Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin

Language Study as the Source of Scholastic and Scientific Inquiry in the Mediterranean Basin 1050-1500

In the preface to her literary masterpiece, the Heptameron of the Tales, Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1546)  gives us an understanding in a dialogue between a male and woman scholar on the importance of libraries and scholarship produced in the four main classical languages:  Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin (de Navarre 1894 (1558)).  It is a history of book censorship and book burning but notes the current interest in maintaining libraries that collect all of the classical sources, including at Buda (Budapest) whose collection of these manuscripts had been lost in the recent attacks launched by the Ottoman siege on that city in 1541.

When we study the impressive efforts in mathematics, science, medicine and philosophy in this period we’ll encounter four main languages that merge and frame the production of this scholarship:  Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.  Each has its own geographical range and base of use.

The Map below shows us the range of each linguistic group and where the main intellectual centers of production occur during this period.  The locations also closely follow the rise of university towns placed in major commercial centers.  In other words the other element here is the Commercial Revolution that took place from about 1100 onward and transformed European towns.  One might argue that a commercial revolution was already underway in the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia with their strong commercial ties with the Indian Ocean and Silk Route land and sea-based routes, and their intellectual and material trade with India and China.  The extensive study of Chinese culture and technology by Joseph Needham establishes the superior development there in almost all areas of science and technology during this same period. But for our purposes today we’ll focus on the interaction between Europe (so-called West) and the interaction with Muslim civilizations and scholarship.

Greek was the first language group to establish itself as a scholastic language in the Mediterranean from the 4th century BC up through the rise of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century BC.  Thereafter Greek dominates the Eastern Mediterranean and Latin becomes the administrative language for the Western Mediterranean.  The rise of Islam after 622 CE introduces the phenomenon of Arabic as a new language that eventually spreads out of Arabia eastward to Central Asia, up to the borders of the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire in present day Turkey, and westward along the shores of the Mediterranean into Spain (Andalusia) and Sicily and parts of Southern Italy by the 9th century CE.  Interwoven with all three language groups is the coexistence of significant Jewish communities who are found in most of the commercial centers and university towns that will emerge.  We’ll look at each group independently and then ask how they overlap.

The map below shows in pink the extent of the Byzantine Empire in about 550 CE and its direct political rule and largely Greek speaking administration. The areas in green show the areas of political influence or recent political areas of control or persuasion over areas where Latin was still the main administrative language. Numerous other dialects and local languages prevail in all areas.


Map showing range of Byzantine Empire in 550 CE (direct rule and Greek speaking areas are in Red; extended areas of the empires control and influence in Latin speaking areas are shown in Light Orange) Source:


Areas of Latin Language as Administrative and Scholarly Language (During the Roman Empire Latin was an administrative language for the entire shaded areas and for much of Western Europe.  From about 450 CE Greek becomes the main administrative and commercial language in the Eastern Mediterranean until the arrival of Islam after 632.

The Spread of Arabic generally coincides with the spread of Islamic societies, dynasties and empires from 632 CE to 1500.  You may also view this interactive map of the Arab Conquests of the same period:

AREA of ARABIC LANGUAGE INFLUENCE by early 9thCE (shown in Green).  To the east, Arabic overlays with Persian, Greek, Turkic languages and is in contact with areas of South Asia where Sanskrit is used for administrative purposes and in the East where Chinese is both a commercial and administrative language.


 Spread of Arabic
Area in Green shows spread of Muslim civilization and also the use of Arabic either as a main or secondary language. Source: Peter von Sivers, Patterns of World History (2012)


Several regions overlap linguistically as the Arab conquests expanded.  This was particularly true in Spain where bilingualism between Arabic and one of the locally spoken Romance languages occurred (Faroqhi 2010).

A fourth major language with religious and secular importance in areas of scholarship is Hebrew. During the Middle Ages, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a significant Jewish population, where Catholic rulers in the North of Spain (Burgos, Catalonia, Aragon and Castile), and Muslim rulers in the South of Spain (Andalusia) would find subjects of various religious backgrounds. This changed dramatically in 1492 CE when the last Muslim dynasty in Granada was conquered by Isabella and Ferdinand, the rulers of the northern Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.