Thursday, March 31, 2022


Along the Mediterranean coast of Northern Africa was an area controlled by the Roman Empire called the Africa Proconsularis. When the Empire broke up, the Byzantine Eastern Empire still controlled the territory until the Muslim Empire started its westward move, ultimately reaching the Iberian Peninsula.

To be clear, Islam existed in the area already, but Muslims did not have political control until the Umayyads took over in 703CE. Ifriqiya included modern Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and western Libya was then known as Ifriqiya (shown here in red).

Control shifted from dynasty to dynasty: from Umayyads to the Aghlabids (who were regents for the Abbasids) to the Fatimids in 909, to their own regents, the Zirids, who slowly grew in power, then to the Almohads and finally the Hafsids. The capital city was Kairouan, or al-Qayrawān, founded in 670 by the Umayyads. It became an intellectual and cultural center for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Charlemagne sent envoys to Kairouan; they returned with reports of the amazing palaces and gardens, not to mention reports of the heavy taxation of the population that paid for the excesses of the ruling class.

Several mosques in Africa are the result of Muslim influence spreading out and southward from Ifriqiya. Swahili absorbs vocabulary from many languages, most recently English, but 16-20% of its vocabulary still is from Arabic, especially administrative terms.

Notable individuals from Ifriqiya include Constantine the African (mentioned in a recent post), and the historian Ibn Khaldun, who would be worth taking a closer look at in the next post.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Book of Pee

One of the medical texts composed by Isaac Israeli ben Solomon was translated from Arabic to Latin and called De Urinis ("Concerning Urine"). One manuscript copy (Ms. 690) in the University of Utrecht Library shows signs of frequent use, and yet has survived for 800 years with its original binding, showing extreme care being taken by any of its owners.

De Urinis was not one of the books translated at Toledo; the Latin version that was used in the Middle Ages was translated by Constantine the African, a Benedictine monk and physician who spent the first part of his life in Ifriqiya, then brought Isaac's work and others from Tunisia to his retirement at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Casino. Unfortunately, Constantine often did not include in his translation the name of the original author, leading many to think that he himself wrote the medical texts. It took other references to these works to be able to affix the proper author's name. (The illustration here shows a dog's head added to the margin by a bored copyist.)

There are ten sections to De Urinis, as follows:

  1. The science of uroscopy, placing it in context of the four temperaments*, particularly in relation to the blood;
  2. The importance of nocturnal urine;
  3. Types of urine in relation to pathology;
  4. Urine as humor-discharging fluid;
  5. Types of urine by colour;
  6. The state of the body judging by its colour;
  7. Types of urine based on clarity and viscosity;
  8. Sediment in relation to pathology;
  9. Types of urine in coherence with sediment;
  10. Different types of urine and sediments and their meaning.
According to the Utrecht summary of the manuscript:

This text influenced islamic medicine to a great extent (where uroscopy was of great importance) and contributed to the rise of uroscopy as one of the most important branches of medicine in the Middle Ages (Prioreschi 2001). Ms. 690 is a remarkably early witness of this.

If you would like to see the manuscript in digital form, click here.

This is the second post in a row that mentions Ifriqiya, which sounds like "Africa" and should be addressed. I shall do so next.

*Referring to the four humors whose proportions determined a human being's temperament and health: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Isaac Israeli ben Solomon

Some of the works translated at Toledo by our old friend Gerard of Cremona were the Book of Definitions and the Book of Elements into Latin from Arabic. Written by Isaac Israeli ben Solomon (alias Isaac Israeli the Elder, alias Isaac Judaeus), sometimes known as Isaac the Jew, they and his other works became standard works in medicine at Salerno.

Isaac Israeli ben Solomon was born in Egypt around 832CE. Growing up in Cairo, he became known as a skilled oculist (illustration is from an Arabic manuscript on oculism, showing the parts of the eye). About 904CE he was made court physician to Emir Ziyadat Allah III of Ifriqya (and I really should talk about him and there in the near future). A few years later he traveled to Kairouan, Tunisia and studied under a famous Arab physician, then became the doctor to 'Ubaid Allah al-Mahdi, who founded the Fatimid dynasty. al-Mahdi found Israel charming and witty.

In Kairouan he started writing his treatises, which were considered "more valuable than gems," and giving popular lectures on medicine and other topics in science. All his treatises were written in Arabic. Besides the ones mentioned above, they also include The Book on Fevers, a work on food and remedies called Universal Diet, and more. He also wrote books on philosophy, metaphysics, logic, a commentary on Genesis, and a treatise on the difference between the spirit and the soul. The Latin translations of many of these were quoted by Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, and others.

Next I want to delve into one of his works specifically. I don't think I've ever indulged in what they call "dad jokes," but let me just say "urine for a treat."

Monday, March 28, 2022


The Royal Frankish Annals cover the era from Charlemagne's grandfather to his son. In it we find that Caliph Harun al-Rashid gave an elephant to Charlemagne. This was the result of Charlemagne sending his emissary, Isaac the Jew (Isaac Judaeus), to open relations with the Abbasid rulers. Harun al-Rashid sent Isaac back with an elephant, named Abul-Abbas.

So how do you get an elephant from Syria to France? With great difficulty. From Baghdad Isaac took Abul-Abbas to Egypt, and then along the north coast of Africa to Tunisia. The going was slow, and Charlemagne received messages from Harun al-Rashid and from Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab (governor of Africa, whom Isaac would have met in Tunisia) referring to Isaac's mission. Charlemagne ordered a man to Italy, to commission some ships in Genoa to travel to Africa to find Isaac and the elephant and bring them home.

Isaac and Abul-Abbas landed in Genoa in October 801, stayed for the winter, and when the weather turned they crossed the Alps. Isaac reached Charlemagne's court at Aachen on 20 July 802.

Abul-Abbas must have been a lot to maintain, but having the largest land animal anyone had ever seen in your menagerie would have been a great point of pride for Charlemagne. Elephants have long lifespans, and Charlemagne might have had his new pet for a long time, but on an expedition to Denmark in 810, after crossing the Rhine, Abul-Abbas died suddenly while Charlemagne camped at "Lippeham."

We don't know what the records mean by Lippeham, but on the conjecture that it has something to do with the Lippe River, it might be the city of Wesel. We will never know for sure, but there's a story that a colossal bone was found in the Lippe in 1750.

Much of what we know of Isaac the Jew has been revealed in the tale of Abul-Abbas. There was another "Isaac Judaeus," however, in the medieval records: one of the foremost Jewish physicians of his day. Let's take a look at him next time.

(The illustration here is of Abul-Abbas from 12th century Spain; the fresco is 80" high and 53" wide.)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Medieval Zoos

Collections of animals for private amusement or public display have existed for a long time. There is a current trend toward calling them "conservation parks" to move away from the connotations of 20th century zoos that housed animals with no regard to their natural habitats. "Zoo" itself was a shortened form of "zoological garden" or "zoological park" which were common in the 19th century. An early modern zoo, the London Zoo, opened in 1828 as the "Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society of London." References to collections of animals earlier than the 19th century often use the term "menagerie" from the French ménage, "members of a household."

