The Twelfth-Century Renaissance was a time of renewed vibrancy in intellectual activity, as well as witness an immense growth of interest in philosophy on the part of men (and a few women) who had a formal education. Events in Southwestern Europe would spur this renewal.
Al-Andalus had been a major source of Muslim intellectual activity. As early as the tenth century, Christian scholars had visited Muslim-ruled Spain to read the works of ancient Greek thinkers that were unavailable elsewhere in Western Europe. For example, Gerbert of Aurillac (who eventually became Pope Sylvester II2, r. 999 – 1003), was particularly fascinated with Euclid, Arabic numerals, and the concept of zero.
When Toledo fell to Christian armies in 1085, its libraries became available to the larger Christian world. Once these books were in Christian hands, Raymond, archbishop of Toledo (r. 1125 – 1152), set up translation teams. People who spoke Arabic and the Romance languages of Spain would first translate these books into Spanish, and these books would then be translated into Latin. Thus, Aristotle and Ptolemy (as well as the works of Arabic philosophers) became available to educated people throughout Western Europe. The availability of texts spurred an intellectual revolution, as the Christian thinkers sought to understand how to reconcile an understanding of the world based on Christianity with the approach of the non-Christian ancient Greeks.
Such translations on the Christian/Muslim frontier continued through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Western Europeans read natural philosophy, such as al-Haytham’s writings on optics and the Aristotelian commentaries of Ibn Rushd (whose name they pronounced as Averroës). This movement saw the translation not only of philosophy, but also of medicine. Indeed, in the Muslim world, philosophers often served as physicians—so the medical works of philosophers and physicians such as Ibn Sina (whose name Western Europeans pronounced as Avicenna) were read avidly by Christians in Western Europe.
Western Europeans were also showing a renewed interest in law. Although the kingdoms had incorporated some elements of Roman Law as well as the oral law of the Germanic peoples into their legal systems, law codes were for the most part unsystematic. Starting from the eleventh century, scholars began subjecting The Justinian Code (see Chapter Six) to intense study. These men who studied Roman Law would often go to work for kings and emperors, with the result that much European law would often draw its inspiration from Justinian.
Most schools were still attached to cathedral churches. Indeed, these schools in which medicine, law, and philosophy flourished as disciplines of study might be compared to the madrassas of the Muslim world. The chief field of study in these schools was theology, that is, the interpretation of the Bible. And theologians increasingly drew on logical analysis and philosophy of language to understand what they believed was God’s revelation to humanity.
Eventually, many of these cathedral schools gained the right to organize as self-governing institutions. We call these institutions universities. By the end of the twelfth century, the universities of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford had become self-governing, and would serve as the foundation of the university system of the Western world that exists to the present day.
2 Between the sixth and eleventh centuries, a practice emerged whereby the pope would adopt a distinct name from the name he was born with upon ascension to the papacy. The practice continues to the present day.