William of Moerbeke
Willem van Moerbeke, O.P. (1215-35 – c.1286), known in the English speaking world as William of Moerbeke was a prolific medieval translator of philosophical, medical, and scientific texts from Greek into Latin. His translations were influential in his day, when few competing translations were available, and, more to the point, are still respected by modern scholars.
Moerbeke was Flemish by origin (his surname indicating an origin in Moerbeke near Geraardsbergen), and a Dominican by vocation. Little is known of his life. In the spring of 1260 he was at either Nicea, or Nicles, in the Peloponnese; in the autumn of the same year, he was at Thebes, where the Dominicans had been since 1253 and where he dated his translation of Aristotle's De partibus animalum.
In turn he resided at the pontifical court of Viterbo (with evidence for his residence here in 22 November 1267, May 1268, and 15 June 1271), was in Orvieto in 1272, and appeared at the Council of Lyons (1274). Then, from 1277 until his death in 1286 (which probably occurred several months before the nomination of his successor as bishop in October 1286) occupied the Latin Archbishopric of Corinth, a Catholic see established in the northeastern Peloponnese (Greece) after the Fourth Crusade. It is not clear how much time he actually spent in his see: documents show him on mission in Perugia for the Pope in 1283 and dictating his will there.
He was associated with the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, the mathematician John Campanus, the Polish naturalist and physician Witelo, and the astronomer Henri Bate of Mechlin, who dedicated to William his treatise on the astrolabe.
At the request of Aquinas, so it is assumed—the source document is not clear—he undertook a complete translation of the works of Aristotle directly from the Greek or, for some portions, a revision of existing translations. The reason for the request was that many of the copies of Aristotle in Latin then in circulation had originated in Spain (see Gerard of Cremona), from Arabic whose texts had often passed through Syriac versions before being re-translated into Arabic.
Aquinas wrote his commentary on Aristotle's De anima, the translation of which from the Greek was completed by Moerbeke in 1267 while Aquinas was regent at the studium provinciale at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome, the forerunner of the 16th century College of Saint Thomas at Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.
By the 13th century there was concern that the Arabic versions had distorted the original meaning of Aristotle, and that the possible influence of the rationalist Averroes could be a source of philosophical and theological errors. William of Moerbeke was the first translator of the Politics (c. 1260) into Latin, as the Politics, unlike other parts of the Aristotelian corpus, had not been translated into Arabic. William's translations were already standard classics by the 14th century, when Henricus Hervodius put his finger on their enduring value: they were literal (de verbo in verbo), faithful to the spirit of Aristotle and without elegance. For several of William's translations, the Greek texts have since disappeared: without him the works would be lost.
In Umberto Eco's puzzle-mystery set in the 1320s, The Name of the Rose, there is some debate among the monks about Aristotle's Poetics (Second Day: Prime). Jorge of Burgos has condemned this book because knowledge of it came through the "infidel Moors" (as so much of Aristotle had indeed come). But the main character, William of Baskerville, knew that Aristotle's Poetics had recently been translated directly from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke.
William also translated mathematical treatises by Hero of Alexandria and Archimedes. Especially important was his translation of the Theological Elements of Proclus (made in 1268), because the Theological Elements is one of the fundamental sources of the revived Neo-Platonic philosophical currents of the 13th century. His translation of Proclus' commentary on Plato's Parmenides which included Plato's dialogue up to 142b in Stephanus pagination made this text available in Latin for the first time.
The Vatican collection holds William's own copy of the translation he made of the greatest Hellenistic mathematician, Archimedes, with commentaries of Eutocius, which was made in 1269 at the papal court in Viterbo. William consulted two of the best Greek manuscripts of Archimedes, both of which have since disappeared. The manuscript, in his own hand, was in the exhibition Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture at the Library of Congress in 1993.
- 14C manuscript of the Metaphysics, from the Schoenberg collection.
- Many of William of Moerbeke's translations of Aristotle have been published on CD-ROM.
- Torrell, 161 ff.
- "Aristutalis" in Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd. ed. Brill, Leiden, Vol.1 p. 631.
- Klibansky, R. Plato's Parmenides in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. (The Warburg Institute, 1943), p. 4.