Pre-medieval evidence of menageries abounds in carved stone walls from Egypt and Mesopotamia, where we learn that rulers sent expeditions to collect giraffes, elephants, bears, dolphins, and birds. A Middle Assyrian Emperor had a collection of animals in the 11th century BCE. King Solomon had a menagerie, as did Nebuchadnezzar. Alexander the Great collected different animals from his expeditions and sent them back to Greece. The Romans kept various animals—bears and bulls for example—for entertainment in the Colosseum. (The illustration here is from Villard de Honnecourt.) Cortes destroyed a collection of animals maintained by Montezuma in 1520.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid sent an elephant as a gift to Charlemagne. Charlemagne created three menageries, and they included monkeys, lions, bears, camels, and falcons along with other exotic birds. Henry I of England had lions, leopards, and camels at his Woodstock palace. As early as 1204, "Bad" King John kept a collection of different animals at the Tower of London. The Tower had three leopards added when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent them as a wedding gift to Henry III. The king of Norway sent a "white bear" (could they have subdued and sent a polar bear?) in 1251, and the king of France sent an elephant in 1254.

Clearly the desire to see exotic animals from distant lands (and the prestige of owning them) was of great interest for as long as human beings had the time and resources to collect and maintain them.

About Charlemagne's elephant, though...we've all heard about Hannibal trying to bring elephants over the alps to attack Rome. Bringing elephants to Europe predated Charlemagne by a millennium. What did it take to give an elephant to Charlemagne, and what happened to it? His name was Abul-Abbas, and I'll tell you about him next time.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Villard de Honnecourt's Animals

We're talking about Villard de Honnecourt, who traveled Europe and Hungary between 1225 and 1235 (at least), sketching along the way. As well as buildings (especially churches), machinery, and people, he sketched a lot of animals. Some were studies in how geometry helps to draw. Some were animals for their own sake. 

For instance, here's a snail that was added to the page on which the soldier from the previous post was found. And a bear and a swan on their own page. Just under the swan's tail is a church he wanted to sketch, but the swan was more important?

He sketches horses on more than one page, and there are numerous small creatures: there's even a page of insects.

There is one animal that he draws more than once, and one of the drawings gets a whole page to itself. I'm talking about the lion.

It would probably be more appropriate to say a lion, because I cannot imagine he ran into more than one. In the image to the left we see a lion tamer. Villard's note makes sure you know that this is "from life."

The term he uses that is translated "from life" is the Medieval French contrefait. If that word looks familiar even to non-French speakers, that is because it is the origin of the modern word "counterfeit." Don't be alarmed that it seems to contradict what he said about "from life": contrefait did not have the same connotations. It meant (and still means) to imitate. Modern parlance defines this is "not real." For Villard, it meant that he may not have been sitting there watching the event when he drew it, but he is imitating a factual thing. He is assuring us that this scene happened. We have no reason to doubt him. That does not mean that he observed this himself; just that he is adamant that it is real. He includes another picture in which he makes the same claim.

Lions in Medieval Western Europe would have been scarce or non-existent, appearing largely in literature and on heraldic designs, usually very stylized. Still, he was confident enough about the lion that he was sure he could draw it convincingly. Was there the possibility that he would have seen a lion in captivity? Or had the opportunity to look at one face-on so he could draw it?

Were there zoos in the Middle Ages? If there were, what were they like? Where did the animals come from?

Which all sounds like an excellent topic to explore next.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Villard de Honnecourt's People

Who was Villard de Honnecourt? He mentions in his sketches that he had been to many lands, including spending several days in Hungary. He doesn't tell us why he was there, but a theory has arisen. One of the radiating chapels in the new chevet of Cambrai Cathedral as dedicated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary. It is possible that Villard was there to obtain a relic of the saint for the cathedral. Elizabeth died in 1234 and was canonized 27 May 1235 by Pope Gregory IX (canonization in those days wasn't as rigorous a process as it is today). Ten miles south of Cambrai Cathedral is the village of Honnecourt. Villard may have been an architect/engineer for Cambrai.

It is entirely possible that he was tasked with traveling to procure a relic, and used the opportunity to make sketches along the way. Not only did he record architectural details and draw machines, he also drew subjects "from life."

Some of them are figures of saints or Christ, likely taken from art, but some are obviously activities of real people. The first illustration here is a soldier at rest. We get some idea of what a soldier would wear; we see what looks like chainmail under his tunic, along with a chainmail coif. Unlike the simplified straight lines of his machine drawings, here we see attention to the detail of folds and pleats in the fabric.

Another interesting sketch from life is the wrestlers.

Is it a serious bout, or just two friends playing? We will never know, especially because he doesn't even caption this, as he usually does with his sketches. The regular design cut off on the right side of the illustration is part of Cambrai Cathedral: This is the plan of the apse and the choir (chevet) of Our Lady of Cambrai as it is now rising from the ground.

This page has been turned sideways so that he can include the wrestlers, but as much as he cared to represent them carefully—the folds of their loincloths, the contours of their bodies—it was just an idle addition.

He was, however, interested in demonstrating how to draw from life. Some of his sketches show the geometry and symmetry of the human body and face, as a guide to drawing. In the drawing below he endeavored to show how easy it was to find the proper proportion in drawing from life. 

His caption reads: Here begins the method of representation as taught by the art of geometry, to facilitate work.

On a page of the twelve apostles (and three other figures, he writes: Here you will find the images of the the Twelve Apostles, sitting. Villard de Honnecourt greets you and begs all who use the devices found in this book to pray for his soul and remember him. For in this book will be found sound advice on the virtues of masonry and the uses of carpentry. You will find strong help in drawing figures according to the lessons taught by the art of geometry.

The illustration to the left shows that he wasn't just interested in people. He had quite a few sketches of animals, and one species in particular (besides the occasional horse) was of such interest that he stressed to the viewer that it was "from life" and not imagination. But that is tomorrow's topic.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Villard de Honnecourt's Machines

I've mentioned Villard de Honecourt back in 2012; he is so worth another look. Anything we know about him is entirely incidental. Around 1225-1235, he traveled around Europe, and went as far as Hungary, sketching artwork, buildings, machines, animals and other items of interest to him along the way—250 separate items sketched in all. His sketches have prompted us to assume he was an engineer and/or architect. (Panofsky obviously assumed architect; see the previous post.) He sketched various figures that were clearly on the facades of cathedrals, as well as floor plans and elevations of cathedrals. He had a fascination for machines, however. 

One of his drawings, pictured here, is for a perpetual motion machine. He has captioned it: Often have experts striven to make a wheel turn of its own accord. Here is a way to do it with an uneven number of mallets and with quicksilver.

He also made simplified drawings of a machine for cutting the tops of piles under water when creating a pier, for straightening a sagging house, for bracing the spokes while making a wheel, and more. And here's another set of machines.

