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George Sarton and the Spanish Arabists

Author(s): Thomas F. Glick

Source: Isis, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 487-499
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
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George Sarton and the
Spanish Arabists
By Thomas F. Glick*

OF THE MANY FACTORS that have given Spanish science s

teenth century so distinctive a cast, perhaps the most inte
the area of scientific communication: the difficulty that Spanish
had in placing themselves within international networks of sci
culty has characteristically led to autodidactism and isolation, th
a requisite of scientific achievement, the latter a perception th
mythic dimensions in the folklore of Spanish science.1
Impediments to scientific communication have had a decisive ef
way in which specific scientific ideas have been introduced into
the agencies and modes of communication have followed a numb
patterns, variations for the most part of a scenario in which a
resenting a foreign scientist, theory, or school brings the light
Spanish scientific community. The apostle's role is to transmit
adigmatic shift within in a discipline.2 He does so authoritative
gitimation from abroad. Apostleship is deemed typical of the pr
in societies wherein scientific culture has not developed a suffi
allow for multiple foci of diffusion. In his own scientific field
apostle is generally, although not always, the most prestigious
In eighteenth-century Spain, the most typical variation of this
direct importation of foreign scientists employed by the royal
introduce modern ideas. The Frenchman Louis Proust, who play
role in the diffusion of the new chemistry in Spain, was the m
figure, but there were others as well. The botanist Pehr Loeflin
Linnaeus to spread the Linnaean system in the Peninsula and South America
and, when he died prematurely in New Granada, Jose Celestino Mutis picked
up the standard of Linnaean apostleship in an explicit way.
In the past hundred years the dominant pattern has been the Spanish scientist
studying abroad (typically in Germany) in a prominent school or with a prom-
inent scientist and then returning home to spread the gospel. The relationship

* Department of History, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215.

A longer version of this article will form the introduction to my edition of Sarton's correspondence
with the Spanish Arabists (La correspondencia de George Sarton amb els arabistes espanyols, Bar-
celona, Institut d'Estudis Catalans, forthcoming).
See Thomas F. Glick and David M. Quinlan, "Felix de Azara: The Myth of Isolated Genius in
Spanish Science," Journal of the History of Biology, 1975, 8:67-83.
2 On the role of apostles in Hispanic science, see Thomas F. Glick, "Comentario a 'Nuevas Di-
recciones en la Historia de la Ciencia en la America Latina,' " Quipu, 1985, 3, in press-a gloss on
Lewis Pyenson's notion of scientific "missionaries" in Latin America.

ISIS, 1985, 76: 487-499 487

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of Bias Cabrera with Pierre Weiss or Manuel Martinez Risco with Pieter Zeeman
are conspicuous examples from physics, and there are many in medicine (e.g.,
Angel Garma, trained in Berlin, the founder of psychoanalysis in Spain). Less
frequently, foreign apostles with some particular affinity to Spanish culture have
appeared, representing ideas of their own masters. A key figure in the intro-
duction of relativity in Spain was the Italian mathematician Tullio Levi-Civita,
who lectured in Barcelona and Madrid, corresponded with Spanish mathema-
ticians, and trained their students in Rome.
Then there are examples of apostleship without any direct contact with the
scientific leader, as, for example, the diffusion of the geomorphological ideas of
William Morris Davis by Juan Carandell. Indeed, this was the dominant mode
of transmission in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when evolutionary
biology was received through the writings of English and German biologists with
virtually no personal contact on the part of Spaniards. Peregrin Casanova's cor-
respondence with Ernst Haeckel was a rare exception, and Casanova perceived
himself as Haeckel's champion in Spain.
The success of the apostleship is predicated in part on the prestige of the
apostles within their own disciplines and in part on the nature of the ideas being
transmitted. Certain ideas, like relativity, were prestigious before their intro-
duction in Spain. Others, like the doctrine of internal secretions, were not well
known, and their acceptance depended on the apostle's prestige. In the latter
case, Gregorio Marafi6n was so preeminent in Spanish endocrinology that he
was able to introduce the doctrine with virtually no opposition.3 In the rare case
in which a Spaniard finds himself on the research frontier, as in the case of
Santiago Ram6n y Cajal in neurohistology, he must attempt to legitimize his
ideas abroad, either by disseminating them in writing or by sending apostles of
his own (as Cajal did Nicolas Achucarro and Gonzalo R. Lafora).
George Sarton's relationship with Spanish historians of science is one that
might properly be characterized as fitting a stepfather model. In these instances,
a foreign leader adopts a Spanish group, thereby legitimizing their activities. The
leader performs some of the functions of his own apostolate through corre-
spondence and personal contacts, and the adopted group performs others, such
as the popularization of the master's works in the receiving country. It is to the
nature of Sarton's role in the legitimation of the history of science in Spain that
this article is addressed.


