Renaissance of the 12th Century

A series of changes took place in parts of 12th-century Europe that some historians refer to as the Renaissance of the 12th Century or the Medieval Renaissance. In the words of one historian:

[The 12th century in Europe] was in many respects an age of fresh and vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art and the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin poetry and Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, and of much of Greek philosophy; and the origin of the first European universities. The twelfth century left its signature on higher education, on the scholastic philosophy, on European systems of law, on architecture and sculpture, on the liturgical drama, on Latin and vernacular poetry. (Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, p. viii, brackets added)

The background for this renaissance is extensive. Many of the ancient Greek writings had survived in the Byzantine empire. Their translation into Arabic began with alchemical, astrological, and medical texts in the time of the Umayyads. It was accelerated under the Abbasids and included both scientific and philosophical works. Partly on the basis of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus there developed a tradition of Islamic philosophy that included Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, and others.

In the twelfth century, many of these works in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic were translated into Latin - the literary and philosophical language of Catholic Europe. There were a number of places that functioned as conduits for this literature. Sicily was one. Spain was another. Within Spain, translation was done at many cities, but one of the great centers was Toledo. In part this was due to the patronage of the Archbishop. One of the most productive of the translators was Gerard of Cremona, who translated scores of works from Arabic into Latin. The authors he chose included Aristotle, al-Farabi, Euclid, Archimedes, Galen, and Hippocrates. To quote Haskins again:

From Spain came the philosophy and natural science of Aristotle and his Arabic commentators in the form which was to transform European thought in the thirteenth century. The Spanish translators made most of the current versions of Galen and Hippocrates and of the Arab physicians like Avicenna. Out of Spain came the new Euclid, the new algebra, and treatises on perspective and optics. Spain was the home of astronomical tables and astronomical observation.... (Haskins, p. 289)

All of this literature moved north into France and elsewhere. It helped to make possible the revived interest in Latin literature as well as Greek science and philosophy. For example, it made possible the  era of scholastic philosophy that culminated in the work of Thomas Aquinas.

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