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65 of 95 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Avoid, 19 Aug. 2009
This review is from: The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (Hardcover)
Contrary to the other reviews, I found the book extremely poor. Lyons has no grasp of medieval Europe what so ever. He believes that T-O maps were actual attemps at drawing a map of the world. He ignores the actual theological basis of the maps. He also ignores many of the great European thinkers.

He tells us the West had no great scientist, but gives ample examples of the opposite. He takes many of his sources at face value. The speech of Uban II, for example, is not viewed as a rethorical speech of war, but as an actual account of Medieval life.

Moreover his account is largely about the rather obscure Adelard of Bath, a rather obscure monk whose influence is debatable. Historians doubt wether Adelard actually mastered Arabic. Lyons does not even mention this debate but assumes Adelard could read Arabic.

Most major books on the subject are not listed in the bibliography or the endnotes (how could he miss Hugh Kennedy's major book on the Arab conquest?). Much of his discourse on the Western European Dark Ages is based on works that are over 50 years old! He doesn't use any books that challenge his thoughts.

There are so many factual errors that it's impossible to name all of them. Just a few then.

On page 49 he qoutes from the Ecclesiastical history of the English people by Bede. The qoute relates, according to Lyons, to the battle of Poitiers, as Lyons calls it, but is known as the battle of Tours nowadays (as Lyons doesn't use any books on Western European history that postdate 1974 it's not suprising he has missed this name change). If so Bede must have been able to foresee the future. The battle took place in 732 (according to Lyons pre-1974 literature, 733 or 734 according to modern scholars), the book was written in 731.

Later on he mentions Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book that included the Christian Calendar, starting from 632, although the book was written in the 8th century. However in 632 there was no Christian calendar. Christians used the Roman calendar throughout the 7th and 8th century. It was Bede who thought of the Christian Calendar early in the 8th century, but it didn't catch on immediately.

West Europeans were capable of calculating Easter. The problem was not that they could not calculate but that they could not agree on the interpretations of the Bible. So the Celtic church celebrated Easter on the first day of Spring (regardless of whether this was on a Sunday), while the Romans did not. The Easter tables that were eventually adopted at the synod of Whitby (664 AD) are still in use today.

The Arabs did not invent the two cilinder pump. In fact this was an invention of the ancient Egypts. The Europans did not believe that disease was a punishment from God (if they did why would they need doctors?). They believed in the Greek theory of Galen and assumed there was an imbalance in the four humours. Of course there were Christians who believed that diseases were a punishment of God and took to exorcism, but this was by far a minority.

Medieval people did not think the Earth was flat. Isidore of Sevilla might have done, but this was not the general view of the Medieval academic world. How could he not mention the universities, by the way?

I could go on. But there are so many of them. Most derive from the imagination of Lyons, rather than from fact. None of the above fictions has an endnote.

This is by far the worst history book I have read in my life. And that's a pity because his central thesis is right! Large parts of Western science and Philosophy owe enourmous debt to Arabic learning (by the way, Arabic is not the same as Islamic and here again Lyons misses the point and does not mention that many achievements were reached despite Islam, as many Western inovations were made despite the church). And yes, European knowledge was remarkably poor at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Christians did destroy much of what the Ancients had written. But Medieval Europe was not as bad as Lyons thinks it was, and there was enormous progress, both thanks to the Arabs and thanks to Europeans themselves. Moreover he only focuses on The Franks and Normans (Vikings and Celts are not researched).

In his quest to hammer home his point, Lyons has recreated a Medieval world that never was. Somebody should rewrite this book in a more balanced way. For now, avoid this book.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 May 2010 17:33:45 BDT
S. U. Larsen says:
Thanks! I was beginning to think this was THE book on the subject, but your well-reasoned objections - so different to empty celebrations! - has made me hesitate and I shall look around a bit more.

I always keep

in mind.

