Translation in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Jonathan Rubin, author of Learning in a Crusader City: Intellectual Activity and Intercultural Exchanges in Frankish Acre, 1191-1291 (2018), summarizes some interesting aspects of his research for Aeon. After quoting Steven Runciman (the society of the Crusader states “consisted almost entirely of soldiers and merchants, [and] was not fitted to create or maintain a high intellectual standard”) and Hans Mayer (“the Franks contributed little or nothing to the advancement of science and learning in the Middle Ages”), he says:

And yet, it now seems that the Kingdom of Jerusalem did, in fact, make its own important cultural contributions. In 1281, a certain John of Antioch gave a beautiful codex to a Hospitaller knight named William of Santo Stefano. At the heart of the precious volume were French translations that John had prepared of two Latin works dating to the days of ancient Rome: Cicero’s De inventione and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium [which we discussed briefly here –LH]. In the production of these translations, John was not only fulfilling the request of an important knight but also making a significant step in the history of the French language: at the time, translations from Latin into French were rare and innovative, and never before had a complete Latin text on rhetoric been translated into French. Furthermore, to these translations John appended one of the earliest vernacular treatises on logic. But the most surprising detail concerning this book is that it was produced thousands of kilometres from the contemporary centres of Western learning, in a port city that then served as the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: Acre.

An additional text that is particularly useful in order to get a glimpse of the intellectual arena that developed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem is the Notitia de Machometo or ‘Information about Muhammed’. This treatise was composed in 1271, also in Acre, by a Dominican named William of Tripoli. It was dedicated to Teobaldo Visconti, a prominent churchman who arrived at Acre on pilgrimage, and, while in the city, was notified of his election as Pope Gregory X. William writes that his reason for compiling this text was that he understood that Teobaldo was interested in Islam. This led him to produce an impressive survey of Islamic history, custom and theology, which includes numerous Quranic passages in (mostly accurate) Latin translation, as well as considerable information that was very hard to come by at the time in Latin Christendom, for example a precise account of the Muslim prayer. […]

In the Notitia, a set of Western Marian legends was translated from Latin or French into Arabic, and subsequently adopted by the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. At the same time, the fact that the Notitia reveals hardly any evidence for direct contact with Muslims is also crucial in understanding the cultural history of the Kingdom. The Muslims’ encounter with the Latins of the First Crusade might have left such a bitter taste among the former that they possibly tended to refrain from all unnecessary give-and-take with the Franks, even long after the situation stabilised. […]

There are also some general lessons. For one thing, the case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem shows that studying ‘peripheries’ is no less rewarding than studying ‘centres’. Indeed, the social composition of peripheral societies, and the transfer of ideas and people to and from them, make such areas particularly interesting for the study of circulation and the development of ideas. Lacking the dominant intellectual elites which, in some cases, block or slow down certain novel trends, peripheries – with all their limitations – can prove to make significant cultural contributions to their centres. Indeed, it seems that while the natural inclination of scholars interested in intellectual history is to explore the known, central, established centres, we must not forget to also explore the accumulation, development and distribution of ideas and knowledge in more distant and less well-known hubs such as Acre.

I enthusiastically second that last point. Thanks for the link, jack!


  1. David Marjanović says


  2. And, as mentioned in the book, also from this time and area came the original foundation of Latin Carmelites.


  1. […] Hat looks at translations made in the medieval Kingdom of […]

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