarship by 500 CE, Moller begins her historical journey around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She charts the rise and fall of what she begins to call, Houses of Wisdom, after the name of a loose confederation of scholars and scientists in her first stop after Alexandria: Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Moller takes us from Baghdad to Córdoba, the Umayyad capital; to Toledo; Salerno, Italy; Palermo; and finally Venice. As she jumps time and place, Moller gives us the names (as far as we know) of the people who made it possible for us to have as much as we do of our ancient texts. She finishes up with the European invention of moveable type and printing, a critical innovation that helped fuel the Renaissance.
As she makes her way through time and space, Moller develops her thesis of what is needed to create new knowledge on the scale of ancient Alexandria. She argues that tolerance, political stability, and a strong support for learning are vital to create communities like what is now called La Convivencia, a period of time when Córdoba flourished under the Umayyads. Sadly, these convivencias seem to last shorter and shorter periods of time (at least in this account) as outside invaders or internal strife tear it all down. I wondered more than once where we would be now, as a species, if these cultures hadn’t been interrupted all the time or if later translators hadn’t erased the new knowledge and corrections Arab scholars had added to the ancient texts.
The Map of Knowledge may not be for everyone. For bookish folk with a historical bent, however, this is a wonderful read. Even for me, who fits that bill, I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I appreciated that Moller doesn’t talk about these texts as objects for book hunters—who tend to value books because they are old or rare. Instead, she very much keeps her focus on the value of the content. It shouldn’t matter what language they’re in or if they in a beautiful binding or not; the words are the most important thing because they are what transmit knowledge through time and make it possible for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
*Quote attributed to Bernard of Chartres.