Starting from the top, his notes describe a saw that operates itself, a crossbow that won't miss, engines for lifting heavy weights, and how to make an eagle that turns toward the deacon when he preaches.

Despite the above implication that you can learn a lot from his drawings, an early theory that he intended these drawing as teaching tools has been dismissed since, other than the drawings themselves, there are no details regarding construction or operation.

His collection passed through various hands, some of whom have written their names on pages, and eventually came into the possession of the Bibliothèque National de France in the winter of 1795-96. If you want to purchase a facsimile edition, or at least view a brief video of one, click here.

I think some of his sketches taken from life should get some exposure. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Scholasticism and Gothic Architecture

There is a 20th century art historian who has appeared in two posts because of his eye-opening contributions to the field in the 1940s: here where he explained multiple renaissances, and here where he pinpointed the birth of gothic architecture and the motivating factor behind it. (I recommend you check those links before you read further.) He followed those in 1951 with a lecture called "Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism."

He noted that gothic architecture originated and flourished in the "100-mile zone around Paris" and was contemporaneous with the growth and spread of scholasticism. This would have been interesting enough on its own as an observation, but he went further, insisting there was:

A connection between Gothic art and Scholasticism which is more concrete than a mere "parallelism"...the connection which I have in mind is a genuine cause-and-effect relation.

We can extrapolate some connections ourselves without looking further into Panofsky: the architect and the scholastic were two of the most educated people in the community. Both, in their own way, were blending the religious (a site for worship, church doctrine) with something more "grounded" (a complex building, logical reasoning).

Panofsky also sees the scholastic trend toward categorization and chapter/sub-chapter organization of thought in the arch>smaller arch layering of the typical Gothic elevation (see the illustration). Likewise, he sees the desire to match scholastic clarification in the large windows that allowed more light than the previous Romanesque style, and the intellectual desire for getting at the "unvarnished truth" in the exposed buttresses.

He concludes with one more observation:

...which shows that at least some of the French thirteenth-century architects did think and act in strictly Scholastic terms. In Villard de Honnecourt’s “Album” there is to be found the groundplan of an “ideal” chevet* which he and another master, Pierre de Corbie, had devised, according to the slightly later inscription, inter se disputando. Here, then, we have two High Gothic architects discussing a quaestio, and a third one referring to this discussion by the specifically Scholastic term disputare instead of colloqui, deliberare, or the like. And what is the result of this disputatio? A chevet which combines, as it were, all possible Sics with all possible Nons.

In other words (Panofsky uses some Latin terms analogous to the lectio and quaestio and disputatio explained in the previous post), de Honnecourt and Corbie, who are not scholastics, are reaching an ideal design/conclusion using the methods standardized by scholastics. The Latin terms in his last sentence allude to the scholastic Peter Abelard's "Sic et Non" ("Yes or No") in which he discusses 158 contradictory points among church father writings. 

You can download a digital copy of Panofsky's work with illustrations here.

But what's this "Album" of Villard de Honnecourt's that he mentions? That's an excellent question. Stay tuned.

*A chevet is an apse with an ambulatory giving access behind the high altar to a series of chapels set in bays. See the second illustration.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Scholasticism, An Introduction

Scholasticism (from the Latin word scholasticus, which is from the Greek σχολαστικός, "pertaining to schools") was a method for approaching knowledge with a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning: a topic would be brought up in the form of a question, and opposing viewpoints would try to reach a logical conclusion.

Three men who were considered the founders of Scholasticism (and links to where they've been mentioned here over the years) were Peter Abelard, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. Many of the Scholastics, or Schoolmen, have been mentioned throughout this blog, some of them quite recently: Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure, Peter Lombard.

One of its goals was to reconcile the wisdom of classical thinkers with Christian theology. The Toledo School of Translators started making the works of Greek, Judaic, and Arabic scholars available. Interest in the Iberian source of documents inspired some like Adelard of Bath to spend years traveling to where he could find works he could translate, such as Spain and Sicily. Among others, Adelard translated Euclid's Elements of Geometry from Arabic. Adelard also wrote original works; you can get a taste of one here.

Proper scholastic instruction had three phases: lectio, meditatio, quaestio. Lectio consisted of the master reading an authoritative text, plus any commentary; students listened in silence. This was followed by meditatio when students reflected on what they had heard. Only then would the students be allowed to ask questions. During the quaestio might be raised opposing viewpoints from other authors. This could lead to disputatio, a disputation where two opposing viewpoints debated a topic. (You'll remember a famous Disputation mentioned two months ago.)

A well-known 20th century art historian theorized that scholasticism actually influenced gothic architecture. I look forward to sharing it next.

Monday, March 21, 2022


Around 1100CE, monastic schools started to discover the works of Aristotle, thanks to Judea-Islamic translations. Just as scholarly study was taking off in Western Europe, suddenly a body of knowledge that included a system of logic and was accompanied by a name of tremendous reputation. (One wonders what might have developed on its own if Aristotle hadn't appeared to offer them a "mold" to fit.)

Now scholars had a framework for studying the world, and by that I mean God. After all, among all the potential different opinions and ideas philosophers might have had, there was one constant: a supreme Being existed whose existence explained all things. Philosophers/Theologians from the Christian and Jewish and Muslim traditions—all children of Abraham—all agreed that everything came from God, and here now was the most prestigious pagan thinker "agreeing" with his logical conclusion that everything came from the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause.

But questions—and disagreements—remained.

Maimonides felt that philosophy/logic and religion were not opposing modes of thought; they should both lead to the same truths. You remember from several posts ago that he considered it appropriate to describe God in terms of what He was not. "God is not non-existent"; "God is not ignorant"; et cetera. This method is called apophatic. He also said "God is not corporeal" because to describe God—who was of course to be worshipped—as having a body would be a step toward idolatry, to which Maimonides was opposed. This got him into hot water with those scholars who took Genesis 1:26 seriously: "Let is make man in our image." He was condemned, and some wanted him excommunicated.

Averroes came under fire because he also considered philosophy an alternate but equal-to-religion way of finding truth that cannot contradict revelations in Islam. He believed that any contradictions should be resolved by understanding that the revelations in Islam about God must have been interpreted wrongly, and would need to be re-examined using philosophy. This flew in the face of fundamentalism; critiques of philosophy like The Incoherence of the Philosophers denounced people like Averroes. In 1195 his teachings were condemned, his works were ordered burned, and he was banished (although he was returned to court shortly before he died, on 11 December 1198).

Aquinas caused raised eyebrows because of Aristotle and Averroes. Introducing their ideas from non-Christian sources was a very controversial move. When Aquinas was made regent master at the University of Paris, he was accused of encouraging Averroists by a Franciscan master who considered certain more free-thinking philosophers as "blind leaders of the blind."

So philosophers and theologians who centuries later are heralded as giants in the field whose works are considered foundational were not universally respected or followed in their own time.