Sarton's scholarly method demanded the constant ingestion of i

a worldwide circle of informants. The Introduction to the Hist
was a compilation of bibliographical information accompanied
veys of learning by half-century periods. This material was cl
and supplemented by the periodic Isis critical bibliographies, w
piled personally until the mid 1940s. The entries in the critica
were based not only on materials that Sarton culled in Widene

3 See Thomas F. Glick, "On the Diffusion of a New Specialty: Marafi6n an

docrinology in Spain," J. Hist. Biol., 1976, 9:287-300.

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on books and articles sent him by an ever-expanding circle of corre

By examining both Sarton's Introduction and the critical bibliograp
trace the course of his growing acquaintance with Spanish historiog
compare it with its converse: the citation of Sarton's works by Span
rians of science.
The group adopted by Sarton, the school of Spanish Arabists, was already a
cohesive subdiscipline well on the road to full institutionalization. The leaders
of the group at the time of Sarton's first interest in Spanish subjects were Julian
Ribera y Tarrag6 (1858-1934) and his disciple Miguel Asin Palacios (1871-1944).
Sarton appears to have learned of Asin's work first, through an indirect source.
Commenting in 1928 on the English translation of Asfn's book on Islamic influ-
ences in the Divine Comedy, Sarton referred to his listing of the original
Spanish: "As I do not read Spanish easily, I knew this work only in an indirect
way, for example, through [Giuseppe] Gabrieli's criticism of it (1921; Isis, 6,
151), and I must confess that I had underestimated its importance."4
The 1921 entry was the first reference to a Spanish Arabist in the Isis critical
bibliographies. Such references increased only after 1928, the year following the
initiation of direct correspondence between Sarton and first Asfn and then Ri-
bera, and the increase reflects Sarton's assimilation of offprints and books re-
ceived from Spain. Sarton's correspondence with Asin was apparently promoted
by a mutual friend, the American Arabist Duncan Black MacDonald. Unfortu-
nately, there is no correspondence with MacDonald in the Sarton Papers at Har-
vard University that might shed light on his role as an intermediary. In any case,
mentions of Spanish works in the critical bibliographies increased dramatically
thereafter. By this time, students of Ribera and Asln had generated enough re-
search to constitute (both in their own eyes and in those of foreign observers)
a cohesive school, although, as we shall see, science was not yet a significant
aspect of their research.5 That school was formalized several years later with
the establishment of the Escuela de Estudios Arabes in Madrid and the founding
of the journal Al-Andalus.
Sarton corresponded with several members of the group originally associated
with the Escuela de Estudios Arabes besides Asin and Ribera: the Catalan Jose
M. Millas Vallicrosa (1897-1970), who had received his doctorate under Ribera
in 1920, the mathematician Jose A. Sainchez Perez (1882-1958), a disciple both
of Asfn and the mathematician Julio Rey Pastor, and Angel Gonzailez Palencia
(1889-1949), and several others to whom he wrote letters in Spanish, French,
or Arabic. Later, he corresponded with Millas's disciple Juan Vernet Gines.
Sarton also corresponded with two non-Arabists: Francisco Vera, mathemati-
cian and founder of the short-lived Asociacion Nacional de Historiadores de la

4 George Sarton, review of Miguel Asfn, Islam and the Divine Comedy, Isis, 1928, 10:67-69, on
p. 68 (the original work, La escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia, is listed in Isis, 1921,
4:136; the Gabrieli work in 1924, 6:151). On Ribera, see Miguel Asfn Palacios, "Introducci6n," in
JuliAn Ribera, Disertaciones y oplusculos, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1928); and James T. Monroe, Islam and
the Arabs in Spanish Scholarship (Leiden, 1970), pp. 152-173. On Asfn, see E. Garcia G6mez, "Don
Miguel Asfn, 1871-1944 (Esquema de una biograffa)," Al-Andalus, 1944, 9:267-291; Garcia G6mez,
"Don Miguel Asfn en la Universidad y en las Academias," ibid., 1969, 34:460-469; and Monroe,
Islam and the Arabs, pp. 174-195.
5 See, as an expression of that cohesiveness, N. Morata and M. Antufia, "Los nuevos estudios
arabigos en Espafia," Religi6n y cultura, 1928, 1:274-284, 384-396. Science is not mentioned.