Posted on 15 Sep 2010 22:19:47 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 15 Sep 2010 22:23:09 BDT]

Posted on 15 Sep 2010 22:23:44 BDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 16 Oct 2010 11:16:38 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Dec 2010 11:48:17 GMT
Canopus72 says:
You have raised a number of points. However, all of them are completely wrong. I must also question your motives for writing such a review. It seems to me very likely that you are a born again christian. Hence, your review will be incredibly biased and inaccurate. Please provide details of the supposed 'great western thinkers' during this era. It is an undisputed fact there were none. Furthermore, you barely skimmed the surface of the issue regarding christians and 'ancient knowledge'. The christians believed Greek academic work to be the work of the devil. Thus, during expansion in the Middle East, the christians took it upon themselves to completely destroy the great library of Alexandria. Subsequently, very few Greek texts managed to survive (no more than c. two dozen parchments of few and incomplete pages). It is also falsehood propagated by western historians that the Arabs gained all of their knowledge from Greek texts. The Greeks managed to correctly ascertain the basic premise in areas such as mathematics and medicine. However, the more advanced principles were completely wrong and the Arabs proved this. The Arabs not only corrected the Greek mistakes, but they also set the record straight. Furthermore, you are also unaware that it was the Visigoths who begged the Arabs to take control of their lands and to negotiate 'peace deals' amongst other tribes, as they were on the brink of extinction due to inherent tribal wars. Try watching 'when the muslim moors ruled Europe' by Bettany Hughes. She is an Oxford historian and her findings will blow all of your arguments out of the water.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Feb 2011 15:30:29 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Feb 2011 02:59:59 GMT
If Christians thought Greek learning was the work of the devil (which they did not - that is an ignorant slur) and as (only part of the holdings of) the Library of Alexandria was destroyed in 391, some centuries before the Arab conquest of Egypt in 639; and that the Christian Byzantine Empire ruled in Syria, Palestine and Egypt up to the time of the Arab conquest; how do you explain the survival of Greek learning at all, if Christians were unwilling to preserve it?
Modern historians place a heightened emphasis on the revival of links with Byzantium at the end of the 11th century in the process of translation and dissemination into W Europe. The Byzantines had never lost the knowledge of ancient Greek thought and learning (most of our finest versions of ancient texts are Byzantine Greek ones, not Arab versions). The old idea that everything was translated from Arabic in Spain has been seriously modified. Robert Grosseteste (one of the mythic European intellectuals you ask about) used Greek versions obtained probably from Southern Italy or Sicily.
I am afraid the Arabs were not the most intellectually forward of peoples before they conquered and absorbed the cultures of the Greek East. That is why the Dome of the Rock was built by Byzantine masons - they didn't know how to do it themselves. Now this is not to say that they never added to the knowledge they gained from the Greeks following their conquests - they certainly did. But it must be accepted that Arab learning (beyond their theology) is derived from that of the Greeks.
But the argument made in this review is that the Europeans were not as ignorant as is claimed. Bede knew the Earth was round, and described as such in De Temporum Ratione.
I think it would be fair to say that the reason that the intellectual effort of Europe was concentrated on theology in the centuries 500 - 900 is that this is where the culture of the time placed its greatest emphasis. For example, Arab astronomy developed from a need to accurately find the direction of Mecca. No such requirement acted as a spur to Christendom. Indeed in some aspects of achievement Europe was ahead of Islam, and would remain so - notably in the field of architecture. As for your statement that the 'advanced principles' of Greek mathematics were wrong and needed to be corrected, well Euclid stands as the foundation of all geometry, and his work needed no such 'correction'. Also, I must ponder, why if Arab science was so far advanced in the Middle Ages, did they meekly accept the Ptolemaic view of the universe? This is not a sneer at Arab learning - Copernicus only made the mental leap in the 16th cent. but the tired old idea that the Arabs had it centuries before the West just won't do. The real picture is a lot more complex and interesting; even if it does upset some pseudo-historical propaganda.
Oh and as for European thinkers, well I will start with Boethius, and add John the Scot and Anselm of Bec. I won't mention Abelard, Fulbert of Chartres or Anselm of Lyons, as they are a little late.
One thing is certain, once Europe had absorbed Greek learning in the century and a half following the First Crusade, Arab learning was overtaken. This is not jingoism, just fact. From Bacon to Aquinas Europe powered into the lead, intellectually - a position it still holds.