A little more on Scholasticism next time, and then maybe time for a lighter topic or two.

Sunday, March 20, 2022


(Note: Most of this is from the previous post "The Commentator" on 11 December 2012)

Averroes (1126-1198) was born in Córdoba into a family of distinguished jurists and scholars at a time when Islamic culture was flourishing in Spain. He probably would have spent his life as a judge if not for his mentor and friend, the physician Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl, who told him that he should write commentaries on the works of Aristotle. The problem seen by ibn Tufayl was that Aristotle was too obscure either because of the ambiguity of his own writing or the shortcomings of his translators.

Averroes, whose real name was ʾAbū al-Walīd Muḥammad bin ʾAḥmad bin Rušd, embraced the task so thoroughly that, to the West, he became known as "The Commentator." His scholarship was embraced across cultures: Jacob Anatoli translated Averroes' Commentaries into Hebrew. Anatoli's colleague and friend Michael Scot translated some directly into Latin.

He analyzed and promoted most of Aristotle (and Plato's Republic) to the known world, as well as writing dozens of books of his own. So far as we know, he did not have access to original texts—there is no evidence that he knew Greek—and so his commentaries are based on Arabic translations of Aristotle.

He was a rationalist, he asserted that philosophy and religion were not in conflict because they taught about the same things. Common people needed religion and faith to understand what the intellectual could understand through reason and logic. He felt proper understanding of the Koran required analytical thinking.

Unfortunately for him, his rationalist views often got him into trouble when they came up against Islamic theology (which he had studied extensively). He was, in fact, banished by a caliph to whom he had been the personal physician, because some side remarks in Averroes' writing (such as "that Venus is one of the gods") struck the caliph as blasphemous. Fortunately, Averroes was allowed to return home prior to his death.

We've looked at a few different philosophers. Next I want to talk about a particular medieval school of philosophy: scholasticism.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Aristotle in the Middle Ages

We do not know very many details about Aristotle's life: he was born in northern Greece about 384BCE; at the age of 19 he joined Plato's Academy. After Plato's death, he became a tutor to Alexander the Great at the request of Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon.

Only about a third of his known works survive, but his literary output was extensive. For centuries his name was known to European scholars, but his writings were not. Copies were scarce, and were in a language unknown to most Europeans. He was known to Arab and Jewish scholars, and it is thanks to their translations that the works of Aristotle were brought to Western Europe. Aristotle's Organon, in a Latin translation by Boethius, was practically the only work available to Western Europe from 600 to 1100CE. This was a collection of six books by Aristotle on logic, and gave to the world the syllogism.

The 11th and 12th centuries saw Aristotle become better known through the translations from Arabic by folk like Gerard of Cremona at the Toledo School of Translators. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica ("Summary of Theology") referred to Aristotle as "The Philosopher" which increased the demand for his works. Aristotle's philosophical ideas were adopted and adapted into Christian theology. Maimonides, Dante, Chaucer, Albertus Magnus, and many others all knew and revered Aristotle.

In Aristotle's Metaphysics he asserts that everything must have a cause. Something causes something else: the candle flame flutters because we breathe on it, the breath comes from our lungs, the lungs work because we inhale and decide to blow at the candle, etc. He posits that, at the origin of all activity there must be an "unmoved mover," a thing that moves without being moved. He does not call this God, but claims it must be perfectly beautiful, indivisible, contemplating perfection, which is to say a self-contemplating intellect.

Maimonides and Aquinas and others knew, of course, what this was, and revered the pagan Aristotle for proving the existence of the First Cause, God. So what could the problem be with Aristotle and Christianity? A brief stop next at the life and works of Averroes and we will have representative Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers to look at the question: is God logical?

Friday, March 18, 2022

Thomas Aquinas

I suppose if we wanted to find a Christian parallel to Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas would be an obvious choice. Born into the aristocracy, noted for his learning and devoutness, his writing blending previous scholarship and building on it with impressive arguments backed up by Scripture and reason, his writings becoming foundational for what came after—no wonder he was nicknamed Doctor Angelicus ("The Angelic Doctor").

He was born in 1225 in the town of Aquino. His father was Count Landulph of Aquino, his mother Countess Theodora of Teano; he was related to the kings of Aragon, Castile, and France, as well as to Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II. A biography written a generation after he died claims that a holy hermit predicted to a pregnant Theodora that her child would become unequalled in learning and sanctity.

His education began at the typical age of five, with the Benedictines of Monte Cassino (his father's brother Sinibald was the abbot there from 1227-1236). Some time between 1236 and 1239 he was sent to a university at Naples where he would have first learned about Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides. Here he also came into contact with a Dominican preacher. The Dominicans had been founded 30 years earlier and were actively recruiting.

When he was 19 years old, Thomas announced that he wished to join the Dominicans, which displeased his "Benedictine-oriented" family. It displeased them so much that, while Thomas was traveling to Rome on his way to Paris to get away from the family's influence, his brothers (at his mother's request) kidnapped him. He was forced to stay in his parents' castle for almost a year, spending the time tutoring his sisters.

Attempts to dissuade him from the Dominicans became more desperate. His brothers sent a prostitute to seduce him. He fought her off with a burning log, then fell into a mystical trance and had a vision of two angels granting him perfect chastity. (They also gave him a "girdle of chastity" that now resides in Turin.) His mother, seeing that he would not change his mind, and not wanting to endure the embarrassment of allowing her son to join the Dominicans, she arranged for him to escape his home in 1244. He went to the University of Paris where he probably studied under Albertus Magnus. Because Thomas was quiet, his fellow students ridiculed him, but Albertus is supposed to have told them "You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world."

In 1256 he was appointed regent master in theology at Paris and began writing the first of his many theological works, Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem ("Against Those Who Assail the Worship of God and Religion"), defending the mendicant orders.

His reputation as a theologian and teacher/preacher grew so much that he was granted the Archbishopric of Naples in 1265 by Pope Clement IV, but he turned it down. In the yard that followed he would have the time to write one of his greatest works, the Summa Theologica.

And this is where we come back to the comparison with Maimonides: despite the groundbreaking nature of his writing, which became foundational for much of what followed, he was not without his detractors. Some of his conclusions clashed with accepted thought from previous religious writers. To be able to discuss that, we should look at two other philosophers: Aristotle and Averroes. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Guide for the Perplexed

Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed is available now in paper, digital, and audio form; in case you don't get around to ordering a copy, however, let me share some of the insights into his thinking. After all, he was one of the greatest minds in the history of Jewish scholarship.

Although he used the Hebrew alphabet to write it, the language was Arabic. It was written as a letter to a student, in three parts. It covers many topics, but here are a few.

In Book One, he goes into great detail arguing against anthropomorphism of God in the Bible. He argues against the idea that God has a corporeal form by analyzing every term used for God and explaining how it is used differently from how it is used in any context when referring to a physical person. He concludes that God can only be described in "negative" terms:

As to His essence, the only way to describe it is negatively. For instance, He is not physical, nor bound by time, nor subject to change, etc. These assertions do not involve any incorrect notions or assume any deficiency, while if positive essential attributes are admitted it may be assumed that other things coexisted with Him from eternity.

