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‘Aristoteles Latinus’: Jigsaw puzzling for experts
Professor Lisa Devriese: “Being part of this project is very satisfying: you work on something that nobody has ever done before, and our editions are considered standard works in the field.”
© KU Leuven - RS

‘Aristoteles Latinus’: Jigsaw puzzling for experts

The project that maps medieval Latin translations of Aristotle is a monumental undertaking of great philosophical importance.

9 minutes
19 October 2021

Medieval translations of Aristotle from Greek to Latin ensured that the philosopher’s thought became enormously influential. For almost a century, the Aristoteles Latinus project has been studying these translations, publishing them in critical edition. The ‘Latin Aristotle’ not only informs us about how medieval people perceived the father of the sciences, but also brings us closer to his original wording.

When we read Aristotle, do we really read the words he wrote on papyrus in the fourth century before the Common Era? After all, the philosopher’s original writings were lost long ago. It is only thanks to copyists and translators that his texts have survived through the ages. However thankful we ought to be to them, they did occasionally make mistakes and sometimes even made intentional changes, when they found certain passages unclear or inappropriate, for example.

As a result, Aristotle’s texts were transmitted in manuscripts that are often very different. To know precisely what he thought about geography and meteorology, for example, we must critically compare all the extant manuscripts of his Meteorologica to reconstruct the original text as well as possible.

A Latin translation (14th century) of the work De coloribus
A Latin translation (14th century) of the work De coloribus
© Saint-Omer, Bibliothèque municipale

Explosion of knowledge

This requires one to have as much patience as a medieval copyist, as Professor Lisa Devriese, Director of Aristoteles Latinus, knows first-hand. The international project aims to research all the medieval Latin translations of Aristotle and to publish them in critical edition. This focus makes sense, since it was in the Middle Ages, and thanks to these Latin translations, that Aristotle came to be known enduringly in the West as the ‘father of all the sciences’.

“In the early sixth century, the Roman senator-philosopher Boethius already noted that knowledge of Greek had started disappearing, and that the work of important philosophers would thereby become inaccessible”, Devriese says. “He had the brilliant idea to translate Aristotle’s texts into Latin and to write commentaries on them, but he only translated a few works, which were all about logic.”

“It was only much later, in the twelfth and thirteenth century, that other parts of the voluminous Corpus Aristotelicum were translated into Latin in quick succession: texts about metaphysics, zoology, ethics… This resulted in a veritable explosion of knowledge, and Aristotle became enormously influential, especially because these translations formed the basis of the curricula at the first universities, which were being founded at that time. This ensured the very rapid circulation of Aristotle’s thought among medieval scholars.”

A Latin translation (13th-14th century) of the work Ethica Nicomachea
A Latin translation (13th-14th century) of the work Ethica Nicomachea
© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
These translations formed the basis of the curricula at the first universities. This ensured the very rapid circulation of Aristotle’s thought among medieval scholars.

Some translators were incredibly productive. For example, the thirteenth-century Dominican William of Moerbeke not only translated works by Archimedes and Galen, but also translated almost all the works attributed to Aristotle from Greek into Latin. The famous scholastic Thomas Aquinas would never have been able to interpret Aristotle’s thought so critically and precisely if he had not had access to these translations.

Aristoteles Latinus in brief

  • The Aristoteles Latinus project was launched in 1930 as a cooperation between European universities, under the auspices of the Union Académique Internationale.
  • In 1973, the project moved to the Higher Institute of Philosophy, and specifically to the De Wulf-Mansion Centre; researching the history of Aristotelianism is one of the central foci of the centre.
  • The critical editions of medieval Greek-Latin Aristotle translations that the project publishes are prepared by both KU Leuven researchers and academics at international research institutions.
  • In addition, the researchers reflect on methodological problems related to the editions and of course also on the history of Aristotelianism.
  • Regular conferences and colloquia are organized on these themes.

Word for word

The work of Professor Devriese and her colleagues who collaborate on the project – both researchers at KU Leuven and other international research institutions – is like jigsaw puzzling for experts. Of some texts, there are more than two hundred extant Latin manuscripts; in total, the Latin Aristotle comprises more than 2,200 manuscripts. For each text, the researchers draw up a stemma: they collect and compare all the extant manuscripts of a text in order to document and interpret all the differences between the versions systematically. On this basis, the medieval translator’s original can be reconstructed.

This is a monumental philological endeavour of great philosophical importance because reliable editions of the translations are an indispensable instrument for the correct study of medieval Aristotelianism. To plumb the depths of the philosophers and their writings, it is essential to know which Aristotelian texts in Latin were available to them.

