Friday, November 19, 2010

November Issue of Historically Speaking

Randall Stephens

The November issue of Historically Speaking should be arriving in mailboxes soon. Not long after that it will appear on Project Muse. The issue features essays on race and culture, "modernist" economics, the Viking Age, Byzantium, Arabs and Jews in Israel, and the philosophy of history. It also includes a forum on comparative ways of war and interviews with Donald Kagan and Richard Reinsch.

Nancy Marie Brown has an essay here, too, about an intriguing figure from the Dark Ages that I knew absolutely nothing about: "In Search of the Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 950-1003)." (Brown also supplied us with the striking photo of the statue for the cover.) This piece on a monk who would become Pope Sylvester II made me wonder how many other historical characters, perhaps lost to the ages, might make us rethink what we know about a given period. Brown writes:

Born a peasant in the mountainous Cantal region of France in the mid-900s, Gerbert entered the monastery of Saint-Gerald’s of Aurillac as a child. There he learned to read and write in Latin. He studied Cicero, Virgil, and other classics. He impressed his teacher with his skill in debating. He was a fine writer, too, with a sophisticated style full of rhetorical flourishes.

To further his education, his abbot sent him south with the count of Barcelona in 967 to the border of al-Andalus. Islamic Spain was an extraordinarily tolerant culture in which learning was prized. The library of the caliph of Cordoba held 40,000 books (some said 400,000); by comparison, Gerbert’s French monastery owned less than 400. Many of the caliph’s books came fromBaghdad, known for its House of Wisdom, where for 200 years works of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine were translated from Greek and other languages and further developed by Islamic scholars. Arabic was then the language of science. It was from al-Andalus that the essence of modern mathematics, astronomy,
physics, medicine, philosophy—even computer science—would seep northward into Christian Europe over the next 300 years. While Gerbert lived in Spain the first of many science books were translated from Arabic into Latin through the combined efforts of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars. Many of the translators were churchmen; some became Gerbert’s lifelong friends and correspondents.

Gerbert’s role in bringing these ideas from Cordoba to Rome is unclear. Writers in the 11th
and 12th centuries made him the instigator. Gerbertus Latio numeros abacique figuras runs a verse on two mathematical manuscripts, meaning—as the illustrations clearly show—the Arabic numerals 1 to 9. Seven manuscripts (out of eighty) give him credit for the first Latin explanation of the astrolabe. Even William of Malmesbury, whose 12th-century history of Gerbert’s stay in Spain reads like The Arabian Nights, says he “surpassed Ptolemy in knowledge of the astrolabe” and “was the first to seize the abacus from the Saracens.” . . .

Gerbert also took an experimental approach in his study of music. He made a pipe organ and wrote a treatise explaining how to compute the length of organ pipes for a span of two octaves. He was searching for a mathematical truth: a law for computing the dimensions of an organ pipe that would sound the same note as the string of a certain length on the monochord. He came up with an equation, using what physicists call “opportune constants” (or “fudge factors”), that allowed him to switch, mathematically, from the monochord to organ pipes and back. His treatise shows an extraordinarily modern perspective. He did not simply theorize—or search out authorities. He collected data and made practical acoustic corrections. His solution is ingenious, though labor intensive, and stands up to the scrutiny of modern acoustics theory. (Read more in the print or the on-line version when it's posted next week.)

Historically Speaking (November 2010)

Modernist Economics
Wyatt Wells

Winning All the Battles
Robert L. O’Connell

The Waspish Hetero-Patriarchy: Locating Power in Recent American History
Kevin M. Schultz

Empathy and the Etiology of the Viking Age
Robert Ferguson

Whittaker Chambers the Counterrevolutionary: An Interview with Richard Reinsch
Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa

Byzantine Exceptionalism and Some Recent Books on Byzantium
Warren Treadgold

Comparative Ways of War: A Roundtable

The German Way of War Revisited
Robert M. Citino

The American Way of War Debate: An Overview
Brian McAllister Linn

The Many Ways of Chinese Warfare
Peter Lorge

Wending Through the Way of War
James Jay Carafano

Thucydides and the Lessons of Ancient History: An Interview with Donald Kagan
Conducted by Randall J. Stephens

On the Liberation from the Tyranny of the Past: Arabs and Jews in Israel
Alon Confino

History’s a Mystery
Bruce Kuklick

In Search of the Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 950-1003)
Nancy Marie Brown

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