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Ciencia Espafiola, and Gonzalo Reparaz-Ruiz, a historian of geography whom

Sarton regarded as an expert on the Mallorcan school of cartography.6
One effect of this correspondence can be seen in Table 1, which collects all
citations in the critical bibliographies of the school of Spanish Arabists. For
purposes of comparison it also includes data for two Arabists, Melchor M. An-
tufia and Emilio Garcia Gomez, with whom Sarton did not regularly correspond
and his two non-Arabist correspondents. Table 2 aggregates the same data in
five-year periods; these show the continuing impact of Spanish Arabists on
Sarton through 1955, in spite of the depressant effect of the Spanish Civil War
(1936-1939). Another indication of Spanish influence on Sarton, citations of
Spanish Arabists in the Introduction, is seen in Table 3. Asin and Ribera were
prominent in Volume II, Asin and Millas in Volume III.


When Sarton began his correspondence with Asin, only one Spanish historian
had an established publishing record in the history of medieval Arabic science.
This was Sainchez Perez, who had edited an Arabic text on algebra in 1916.
Millas was also working on Arabic science at this time, but had no published
work on the subject as yet. Before Sainchez Perez and Millas, there had been
virtually no work by Spaniards on Andalusi science. Sarton cites Manuel Rico
y Sinobas's edition of the Alfonsine astronomical corpus (1863) and Jose Soriano
Viguera's study of astronomical works produced by the school of Alfonso X
(1926), but neither of these authors dealt with Arabic texts.7 Since, then, in 1927
there was nothing to indicate to Sarton that the Spanish Arabists might be in-
terested in science, one must wonder why he took such a strong and decisive
interest in them. Indeed, Sarton passed over demonstrated interest in science,
for in 1929 he nominated as a full member of the International Committee not
Sanchez Perez (whom Sarton indeed promoted, although not successfully, as a
corresponding member) but Ribera, an institutional historian with no prior in-
terest in science, although he had written on Islamic educational structures. This
symbolic act reveals that the strong bond that quickly developed between Sarton
and the Spaniards depended on a mutual interest that was not narrowly defined.
Further exploration of that interest also sheds light on the dramatic patronization
of a group of extremely conservative scholars by the social democrat Sarton.
Sarton and the Spanish Arabists in fact shared two distinctive strands of

6 On Sanchez Perez, see Jaime Oliver Asin, "Don Jos6 Augusto Sanchez Perez," Al-Andalus,
1958, 23:461-463. On Millas, see David Romano and Juan Vernet, "Jos6 M. Millas Vallicrosa,"
Anuario de Estudios Medievales, 1967, 4:537-563; Alejandro Diez Macho, "El profesor Millas Val-
licrosa, Premio March," Punta Europa, 1959, 43-44:49-75; and Thomas F. Glick, "Jos6 Maria Millas
Vallicrosa (1897-1970) and the Founding of the History of Science in Spain," Isis, 1977, 68:276-
283. On Gonzalez Palencia, see E. Garcia G6mez, "Don Angel Gonzalez Palencia," Al-Andalus,
1949, 14:i-xi; and Monroe, Islam and the Arabs, pp. 196-201. Vera was also secretary of the aborted
Third International Congress of the History of Science, scheduled for Madrid in October 1934.
Vera's file in the Sarton Papers includes the printed memorandum "Motifs qui ont oblige au Gou-
vernement de la R6publique Espagnole a r6voquer la convocation du Troisieme Congr6s Interna-
tionale d'Histoire des Sciences." Sarton's opinion of Reparaz appears in George Sarton, Introduc-
tion to the History of Science, 3 vols. in 5 parts (Baltimore: William & Wilkins, 1927-1948), Vol.
III, pp. 18-58.
7 See Jose Sanchez Perez, Compendio de algebra de Abenbeder (Madrid: Junta para Ampliaci6n
de Estudios, 1916); and Sarton, Introduction, Vol. II, pp. 840-841.

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Table 1. Citations of Spanish scholars in Isis Critical Bibliographies, 1921-1957

1921 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38

Antufia - 1 - - -
Asin -- 1 -- 7 1 4 - 2 5 3 5
Garcia G6mez -- -- - 1- I I - 1
Palencia -- 1 1
Millis - - - - 1 4 1 1 2 2 1
Ribera 3 1 - 1
Sanchez Perez -- -- 1
Reparaz-Ruiz - - -- - -- - 4 2 1 1 -
Vera- - -- 3 3 2 -1

