Generation 457, 1120-1140. Creativity in turbulent times

Stories from this generation illustrate the fragility of the historical record, how some events are remembered, some writings are preserved and others are lost.

Some that did survive were the works of Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, written in al-Andalus a couple of generations later than this one, towards the end of the twelfth century. His older friend the vizier introduced him to the caliph, who invited him to write a summary of the works of Aristotle as they were difficult to understand. These summaries were translated into latin and caused convulsions in northern Europe in the next century.

The vizier who introduced Averroes to the caliph was called Ibn Tufayl and he lived in this generation. Ibn Tufayl was an accomplished man in his own right – but most of his writings are lost and so he is a lesser figure in our story.

One writing of Ibn Tufayl’s that has survived, however, is a story about a baby boy who was abandoned on a desert island. ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan‘ (‘Alive the son of Awake’) tells how the baby was adopted by a gazelle, grew to adulthood and along the way explored the meaning of life from what he observed around him. The story illustrates the philosophical debates that were flourishing across the muslim world. The theme comes from the writings of Avicenna, a Persian philosopher from a century earlier. However, Ibn Tufayl develops it further. One of the questions explored is reason versus revelation: does learning come from reason, by working it out, or is it divinely inspired, by revelation? Or a combination of the two?

He was not the only creative writer of the time. North of the Almohad caliphate and south of the Pyrenees was the christian kingdom of Navarre, including the town of Tudela. A jewish poet and philosopher called Judah Halevi lived there. Here is one of his poems, a wry look at his greying hair:

One day I observed a grey hair in my head;
I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:
‘You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,
But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.’

Nine centuries later, I can relate to that.

Further north still, in Paris, a philosophy teacher and his gifted female student had fallen in love.

Pierre Abelard was a prolific and clear-thinking philosopher whose outspoken opinions often got him into trouble. He was a popular teacher – and at this time a teacher earned his living by donations from the students he could attract to his classes. Paris University had not yet been established. An example of his inability to keep his mouth shut happened when he stayed at the abbey of St Denis near Paris for a while. St Denis is the patron saint of France. Abelard discovered that there were two historical St Denis (or St Dionysus) and told the abbot that they had mixed them up. For pointing this out he was expelled from the abbey.

While at St Denis he wrote a textbook entitled ‘Sic et Non‘, (‘Yes and No’ or ‘On one hand and on the other’) in which he listed 158 questions concerning contradictions in the writings of the church fathers and other classical authorities. He provided no answers – only questions. It has been said that his style of thinking would not be out of place in a 21st century university.

His emotional maturity was more questionable, however. When their affair was discovered by Heloise’s uncle, Pierre decided that they should both take holy orders. Heloise agreed, possibly because she had already decided that they should not live as man and wife. How could either of them continue their academic work with a household and children to look after? Pierre asked Heloise to take the vows first, admitting later that he did not want her to have relationships with other men if he was not allowed to.

The letters of Abelard and Heloise were preserved by accident: a century later they were translated from latin into French by Jean de Meung, the author of the Romance of the Rose.


Abelard and Heloise, from the Roman de la Rose

Heloise’s intelligence and maturity shine from the pages of their letters. Here is one extract, in which she contemplates whether she is guilty by loving him still, a decade after she has taken the veil:

“And, though exceedingly guilty, I am, as thou knowest, exceeding innocent. For it is not the deed but the intention that makes the crime. It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done that equity considers.”

I wonder what else Heloise wrote, that has been lost.

Abelard and Heloise lived at the beginning of the intellectual flowering in Europe that was stimulated by the translations coming north from the muslim world, particularly al-Andalus. Al-Andalus itself was an outpost of a larger world which was undergoing transition. New invaders from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, had overrun it in the previous century, from Afghanistan through to Anatolia.

But the Turks adopted the new culture they met. They left the caliphate in place in Baghdad, called themselves sultans (rulers) and employed bureaucrats from Persia as viziers to look after the administration, so that the creativity and learning continued uninterrupted.

Architecture too.             Kalyan minaret

The Kalyan minaret in Bukhara in what is now Uzbekhistan was built in 1127, under the reign of the Seljuk ruler Mohammed Arslan Khan.

