BMCR 2023.12.04

The friar and the philosopher: William of Moerbeke and the rise of Aristotle’s science in medieval Europe

, The friar and the philosopher: William of Moerbeke and the rise of Aristotle's science in medieval Europe. Studies in medieval history and culture. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 170. ISBN 9781032305219.



With the publication of Pieter Beullens’ The Friar and the Philosopher, readers now have access to the first monograph on the important translator William of Moerbeke (b. before 1235—d. before 1286, active as translator at least 1260-80) since Martin Grabmann’s Guglielmo di Moerbeke from 1946. This is a most needed and welcome contribution to our understanding and overview of several strands within the history of philosophy and theology, of praxis and approaches in medieval translation, of later evaluations of these, and last but not least of William of Moerbeke himself. It has in general been surprisingly difficult, even for dedicated scholars, to get to read a good presentation of William’s life, of his activities, networks, and intellectual universe. This new book, then, gives a fresh new exposition of all this, based not least on the author’s critical edition of William’s translation of Aristotle’s History of Animals (with F. Bossier, 2 volumes, Brepols 2000-2020), and his PhD thesis on another important medieval translator of Greek philosophy, Bartholomew of Messina (PhD thesis, Leuven 2020).

Chapters 3 to 6 of the present book take us through a basically chronological exposition of William’s life and activity as a translator——with numerous details concerning his translation method, his views on the philosophical tradition, his networks and connection to institutions and ecclesiastical groups and persons, and lastly the success and lasting importance of his oeuvre. These chapters form the central contribution to scholars, and central aspects of these will be highlighted below. These valuable aspects of the book must, however, in a review also be seen in light of the monograph as a whole. Here, the author has made some surprising choices, framing his presentation with an exposition, or tour de force, of the history of philosophy. The very start of the chronological exposition brings up the importance of the Persian wars that classical Athens fought, before turning to the rise of Athenian philosophy. Select philosophers active in classical Athens get attention, and Aristotle is presented as the towering figure, of whose works William (two chapters later) is presented as a great translator.   It is, therefore, in a sense hard to delineate what this book tells—and not just refers to. Much is included in the narration, and it is not always clear whether this arises from a wish to address a popular audience—therefore giving such readers the necessary background information—or the wish to give a full story. In my following review of chapter contents, I will attempt to give credit to the many wonderful insights that the book offers to readers, especially to those interested in William, but at the same time note some surprising choices made by the author.

On the very first pages of the book, one reads that William’s translations “started an intellectual revolution” (p. i) and that he was “arguably the most influential translator of his time” (p. ix). The author does not repeat these claims at the end of the book, but gives a much more balanced assessment of William’s importance. Reusing the metaphor of dwarves on the shoulders of giants from earlier in the book, Beullens suggests that William “held the stable and durable ladder” (p. 143) for subsequent philosophical studies based on his translations of Aristotle. The argument presented initially is thus downsized, and probably rightly so, but this leaves an unclear impression in the reader. And this is a recurring phenomenon in the book—some things are initially presented with less precision than the subsequent analysis accomplishes. This goes into chapter titles, whose single word captions (“Shoulders”, “Model”, “Precursors”, “Project”, “Order”, etc.) may give the readers some inkling about their contents, but at least left this reader a bit bewildered at points. The first chapter (“Model”) tells the story of classical Athenian philosophy, from the battle of Plataeae and the Athenian golden age to Aristotle’s commentators and continuators in late antique Alexandria, Persia, and the Arab world. The main part is concerned with the fate of the Aristotelian writings, but on the way, we hear anecdotes about Heraclitus and that Cicero did not know “the works in the same form as we do”, but with no information at this point that Aristotle had written—now lost—dialogues. As readers we hear of much and are still not sure what all this is a “model” for.

The chronological exposition of the first chapter is somewhat discontinued in the following chapter (“Precursors”), which begins by suddenly jumping to England around the year 1200, and then taking a chronological step back by speaking of the “disappearance of Aristotle’s works at the beginning of the Middle Ages” (p. 20). This leaves the reader a bit baffled. If we are to take this in the literal sense, how could William then translate Aristotle only some decades after 1200? The works did obviously not disappear altogether, so from where? From England? But we never even heard about that they got there. Or from Europe? But already in the following paragraphs of this chapter (“Precursors”) we hear of William’s ancient, Arab, and European precursors, some of whom worked in Spain and Italy in at least a century up to the times of William. And despite the obvious importance of Byzantium for the survival of the Greek text of Aristotle and others, we never really hear of any Byzantine tradition. And yet this tradition not only supplied William, directly or indirectly, with Greek manuscripts; it also had its ways of handling texts, commentaries, etc., which probably affected William’s work. From the beginning of the chapter, the reader simply gets a flimsy and unclear image of the big lines in the history of philosophy and the Aristotelian tradition, even if Boethius, Toledo, and early medieval Latin translators of Aristotle each get their presentation.

