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R. E. Verhoef

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The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization
The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization
by Jonathan Lyons
Edition: Hardcover

72 of 104 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Avoid, 19 Aug. 2009
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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