The Moorish Influence On Renaissance Europe

Normally the Renaissance is traced back to Florentine and Venetian Italy, and with good reason: Venetian trade with the Arabic world did indeed allow Classical learning to re-enter Europe through "Italy".  But studying the Spanish roots of the Renaissance allows us to ponder how Classical learning only declined in certain parts of Europe, that it continued to flourish in both the Byzantine and Arabic worlds, and that it was returned to Europe via al-Andalus – “Moorish Spain” – roughly 500 years before the Italian Renaissance.

This semester we will mainly cover this topic via video (When the Moors Ruled In Europe) but our main concern is in realizing or remembering that while most of Europe stumbled through the Dark and Early Middle Ages, the Renaissance was already occurring in al-Andalus,  or what we now call Spain, and throughout the entire Islamic Empire.

Islamic Libraries

"The Historical Context of Arabic Translation, Learning, and The Libraries of Medieval Andalusia"  On libraries:

 By 762, expansion under the Abbasid dynasty (ca. 750-1258) had slowed, and the rulers in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba could survey their empire's peaceful boundaries, stretching from Asia to the Atlantic. Their attention turned to domestic matters rather than expansion. Baghdad, under the Caliph al-Ma'mun (770-813), was made home to the empires first formal academy and library. Modeled to some degree after the Alexandrine model, it was devoted to the transcription and translation of poetry, science, philosophy and theology. In 788, the construction of the colossalRoyal Mosque of Cordoba, with its attached school and library, was underway.34 By 794, paper mills were being constructed along the rivers around Baghdad, with that precious material being shipped to all the capitals of Islam. Book production in the east blossomed into a vital industry as textual materials, translators, scholars and tradesman all spread throughout the Near East and Mediterranean. A new sector of the economy was born, specializing in acquiring, duplicating or locating rare books.

The new libraries and colleges of Spain were no exception. 35 The prestige of one's city or royal library led to a spirit of noble competition between the caliphs, viziers and deputies of various provinces, each wishing to attract the brightest scholars and rarest literary talents. As one history surmises, Andalusia was, above all, famous as a land of scholars, libraries, books lovers and collectors…when Gerbert studied at Vich (ca. 995-999), the libraries of Moorish Spain contained close to a million manuscripts…in Cordoba books were more eagerly sought than beautiful concubines or jewels…the city's glory was the Great Library established by Al-Hakam II…ultimately it contained 400, 000 volumes…on the opening page of each book was written the name, date, place of birth and ancestry of the author, together with the titles of his other works. Forty-eight volumes of catalogues, incessantly amended, listed and described all titles and contained instructions on where a particular work could be found.

The libraries, in turn affiliated with a sprawling network of copyists, booksellers, papermakers and colleges, churned out as many as 60, 000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations a year. 37The head librarian at Cordoba, Talid, personally appointed to the mosque collection by al-Hakam, employed a female Fatimad deputy named Labna, who acted as the Library's specialized acquisition expert in the bookstalls and merchants of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. 38 This level of industry was in sharp contrast to the knowledge production underway throughout much of Christendom, where during the same period the two largest libraries (Avignon and Sorbonne) contained at most 2,000 volumes as late as 1150. 

…   It was only with the Reconquest of Spain and Sicily by the Normans in the 13th century that much of this material was closely scrutinized by the Church, or physically removed for 'safekeeping' in the new universities or palaces of Europe. 43 The scribes of Christendom had never seen anything like the wealth of knowledge produced under the reign of the Spanish Arabs. The introduction of the more economical paper medium was also, as noted, a crucial boost to European literacy. 44 Compared to their monastic brothers in the north, the secular Arab scribes also had the benefit of much wider literacy, as well as unhindered trade access to all manner of bibliographic materials (ink, paper, etc.) from the East. 

(Source: C. Prince, "The Historical Context of Arabic Translation, Learning, and The Libraries of Medieval Andalusia", Library History, v. 18, July 2002, pp. 73-87.)

Moorish Bathhouse, Granada, Spain.  Note: built according to Roman design.

Cordoba's Mezquita (Great Mosque) (Built 784-987)  Converted to church in 1236.  Note: Columns Roman, taken from throughout Islamic Empire.  Note: Christian church built in the middle in 16th century.

Jewish Golden Age

It's also worth briefly considering that Spanish Jews under the Moors experienced their own "Golden Age" from roughly 711-1031.  Exiled throughout the Roman Empire during the Diaspora of 70 AD, Jews were generally accepted by and worked closely with Muslims.

As Moorish control of Spain fell to Christians during the Reconquista Jewish scholars also worked in teams with Christian monks to translate classical and Arabic works into Latin, and it was through this collaborative effort that so much Classical learning was saved from extinction and finally re-entered the rest of Europe.

This ended in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella crushed the last element of the Moorish empire in Granada and expelled all the Jews as well as Muslims from Spain.

El Transito Synagogue, Toledo, Spain (c. 1356.  Converted to church in 1492)  Note: "Islamic" elements of architecture mixed in with Hebrew.