Research Progress Notes – Week of April 15th

Oh hey, I got to look at a manuscript this week! And I asked my advisor some embarrassing questions about Latin.

After some hiccups last week in ordering my manuscripts, I finally got to look at one of them this week. Maybe it’s because I was in the process of writing next week’s Angry History of Science post about astronomy, but I found reading Ptolemy’sĀ Almagest super interesting. Ptolemy is considered the foundational thinker of astronomical geometry and mapping – he developed the theories around using the relative distance between one spot on the Earth and one in the sky to measure distance on Earth. Ptolemy’s work was famously translated in the late 12th century by Gerard of Cremona, who I’m starting to think just invented the whole idea of a translation movement so people would keep talking about him, since so many translations are attributed to him. Most of the scholarly work on Ptolemy is based on his original Greek writing and how it inspired Copernicus. This reflects a bias in history of science work toward “pure” or “original” thinking and its direct impact on obviously modern applications. But the reason that Copernicus had access to a direct translation of Ptolemy from Greek was because a translation from Arabic had already been available in Europe for 200 years, and according to the few other scholars who have worked on these Arabic manuscripts, the main difference between the Arabic and the original Greek is a few added bits of color, like a physical description of what Ptolemy looked like.


This was a pretty fancy manuscript – lots of gold leaf and colored ink decorations. It offers a nice contrast to other manuscripts I’ve been working with because it’s not on medicine and it’s not from southern Italy. This forces me to check my theory about how the southern Italian medical manuscripts were made and used against a similar looking manuscript of a different type from a different place. This Ptolemy manuscript offers an example of a reader actively engaging with the text by drawing and writing in the book, but in a much more organized and purposeful way. The manuscript is full of added diagrams that show a reader testing out Ptolemy’s calculations, but unlike the medical manuscript, it’s just one reader, and the illustrations are very neat and careful – they even appear in multiple ink colors (like green and yellow, which otherwise don’t appear in the manuscript), so maybe the reader was a professional scribe using up his extra ink. img_20190418_120020

This was still a pretty difficult manuscript to read, though, even after all of the gothic script I’ve already looked at. So I ended up bugging my advisor a bit too much, to the point that he politely told me to google my questions. šŸ˜› I kept coming across weird Latinizations of Arabic names in this text. The first one was Maymon, which I at first thought might be Maimonides, but that would be very weird, especially since the text referred to him as “king of the Arabs”. But it turned out to be the Caliph al-Ma’mun, reflecting the changing standards for Latin transliteration of Arabic – the ‘ein (which looks like a backwards 3 and is pronounced like you’re being strangled) has no direct equivalent in the Latin alphabet, so sometimes it is represented by an H, which I am more familiar with, or, like here, it is represented with a Y. And now we us an apostrophe. The other name I came across was Abu al-Wafa’, which the manuscript had rendered as “Albuguafe” and I assumed I had simply read it wrong. Luckily, someone had already written about this weird name in this particular manuscript, because it even made it into the 15th century printed edition of Ptolemy. Abu al-Wafa’ was an Arab astronomer who built on Ptolemy’s work and was clearly a reference for the Latin translation of the Almagest. Both of these names were really interesting details in the text because they convey the importance of the Arabic contributions to astronomy, even in the history of the Latin text. The Latin justifies the importance of Ptolemy’s work by explaining that Abu al-Wafa’ thought it was important. And then adds weight to the significance of a Latin translation by relating it back to the translation movement commissioned by Caliph al-Ma’mun – this point was especially interesting to me, because it occurred to me that we might see these translations as part of a movement because they make an effort to compare themselves to an earlier translation movement. They are trying to create a narrative around translation, even as that narrative is unfolding.

I saw some desert plants.Ā I’m continuing my trend of exploring the Huntington’s gardens a little more each week, so I took a walk through their desert plants garden. It’s an incredible display of cacti, succulents, and palms.


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Next weekĀ I’ll be looking at a manuscript of Aristotle’sĀ De AnimalibusĀ and maybe some southern Italian bibles to get a sense of something totally different.