A learned man who may have seen the building work in progress has also become a victim of the vagaries of the historical record. Omar Khayyam lived in Bukhara for part of his life. He died in 1131. He is best known in the west for a long poem, most of which he may or may not have written. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam was (loosely) translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the nineteenth century from a fourteenth-century copy and became immensely popular. It is beautiful and lyrical, a tribute to the richnesses, joys and transitory nature of our human lives.

But Omar Khayyam was not known as a poet in his own lifetime. He was an astronomer and a mathematician specialising in algebra. He found a way to solve cubic equations by means of drawing the problems geometrically. He investigated problems with parallels and cube roots. He wrote textbooks.


This page, now in Tehran University Library, was written by Omar Khayyam. It shows a solution to cubic equations.

Earlier in his life the sultan had appointed him to head up a commission to reform the calendar. The Jalali calendar they devised was the most accurate in the world until the Gregorian reforms in Europe several centuries later. He calculated the length of the year to be 365.24219858156 days. Using 21st-century calculations, this is believed to be accurate to six decimal places. What skill, what confidence could lead him to even attempt such detailed calculation.

‘Rubaiyyat’ means ‘quatrains’ in Persian: verses of four lines. Further quatrains may have been added to the poem after Omar’s lifetime. ‘Khayyam’ means tent maker, which may have been his father’s profession. Here is a verse that was probably written by him during a difficult period:

Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!


A modern bust of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur, Iran, where he was born and his body was buried.

Generation 461, 1200-1220. Blood ties (and learning loosens)

The world of 40 generations ago was so different from the one we live in now, that I would like to recap a little, starting with the catholic north of Europe. Society was divided into three groups: those who work, those who pray and those who fight. Those who fought were defined by blood: either the connections through family bloodlines or in the spilling of blood in honourable combat. When not fighting each other in actual battles, they fought in tournaments, often to the death. Dying was to be feared only when it was dishonourable or when there was no heir to continue the bloodline, it seems. The focus was on continuity through the generations, on perpetuation of family honour. Because of the importance of bloodlines and inheritance, members of this group tended to marry each other. So the lords and their vassals from christian Spain through France to the Rhineland and England were often cousins to some degree or another.

A hereditary king was overlord of a region. His vassals swore allegiance to him, as their vassals did to them. And so the pyramid structure went down to the level of those who work, the lowest of whom were effectively the property of their lord and tied to a particular piece of land.

This led to some anomalies. The king of France was lord of a small area around Paris, but overlord of a much larger area, approximating to modern France. The king of England was wealthier than him and lord of a much larger area, but was vassal to the French king. He  owed him subservience for the lands of Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine that he had inherited from his parents.

This viewpoint also offers an explanation as to why the crusades were so successful at recruiting soldiers. A crusade was a military venture, a request from those who pray to those who fight. The reward for participation or financial support was absolution from sins. So the fighter did not have any worries about honour. He knew that if he died, he would not besmirch his family’s reputation.

This was the context of the Albigensian crusade, which started its bloodiest phase in this generation. Count Raymond of Toulouse was vassal to king John of England, who was in turn a vassal of king Louis of France. The catholic church was hardly established at all in Occitania, so the people had their own understandings of christianity. As they were just over the Pyrenees from Al-Andalus, the Bible was probably more widely available there. A priest who did not practise what he preached was unlikely to be respected. It was not sufficient that he had been appointed by the church to the cure of their souls. But pope Innocent III was clever and ambitious. A papal legate visiting the region was murdered. This was considered to be Raymond’s responsibility. Carnage followed.

The nobility could not think beyond the importance of blood and the honour associated with its connection or shedding. When the fourth crusade to recover the holy places from the muslims was initially successful, the sultan of Egypt offered the holy land to the crusaders without a fight if they would leave Egypt. The crusaders refused. It would not have been honourable because no blood had been shed. So they stayed at Damietta in the Nile delta, were trapped by the Nile floods and were forced to return home without winning anything. That some of them would have the chance to die well was evidently more important than the ostensible aim of the crusade. One wonders if they would have seen it as a failure in the way that we do now.

