Adelard of Bath

From New World Encyclopedia

Adelard of Bath (Latin: Adelardus Bathensis) (1116? - 1142?) was a twelfth century English scholar, best known for translating many important Arabic scientific works of astrology, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics into Latin, and introducing ancient Greek texts which had only existed in Arabic form to Europe. During a period of seven years he traveled throughout North Africa and Asia Minor, and acquired a knowledge of Arabic and exposure to Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts. His most influential work was his translation, from Arabic into Latin, of Euclid's Elements, which became a standard textbook of geometry in Europe for the next eight centuries. He also translated al-Khwarizmi's tables (Kharismian Tables), which became the first Latin astronomical tables of the Arabic type, with their Greek influences and Indian symbols. Adelard also introduced the Arabic notation for numbers and zero.

Adelard was a pioneer of the scientific renaissance of the twelfth century, one of the first to call for observation,experimentation, and innovation rather than blind acceptance of authority on scientific questions. His work De Eodem et Diverso (On Identity and Difference) defended philosophy against the pursuit of worldly interests, and contains an early discussion of universals.


The only historical records of Adelard of Bath outside of his own works come from the city of Bath, in England. He held lands in Wiltshire, and in 1106 a certain ‘Athelard, son of Fastrad,’ witnessed a charter drawn up at the Abbey of Bath. Other documents from around this date mention ‘Athelardus’ as the steward in the Bishop of Bath’s household, and his name is listed in charters of 1130 and 1135, and 1139. From anecdotes in his literary writings we know that Adelard studied in Tours in the Loire Valley in west central France, took his (English) students to Laon in the Picardie region of northern France, and met the Queen of France. After leaving Laon, Adelard traveled for about seven years first visiting first Salerno, southeast of Naples, where there was a famous medical school. From Salerno Adelard traveled to Sicily, which at that time was under Norman control but still strongly influenced by its Arabic past. He then visited Cilicia (an ancient district of southern Anatolia, in modern Turkey) on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean, and followed the coast of the Mediterranean east to Syria and Palestine. By 1130 he was back in Bath, England.

Adelard became an expert in the Arabic language, which he might have learned in Spain or in Sicily, and came into contact with Spanish-Arabic texts which could have been brought from Spain to Sicily by several scholars who had lived in Spain. Adelard translated some of these works into Latin, and was instrumental in introducing Arabic knowledge and the Arabic tradition of rational scientific inquiry to Europe. His latest work, a text on cosmology, was addressed to the young prince who later became Henry II, and may date to 1149.

Thought and works

Adelard was one of the first medieval scholars to seek knowledge by traveling in Greece and Asia Minor, and to utilize the knowledge of the Arabians in discussions of mathematics and natural science. He was the author of a number of works in Latin, including translations of Arabic works on arithmetic, astronomy, astrology and talismans on which he may have cooperated with a scholar of Arabic; and several original literary and philosophical works including texts on the study of liberal arts, falconry, natural science, cosmology and the use of the abacus. Three of his original works, on natural science and falconry, are addressed to a nephew who took an active part in the dialog.

His first known work, a text on philosophy, was written before 1116 and dedicated to William, Bishop of Syracuse. Syracuse was one of the most important cities of ancient Sicily; this work was probably written around the time of Adelard's visit to Sicily, but its Platonic tone indicates that Adelard had not yet been influenced by the learning of the Arabs. His most influential work was his translation, from Arabic into Latin, of Euclid's Elements, which became a standard textbook of geometry for the next eight centuries.

Modern scholars first became interested in Abelard, not for his translations or scientific works, but for De eodem et diverso, contrasting the virtues of the seven liberal arts with worldly interests. The historian of Aristotelianism, Amable Jourdain, first drew attention to the work in 1819, and Barth´el´emy Haur´eau devoted a whole chapter to the text in Histoire de la philosophie m´edi´evale (1850). In 1903, De eodem et diverso was the first of Adelard’s works to receive a modern critical edition, by Hans Willner. Josef Reiners gave a prominent position to Adelard’s doctrine in his study of scholasticism (Der aristotelische Realismus in der Fr¨uhscholastik), and attention soon shifted to Adelard’s contributions to the history of science. Recently scholars have revisited Adelard’s position on logic and the question of universals.

Euclid’s Elements

Adelard’s translation of Euclid’s Elements from Arabic into Latin was the first introduction of this work to European scholars. Adelard appears to have made three separate translations of Elements. The first version was a translation of all fifteen books (the thirteen original books written by Euclid and the two additional books written by Hypsicles), which seems to have come from a translation of al-Hajjaj's from Greek into Arabic. The second version contains different wording for the statements of the propositions, and the proofs are often only outlines or indications of how proofs might be constructed. Experts have concluded that Adelard used an unknown Arabic source for this version, rather than al-Hajjaj's translations. The third version of Euclid's Elements was a commentary rather than a translation of the original text, and may not be Adelard’s work although it was written before 1200, and is widely attributed to him. Roger Bacon quoted this third version in his works. Johannes Campanus probably had access to Adelard's translation of Elements; it was Campanus' edition that was first published in Venice in 1482 after the invention of the printing press and this became the chief textbook of the mathematical schools of Europe.