He also discusses the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation "from nothing"), and whether that idea was supported by scripture and reason. Aristotle's view that the universe is eternal is examined, but considered problematic.

Book Two starts with a discussion that occupied a lot of the medieval mind: the heavenly spheres. Maimonides links heavenly and earthly forces in a way that sounds like distillation experiments in high school science classes. The divine intelligence at the "top" of the universe filters downward through the spheres of the stars and planets (themselves intelligent) until it reaches the "bottom" layer, which is the physical world at the center of the concentric spheres, by which time it has diminished in power and divinity and animates the laws of nature.

The second part discusses the different kinds of prophecy. I briefly described his explanation of it in the previous post.

The first two books may sound intense, but the third raises the bar considerably. Among other things, he explains the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel as a parable of the cosmos, showing how descriptions of parts of it relate to how the natural world works. He also discusses omniscience, providence, the problem of evil (see the previous post), and the meaning we are to derive from episodes such as the Binding of Isaac and the trials of Job. He ends with a discussion of the 613 mitzvot ("commandments") found in the Torah.

Although his capacity as a philosopher was recognized and largely revered, not everyone was happy with his conclusions. Some of his conclusions contradicted the pronouncements of previous scholars. The notion that God was incorporeal was one such dogma. The Guide found fans among non-Jewish scholars, however, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

I find that Thomas Aquinas has been mentioned before in this blog, but never given his own entry. I think it's time. Tune in tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022


Moses ben Maimon (1138 - 1204) was a rabbi, a philosopher, an astronomer, and the personal physician of Saladin. (Saladin was most recently mentioned here, but you can learn more about him here.) Born in Córdoba (Spain), he became known far and wide as one of the most influential Torah scholars of his age.

When Córdoba was conquered by the Almohads in 1148, dhimmi (explained here) was status was abolished, and therefore Jews and Christians had to choose to convert to Islam, be put to death, or go into exile. Maimonides' family chose exile. He spent some time in Fez, Morocco, and then wound up in Cairo.

While living in Egypt, he composed the Mishnah Torah ("Repetition of the Torah"), gathering all of Jewish oral law in fourteen books. His other great work was the Moreh Nevukhim ("Guide for the Perplexed"), in which he expressed all his own philosophical views in three books.

Among his philosophical conclusions, found in numerous written works, are:

•The power of prophecy does not require intervention by God. Any human being, through the application of logic and reason, study and meditation, has the potential to become a prophet.

•On the "problem of evil"; that is, if God is good, how can He have created evil? Maimonides concludes that evil derives from human beings and their individual attributes, although all human beings can and should strive for higher purpose and forsake evil impulses.

•Regarding astrology, Maimonides stressed that one should only believe what can be determined through rational proof, physical evidence, or trustworthy authority. He studied astrology and concluded that it is ridiculous to think that your fate is tied to constellations, making you a slave to something over which you have no control.

•In a treatise on resurrection, he emphasizes that God would not violate the laws of Nature which He has created, and therefore any bodily resurrection would only be temporary; true resurrection to come is spiritual.

There is so much more to say about him that I want to turn next to his Guide For the Perplexed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Sar Shalom ben Moses

Sar Shalom ben Moses got too big for his britches. Born into a distinguished family of royal physicians in the Fatimid court in Egypt, he held several high-ranking positions in his life. He was the Av Bet Din ("Master of the Court") at a Yeshivah in Damascus. In 1170 he succeeded his brother as Nagid ("prince" or "leader"), a title often applied to the religious leader in medieval Sephardic communities. A Nagid had great legal authority over the community of Jews in Islamic countries.

When the Fatimid caliphate collapsed in 1171 and was replaced by the Ayyubids, ben Moses was replaced by Maimonides. Two years later, ben Moses returned to the position and held it until 1195, when Maimonides regained the position. An account written in 1197, the Megillat Zutta ("Scroll of Zutta"), describes his tenure unfavorably. The author, Samuel ben Hananiah, derogatorily nicknames him "Zutta" meaning "little one," and describes him as a "despotic ignoramus" who gained his power by corruption and informing on fellow Jews.

Besides giving himself the grandiose title of Sar Shalom ("Prince of Peace"), one of his sins was to try to get the local Egyptian governors to act as tax farmers. The Jewish community of Alexandria banned anyone who recognized his authority. Maimonides actually overruled this ban, fearing it would pit Jews against each other. Instead, found a passage in the Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers"; a collection of teachings from rabbinic tradition) that forbade the collection of taxes by religious leaders. He used this to excommunicate Sar Shalom ben Moses.

Sar Shalom and Maimonides both died in 1204, after which Maimonides' son, Abraham Maimonides, became Nagid of the Egyptian Jewish community.

As often as Maimonides has come up in this blog, in over 800 posts I've never given him top billing. I think next time we'll look more closely at 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Tax Farming

Let me start by saying that "tax farming" and a "tax farmer" are not really about agriculture, except in a tangential sense. In the medieval sense of "farming," the "farmer" did not own the land. The king owned all land, and the farmer worked it under an agreement. That agreement in France was called ferme générale, from the Latin firma, a fixed agreement or contract. So a "farmer" was one who worked the land under an agreement or a contract from the ultimate owner, the king.

Either that, or it comes from Old English feorm, "provisions supplied to the king" which became Middle English ferme, "farm, rent, revenue collected from farmer." Either way, the phrase is about revenue/material from someone lower on the status ladder to someone higher.

But "tax farming" is about (to use a modern phrase that borrows the same word) "farming out" (still, it involves a contract or agreement) the job of collecting tax revenue. An individual would pay the taxes of the whole area in one lump sum, then take on the task of personally recovering this revenue by collecting it from the inhabitants. The central government gets on-time payments from a reliable source, and the tax farmer bears the burden of collection. Of course, the tax farmer could exploit the system and try to collect more than his fair share.

The Romans in 123 BCE set up a system like this. The collectors were called publicani; Matthew the Apostle was one. Feudal England's kings would grant "in fee farm" to a noble, tasking them with a standard payment, and leaving them to tax the inhabitants themselves. In Egypt, Maimonides excommunicated Chief Rabbi Sar Shalom ben Moses for tax farming. The Ottoman Empire used tax farming from the 1400s until it was abolished in 1856.

Tax farming had the advantage for a government of not requiring a large tax collection agency that needed to be paid and regulated. If the central government received its revenue regularly, it did not have to worry whether citizens were getting taxed too much or too little. It had the disadvantage of creating a system that could lead to abuse of those taxed. Also, a tax farmer could collect goods, devalue them as part of their assessment during collection, and then turn around and sell them at a higher price. He could also force the inhabitants from long-term stability to short-term higher-yield production to satisfy the collector's demands. Either of these methods stifles economic development, hurting the kingdom in the long run; not to mention the political unrest generated among the populace.