Even when a king or emperor was elected, the candidates were from a narrow group defined by blood. And so it was that when it came to selecting the next Emperor of the Germans, the electors (also a hereditary group) chose a young man from Sicily who had never set foot there. This was Frederick II whom we have already met, who also became Holy Roman Emperor.


Frederick spoke Arabic and was immersed in muslim culture. Many of the population of Sicily spoke Arabic and were muslim. Frederick and this island were a bridge between two worlds.

Frederick loved learning, and he was not the only one. Young men with inquiring minds from all over the christian north had made their way south and east, to Al-Andalus in particular, to escape from the rigid society defined by blood. One such was a man called Michael, from Scotland, who probably paid his way by busking. Michael Scot ended up in Toledo and participated in the translation movement there. Frederick employed Michael as his court astrologer, so Michael moved to Palermo.

In Palermo, Michael worked on the translation of a commentary on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd, one of the towering figures of Al-Andalus  known in the west as Averroes, who had died in 1198. Frederick arranged for copies of this translation to be sent to each of the European universities.

The significance of this chain of events cannot be underestimated. It and others like it led to the world we are in now. The works of Aristotle had been incorporated into christian thought from the earliest times, and the inconsistencies between the works of this polytheistic, inquiring Greek and the revealed, devout christian worldview had been quietly ignored. This was no longer possible, especially as Averroes brought the rigorous muslim spirit of inquiry into his commentaries. After all, the Quran encouraged humans to use their faculty of enquiry to better understand the works of God around them:

“If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise.”

One such difficulty was: is the world eternal, as Aristotle said, or was it created at a particular point in time, as clearly stated in the Bible? And if the latter, what was God doing beforehand? Which then poses the question of  why  it was appropriate to create the world at one moment and not another. These questions quite simply had not occurred to christians before.  It had been sufficient for them to know that the events described in the Bible had happened. I wonder if exposure to them activated human mental circuitries that had previously been latent or underused in the christian north. No wonder the church tried to ban such discussions with its lists of prohibited subjects.

The collaboration between Frederick and Michael Scot led to another signifiant transfer of knowledge to the north from the muslim world. Leonardo of Pisa, known today as Fibonacci, was sponsored by them. When he was a boy Leonardo lived in Bugia in what is now Algeria where his father worked at the Pisan trading outpost. While in Bugia Leonardo studied Arabic mathematics and as an adult he wrote a textbook of what he had learned, called the Liber Abaci, ‘The Book of Calculation’. This book introduced hindu-arabic numerals to the north instead of the cumbersome roman ones. For example, how do we write fourteen divided by two equals seven? 14 / 2 = 7 or XIV / II = VII? The hindu-arabic numerals are much more economical and versatile. It took a long time, but the new numbering system eventually took on. ( The Fibonacci sequence  of 1,1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13 … for which he is most remembered nowadays was just one example in this book, by the way.). Michael Scot encouraged Leonardo, and the second edition of the Liber Abaci was dedicated to him.


I find it strange that even though I knew that Leonardo of Pisa introduced rather than discovered the new numbering system, I know nothing of the people he learned it from. It is as if they have been airbrushed out of history. I hope to correct this as we go further back in our story, if only to give credit where it is due.

But the muslim world also had an achilles heel in blood ties. Mohammed had replaced tribal bloodlinks with Ummah, the community of believers. After he died the first caliphs were chosen on the basis of merit. But then the blood kicked in, and within a few generations of his death the caliphate became hereditary, but with no agreed line of succession. Brothers and uncles fought among each other, often to the death. Stable transition of government was a perennial problem in the muslim world from then on.

A corner of the christian north explored an alternative way of working together. In 1215 in a field outside Oxford in England an agreement was made between the barons, the church and the king, setting out the rights and responsibilities of each. The norman system of trial by ordeal was replaced by one of trial by jury. One of the clauses of the Magna Carta that is still part of English law says:

“NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

Pope Innocent III hated it and repudiated it as soon as he heard of it. But the idea never went away. It was read in the towns every year, renewed by successive kings (initially with great reluctance) and became the basis of the English parliament.