William of Moerbeke Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Along with many translations of classical works by other authors, William provided Europe with its first Latin translations from the Greek of Aristotle’s major works.

Early Life

The enthusiasm of the Europeans for classical Greek works, particularly Aristotle, during the thirteenth century was overwhelming. The establishment of the Latin Empire in Constantinople in 1205 drove this enthusiasm because of the easy access to Greek manuscripts which it provided. Pope Innocent III encouraged the translation of these works into Latin. King Philip II of France founded a school in Paris for the purpose of teaching Latin to Byzantines residing in his country. Roger Bacon, the great medieval scientist, wrote a Greek grammar. The revival of Aristotle, in particular, led to renewed interest in science and a more accurate perspective on classical philosophy.

No one did more to reinforce this interest in the classics than Robert Grosseteste and William of Moerbeke, the two who did most of the translations from Greek into Latin. The effect of the translations was revolutionary, and Moerbeke was the hero of this effort. Only Gerard of Cremona, a great Arab-Latin translator of the twelfth century, matched William’s productivity and range of material translated.

William was Flemish, born near Gent, then in the duchy of Brabant, in about 1215. Innocent III had just recognized the Dominican Order at the Fourth Lateran Council. William entered the Dominican priory in Gent, where his education began. Later, he studied in Paris and Cologne, where he probably knew Albertus Magnus, one of the great teachers of the century. The fact that William was a Neoplatonist reflected the dominant intellectual climate of both Paris and Germany; Albertus Magnus and his students, such as Ulrich of Strasbourg and the greatest of the medieval mystics, Meister Eckhart, were also Neoplatonists. Significantly, William contributed to this spirit of mysticism with his translation of Proclus, finished in 1268, which became the basis of Christian humanism. William joined the papal court of Urban IV, who patronized William and encouraged his translations. This support, which came at the beginning of the 1260’s, marked the beginning of William’s astoundingly productive career as a Greek translator.

Life’s Work

At the same time, also at the papal court, William met Saint Thomas Aquinas, who became his lifelong friend and who urged him to revise the existing Arab-to-Latin Aristotelian texts and to translate previously unknown ones coming into Europe from Byzantium. Thomas believed that the direct translations would give European scholars, such as himself, a clearer understanding of Aristotle’s philosophical intentions. The pope also wished to use the direct translations to curb Averroism, which conveyed Aristotle with Neoplatonic and Islamic overtones and was unacceptable—in part because of the strong undercurrent of superstition that ran through the Arabic texts.

Between 1260 and 1278,...

(The entire section is 1257 words.)