If tax farming was so common throughout the centuries, what was the problem with Sar Shalom ben Moses? I'll explain tomorrow.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Mother of Khans

Toregene (pictured here, with her name in Mongolian) has been called one of the most powerful women in history. Born into the Naiman tribe (in western Mongolia), and married into the Merkit tribe, when Genghis Khan conquered the Merkits he singled her out and gave her to his sone Ogedei. Ogedei was already married, but to a woman who bore him no sons. Toregene bore Ogedei five sons, including Guyuk.

Toregene was ambitious, and assumed more and more authority in the court, aided serendipitously by Ogedei's alcoholism. (When his brother Chagatai appointed someone to watch Ogedei's intake, Ogedei promised to drink fewer cups each day; he then had cups made that were twice the size of regular ones.) When Ogedei died in 1241 after an all-night drinking session with his friend and advisor Abd-ur-Rahman, one of his other widows, Moge Khatun (she had been a wife of Genghis, but then was given to Ogedei), took over administrative duties.

But not for long. Toregene was named regent in spring of 1242 as Khatun (the feminine of "Khan"). She dismissed Ogedei's ministers and placed her own favorites in power. Some of them she arrested, unless they fled first. One of her more controversial appointments was Fatima. Fatima was a Shia Muslim captured from Persia, who started as Toregene's slave. Fatima became her constant companion and advisor.

Eventually she tired of her role and managed the ascension of Guyuk as Great Khan in 1246. She retired to an estate on the Emil River that flows through China and Kazakhstan. 

One of her influences was changes to the tax system. She didn't like the centralization of authority that was the norm in her husband's administration, even though it had a practical purpose: reducing the need for revenue. She persuaded Ogedei to appoint Abd-ur-Rahman as tax farmer in China.

What does a tax farmer do? Good question. Answer coming soon.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Möngke Khan Ascends

Möngke Khan (11 January 1209 - 11 August 1259) was the son of Tolui (c.1190 - c.1232), the youngest son of Genghis Khan. Möngke had been successful between 1237 and 1241 while commanding the part of the Mongol army that campaigned in southern Russia and Eastern Europe. He was very effective at getting his point across: when he conquered the tribes north of the Caspian, and the tribal leader Bacman refused to kneel before him, Möngke simply had him cut in half.

After the leader of the Mongol Empire, Ogedei Khan, died in December 1241, there was disagreement over which of Genghis' descendants was fit to rule. After a five-year regency by Ogedei's widow, Toregene, Ogedei's oldest son Guyuk was chosen.

But Guyuk was not a popular choice for everyone; he reversed several edicts from his mother's time as ruler, and executed for treason several of her high-ranking officials. In 1246, he ordered an empire-wide census, after which he imposed a tax on everything, and a poll tax on males in Georgia and Armenia. His reign lasted only 2 years, and there is suspicion that he was poisoned on the eve of his plan to attack the western part of his own empire who had not supported his ascension to the throne.

Möngke came to the throne after some similar familial rivalry, but the clan of Genghis' eldest son, Batu, supported Möngke. They were the clan in the west whom Guyuk had planned to attack. Möngke's mother had done them a favor by warning them of Guyuk's scheme.

The new Khan purged his empire of those who might have been more loyal to previous administrations. The most prominent execution was that of Guyuk's wife, Oghul Qaimish, who had been regent between Guyuk's death and Möngke's accession: she was wrapped in felt and thrown into the river. Others across the empire deemed not suitably loyal or trustworthy due to their connection to different descendants of Genghis who might feel their claim to the throne was stronger, were punished by having hands and feet cut off, or having their mouths filled with stones, or simply being trampled by horses.

Relations with Batu and his tribe remained good, however. And he placed his loyal brothers in charge of parts of the empire: Hulegu in Iran and Kublai (yes, that Kublai in northern China.

We know more about Möngke's reign thanks to the Itinerarium of a Franciscan monk, William Rubruck, about whom I've written here. And you can learn more about Möngke's reign in previous posts here and here, and of course about Kublai, and even more about Guyuk. I have not written in the past about Toregene, whose years ruling the empire were not just a place-holder until a male came along. I'll talk about her next.

Friday, March 11, 2022

A Mountain Paradise

After Hassan i-Sabbah took over Alamut Castle from the Justanids, he went about making it a place that his followers would be willing to die for.  He also refurbished it as a place that would keep people alive for a long time, in case of a siege. Part of the refurbishment—besides fortifying the walls—was to line rooms with limestone to make them more suitable to food storage.

Hassan had the slopes below the castle terraced, and enhanced the irrigation, so that more food could be grown. Barley, wheat, and rice were important crops, suitable for safekeeping for long periods of time in case an attack was made.

He also built a library so extensive that scholars from far and wide came to stay awhile and read. Scientists could do research and experiment. The library had astronomical  instruments and countless books. Because i-Sabbah was interested in many different philosophies, pulling what he liked best from different schools of thought, intellectual freedom was prized, and lively debate encouraged.

To create an idea of paradise on earth, gardens were built and maintained. Marco Polo referred to the Isma'ili "secret garden of paradise." He described a ritual in which young men were drugged, taken to the garden where they would wake up surrounded by beauty and attractive women, then told by an old man that this was their ultimate reward if they served the Nizari Isma'ili cause. Polo's report is the origin of the "Old Man of the Mountain" title for Hassan i-Sabbah as the leader of the assassins.

Modern scholars, however, believe that stories of the gardens are just that, and there was no contemporaneous mention of gardens and drugging young men, not even by Mongol authority who visited Alamut to critique it.

Yes, Mongols enter the picture. The Mongol Empire expanded westward and clashed with the Islamic Empire. The Nizari Isma'ili state stood in their way. In the 1200s, this had grown to scores of fortresses. To be brief: Alamut was besieged more than once. It finally was taken by the Mongols in 1256, recaptured by Nizari Isma'ili's in 1275, then re-recaptured by the Mongols in 1282, which was the end of the Isma'ilis.

It was under Möngke Khan that this happened, a grandson of Genghis. I'll tell you more about him next.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Alamut Castle

Modern gamers (of which I am not one) are familiar with "Assassin's Creed"; they may even know it was based on a 1938 novel, Alamut. The novel told the story of Hassan i-Sabbah, who was the subject of the previous post.

Alamut is in present-day Iran, a high peak with an eagle-eye view of the surrounding area. The fortress was founded in 865CE when a Justanid ruler watched an eagle perch on it. He built the fortress, which was called Aluh āmū[kh]t, meaning "Eagle's Teaching or "Nest of Punishment"; most stories now abbreviate that to "Eagle's Nest." The Justanids were an Iranian Shia dynasty, and it remained in their hands until Hassan i-Sabbah conquered it in 1090 to use as a base for his Nizari Isma'ili Nation. This is how he did it.