Furthermore, the Latin editions also help us to get closer to Aristotle’s original Greek text. “Many of the Latin translations – which originated in the twelfth and thirteenth century – are older than the Greek manuscripts that survive, many of which date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century”, Devriese says. “By identifying which Greek text the medieval translator used as a source, you acquire new insights into the tradition of the Greek text and can thus potentially correct the existing Greek editions.”

It helps that the medieval translators usually translated word for word and simply retained the Greek word order and syntax. “This often resulted in laboured, sometimes almost nonsensical Latin texts that are difficult to read without the Greek text”, Devriese says. “That is why the medieval works were heavily annotated, to explain what Aristotle meant.”

Dashes and curls

The medieval translator’s insight and skill is of great importance. If he made a mistake, a philosophical theory might suddenly look very different. “There is an example in a text about physiognomy”, Devriese says. “Incidentally, this is a pseudo-Aristotelian text: it was formerly attributed to Aristotle, but he probably didn’t write it. The text contains a passage about ‘merciful’ men: they are pale, they cry all the time, they often sire female children … And they are ‘erotic’ by nature, inclined to love. In his Latin text, the translator Bartholomew of Messina renders this as: they ask a lot of questions. At first you think this is bizarre. But then you realize that the Greek words for ‘asking questions’ and ‘erotic’ are very similar. In this case, it is a simple translation error with little impact, but such mistakes can sometimes result in substantive changes. That is why it is important that we document all the variants of a text.”

Translation errors can sometimes result in substantive changes. That is why it is important that we document all the variants of a text.

When studying the Latin translations, the researchers must themselves also guard against interpretive mistakes. “In Latin manuscripts, almost every word is abbreviated because parchment was very expensive”, Devriese tells us. “These abbreviations are marked with a variety of curls, dashes, and arches. If you miss a dash, it is very easy to make an interpretative mistake. That was true for medieval students, but it also applies to us. For example, the abbreviations for ‘si’ and ‘non’ are very similar in some manuscripts. So you have to look very carefully because this can of course result in a completely different meaning. In a text about colours that I am currently studying, there is a sentence that may mean ‘everything you see is by nature black’ or ‘everything you do not see is by nature black’... The difficulty of interpreting these curls and dashes is the reason that we do not currently rely on artificial intelligence: you often need a human eye to identify them and knowledge of the manuscript’s contents to interpret them correctly.”

The researchers do not only study the texts, but also the commentaries and annotations that were added in the Middle Ages. “There are manuscripts of Aristotle’s popular works that are full of notes by readers and students”, Devriese says. “This enables you to establish which passages were important to medieval readers, or what they found difficult to understand.”

“Medieval commentators also had to find ways of incorporating Aristotle’s thought into their Christian teachings. For example, with respect to the eternity of the world, they had to be creative: ‘Aristotle says that the world has always existed and was thus not created, but how can we reconcile this with our faith?’”

The blue Aristotle

The scientific editions published by the Aristoteles Latinus are easy to spot in the library: they have blue covers with gold lettering. Each edition has the same structure: “In a long introduction, we explain the manuscript tradition. The second part is the reconstruction of the Latin text. Of particular importance are the two sets of footnotes – the Greek-Latin apparatus and the critical apparatus. The first compares the Latin text to the Greek text. The second provides information about the variants of the text that circulated in the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also an index: a dictionary that lists which Latin words render which Greek words.”

Editie 3

Thirty volumes have appeared so far. “We are about halfway”, Devriese says. In other words, there is plenty more work to do. “Among other things, we still have to complete ten to fifteen pseudo-Aristotelian works, but also Aristotle’s De anima, his standard work on the soul. This was an exceptionally popular work in the Middle Ages, which means that preparing the edition is very time-consuming: there are more than 140 Latin manuscripts of the text.” In addition, the Aristoteles Latinus is also working on DALE, a digital environment that will bring together all the information about medieval Latin Aristotle translations.

Patience that yields results

Let there be no doubt: working for a project like Aristoteles Latinus requires a specific mix of interests and expertise. “You need to have excellent knowledge of Greek and Latin, including of all the grammatical peculiarities, as well as insight into Aristotelian philosophy”, Devriese says. “That sometimes makes it difficult to find the right people to do this kind of work. It is also very time-intensive and requires a lot of patience: the short text that was the subject of my doctorate took three years of fulltime work to complete.”

“On the other hand, it is also very satisfying: you work on something that nobody has ever done before, and our editions are considered standard works in the field. Moreover, you sometimes make surprising new discoveries, such as valuable manuscripts that contain variants not found anywhere else.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that the project’s appeal reaches far beyond our national borders. “A new doctoral student has just started who came to Leuven from Slovenia because she had discovered our Aristoteles Latinus programme. It is wonderful to see that our work generates so much enthusiasm.”