Today I came across a statistic which really shocked me. It seems that less than 5% of Byzantine “scientific texts” have been printed, never mind translated.
The phrase “scientific texts” would include technical texts which give practical instruction, but also the philosophical texts that discuss what would today be scientific theories. It would be interesting to know how the ancients, and indeed the Byzantines, related the two. We are often told of the gap between philosophy and technology in antiquity; yet we have writers like Hero of Alexandria doing both.
The statistic is by Maria Mavroudi, who writes:
The treatment of Byzantine science has fared equally poorly in modern scholarship… It is much more important to investigate the pertinent primary sources. In the case of Byzantium, this would require a major editorial effort because less than 5 percent of its surviving scientific and philosophical production has been published.
43. There is no “official” statistic on this; 5 percent represents my estimate through acquaintance with important manuscript catalogs and published texts (surveyed in Mavroudi, “Occult Science and Society in Byzantium,” 39–46) as well as Byzantine manuscripts. It would be possible to recover Byzantine philosophy and science (as well as their Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew counterparts) by publishing not only treatises composed during the Byzantine period but also the marginal annotations made by Byzantine readers in important manuscripts of ancient philosophical and scientific texts.
Obviously the figure of 5% is an estimate only. But I’m sure Dr M. knows better than most people.
Why is the figure so low? I would guess that there is a lack of scholars capable of doing the work – it requires getting familiar with the scientific area of knowledge, and specialist vocabulary, as well as having excellent Byzantine Greek. But I am told that it is possible to cram in such information in a few sessions. If so, it is a pity that our universities do not encourage students to do so, rather than fruitlessly retranslating the same few Greek texts.
Regular readers will be aware that I have written a little about ancient alchemical texts, like those by Stephen of Alexandria. Apparently Matteo Martelli, Gerasmios Marianos, Olivier Dufault, and Michèle Mertens are the scholars doing good work on Byzantine alchemy these days. It is good that work is being done. But limited access to primary sources must mean limited work.
All this sort of material could, in principle, give us more knowledge of antiquity – although I found that astrological texts seldom did so, when I obtained a few translations.
But … it is part of the heritage of mankind. Our first duty to the future is to transmit what we have received. Can’t someone find a rich Greek shipowner to fund the printing of all this stuff? How much could it cost, to type it up and put it online? It is, after all, Greek heritage. Would the excellent Stavros Niarchos be interested?
- Maria Mavroudi, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition”, Speculum 90 (2015), 38. The whole article deserves attention.↩
- I owe my knowledge of the Mavroudi paper, and indeed much else in this post, to tweets this evening by a rather unstable female PhD student studying Byzantine alchemy. Sadly I was only able to obtain a very limited amount of information from her. This was rather a pity, for I was very interested in this niche of academia, and how the problem of accessing technical literature might be overcome. It is best that I do not name her, of course. She also told me that existing editions and translations are not very good.↩