Adelard of Bath: A brief synopsis

It could be a valid opinion that Adelard is our greatest Bathonian, by a long way. He was world-famous in his day and, for several centuries, Bath was known primarily as the birthplace of Adelard. But today, in his native city, he is entirely forgotten; a strange case of civic amnesia. The few people who think they have heard of him get him mixed up with the Frenchman Peter Abelard of the ill-fated love affair with Heloise (they were contemporary and almost certainly met).
He was one of the great Minds of the Middle Ages, a Renaissance Man 300 years ahead of his time; primarily a Mathematician and Astronomer but also a Philosopher, Scientist, Astrologer, Alchemist, Medic, Musician and Government official; a Polymath who could aspire to know everything, a type impossible in the modern age. He was also a snappy dresser and was well known around Bath for his magnificent green cloak; also his green emerald signet ring with astrological associations.
He was born around 1080 and lived to a ripe old age into the 1150s. He is thus part of the Norman period. In Bath we are aware of the Roman and Georgian periods of our history but are rather ignorant of the rest; the Norman period tends to be a perfect and absolute blank. But we were then a conquered Nation; the last time this has ever happened to us; under the Norman “jackboot”. 10 thousand Norman carpetbaggers lorded it over 2 million English people, having confiscated all the wealth, property and power, treating the locals with contempt.
In 1088, when Adelard was a lad, Bath was sacked and laid waste by Norman troops. The Saxon Church, where Edgar had been crowned in 973, was destroyed. Following the Conqueror’s death there was a disputed succession and this was on behalf of Robert, Duke of Normandy, but Robert never showed up, having departed on the first Crusade, and the revolt fizzled. King William Rufus sold what was left of Bath to John of Tours, who had been the Conqueror’s doctor, for a “song”; he became Bishop of Bath & Wells (they had our bodies, minds and souls) and he moved the seat of the Diocese to Bath building the Cathedral which was bigger than the present Abbey and one of the major structures of Europe.
Adelard attended the local Cathedral school and, as a very bright local lad, became a protégé of John who then sent him to the leading Cathedral School at Tours where he studied the Trivium and Quadrivium. He always remained a Lay member of the Benedictines. Following that he took a group of students from Bath, including his nephew, to study for a couple of years at the Cathedral School at Laon in northern France. He had received the best education available in Western Europe but knew that it was sadly lacking.
He knew of the glories of medieval Islam. The Arab armies had carved out an Empire stretching from Spain in the West, across North Africa, with its heart in the Middle East, and reaching through northern India to Indonesia in the East. It was not just a political and religious Empire but also an Empire of Knowledge. The early Caliphs had thirsted for learning and knowledge and had soaked up all the classical works of ancient Greece, which had been lost to Western Europe, the knowledge of their conquered lands, especially Persia, and also the knowledge of adjacent lands especially of the Hindu scholars in the Rajasthan. This was in contrast to Christianity which rejected and suppressed learning and knowledge and put Western Europe into a deep freeze for 1,200 years. At this time the Arabs were 800 years ahead of us.
Adelard was attracted to the Studia Arabum and departed for the Mediterranean and Middle East to study with the Arab scholars, apparently the only western scholar to do this, and was resident there for seven years, travelling widely. He returned with a wealth of material and knowledge and was a changed man. He spent the rest of his life, mostly resident in Bath, translating great works from Arabic into Latin and causing a series of sensations in the West. He also wrote some original works, one major and several minor. Amazingly, his works are still largely extant, with copies, generally in Latin on parchment documents, spread around Libraries, Universities and other collections throughout the World.
His major work was Quaestiones Naturales, written on his return from the Middle East,which was a Standard in the West for centuries and was one of the first books to be printed when that technology appeared 300 years later. De Eodem et Diverso was an early philosophical work written when he had finished his studies at Tours, in an engaging style; he was known as a good teacher and raconteur.
His main claim to fame was his translation of Euclid’s 13 Elements of Geometry, dating from 300 B.C., which had been largely lost to the West and which answered seemingly intractable problems; this led to great advances especially in the field of Architecture. He also translated Al-Khwarizmi’s Zij, or Star Tables, which caused another sensation; suddenly it was realised that the Heavens were not just the unchanging face of Creation but a working laboratory to help Man work out his own place in time and space; it caused a change in the general Mindset.
A current controversy is about his role, if any, in the technological transfer of the Arabic Numerals and the Zero to Western Europe? These had not been lost; they had never been known in the West anyway. It is difficult to see how the Greeks and Romans could effectively have done any Arithmetic (the Roman numeral system could be used for writing down the questions and answers but the Arithmetic must have been done on the Abacus)? The answer hinges on whether Adelard was the author of the unsigned Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi’s main work on Mathematics, itself derived from the works of the Hindu scholars.
He wrote practical manuals on the operation of the Abacus, de regule Abaci, and the Astrolabe, de opera Astrolapsus; the latter expanded into a more general review of Astronomy and was dedicated, in familiar terms, to the young Prince Henry who was shortly to become Henry 11, one of England’s greatest Kings. During the Anarchy, Bath was with King Stephen but Bristol was with the Empress Matilda and the young Prince was resident in Bristol with his mother. Adelard must have had a foot in both camps and it is probable that he was tutor to the Prince; in the dedication he exhorts him to be a Philosopher King, tolerant of all religions and beliefs and recognizing the authority of the Arabs; i.e. scientists and thinkers; and not that of the rigid Church Elders.
He was deep into Astrology, normal for the times and requiring expert knowledge in Astronomy, and cast horoscopes for King Henry 1. There are a set of ten mid-twelfth century royal horoscopes in the British Library, unsigned, but there were only two men in England who could have written them and, if they are by Adelard, which is probable, they are a sort of autograph. He wrote a number of minor works on Astrology.
He was also an Alchemist and wrote a book with the mock-humble title (to throw the authorities off the scent?) A Little Key to Drawing. There are nearly 400 recipes, a third of which appear to be added by Adelard, including the manufacture of sweets using sugarcane, then unknown in the West, and the brewing of alcohol. The modern sciences of Astronomy and Chemistry owe a huge debt to the early works in Astrology and Alchemy.
He was not a doctor but had acquired considerable medical knowledge with the Arabs. He had witnessed a cadaver trussed in a flowing stream, the water washing away the flesh and revealing the systems of blood vessels and nerves; strictly forbidden by the Christian Church at the time. He wrote a little book called de Cura Accipitrum which was a manual on the care of Birds of Prey and which demonstrates his medical knowledge; Hawking was the sport of royalty and the nobility at the time.
He was also a musician, having studied Music in the Quadrivium at Tours, and played the Cithera. On his return from the Middle East he played it for Queen Matilda (Henry 1’s wife) at Easter 1116 (at Bath?).
He was a member of Henry 1’s Court; i.e. a Government official; with responsibilities for the Exchequer Table, the system for tax-gathering. It is recorded that, late in his life, and as a member of the Court, he was excused from a Murder Fine in West Wiltshire. The simmering resentment of the English towards the Normans often erupted in violence and Henry 1 brought in a law which stipulated that if a Norman was murdered by an Englishman, if the local Hundred did not cough up the culprit, they would be levied with a large collective fine. This also tells us that he lived in West Wiltshire, probably a small estate just over the county boundary and near to Bath.
He never married (too busy?) but was close to his nephew who was a sort of working colleague.
Michael Davis, BRLSI Convenor
“Adelard returns to Bath” programme
October 2009

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