Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (780 – 850)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it

solar syatemMuḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was one of those historical figures that many modern Europeans like to pretend never existed. He was a Muslim scholar in the Baghdad House of Wisdom (which we shall discover later in this series). He is famous for his contributions to mathematics, astronomy, geography and geometry.

His most well-known book, translated twice into Latin by medieval scholars concerned algorithmic logic and is the reason that some modern thinkers have credited him with the first, faltering steps toward the modern computer. Without al-Khwārizmī’s algorithms modern computer programmes and even computer codes would be impossible. The book was entitled Hisab al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabala in Arabic, the middle section being preserved in English as ‘Algebra’ – another of al-Khwārizmī’s inventions.

The great man’s approach to algebra has resulted in much more than merely the psychological torture of schoolchildren. It is the foundation of countless mathematical operations involving a range of disciplines from statistical analysis (a fundamental tool of modern science) to engineering, navigation technology and even artistic design. In his own time he employed his algebraic algorithms to practical problems of the time such as dividing inheritances according to complex familial relationships and hierarchies or working out astronomical positions. He even designed and computed logarithmic tables (without the aid of a calculator) His influential book contained hundreds of worked examples of both algorithmic and geometric equations.

In addition to his mathematical achievements al-Khwārizmī also developed significant advances in geography and cartography. It was he who oversaw the creation of a map of the world (as he knew it). This massive project involved literally dozens of cartographers working under al-Khwārizmī’s supervision and guidance. He also calculated the true positions of the sun and moon, predicted their future positions in his own astronomical almanac and represented a significant improvement on the previous, much less accurate, Ptolemaic perspective. The resulting work allowed him to develop calendars, accurate calculation points for sundials and even several tools based upon optics and shadows for thee use in contemporary architecture and surveying. It was due to al-Khwārizmī’s developments that the practice of using sundials to denote and standardise the time for Muslim prayers began.

You can find links to each post in the ‘Civilisation’ series here

Posted in Book, History, Civilisation, Collections & series, All posts | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Offa – King of Mercia (730 – 796)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it

OffaWhat were you doing at the age of 27? I was a first year student desperately trying to learn the difference between my arse and my elbow. Fortunately nobody trusted me with any real responsibility for anything, let alone a whole kingdom. But then my name isn’t Offa.

Born in 730, the son of Thingfrith and the cousin of King Aethelbald of Mercia, Offa ascended the throne following his royal cousin’s murder at the hands of a particularly unhelpful bloke called Beornraed. Ironically enough, Beornraed was one of the unfortunate King’s own bodyguard.

Aethelbald had reigned for four decades and kept a passable peace. It seems he was a lover, not a fighter. Unfortunately his pacifistic love-in extended to other peoples’ wives and to several nuns too. All of this seemed like a bit of a rum do to Boniface (later St. Boniface) who appears to have organised (or at least didn’t object terribly much to) his murder along with someone or other from Athelbald’s own royal house.

From 757 – 771 King Offa busied himself consolidating and fortifying his kingdom and his rule. Then, once his position was secure he went on the offensive.

First he attacked and overcame the rebellious people of Hastings on the South coast. Then he turned his attention to the unruly Kentish warriors and soon subdued them as well. After that it was the turn of the West Saxons and finally the Welsh. Offa’s may not have been the largest empire the world had ever known but his expansion and consolidation of relatively large parts of Southern England was instrumental in laying the borders of England itself. His famous dyke marked the border between England and Wales along a route that remains almost identical today.

Offa’s kingdom was important in that for the first time he united large swathes of England from the South coast to East Anglia and as far North as the Midlands. He even created a new Bishopric (Lichfield) with the blessing of the Pope in Rome.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though and his kingdom was fraught with rebellion. Kent regained its independence in 796 on the occasion of Offa’s death but the bulk of his united England stayed together, albeit leaderless for a time.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

Civilisation comment request

Posted in All posts, Civilisation, Collections & series, History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charlemagne (742 – 814)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

CharlemagneThe name Charlemagne is a contraction of the Frankish name Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great/Charles le Magne). It’s a title that Charles I richly deserved. This one ruler united much of modern France, Italy and Germany. Eventually he became the Holy Roman Emperor and even managed to make inroads into Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), albeit briefly. In fact when the Muslims pushed North from Al-Andalus into modern France it was Charlemagne’s forces that stopped them, driving the Moors back into the Iberian Peninsula.

