Numbers and Words

The medieval world was incredibly learned, but how did its great bank of knowledge spread – from Classical Greece to the libraries of the East and from there to the bookshelves of England?

The oldest complete copy of Euclid’s The Elements, Greek, by Stephanos the Clerk, AD 888.

A young man named Hunayn ibn Ishaq arrived in Baghdad in the early ninth century. He was a Christian, part of a tribe that had long been associated with the Nestorian Church of Syria and remained so after Muslim forces conquered the area in the seventh century. This meant that he grew up bilingual in Arabic and Syriac, something that would define his career. Hunayn had come to Baghdad to study medicine with the renowned doctor Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, but he struggled to fit in with Yuhanna’s circle. For one thing, he came from the town of al-Hira, a centre of commerce looked down upon by haughty physicians. This was compounded by Hunayn’s personality, namely his exceptionally inquiring mind. According to sources, his interminable questions drove Yuhanna – who was probably used to being listened to in reverent silence – to distraction. Eventually things came to a head; Yuhanna threw Hunayn out of his house and refused to teach him any longer.

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