Sabbah had been hiding out about 60km away, avoiding arrest for the trouble he had been causing with his new religion. In 1090, deciding that Alamut was an ideal location for his base, he sent supporters to the region to live and work in the village below the castle, and to seek employment in the castle itself. Sabbah traveled secretly to the area, and disguised himself as a teacher, secretly preaching and befriending locals.

The lord of the fortress, Mahdi, had been summoned to the capital and given orders to find and arrest Sabbah: rumors had arisen that Sabbah was in the Alamut area. Returning to the castle, Mahdi remarked that there were several new faces, and was told that illness had caused the hiring of new staff. (It is believed that Mahdi's deputy had become a follower of Sabbah.) Soon, Sabbah himself approached Mahdi, declaring the castle now had changed hands. The guards refused to follow Mahdi's orders to arrest Sabbah. Mahdi was allowed to leave safely, and given 3000 gold dinars as the price for the castle. The castle had been taken without bloodshed.

What Sabbah did next is an even better story. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Order of Assassins

We cannot talk about the Order of Assassins without talking about the word "assassin" and its origin, and you may be surprised to learn that 1) the origin is not what you've been told, and 2) I've already gone over this. In fact, the founder of the Order referred to his members as Asāsiyyūn (or أساسِيّون), "people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]." The hashish derivation was added later by Europeans who did not know the whole story.

With that out of the way, we can discuss their origin more calmly. They were originally called the Nizari Isma'ili State, founded by Hassan i-Sabbah. Sabbah (c.1050 - 12 June 1124) was a Twelver Shia, called thus (in English, anyway) because they believed in twelve divinely ordained imams who are the spiritual successors to Muhammad.

Sabbah was strongly Twelver, but later in life embraced the Isma'ili doctrine. The followers of Isma'ilis believed that Isma'il ibn Jafar was the proper spiritual successor to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq; other Twelver Shia believed Isma'il's younger brother, Musa al-Kadhim, was the true Imam. Sabbah further made "different choices" in Cairo when he gave his support to Nizar, the son of Isma'ili Imam-Caliph al-Mustanṣir, as the next Imam. Sabbah was jailed by the chief of the army, but the collapse of one of the jail's minarets was taken as a sign to get rid of him: he was therefore deported. He wound up in Isfahan in 1081.

Sabbah decided he needed a stronghold where he could found the Nizar Isma'ili State, maintain his own safety, instruct others in his beliefs, and from which he could conduct his mission to spread the word of his specific beliefs. In 1090 he and his followers captured Alamut Castle, the first and greatest of the Nizari Isma'ili fortresses. From here he used his Order of Assassins to covertly eliminate leaders—first Muslim, later Christian as well—who stood in the way of spreading his version of Islam.

The way he conquered Alamut Castle, and the castle itself, deserve more than a passing glance. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Benjamin of Tudela

I wrote a post about Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) back in 2012, but there is a lot more to him. His Masa'ot Binyamin (Travels of Benjamin) details eight years of traveling, and gives western scholar greater insight than we otherwise would have into Jewish (and other) inhabitants east of the Mediterranean. He frequently notes the mutual respect found in mixed communities of Jews and Muslims.

Here is a sample from early in his book (parasang is a Persian unit of distance of about 4 miles):

From Montpellier it is four parasangs to Lunel, in which there is a congregation of Israelites, who study the Law day and night. Here lived Rabbenu Meshullam the great rabbi, since deceased, and his five sons, who are wise, great and wealthy, namely: R. Joseph, R. Isaac, R. Jacob, R. Aaron, and R. Asher, the recluse, who dwells apart from the world; he pores over his books day and night, fasts periodically and abstains from all meat. He is a great scholar of the Talmud. At Lunel live also their brother-in-law R. Moses, the chief rabbi, R. Samuel the elder, R. Ulsarnu, R. Solomon Hacohen, and R. Judah the Physician, the son of Tibbon, the Sephardi. The students that come from distant lands to learn the Law are taught, boarded, lodged and clothed by the congregation, so long as they attend the house of study. The community has wise, understanding and saintly men of great benevolence, who lend a helping hand to all their brethren both far and near. The congregation consists of about 300 Jews—may the Lord preserve them.

All in all, he visited about 300 cities and many Jewish communities. His book contains one of the earliest descriptions of the ancient site of Nineveh. He also writes about the Al-Hashishin, the order of assassins who lived in the mountains of Persia and Syria. Maybe it would be interesting to look into them a little more tomorrow.

You can read his book at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, March 7, 2022


You are no doubt aware of three major religions that started in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. There is, however, another religion that began in the Middle East, has up to 1,000,000 current adherents, uses the multi-colored star as its symbol, and was started by a man nicknamed "the mad caliph."

When Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah became caliph at the age of 11, no one could have predicted what the future would bring, especially the point at which he declared himself the earthly incarnation of God. To be more accurate, he was declared thus by Hamza ibn ‘Alī ibn Aḥmad, who was preaching a philosophy that was a blend of Isma'ilism (a subset of Islam), Gnosticism, Christianity, Neoplatonism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Pythagoreanism, and any other idea he liked. It was Hamza who initially "recognized" Al-Hakim as God Incarnate.

This was unacceptable to the majority of Shi'a Muslims in the area, but a small group decided to embrace this announcement. Among them was Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi. When he discovered the new religion, he began preaching on its behalf, and started gaining followers. His growing mass of followers motivated him to start calling himself "The Sword of Faith." This nickname, however, was a sign of a major Druze sin: arrogance. (Consider the irony of "arrogance" being a sin in a religion founded when someone claimed to be God Incarnate.) This led to a clash with Al-Hakim, who said "Faith does not need a sword to aid it." Unfortunately for ad-Darazi, he did not take the hint and kept annoying the "incarnation of God," and he was ultimately labeled a heretic and executed in 1018.

This brings us to the second irony: the Druze religion is named after the early preacher who was executed for being a heretic. To be fair, there are other theories: that it derives from Arabic dārisah ("she who studies") or the Persian Darazo ("bliss"). In early texts, they refer to themselves as muwaḥḥidūn ("unitarian"). One of the earliest references to "Druze" comes from Benjamin of Tudela, who encountered them in Lebanon in 1165.

When Al-Hakim disappeared mysteriously in 1021, his successor and son persecuted Druze adherents. This drove them underground. Druze are scattered worldwide, but are mostly in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. They frequently will publicly adopt other religions but practice Druze secretly. Druze in modern Israel number about 150,000, and are the only Arab group conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces; they sided with Israel in the 1948 war. When the Israel Knesset in 2018 established a law that Israel was a Jewish state, the Druze were appalled, claiming it made them second-class citizens in a country where they had shown undying loyalty.

But by and large, the Druze try to get along with everyone. Even in 1165, Benjamin Tudela wrote that they "loved the Jews."And speaking of Benjamin of Tudela: interesting guy; a Spanish Jew who traveled the known world and wrote it all down. We'll look into his travels tomorrow.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

A Tale of Two Caliphs

The previous post post discussed a hospital site in the Christian section of Jerusalem called Muristan. I say a hospital "site" because over time there were hospitals there that were destroyed and then rebuilt. One of the incarnations of the hospital was destroyed in 1009 by Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah.