Bettany Hughes' documentary was very biased. For example the assertion that the artistic expressions, known as Courtly Love and the Troubadours, originate in Moorish Spain is highly contentious. It is one theory put forward, but is not a majority opinion by scholars in the field.
Also the inane attempt to argue that the Gothic architectural style derives from Islamic architecture is tenuous at best and certainly not as proposed in that travesty of an assertion. I suggest you read Wilson 'The Gothic Cathedral' to get a more realistic view of architectural history; it's a good place to start. The same warping of fact is true of her implication that Oxford University began as a direct result of one mans efforts to acquire translations of Arab texts. This makes no mention that the schools of Oxford had been growing in importance for many years prior to that - or that Paris had already developed a fully fledged university before the translations of texts really began. I must also add that the picture of Arabs being 'invited' to take over in Spain is far from the reality. Those Visigothic leaders, who could, escaped to the north of Iberia, from where they would eventually revive. Indeed the idea of happy coexistence in Moorish Spain is not the whole picture (leaving aside the crippling financial and legal discrimination for Christians and Jews), once the Almoravids conquered Alandalus, the Jews were driven out by ferocious persecution and sought sanctuary in the Christian kingdoms. (This latter b should really be born in mind when the 'bad' Christian attitude to Judaism in the Middle Ages is talked about, but that's another debate).
Hughs may be a historian - but she is no Medieval historian. In this field she is an amateur, and sadly one who seems to be on a mission to twist history for what seems to be a political agenda.

Finally maybe we should be told your religious faith, as you seem so quick to judge others? And your condemnation that a Christian is not capable of clear thought and unbiased conclusions is offensive and speaks of your bigotry, not that of the reviewers.

I also disagree with a little that the initial review said, although his questioning the significance of Adelard of Bath is valid, I feel it is over-stressed.

Posted on 12 Aug 2011 13:26:21 BDT
The ranty nature of the book and the unreliable historical "facts" made this book a huge disappointment for me as well. It's more ranting about how evil the Europeans were with little content on actual Islamic science. It's incredibly unbalanced and biased and far from what you'd call proper history writing.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Dec 2011 17:09:42 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Dec 2011 17:10:08 GMT
T. West says:
Phillip Shea, is this your review of the book or just a general rant from ignorance you keep reposting?

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Dec 2011 08:30:21 GMT
I am no white Christian chauvinist. Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures and civilizations are not inferior to the western one. And it's my opinion that Indians and far easterners are on average more intelligent than average white man. Turkish and Iranians, their religion notwithstanding, are intelligent and promising peoples. But Arabs, what have they done apart from harassing the Africans and taking them in slavery? They taught the white powers the strategy of raiding and taking in captivity the poor blacks. And, lo and behold, the less talented are always making a mess about their superiority. I just don't care. Go on making up fictitious history.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Jul 2012 20:46:42 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Jul 2012 20:56:28 BDT
So if Christians though Greek Learning was 'of the devil' why was Medieval Western Cosmology based on the Aristotelean concept of geocentrism- and why do we have the likes of Alfred the Great translating Boethuis (who attempted to reconcile Greek Philosophy with Christianity) as early as the 9th century? Why were some beliefs such as transubstationation in the Medieval church based on Platonic/Aristotlean principles?

"Furthermore, you are also unaware that it was the Visigoths who begged the Arabs to take control of their lands and to negotiate 'peace deals' amongst other tribes, as they were on the brink of extinction due to inherent tribal wars."

These would be the Arabs ruled by the Ummayad Caliphate of Damascus, which was overthrown by the Abbasids of Baghdad within a century or so, and survived only in Spain as the 'Caliphate' of Cordoba- which in turn fell as a result of of internal divisions, politcal upheaval, and the collapse of centralised power in the 10th-11th century and broke up into a series of different majority Islamic territories?
These being the same territories whose leaders were not adverse to hiring Christian mercenaries to fight for them against other Muslims?
What was that you were saying about coming to the brink of extinction due because of inter-tribal warfare?

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Feb 2013 18:26:27 GMT
Q555 says:
Please have a look at "A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe" by J W Draper if you can.
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