Michelle Mazel on Aristote au Mont Saint Michel by Sylvain Gougenheim

, December 17, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


Forgotten Paths to Knowledge?

Aristote au Mont Saint Michel by Sylvain Gougenheim (Aristotle on Mount Saint Michael). Seuil, 2008. 278pp.[French]

Reviewed by Michelle Mazel

Rarely has an apparently innocent scholarly work stirred such a storm in the groves of French academe as well as in the press at large. Professor Sylvain Gougenheim, a respected medievalist and author of a learned volume about the Teutonic knights who is currently completing a study of the Crusades, found himself accused of Islamophobia and Xenophobia no less; some (but not all) of his colleagues at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon organized a petition signed by over 200 academics, students  and former students calling for unspecified measures to be taken against him; the book was deemed unworthy and indeed full of damning errors by Alain de Libetra, another well known specialist of medieval philosophy.

Tunisian-born philosopher and anthropologist Youssef Seddik attacked Gouggenheim’s main claim as “a repugnant design to cross out the Arabs.” True, two staid newspapers, Le Monde and le Figaro, lavished praise on the book, and thus unleashed a torrent of negative and sometimes abusive talkbacks. Nevertheless, the whole controversy revolves on a single issue: who was it that translated the writings of the Greek philosopher into Latin?

Up to now, it has been an article of faith among most scholars and historians that the wisdom and science of ancient Greece was lost to Europe during the long period of darkness known as the early Middle Ages. It was contended that there was no one left to read Greek treatises on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy or even medicine in the original. The Church, which was both the depository and the giver of learning, knew only Latin. It was not until the golden age of the Arab or rather Muslim civilization and culture that these works were translated first into Arabic and then into Latin.

Thus Christian Europe gained access to that forgotten ancient knowledge and was led from the darkness that had lasted for eight centuries or more onto the path leading to the Renaissance. Therefore, Europe owes an immense debt to Islam, a debt, some claim, equal or greater to the debt the continent owes to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Former French President Chirac was once quoted as saying that “the roots of Europe are as Muslim as they are Christian.”

“There would be nothing scandalous about this thesis, if it were true,”[1] writes Gougenheim somewhat disingenuously in the opening salvo of what he calls an essay. “My intention is not polemical, unless the concern with refuting false arguments is considered as such.”

At the core of Gougenheim’s argument is the claim that the works of Aristotle were translated into Latin at the Mont Saint Michel[2] monastery in the French province of Normandy circa 1120, that is, half a century before the first renditions of the same texts by Muslim scholars appeared in Spain, then under Islamic rule.

This important task was carried out, he says, by a team of translators under the direction of one Jacobus Veneticus Graecus, also known as Jacob of Venice. Furthermore, Gougenheim argues, not all was dark in the dark ages, and here and there little islets of knowledge still existed in early Medieval Europe, where for instance a number of high ranking clerics were still fluent in Greek. Many medical treatises were translated into Latin.

He goes on to suggest that the first so-called Arab translators of Greek texts were in fact Christian and Aramean scholars, some of whom may have been forced to convert to Islam against their will. But that is not all. The most controversial argument is yet to come. Muslim minds, says Gougenheim, did not readily accept the Greek brand of concise and logical thought, because “Islam submitted Greek knowledge to a strict filter through which only that [matter] which posed no threat to religion was let through.”[3]

The author proves his point eloquently, with a wealth of details and copious footnotes which are sometime a little too arcane for the reader to grasp with no more than a passing acquaintance with Medieval Europe, its philosophers and its scholars or the comparison to Muslim scholars and philosophers. This somewhat precludes drawing personal conclusions. However, one leaves this extremely well written book with the feeling that there must be more than a kernel of truth in it.

What is certainly no less interesting is the violent reactions it provoked and which ensured a far wider publicity than its diffident title and scholarly material could have garnered.

While we will need to wait for a more dispassionate review of the arguments developed in “Aristotle at Mont Saint Michel” by specialists of that period, the extreme viciousness of the attacks on its author should be a source of concern. Apparently any challenge to the (politically correct) impact of Muslim influence on Medieval Europe is perceived today in some circles as tantamount to declaring war on the Islamic world.

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[1] P.9 “La thèse n’aurait en soi rien de scandaleux si elle était vraie…… Mon intention n’est pas polémique , sauf à considérer comme tel le souci de réfuter des discours faux.” Translated by the reviewer.

[2] Which explains the title.

[3] P.137 “L’Islam soumit le savoir grec à un sérieux examen de passage où seul passait à travers le crible ce qui ne comportait aucun danger pour la religion.” Translated by the reviewer.

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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.

Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.