Charles the Great stood 6’4” in height – tall by today’s standards but a veritable giant at the time. The average height for men in 8th century Europe was around 5’6” which meant he towered almost a full foot in height over most of his subjects. He was skilled in battle, presumably his height gave him a pretty big advantage anyway, and also a tactical genius and extremely proficient statesman.

Charlemagne is famous for so many things that it’s difficult to know where to start. He founded the Palace School at Aachen alongside much more that was of benefit to those he ruled. His commitment to order and unification throughout his Empire was remarkable for the time and his policy of opening the Aachen complex to all social ranks was remarkable progressive for the time. His successful campaign against the invading Muslims of Al Andalus almost certainly prevented further Islamic expansion into Christendom. His model of expansionist government, based upon the ancient Roman model, reintroduced the concept of working with rather than against existing local leaders and was much more benign than other rulers of the period. Charlemagne was a great supporter of the church and even introduced a legal basis for tithing (taxing subjects for the church) and sent missionaries into Pagan lands in the name of Jesus.

Perhaps the most significant of Charlemagne’s achievements was his impact upon knowledge and education. In fact that’s just about the only thing he did that survived him by more than a couple of generations. His empire disintegrated into a host of smaller kingdoms within a few decades of his death and with it most of his legal achievements disappeared too. But his love of learning had a lasting impact both for the good and for the bad.

Charlemagne’s policy of finding, copying, standardising and disseminating great texts has left a lasting legacy. This commitment to knowledge and to education has come to be known as the Carolingian renaissance, a period of enlightenment, the arts and rediscovery of the classics that prefigured the later European renaissance by 700 years. Arguably, without the dedication of this great Emperor there would have been precious little to rediscover in the later renaissance anyway. That was the good part of his legacy.

The bad part relates to what we now might call a ‘brain drain’. Charlemagne actively sought out the greatest scholars throughout Christendom and brought them to his court at Aachen where they communicated and wrote in Latin – the only language they all had in common. This effectively robbed their home countries of the best minds and also made future discovery inaccessible to most of their native countrymen. It was difficult enough in those days to find someone who could read and write in the vernacular tongue, let alone in Latin.

By working so hard to unify scholasticism the emperor actually limited its scope and when his empire disappeared the culture of learning he’d inspired disappeared with it. The books remained but the commitment to learning in the countries he’d drawn his scholars like Alcuin from had been seriously damaged.

Civilisation comment request

You can find links to each post in the ‘Civilisation’ series here

Posted in All posts, Civilisation, History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Civilisation part 3 – PDF download


Today’s been something of  marathon. I’ve written four blog posts, updated loads of cross-referencing links and made the final PDF for part 3 of the civilisation series.

You can download Civilisation book 3 here.


Civilisation 3

Posted in All posts, Book, Civilisation, Collections & series, History | Leave a comment

Jābir ibn Hayyān (721 – 815)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

GeberMeet Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (AKA Geber). A true polymath, Abu Musa was conversant in astronomy, engineering, chemistry, philosophy, physics, medicine and pharmacology, music, logic, rhetoric, biology, geometry and metaphysics. He seems to have developed well over a dozen foundational chemical apparatus and processes. Boethius would have been proud of him. He mastered the Trivium and the quadrivium and then some! Less reputable by today’s standards he was also a renowned practitioner of alchemy and astrology. Well – it was only the 8th century. Mumbo jumbo was much more acceptable then.

Geber attributed his considerable expertise to a diverse range of ancient authors including Democritus, Galen, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates as well as Pythagoras

In the West he is known as Geber. In the East his identity is a topic of much debate and even hotly disputed. By the thirteenth century an otherwise anonymous writer, now called ‘psuedo-Geber’ wrote a number of treatises on alchemy calling himself ‘Geber’.

Apparently Geber even wrote instruction manuals on how to create living creatures. I can’t imagine that would have gone down well in any caliphate, Ummayad or otherwise. Geber was into experimentation which does beg a few questions relating to his assertion about life-giving. I can’t help but wonder how he went about such experiments and whether or not their results might be reproducible. Speculation aside it’s clear that Geber was influential in the development of chemistry (among other things) and was another early adopter of experimentation. I can’t help but wonder how much more he might have achieved if he lived in Al-Andalus instead of Persia.

Geber works

Geber’s native Persia (now Iran) was part of the Islamic Ummayad caliphate in his time. He supported the Abbasid uprising against the Ummayad dynasty which seems to have been a bit of a bad move because it ended up with his beheading. Not the best plan for anyone aspiring to live at least a little longer.