1939 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57

Asin - - 4 3 2 1 1 - 2 1 -
Garcia G6mez - 1 - - - - 2 - -
Palencia - - - - 1 - - - - -
Millds 4 1 - 6 2 8 2 2 2 4 2 - 5 6
Ribera -- 1 -
Sanchez P6rez - - 1 - -
Vernet - --
Reparaz-Ruiz - - - - 3 1 2 1
Vera - -- 1 ----- 1
c I

was th
this es
his in
The co
by th
of the
that t

8 Marc
ianza, 1
Andalus, 1947, 12:391-414.

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Table 2. Citations of Arabists Table 3. Citations of Spanish

from Table 1, aggregated Sarton's Introduction

periods No. I II III

1921-1925 3
Antufia - 3

1926-1930 15 Asin Palacios 4 10 10

1931-1935 31 Garcia G6mez 1 2

Gonzalez Palencia 1 4
1936-1940 12
Millas - 8
1941-1945 28
1946-1950 21
Ribera - 11 1
Sanchez Perez - 3 -
1951-1955 10
(1956-1957 12) Total 4 26 28

to document product
the rationalism of th
vided a justification
mation but also stim
as well as European, for medieval Iberian Jews and Muslims were not only
thought to represent a religion-centered world view but were also considered to
be "Spaniards" in spite of their Semitic culture. Sarton's own inclusivity of vi-
sion, therefore, struck a deep note for those conservative Catholics who per-
ceived the "New Humanism" as closely approximating the definition of science
set forth by Menendez Pelayo. Specifically, Sarton stressed the role of religion
in the history of learning, in part because "until relatively modern times, the-
ology was an instrinsic part of science," in part because both theologians and
scientists considered things sub specie aeternitatis.9
The second cluster of views that Sarton shared with the Spanish Arabists held
that diffusion was the central process of medieval learning, that the body of of
knowledge transmitted was a unified one, and that, therefore, the transmission
of one set of cultural elements sheds light on the transmission of others, inas-
much as the mechanisms and agencies of diffusion were similar. Sarton's
stressing of cultural diffusion permeates the entire Introduction, particularly
Volume II, with its great emphasis on translation. Sarton understood that dif-
fusion was a complex process; he wrote in a period when acculturation theory
was a dominant mode of anthropological discourse, and he must have been
aware of developments in this area. In the discussion of Indian numerals in
Volume II, he clearly envisions a model of cultural transmission in which a se-
lective process operating upon a multiplicity of competing norms is a central
feature. He was fascinated by differential rates of diffusion, as when he dis-
cussed lags in translation caused by Christian translators' preference for older
texts. Similar observations follow: it took fifty years for the Toletan tables to
supersede early Arabic ones in the Latin West; Arabic astronomical tables did
not reach Europe in the chronological order of their compilation.?1
Science was not the only body of Arabic knowledge transmitted to the West,

9 Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I, pp. 5, 7.

10 Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 5, 13, 15.

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and Sarton was interested in parallel transmissions. The dominant in

Ribera's career in its final phase (when Sarton identified Ribera as t
Spanish Arabist) was medieval music and, more specifically, the tra
of Eastern music to the West, in medieval Spain. Sarton was much i
in this research, devoting long notes to Ribera's publications on the
the Isis critical bibliographies. Sarton joined with the Duke of Alba
an American publisher for one of Ribera's musicological studies and
Ribera's interest in the transmission of music with his own interests in scientific
diffusion. "The transmission of artistic ideas," he wrote, "can often be traced
with remarkable precision, and these ideas did not travel alone; many others,
including scientific ideas, traveled in their wake. Thus the historian of art can
help the historian of science in many ways." Music in particular held significance
for the historian of science because in medieval times it was considered part of
mathematics and was a division of the quadrivium.'1 Therefore, when Ribera
remarked to Sarton that the latter's aims were correct and that he was able to
identify completely with them, he was referring not only to the Internation
Committee but also to a shared feeling of scholarly community of interest. R
bera was named vice-president, and his donation of 1,000 francs to the com-
mittee in 1932-1933 was the only donation by a private individual in that year.
Sarton and the Spaniards also shared a feeling of outrage that Western me-
dieval studies had ignored the Islamic contribution to science and culture. He
complained as loudly as did Asin of the prejuge antiarabe, as, for example, when
he noted that because of "ignorance or neglect of oriental evolution . . . medi-
aevalists have given us an entirely false idea of the scientific thought of the
Middle Ages." By ignoring the Islamic contribution, they neglected what to Sar-
ton's mind was the most "progressive" element in medieval learning.13


Sarton's patronage had a decided effect on the direction taken by the school of
Spanish Arabists. He encouraged all of his Spanish correspondents to contribute
to Isis and published articles by Asln, Sainchez Perez, and Millas there in the
early 1930s. It seems certain that Asin, for one, would never have pursued re-
search in the history of science (e.g., his studies of al-Jahiz as a zoologist and
of Ibn Bajja as a botanist) had it not been for Sarton's personal encouragement,
as well as the stimulation provided by the Introduction.
More significant was Sarton's relationship with Millas, whose interests were
more narrowly scientific and whose Catalan nationality lent an additional note
of poignancy to their scholarly and personal relationship. Millas had begun re-
search on a monumental essay on physical and mathematical ideas in early me-
dieval Catalonia in response to a prize offered in 1924 by the Institucio Patxot
for a monograph on Catalan science in the Middle Ages. The research appears

I Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 4, 7.

12 Aldo Mieli to George Sarton, 29 June 1933, Sarton Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard Uni-
versity. Ribera had alluded to his commonality of purpose with Sarton in a letter dated 31 Dec.
1927; Sarton Papers.
13 Sarton to Miguel Asfn, 29 Sept. 1927, Sarton Papers; and Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I, pp. 16-
17. Cf. p. 30: "Mediaeval historians, who have neglected to consider Arabic literature, have thus
given not only an incomplete, but an entirely false view of their subject."

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to have been largely completed by the time the first volume of Sarton's In
duction reached Millas, who had by then won the prize for his study of M
of the Monastery of Ripoll. This was a medieval scientific miscellany that
him the basis for his explication of the impact of Arabic upon Latin scienc
tenth-century Catalonia. In the preface to the published version, the Assai
d'historia de les idees fisiques i matematiques a la Catalunya medieval, M
makes clear that he regarded Sarton's Introduction as the source of legitim
for his own work and his own view of the place of science in medieval learn
In particular he cites in full the passages dealing with the necessary interrel
of science and religion in the Middle Ages that I have cited above. In point
fact, Millas did not hesitate to disagree with Sarton, whom he takes to tas
failing to mention Gerbert of Aurillac's visit to Cordoba, for erroneously
cribing a Liber de astrolabio to Hermann Contractus, and for mistakenly i
tifying Rudolf of Bruges as the first European to describe the astrolabe.14 I
the broad context of Sarton's approach that appealed to Millas, not only th
mutual interest in specific figures and problems of medieval science.
Sarton was an enthusiastic advocate of Catalan culture, as he frequently r
marked to Millas-particularly as Volume III of the Introduction was tak
shape. (Typically, as part of this process, Millas was sending Sarton publica
of Catalan interest during this period.) In his survey of the first half of the
teenth century, Sarton noted that Spanish production during this period was
poor, "and most of it was Catalan rather than Spanish in the strict sense."15 In
Part 2 of Volume III there is a long section on Catalan science and learning in
the second half of the century (pp. 1304-1306), followed by a bibliography, both
of which conclude with striking perorations:

Castile and Aragon united in 1479 to thwart Catalan aspirations and outlaw the
Catalan language. However, noble people will not be downed indefinitely. In the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catalans were allowed a renaissance which
has caused the whole world to admire them and to love them. That marvelous re-
naissance was cruelly broken under our own eyes by the fascist government of
Spain. The spirit of Catalonia, however, is not dead, it cannot be killed; it has been
driven underground by Spanish brutality, but it will revive some day ....
A large number of excellent and beautiful books have been published in Catalan
within the past fifty years; all that is now stopped or rather interrupted. Long live
glorious and generous Catalonia!16

This evocation of captive Catalonia was quite florid, even for Sarton, who did
not hesitate to speak his mind. His interpretation of the union of the crowns
could have been inspired by the most nationalistic of Catalan historiography.
The passage must in part have been intended as a tribute to Millas. It is ironic
that Millas, because of his fervent Catholicism, had long since made his peace

14 Jos6 Maria Millas Vallicrosa, Assaig d'historia de les idees fisiques i matematiques a la Catal-
unya medieval (Barcelona: Institut Patxot, 1931), pp. x, n. I (citing Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I,
pp. 5, 7), 109, n. 1 (commenting on ibid., Vol. I, p. 670), 195, n. 3 (commenting on ibid., Vol. I,
pp. 757, 715.) On the relationship between the prizewinning essay and the published version, see
Glick, "Millas Vallicrosa" (cit. n. 6), p. 277. There is a facsimile edition of the Assaig (Barcelona:
Generalitat de Catalunya, 1983), which omits the documental section of the 1st ed.
15 Sarton, Introduction, Vol. III, p. 89.
6 Ibid., Vol. III, p. 1306.

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with the regime and indeed had won the Franco Prize in 1942 for his b
the Oriental manuscripts in the Cathedral Library of Toledo.
Sarton also championed Basque culture. In 1946, after advising Reparaz
Catalan culture would be treated well in his forthcoming volume, he refe
the fate of the Basques, whom he grouped together with Phoenicians, R
Jews, Muslims, and Catalans as "adopted children" of Spain. It may be that
Sarton's Belgian nationality made him peculiarly sensitive to European socio-
linguistic problems. In the second volume of the Introduction he had noted
Basque elements in the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus. Later in the 1930s he
became interested in early Basque printing, although he could find but one
volume of scientific interest: a Basque translation of Martin de Hoyarsabal's
treatise on navigation (Bayonne, 1677). His thoughts on Basque culture were
collected in a 1942 essay entitled "Eskualherria," which was warmly praised by
the exiled president of the Basque Republic, Jose Antonio de Aguirre.17


The Introduction resonated among Spanish Arabists precisely

prominent role that Sarton ascribed to the Muslim contribution
learning. Indeed, the Arabist perspective was at the core of Sarto
least during the long period when he was preparing the medieval p
Introduction. Not only were Arabists prominent among his prim
correspondents and informants, but the quality of that correspond
the active and creative force that Sarton exerted among Orientali
contact with professional Arabism was Duncan Black MacDonald, one of the
pillars of twentieth-century Orientalism. Later, however, he corresponded with
a virtual who's who of European Orientalism: Bernard Carra de Vaux, Sir Ham-
ilton Gibb, Willy Hartner, Philip Hitti, Giorgio Levi della Vida, Louis Mas-
signon, Max Meyerhof, H. J. P. Renaud, Julius Ruska, Joseph Schacht, Hein-
rich Suter, and Eilhard Wiedemann, to name some of the more eminent scholars
from whom correspondence is preserved. In these letters, especially in the rich
correspondence with Max Meyerhof, is revealed not only Sarton's role in es-
tablishing the program of the history of Islamic science but also his familiarity
with the sources and the culture, which was based on his knowledge of the
Arabic language.
Although not without ambivalence, Sarton felt himself to be an Orientalist.
When addressing an Arabist audience he referred to "our field." He was none-
theless aware that, because of his autodidactism and his primary commitment
to the history of science, he had a relatively amateur standing as an Orientalist.
Asked by Meyerhof to inquire into possible university positions for the refugee
Schacht, Sarton replied that he had no influence in the field inasmuch as his
"knowledge of Arabic is unprofessional and unofficial."18

17 Sarton to Gonzalo Reparaz-Ruiz, 4 Sept. 1946, Sarton Papers; Sarton, Introduction, Vol. II, p.
254; George Sarton, "Eskualherria," Studies in the History of Culture (Menasha, Wisc.: George
Banta, 1942), pp. 63-83; and Jose Antonio de Aguirre to Sarton, 3 Jan. 1945, Sarton Papers, referring
to Sarton to Aguirre, 10 Dec. 1944, (not preserved), which commented favorably on Aguirre's war-
time memoirs, Escape fiom Berlin (New York: Macmillan, 1945). (Sarton must have seen an ad-
vance copy of the book).
18 George Sarton, "Remarks on The Study and Teaching of Arabic," in The MacDonald Presen-

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In the Introduction Sarton reiterates a theme central to this thoug

tion of an absolute and essential difference between East and West, so current
in Western scholarship, was misleading if not totally false when it came to eval-
uating the Muslims' contribution to medieval science. "The majority of histo-
rians . . . have gradually evoked a conception of Western unity (at least spiritual
unity) from which Eastern people were excluded." It was misleading to divide
medieval linguistic areas into Western and Eastern groups. "The artificial clas-
sification, Eastern vs. Western, runs across the languages. A Latin text may
represent an Oriental tradition, and an Arabic one may represent a Western
tradition."19 For Sarton, there were no cultural isolates in the Middle Ages, and
the search for positive knowledge was an international quest.
In his opposition to any concept of a dichotomous, absolute differentiation
between East and West, Sarton departed from a central theme of Western Ori-
entalism.20 He was not interested in what was Islamic or Oriental (as an absolute
category, i.e., not Western) about medieval science, but rather in what was uni-
versal. Sarton also dissented from the view that Islam was a plagiaristic or syn-
thesizing culture with no originality and that Arabic science was little more than
a pale imitation of Greek or Indian antecedents. He was careful to emphasize
the religious context of medieval Islamic science: "How could we reach a correct
understanding of Muslim science if we did not fully grasp its gravitation around
the Qur'an?"21 Medieval theology, he noted, was the core of science as well as
the prop of religion. Science is positive knowledge, but scholarly inquiry cannot
be restricted to the modern, Western definition of positiveness. Medieval
scholars (both Muslim and Christian) regarded theology as positive knowledge.
Yet some Orientalists read Sarton in a sense opposite to that which he in-
tended. G. E. von Grunebaum stressed the impermeability of Islamic civilization
to certain lines of scientific effort and leveled the general accusation that for the
Muslim, knowledge was simply to be collected and organized rather than be the
subject of "creative research and synthesizing interpretation." Moreover, sci-
ence ran counter to the primary values of Islamic civilization: "No matter how
important the contribution Muslim scholars were able to make to the natural
sciences . . . those sciences (and their technological application) had no root in
the fundamental needs and aspirations of their civilization." For von Grune-
baum, the pursuit of science contravened orthodox Islamic feeling, while for
Sarton, to set up theology and science as mutually exclusive categories was to
miss a basic point about the unity of world view in medieval culture, Islamic
and Latin alike. But soon after the passage just quoted, von Grunebaum used
Sarton to prove his point that scientists had nothing to give to the Islamic com-
munity which that community regarded as valuable. Apropos of medieval Is-
lamic zoology, Sarton had written: "The Muslims, with but few exceptions, were

tation Volume (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1933), pp. 341-347, on p. 347; and Sarton to Max
Meyerhof, 3 April 1944, Sarton Papers. In Introduction, Vol. III, p. 5, he refers to himself, obliquely,
as an Orientalist. Sarton had studied Arabic first with D. B. MacDonald, then with native speakers
in Lebanon and Morocco on a 1931-1932 sabbatical, and then at Harvard with Charles Malik, the
future Lebanese diplomat.
19 Sarton, Introduction, Vol. III, pp. 20-21.
20 This discussion of Sarton's divergences from traditional Western Orientalism is suggested by
Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), pp. 256-257.
21 Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I, p. 5.

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hardly interested in the scientific aspects of these matters, but ra

theological implications; they were not thinking so much of evolu
human or naturalistic point of view as of creation from the divine o
however, did not mean to imply that the knowledge in question w
terms, positive and valued as such by medieval Muslims.
In addressing the decline and decadence of science in the Islamic world,
Sarton looked not to a putatively defective value system but rather to structural
defects in the educational system. He noted in 1951: "I was able to observe
such schools in their mediaeval purity not more than thirty [really twenty] years
ago in such places as Damascus, Tlemcen and Fez." For the opposite phenom-
enon, the superiority of Islamic over Christian science from the eighth through
the eleventh centuries, Sarton adduced multiple causes: a cultural one (the stim-
ulus of Greek science), a social one (competition for intellectual leadership
among regional centers), and an intellectual one (astrology was accompanied by
the vigorous development of astronomy, in distinction to the Latin West where
high astrology was not cultivated until the twelfth century).23
On the subject of translation, Sarton insisted that it was not a mechanical act
of simple transmission with no creative input from Muslim scholars. On the con-
trary, the dragomans (he used the archaic Arabism to indicate scholars trans-
lating into Arabic) not only transmitted ancient science, "they extended it, they
gave it a new vitalty."24 In his method of organizing material, however, Sarton
was at times unable to conceal a feeling that the recovery of Greek science was
at the heart of the process of medieval transmission. For example, in the dis-
cussion of Gerard of Cremona in the Introduction, Sarton reproduced the list of
Gerard's translations as compiled by his socii, but with the order and numbering
rearranged. According to Richard Lemay, "Sarton's aim appears to have been
to separate 'classical' (Greek) authors and works in science and philosophy from
Arabic commentaries on Greek and Arab authors in the same fields. The dis-
tinction is of questionable scholarly value, since the Arab authors depended
heavily upon their Greek models, adding much commentary of their own. More-
over, Sarton thus provided an unwarranted basis for the mistaken historical no-
tion (too easily adopted by users of the list, if not by Sarton himself) that the
twelfth-century translations helped Western scholars to recover Greek science
in its original form." Gerard's transmission of Greek science, Lemay continues,
was wholly cloaked in Arab dress. This is an important distinction because
Sarton's rearrangement of the socii list "mistakenly transfers to the twelfth
century the humanists' fixation on Greek authors."25 Medieval translators were

22 G. E. von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition (New
York: Barnes & Noble, 1961), pp. 114, 123, n. 16 (citing Sarton's Introduction, Vol. II, p. 61). On
von Grunebaum's view that most of what was worthwhile in Islam was borrowed, see Said, Ori-
entalism, p. 304. On the views of von Grunebaum and others on the cultural climate for medieval
science, see Thomas F. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 248.
23 George Sarton, "Arabic Science and Learning in the Fifteenth Century: Their Decadence and
Fall" (dated 1951), in Homenaje a Millds Vallicrosa, 2 vols. (Barcelona: Consejo Superior de In-
vestigaciones Cientfficas, 1954-1956), Vol. II, pp. 303-324, on p. 320; Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I,
p. 17-19. In the same passage from "Arabic Science," however, Sarton also uses the metaphor of
a rotten tree to describe the internal failure of Islamic learning.
24 Sarton, Introduction, Vol. III, p. 20.
25 Richard Lemay, "Gerard of Cremona," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. Charles

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interested in acquiring useful knowledge of whatever origin, Greek

or Indian. Only in the Renaissance was a higher value placed on Greek texts
Edward Said has noted that the view of the Orient presented by each Ori-
entalist bears his distinctive imprint, illustrates his conception of what the Orient
can or ought to be, consciously contests someone else's view of the Orient,
provides Orientalist discourse with what it needs at that moment, and responds
to certain cultural, professional, political or other requirements of the epoch.26
In Sarton's case one can say that his distinctive imprint was to highlight the role
of positive knowledge in medieval Islam and to stress the universal, cross-cul-
tural aspects of that knowledge, rather than to dwell upon what may have been
idiosyncratically Islamic about it. His conception of what the Orient ought to
be is a place where, under conditions of tolerance, such knowledge might be
sought again. The views that he consciously contested were the judgment of
Western medievalists that Islamic culture was irrelevant to the perceived real
significance of the period, and the feeling among Western Orientalists that there
was some absolute dichotomy between East and West. This latter was totally
unacceptable to the historian of science, given the preeminent role of diffusion
in the process of scientific growth. What Orientalist discourse required at the
moment was an infusion of universalism, which was Sarton's perspective. A
requirement of the epoch to which Sarton responded is embodied in his view of
how the history of science ought to be institutionalized as a discipline: it should
be international, nonexclusionary, and open to the evidence of positive knowl-
edge wherever it might appear.


Because of his resonance among Arabists, Sarton's continuing

reflected in studies of Islamic science. Examining the 102 bio
figures in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, one notes
in bibliographies of 45, or 44 per,cent of the total. If one cons
I of the Introduction appeared in 1927, this figure represents
power. The DSB also reveals that Sarton's work has been m
tutionalized among European and Muslim scholars than among
a few of the authors citing Sarton are American, while many a
world (al-Dabbagh, Sabra, Tekeli, Shehaby, Harmaneh, Iskander, Nasr, An-
bouba, Anawati, Rashed).
Spanish historians of science, at least to the end of the 1970s, still cited Sarton
consistently. Table 4 provides a tabulation of citations from books of Millas and
Vernet, 1942-1978. Articles published in Al-Andalus during the 1970s also con-
tain frequent citations of Sarton.27 In part, at least, the continuing reverence for

Coulston Gillispie, Vol. XV (New York: Scribners, 1978), pp. 173-192, on p. 176; and Sarton, In-
troduction, Vol. II, pp. 339-344.
26 Said, Orientalism, p. 273.
27 E.g., Julio Sams6, "En torno al Arquimides arabe: El testimonio de al-Biruni," Al-Andalus,
1971, 36:383-390 (citing Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I, 6 times and an article by Sarton); Sams6 and
Bias Rodriguez, "Las 'Phaseis' de Ptolomeo y el 'Kitab al-anwaD' de Sinan b. Thabit," Al-Andalus,
1976, 41:5-48 (citing Sarton, Introduction, Vol. I, 9 times, and Ancient Science once).

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Table 4. Citations of Sarton by Mills and Vernet

Millas Vernet

1942a 1943b 1949c 1960d 1975e 1978F

Ancient Science 1 5
History of Science
the New Humanism 2 1
Horus - - - 8
Volume I 11 1 2 14 - 37
Volume II 18 2 4 3 - 44
Volume III - 5 2 3 -14
Volume not specified 3 1 - 2 2 2
(Total Introduction) 32 9 8 22 2 97
Articles in Isis,
Osiris, etc. - 2 3 -6 2
Six Wings - - - - 1
Total 32 11 13 23 18 104

a Las traducciones orientales en los manuscritos de la Biblioteca Catedral de Toledo (Madrid:

b Estudios sobre Azarquiel (Madrid/Granada: C.S.I.C.).
c Estudios sobre historia de la ciencia espafola (Barcelona: C.S.I.C.).
d Nuevos estudios sobre historia de la ciencia espanola (Barcelona: C.S.I.C.).
e Historia de la ciencia espanola (Madrid: Instituto de Espafia, Catedra Alfonso X el Sabio).
f La cultura hispanodrabe en Oriente y Occidente (Barcelona: Ariel).
NOTE. C.S.I.C. = Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientfficas.

Sarton in Spain is due to the special relationship he built with the school of
Spanish Arabism as the apostle of the New Humanism.

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