Adelard wrote a short treatise on the use of the abacus (Regulae abaci). He also wrote arithmetic books, the earliest of which, based on the work of Boethius, was written before he studied Arabic arithmetic. His Latin version of a treatise on Arabic arithmetic by al-Khwarizmi, the great Saracen mathematician whose name is associated with an important influence in the later European adoption of the Arabic notation for numbers replacing the intractable Roman numerals.

Contributions to science

Adelard was a pioneer of the scientific renaissance of the twelfth century, one of the first to call for observation, experimentation, and innovation rather than blind acceptance of authority on scientific questions. His writings include speculation that animals must have souls because they possess the power of judgment, and the first known written account of the distillation of alcohol. He followed Galen and the Arabian physicians in attempting to localize mental functions. Adelard's Perdifficiles Quaestiones Naturales (Natural Questions) (first mass-printed in 1472) consisted of 76 scientific discussions based on Arabic science which are presented in the form of a dialog between himself and a nephew, which lasted from 1113 to 1133. Adelard considered the shape of the Earth which he believed to be round, and the question of how Earth remains stationary in space. He asked the question of how far a rock would fall if it were dropped into a hole drilled through the earth. (See: center of gravity) He theorized that matter could not be destroyed, (see: Law of conservation of matter), and examined the question of why water experiences difficulty flowing out of a container that has been turned upside down. Many of these questions reflected the popular culture of the time.

In the field of astronomy, Adelard translated al-Khwarizmi's tables (Kharismian Tables), which became the first Latin astronomical tables of the Arabic type with their Greek influences and Indian symbols, and an Arabic Introduction to Astronomy; and wrote a short treatise on the astrolabe, which used the position of stars for navigation.

De eodem et diverso

In De eodem et diverso Adelard defends philosophy and the use of reason. This work is divided into two parts: the first is a debate between Philocosmia, the lover of the world, who defends the realm of the senses, and Philosophia, the lover of wisdom, who defends the realm of the intellect. Philosophia wins the debate, and the second part of De eodem et diverso is devoted to the description of her “handmaidens,” the seven liberal arts.

In the first part, Adelard attempts to reconcile Plato and Aristotle in Philosophia’s reply to an accusation by Philocosmia that even the greatest of philosophers do not agree, by differentiating between the role of imagination and the role of reason in human understanding. Aristotle contends that individual, species, and genus can all be understood through the senses, while Plato considers species and genus to exist outside the individual. Adelard describes how the concepts of genus, species, and individual are applied to the same essence according to levels of understanding. The “individual” can be understood as unique and substantial through the senses. When a philosopher uses reason and imagination to compare individuals and discovers certain commonalities among certain individuals, he understands the “species” and the broader category of “genus” to which the individual belongs. However, imagination can get in the way of a correct understanding, and only the divine mind (Noys) truly understands all the implications contained in the concepts of ”species” and “genus.” An uneducated, common man uses only his senses to gather information concerning individuals, whereas an educated man uses reason and imagination to capture the distinctions of species and genus.

She rules over our senses in such a way that they prefer to serve her alone. She has taught people to feast on scent—smeared with ointments and garlanded with flowers; she has told them to taste honeyed and Bacchic drafts; she has ordered the eyes to thirst after gold and gems and everything else that is beautiful; she has opened the ears of animate beings to all the sounds of harmonic modulation, which the Greeks call ‘symphonies’; finally, lest any part of the body should not serve pleasure, she has covered the whole surface of the body with the enticements of touch. ("Philocosmia, on the senses," in Adelard, De eodem et diverso, ed. Willner, Munster i. W, 1903, 9)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adelard of Bath, Italo Ronca, Baudouin Van den Abeele, and Charles Burnett. Adelard of Bath, Conversations with His Nephew: "on the Same and the Different." "Questions on Natural Science" and "on Birds", Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521394716
  • Burnett, Charles. Adelard of Bath: an English scientist and Arabist of the early twelfth century. Warburg Institute, University of London, 1987. ISBN 0854810706 ISBN 9780854810703
  • Clagett, Marshall. "Adelard of Bath." in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1(1970): 61-64.
  • Cochrane, Louise. Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist, British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN 071411748X ISBN 9780714117485
  • Thorndike, Lynn. History of Magic and Experimental Science: During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, Volume II. Columbia University Press, New York and London:[1923] 1943. ISBN 0231087950

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.

  • O'Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson Adelard of Bath (MacTutor History of Mathematics) November 1999.

General philosophy sources


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