Written in Arabic, much of his work is complex and intentionally obscure. Gebus deliberately made it difficult (if not impossible) for the uninitiated to understand what he was writing. That probably pissed off a few people too. There is a theory that the word ‘Gibberish’ is based upon the name Geber precisely because of his habit of making his work unintelligible to anyone not already ‘in the know’.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

Civilisation comment request

Posted in All posts, Civilisation, Collections & series, History, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alcuin of York (735 – 804)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Alcuin of York 2We recently looked at The venerable Bede, an 8th century monk to whom we owe much of our knowledge about the England of the period. Some people argue that this Northern polymath tells us more about his own region than he does about England as a whole. His works do certainly display a Northern-centric flavour and so it’s no surprise that one of his most famous students is also associated with a great Northern town of the early medieval period.

Alcuin of York was born in Northumbria. He was a product of the ‘Northumbrian Renaissance’. Inspired by Bede of Jarrow he threw himself into the scholastic world and like Bede he ploughed his way through the library at York minster. It seems a shame that Bede died the same years that Alcuin was born. A few decades difference might have made an even greater Alcuin than the one who followed in Bede’s footsteps but never met in reality.

Alcuin read voraciously and soon became well-versed in the thoughts and writings of previous great minds from Aristotle to Augustine, from Gregory to Jerome and, of course, of Bede himself. Like his predecessor Bede, Alcuin tells us a great deal about the social and philosophical norms of his day. In addition to his larger works over 300 of his letters survive to form a rich source of contemporary understanding.

And yet he was among the last of his kind. By the end of the ninth century King Alfred the Great would find himself ruling over a land where knowledge and education had all but disappeared. This decline in English scholarship was partly due to the impact of the Viking era but also partly due to the European ‘brain drain’ of which Alcuin himself was very definitely a part.

Having established himself as one of England’s foremost religious and philosophical thinkers Alcuin left these islands in 781 (aged around 45) and joined the court of Charlemagne. This was no random move – so famous was this scholarly monk from the North of England that the great Emperor actually went to the trouble of sending an envoy to invite him to share in the emperor’s great project. The Carolingian emperor had embarked on a project of learning and preservation of knowledge that made his court the intellectual envy of the world and Alcuin played a major part in the process.

It was Alcuin who introduced Charlemagne to Bede’s work. It was Alcuin who oversaw the translation into Latin (the language of scholarship throughout European Christendom) of many classical texts that Europeans would otherwise not have accessed for another thousand years. It may well have been Alcuin who dramatically simplified and accelerated the process of copying manuscripts by devising the Carolingian miniscule ‘hand’ (font) that was both easier to write and simpler to read.

It was Alcuin who defined the method for calculating Easter for Charlemagne and he was extremely influential in Charlemagne’s project to standardise religious services and to ensure that standard religious texts were available in every church throughout the Carolingian empire. This was a monumental task and yet Alcuin seems not to have been phased by it at all.

Alcuin also advised the emperor on matters that seem more suited to the modern world that the medieval. He helped define the limits of both church and state and the boundary of Charlemagne’s authority therein. It was Alcuin who persuaded Charles to stop converting Pagans under pain of death on the grounds that forced conversion is no conversion at all in any meaningful sense. His work on the correct way for kings to rule was instrumental in shaping the philosophy of the whole Carolingian empire.

By the end of his life the emperor had shifted Europe’s intellectual centre from England to the continent and Alcuin was a large part of that whole transition process. Fortunately for both men the collapse of the intellectually driven empire they had worked so hard to build did not happen until after their deaths, in Alcuin’s case as Abbot of Tours, a position he’d accepted in 796. He died 8 years later and was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in due course.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

Civilisation comment request

Posted in All posts, Civilisation, Collections & series, History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dear troll

David, you seem to be quite slow of understanding so let me spell it out for you…

Your comments are not welcome on my blog and will not be published. I am not in the least bit interested in your Nazism. Nor do your dichotomous opinions of my character concern me.

For someone who seems to be an elderly gentleman your thinking is remarkably immature. Your behaviour is too.
You may be old – you certainly sounded old when you spoke on the ‘phone but that doesn’t mean you’re a ‘grown-up’ in any meaningful sense of the term. On the contrary, your behaviour seems to have much more in common with a petulant adolescent who cannot cope with the fact that not everyone sees things his way.

Please understand that your ridiculous assertions about my character, my opinions, my political persuasion and my writing style are irrelevant to me. They will never be published on my blog. As I have said several times already this blog is not a platform for you to spout your racist bigotry.

Please grow up, you foolish little man!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments