Encounters with Alcabitius: Reading Arabic Astrology in Premodern Europe
By Margaret Gaida
PhD Dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 2017
The most popular text on astrology in medieval Europe was al-Qabīṣī’s Kitāb al‐mudkhal ilā ṣināʿat aḥkām al‐nujūm, or Alcabitius’s Introductorius ad magisterium iudiciorum astrorum, which was translated from Arabic into Latin by John of Seville in the 1130s. The extant manuscripts of the Introduction to Astrology number more than two hundred. Coupled with this fact, the commentaries written on the Introduction from Paris and Bologna in the 1320s and 1330s suggest that the text was taught at universities. In addition to the Latin manuscripts, there were additional translations made into Hebrew, Castilian, Italian, French, German, English, and Dutch, which indicate the broad and diverse medieval readership of the text. Twelve printed editions,
ranging from 1473 to 1521, and two commentaries from the 1560s, show the longevity of the text’s popularity. The Introdution to Astrology was also not entirely unique; several other Arabic astrological authors attained a broad readership in the medieval period, including Abū Maʿshar (Albumasar), Sahl ibn Bishr (Zael), Māshā’allāh (Messehalla), and ʿAli ibn Rijāl (Haly Abenragel). Each of these authors composed texts of which there are now at least one hundred extant manuscripts. Judging from the numbers of manuscripts alone, it is evident that Arabic texts were central to medieval European astrological knowledge and practice.
Despite this fact, the importance of the Arabic influence on the development of European science continues to be downplayed or underestimated. Alcabitius’s Introduction, for example, did not garner much attention among historians until fairly recently. While the number of extant manuscripts alone should have been an indication that it was a very influential text which warranted scholarly attention, a critical edition was not prepared until 2004. The fact that the text lingered in obscurity for so many years after its enormous popularity in the premodern period can be attributed to three main factors. First, due to the contemporary reputation of astrology among many scholars, the history of astrology was not taken seriously until recently. Second, the text was of Arabic origin. Although Averroes and Avicenna have been the subject of many important scholarly projects, there has been much less attention given to other Arabic writers concerning their influence on the development of medieval European science and philosophy. Third, the Introduction was, for lack of a better word, a textbook. As an introductory text which contained unoriginal content, at first glance the Introduction may have been considered boring or repetitive. However, sometimes genres that may be considered off-shoots or show lack of innovation can be crucial to our understanding of the transmission of texts and ideas. In the case of the Introduction, perhaps one of these factors would not have been so damning. Taken together, however, they resulted in a lack of appreciation for the importance of Alcabitius’s Introduction.