Al-Hakim (pictured here) was born in Egypt, and succeeded his father at the age of eleven. Rumors that he was the offspring of his father and a Christian consort—and the desire to eliminate the "taint" of Christianity, might have been the motive for destroying the hospital, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as a reported 3000 other buildings in Jerusalem. 

Of course, becoming caliph at eleven could also instill the notion that you can do whatever you want. Not only that, a religion sprang up around him. He was considered God made flesh in the burgeoning Druze religion.

To be fair, he became kinder in is later years—not too much later, since he lived only until 35. He embraced asceticism and frequently took to meditation. Then, on a February evening in 1021, the man who had been called "the mad caliph" set out on a journey but never arrived at his destination. A search found his donkey and bloodstained garments. No explanation has been found, and there is no evidence to support the rumor that his sister had a hand in it. She assumed temporary control of the court, pushed out Al-Hakim's chosen successor, and pushed for Al-Hakim's son to succeed as caliph.

That son was Al-Zahir li-i'zaz Din Allah (20 June 1005-13 June 1036). One of his changes was to delegate more responsibility to court officials, which started a trend that would make the caliphs less and less powerful over the years. Al-Zahir allowed the rebuilding of the aforementioned hospital in Jerusalem. He also tried to eliminate the Druze religion. It didn't work, and the Druze religion—little known, but millions strong even to this day—might as well be the next topic.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Jerusalem Hospital

The Hospitallers were nicknamed thus because they were founded by members of the First Crusade who joined together to protect a hospital built at the Benedictine monastery of Saint John the Baptist. That hospital and monastery were in Jerusalem, in a section of the Christian Quarter called Muristan. In fact, "Muristan" comes from the Islamic Bimārestān, meaning "hospital." The hospital in question, however, built in 1023, was not the hospital for which Muristan is named.

The name Muristan appears much earlier, due to a hospital built by Abbot Probus about 600CE at the orders of Pope Gregory I. This was built to treat ill pilgrims who made the trek to the Holy Land. We should note that this is long before any Crusades to "liberate"—actually, "conquer" would be more accurate—the Holy Land. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all managed to coexist through many periods of time—though not always, as you'll see. About 614CE, a Persian army invaded, killing Christians and destroying their structures, including the hospital.

Jump ahead 200 years, and Charlemagne in 800 (after being crowned Holy Roman Emperor) revived Probus' hospital and expanded it, adding a library (Charlemagne was a great supporter of learning, as you can read about in a 2013 post.) Unfortunately, in 1009, Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (sometimes called "the mad caliph" or the "Nero of Islam") destroyed the hospital as well as thousands of other buildings.

Which brings us up to 1023, when merchants from Amalfi and Salerno requested of Caliph Ali az-Zahir the opportunity to rebuild the hospital. It was granted, which brings us back to the Hospitallers several decades later, and the incarnations of the hospital are complete.

But there is a postscript. During excavations for a restaurant, he original structure was discovered and explored between 2000 and 2013 by the Israel Antiquities Authority. At its heyday, between 1099 and 1291, it was 150,000 square feet and could accommodate up to 2000 patients. Evidence exists that it served kosher food to Jewish patients, and that it also housed orphans, many of whom joined the Hospitallers. Bones from horses and camels found suggest it was also used as a stable. Part of a vaulted roof will be incorporated into the restaurant, and so the first home of the Hospitallers lives on in some small fashion.

But what about the "mad caliph" who destroyed a hospital and the kind caliph who let one be built? Would you believe they were father and son? Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree, which we'll go into tomorrow.

Friday, March 4, 2022

What About the Hospitallers?


Pope Clement V, who approved the order to arrest all the Templars, had earlier told them to merge with the Hospitallers, since it didn't seem necessary to him to have two groups who were performing the same function: guarding/assisting people traveling to the Holy Land. Who were the Hospitallers?

In 1023, a hospital was built in Jerusalem on the site of the Benedictine monastery of St. John the Baptist, to care for sick and injured pilgrims. When Jerusalem was taken over by the First Crusade, some Crusaders formed the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem—colloquially known as the Hospitallers—to support the hospital. A papal charter charged them with the care and defense of folk in the Holy Land. This evolved from caring for people to providing military escorts and then to fighting in wars for Christendom.

Once Jerusalem was retaken by Muslims, the Hospitallers made their home base in Rhodes. Even later they had to relocate to Malta. They spread far and wide, establishing a presence in England and Normandy by 1200. They spread to Ireland, to Hungary, to Russia, and of course around the Mediterranean. They even made a presence in North America: they briefly colonized four Caribbean Islands—including Saint Martin and Saint Barts—which they gave to France in the 1660s.

The Knights had a bad time during the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s when several large Northern European sections of the order broke from their Roman Catholic roots. The French Revolution abolished the Order in France along with abolishing feudalism and tithes.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, more commonly known now as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, is considered the successor to the Hospitallers. The Order headquartered in Rome as of 1834; they performed extensive hospital work during the two World Wars. 

About that original hospital: it was excavated between 2000 and 2013, and was a replacement for an even earlier hospital. I'll talk about that next time.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Temple Inn

After the Knights Templar were dissolved in 1312, Pope Clement V wanted all their property turned over to the Knights Hospitallers. King Edward II of England, however, claimed their properties in England for the Crown. The Templar properties in London included several buildings along the banks of the Thames, some of which were consecrated. Edward granted those for Hospitaller use, and made them pay for the non-consecrated buildings.

The Hospitallers were not so large and expanding that they needed the space, and so it is likely that they used it as income, renting it as living/work space. Tradition says that there were lawyers living there in the 1340s, but a formal educational institution cannot be proved...although there is a recorded incident in 1339 when "a man was killed in the Temple by a servant of the apprentices of the king’s court, which suggests that they may already have formed a community there." [link] In 1388, both "Inner Temple" and "Middle Temple" are specifically named in documents. The picture above is a mezzotint from 1826 showing dinner in the hall of one of the Temples.

Another incident involving the Temple is confirmed during the Peasants Revolt in 1381 (most recently summarized here, but also found in much more detail throughout this blog). The rebels tore down the Inner Temple hall and several houses before burning down the Savoy. When the building was torn down in 1868, it was noted that the roof used 14th century construction methods that would have been unavailable to the Templars.

Wat Tyler's followers supposedly were happy to destroy all the legal records they could find. It is true that no records exist from the 1300s, but neither do any exist from the 1400s. No formal records exist for any of the Inns of Court prior to 1500, except for Lincoln's Inn whose Black Books begin in 1422. The 1500s saw significant expansion of the Inns and their population and influence on English law.

Our brief history of the Temple after it was taken from the Templars is done, but what of the Hospitallers? When did they give it up? What happened to them? Let's look at that tomorrow.