William of Moerbeke

William of Moerbeke

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Willem van Moerbeke, O.P.
Dominican Order
The Order of Preachers , after the 15th century more commonly known as the Dominican Order or Dominicans, is a Catholic religious order founded by Saint Dominic and approved by Pope Honorius III on 22 December 1216 in France...

, known in the English speaking world as William of Moerbeke (c. 1215 – 1286) was a prolific medieval translator of philosophical, medical, and scientific texts from Greek into Latin. His translations were influential in his day, when few competing translations were available, and, more to the point, are still respected by modern scholars.

Biography


Moerbeke was Flemish
Flemish people
The Flemings or Flemish are the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Belgium, where they are mostly found in the northern region of Flanders. They are one of two principal cultural-linguistic groups in Belgium, the other being the French-speaking Walloons...

 by origin (his surname indicating an origin in Moerbeke
Moerbeke
Moerbeke is a municipality located in the Belgian province of East Flanders. The municipality only comprises the town of Moerbeke proper. On January 1, 2006 Moerbeke had a total population of 5,844...

 near Geraardsbergen
Geraardsbergen
Geraardsbergen is a city and municipality located in the Denderstreek and in the Flemish Ardennes, the hilly southern part of the Belgian province of East Flanders. The municipality comprises the city of Geraardsbergen proper and the following towns:...

), and a Dominican
Dominican Order
The Order of Preachers , after the 15th century more commonly known as the Dominican Order or Dominicans, is a Catholic religious order founded by Saint Dominic and approved by Pope Honorius III on 22 December 1216 in France...

 by vocation. He was made Latin bishop of Corinth
Corinth
Corinth is a city and former municipality in Corinthia, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Corinth, of which it is the seat and a municipal unit...

 in Greece. He was associated with the philosopher Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, O.P. , also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, or Doctor Universalis...

, the mathematician John Campanus, the Polish naturalist and physician Witelo
Witelo
Witelo was a friar, theologian and scientist: a physicist, natural philosopher, mathematician. He is an important figure in the history of philosophy in Poland...

, and the astronomer Henri Bate of Mechlin, who dedicated to William his treatise on the astrolabe
Astrolabe
An astrolabe is an elaborate inclinometer, historically used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. Its many uses include locating and predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, determining local time given local latitude and longitude, surveying, triangulation, and to...

.

In turn he resided at the pontifical court of Viterbo
Viterbo
See also Viterbo, Texas and Viterbo UniversityViterbo is an ancient city and comune in the Lazio region of central Italy, the capital of the province of Viterbo. It is approximately 80 driving / 80 walking kilometers north of GRA on the Via Cassia, and it is surrounded by the Monti Cimini and...

 (1268), appeared at the Council of Lyons (1274), and from 1277 until his death in 1286 occupied the See
Episcopal See
An episcopal see is, in the original sense, the official seat of a bishop. This seat, which is also referred to as the bishop's cathedra, is placed in the bishop's principal church, which is therefore called the bishop's cathedral...

 of Corinth, a Catholic bishopric established in the Argolid
Argolis
Argolis is one of the regional units of Greece. It is part of the region of Peloponnese. It is situated in the eastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula.-Geography:...

 (Greece
Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

) after the Fourth Crusade
Fourth Crusade
The Fourth Crusade was originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem by means of an invasion through Egypt. Instead, in April 1204, the Crusaders of Western Europe invaded and conquered the Christian city of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire...

. It is not clear how much time he actually spent in his see: documents show him on mission in Perugia for the pope in 1283 and dictating his will there. A little Greek village, Merbaka
Merbaka
Merbaka , but officially Agia Trias , is a village in the province of Argolis, in the Peloponnese near Argos, Greece....

 with an exceptional late-13th century church, is believed to have been named for him; it lies between Argos
Argos
Argos is a city and a former municipality in Argolis, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Argos-Mykines, of which it is a municipal unit. It is 11 kilometres from Nafplion, which was its historic harbour...

 and Mycenae
Mycenae
Mycenae is an archaeological site in Greece, located about 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. Argos is 11 km to the south; Corinth, 48 km to the north...

.

Translations


At the request of Aquinas, so it is assumed -- the source document is not clear -- he undertook a complete translation of the works of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 directly from the Greek or, for some portions, a revision of existing translations. The reason for the request was that many of the copies of Aristotle in Latin then in circulation had originated in Spain
Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 (see Gerard of Cremona
Gerard of Cremona
Gerard of Cremona was an Italian translator of Arabic scientific works found in the abandoned Arab libraries of Toledo, Spain....

), from Arabic whose texts had often passed through Syriac versions before being re-translated into Arabic
Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

. By the thirteenth century there was concern that the Arabic versions had distorted the original meaning of Aristotle, and that the possible influence of the rationalist Averroes
Averroes
' , better known just as Ibn Rushd , and in European literature as Averroes , was a Muslim polymath; a master of Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy,...

 could be a source of philosophical and theological errors. William of Moerbeke was the first translator of the Politics
Politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

(c. 1260) into Latin, as the Politics, unlike other parts of the Aristotelian corpus, had not been translated into Arabic. William's translations were already standard classics by the 14th century, when Henricus Hervodius put his finger on their enduring value: they were literal (de verbo in verbo), faithful to the spirit of Aristotle and without elegance. For several of William's translations, the Greek texts have since disappeared: without him the works would be lost.

In Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco Knight Grand Cross is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist, best known for his novel The Name of the Rose , an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory...

's puzzle-mystery set in the 1320s, The Name of the Rose
The Name of the Rose
The Name of the Rose is the first novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It is a historical murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327, an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory...

,
there is some debate among the monks about Aristotle's Poetics (Second Day: Prime). Jorge of Burgos has condemned this book because knowledge of it came through the "infidel Moors
Moors
The description Moors has referred to several historic and modern populations of the Maghreb region who are predominately of Berber and Arab descent. They came to conquer and rule the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years. At that time they were Muslim, although earlier the people had followed...

" (as so much of Aristotle had indeed come). But the main character, William of Baskerville, knew that Aristotle's Poetics had recently been translated directly from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke.

William also translated mathematical treatises by Hero of Alexandria
Hero of Alexandria
Hero of Alexandria was an ancient Greek mathematician and engineerEnc. Britannica 2007, "Heron of Alexandria" who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt...

 and Archimedes
Archimedes
Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an...

. Especially important was his translation of the Theological Elements of Proclus
Proclus
Proclus Lycaeus , called "The Successor" or "Diadochos" , was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, one of the last major Classical philosophers . He set forth one of the most elaborate and fully developed systems of Neoplatonism...

 (made in 1268), because the Theological Elements is one of the fundamental sources of the revived Neo-Platonic philosophical currents of the 13th century.

The Vatican
Vatican Library
The Vatican Library is the library of the Holy See, currently located in Vatican City. It is one of the oldest libraries in the world and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts. Formally established in 1475, though in fact much older, it has 75,000 codices from...

 collection holds William's own copy of the translation he made of the greatest Hellenistic mathematician, Archimedes
Archimedes
Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an...

, with commentaries of Eutocius, which was made in 1269 at the papal court in Viterbo. William consulted two of the best Greek manuscripts of Archimedes, both of which have since disappeared. The manuscript, in his own hand, was in the exhibition Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture at the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

 in 1993.

External links