Your RDA of Irony

Overdue Books

April 13-15, 1204: Just Some Old Scrolls

Aristotle plain with borderToday, if historians and librarians seem less vivacious than usual, they may be brooding over the lost works of Aristotle.  During a three day rampage by Crusaders, the last complete collection of Aristotle went up in flames along with most of Constantinople.  The Crusaders could not read their own language (French or Italian), so they certainly made no sense of classical Greek.  The ancient parchments meant nothing to them.  In their sack of the greatest city in Christendom, the Crusaders applied a simple criterion:  if you can’t cash it, drink it or rape it, then burn it.  Unfortunately, Aristotle made a fun bonfire.

Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire never recovered from the Crusaders’ attack.  When the Ottoman Turks showed up 249 years later, they scavenged only the despoiled remnant of the city.  However, I will defer the story of the Fourth Crusade for another day.  Today, I would rather pick on the victims.

Between barbarian invasion and Christian censorship, much of Greek and Latin literature was lost.  Of the great cities of the Roman world, Constantinople alone survived–and indeed thrived.  It had an university and libraries and, at least, the tolerance and intellectual curiosity to preserve the writings of pagan authors.  In the 9th century, a Patriarch of Constantinople would brag about possessing the collected works of Aristotle; at the time, western Europe had forgotten who the philosopher was.  The Patriarch referred to books that are now lost; today we  only have a third of Aristotle’s writings.

Why didn’t the Byzantines safeguard that invaluable trove of ancient scrolls and make copies for posterity?  Well, Aristotle wasn’t exactly on the top of their syllabus.  It was one thing to collect his works, but far more controversial to teach them.  Education in Byzantium had to comply with Christian values, and Aristotle was lamentably pagan.  Since his books on rhetoric and logic were not explicit endorsements of polytheism, they were permissible in the Byzantine curriculum.  But that was  just a fraction of his writings.  Imagine if Dostoyevsky were only valued as a primer on epilepsy.  The works of Aristotle were more often dusted than read.

The monks and scholars of Byzantium could keep busy transcribing the Patriarch’s sermons and writing biographies of the most obscure saints, but why waste their time and parchment making copies of pagan literature.  One set of Aristotle’s works seemed sufficient.  The Byzantine scribes would do just enough to repair the mice gnawings.  But in 1204 the Crusaders proved a little more destructive than that.

Aristotle was unappreciated by the Byzantines and unknown to the Western Europeans; ironically, his most enthusiastic students were Moslems.  They had found fragments of his work in the libraries of Syria and Egypt, and their scholars had translated his writings into Arabic.  Yet, even with their incomplete texts, the Moslem intellectuals would introduce Aristotle to western Europe.  In the 12th century the Moors of Spain were reading him, and they thought that he was too good to hoard.  Jewish and Christian Spaniards were making translations, and the Latin editions eventually got past the Pyrenees.

By the mid-13th century, the scholars of western Europe could not get enough of this “new” philosopher.  Because of Byzantine dogma and Crusader destruction, they never would.

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