Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 2)

Peter Gainsford:

Back in December I wrote about the myth that ancient Greek texts only survived by being preserved in the mediaeval Islamic world. Some readers pointed out that I should have told the true story, as well as dismantling the myth. So here we go.

But first, I’d better repeat that it is a myth. Great Arab and Persian scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were proactive innovators, not passive pipelines for getting texts from A to B. Only in a tiny number of cases do we rely on translations for ancient Greek texts — and into a variety of languages, not just Arabic — and every now and then that number shrinks, when a Greek copy is found.

Recently I realised that, for many people, the Arabic transmission myth doesn’t just apply to Greek texts, but to Latin texts too! (Examples: 123.) So we’d better look at them too. We have a lot of ground to cover: make yourself a cup of tea.

For in-depth accounts, Reynolds and Wilson’s classic book Scribes and scholars(fourth edition 2013) and Pfeiffer’s History of classical scholarship (1968-1976) both cover ancient transmission up to the 1st century BCE very well; Reynolds and Wilson also tell a detailed story from then up to the 1300s. But after that date, things go a bit pear-shaped. They turn into histories of an academic field, of publication and scholarship within western Europe, rather than of the texts themselves. Pfeiffer in particular determinedly ignores any Greek people involved in the story, other than a couple of passing mentions of Manouel Chrysoloras and Ianos Laskaris — and them only for their role in ‘returning’ Greek books to Italy. Western eurocentrism is deeply ingrained in these histories.