The following three chapters (“Project”, “Order”, and “Network”) are, as mentioned above, the most valuable for the reader who comes to the book in search of solid information on William. The author here gives splendid insight into what William sought to achieve (“Project”), his entry into the Dominican order (“Order”), and his employment as papal penitentiarius (a piece of information that is revealed 7 pages into the chapter entitled “Network” dealing with the papal network!). As Beullens competently shows, William’s basic approach was to produce translations that kept as close as possible to the Greek originals, earning him a bad reputation for being very hard to read. He quite often worked on the basis of existing Latin translations of Aristotle’s works, though only on those that had been translated from Greek, since those produced from Arabic differed far too much in sentence structure, etc. to allow for such procedure. The verbal strictness produced some problems for William, and Beullens presents good examples of this. Aristotle made very specific use of the Greek definite article, which could serve to construct extended word compounds. Latin, on the other hand, has no definite article, and William’s wish to stay close to the Greek original therefore came under hard pressure, leading him to introduce, in certain cases, the medieval French definite articles le and li into his Latin translations. Other deviations from standard Latin were infinitives after prepositions and a set of neologisms produced after Greek models (p. 51-55). We really get an idea of William’s translation method, but we also understand why several readers—including the philosopher Francis Bacon, the renaissance humanist Leonardo Bruni, and the philosopher Leibniz—criticized William’s Latin for being extremely hard to read. Yet, William clearly offered his generation something new and, in some sense, better, since his readers would get closer—perhaps at times even too close—to the Greek original. Furthermore, William clearly worked within a specific philosophical-theological milieu, where an awareness of certain problems within the Aristotelian corpus had appeared. As Beullens allows the reader to see good evidence for, William’s translations were closely tied to Dominican circles and especially to the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (or of Aquino). Beullens brilliantly connects William’s contribution to the study of Aristotle to e.g. Thomas’s conclusion that some works ascribed to Aristotle—like the Book of Causes—could not have been written by Aristotle, and to a general wish to settle a number of internal conflicts within the Aristotelian corpus as it was available in various Latin translations that used shifting conceptual vocabulary, etc. Beullens therefore shows that William did a serious job in trying to clear out all this, probably also wanting to avoid what some contemporaries labelled “Arabic verbosity” (p. 105), and that his final goal was to find all the works of Aristotle, discarding those that were wrongly ascribed to him. In terms of William’s working conditions, we see him at work probably mostly in Viterbo. During the years before and after the second council of Lyons (1274), he was papal penitentiarius, a position that also depended on his Dominican ties. In this way, Beullens also solves the problems of William’s whereabouts during his production of Aristotelian translations: he was basically in Italy. From 1278 and for some years, William was in Greece, having been appointed archbishop of Corinth, to a large extent working as papal/Dominican representative, and still being able to produce translations of the small treatises of Proclus there. In total, the three chapters present a detailed intellectual and professional biography of William that is nowhere else to be read.

In the two last chapters (“Success” and “Fall”), Beullens shows how William’s translations become a success, at least as evidenced in the Parisian book production in the late 1200’s, with wonderful explanation as to how pecia and exemplaria were produced and what the extant material allows us to infer about William’s success as supplying university reading material. The downfall, as Beullens’s last chapter title suggests, is seen as a result of a negative assessment of William’s Latin, not least by the time of the first Italian humanists. Leonardo Bruni complained about William’s style, and soon new translations would appear in the Ciceronian style of the umanisti. William, who had allowed himself e.g. the use of French definite articles in his Latin, obviously did not conform to this new mode of Latin composition. But as a reader, one here again wonders why we should not simply agree with the Italian humanists, since both Francis Bacon before them and Leibniz after them—and even Thomas Aquinas (p. 78)—specifically criticize William for his incomprehensibility. Was it not simply hard to read and therefore a wonderful product of its age that then had to give in to new demands, e.g. comprehensibility (obviously at the expense of other good things)? After all, as Beullens concludes, William was a (most important) dwarf who “held the stable and durable ladder on which the metaphorical dwarves made their way upwards, a modest and serviceable task, which is as he himself assessed it” (p. 143). William most probably “brought ancient philosophical ideas to a larger group of students than ever before” (p. 143), but so did his immediate precursors and many in the generations after him, involving gradually more and more people in philosophical studies. He rightly belongs in a sequence of great translators, with his amount of success and his particular praxis. Whether dwarf or giant, it is great that we now can read a some very good chapters on the life, work, and context of this important medieval translator.

The book concludes with two valuable appendices, the first offering a chronological guide to William’s life, including mention of all of his datable Latin translations, and a second appendix with a complete list of all known Latin translations by William and their modern editions.