The Embryo, from Aristotle to Alton

G.R. Dunstan discovers the moral status of the human embryo throughout history and how judgments have been linked to the scientific understanding of the time.

Nine hundred years ago, in about the year 1087, there died in the mountain fortress of Monte Cassino an aged monk named Constantine. Of unknown parentage, he came from Africa, so he is known to historians of science as Constantinus Africanus. He sailed from Carthage to Italy to trade. Trading with the Lombard princes in Salerno, he learned how few books the doctors had, despite the early fame of that city for its medical school. On a later journey he brought books with him, books in Arabic which few Salernitans could read. For reasons unrecorded, the Saracen merchant became a Benedictine monk, to spend the rest of his life (perhaps twenty years) at Monte Cassino, rendering his Arabic authors into Latin – editing, expounding and expanding, sometimes, rather than always translating. In so doing, he and others like him – including Gerard of Cremona, who died in 1187 – brought more than Arabic learning into Europe. They brought the Greeks also.

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