Spain on the Horizon

Some Notes on Astronomy and Medieval England
Raúl Ariza-Barile

The idea of medieval Spain as a multicultural haven where Muslims, Jews, and Christians peacefully coexisted with one another, convivencia , remains a powerful, best-selling myth. Even reputed scholars such as the late María Rosa Menocal have championed the notion, suggesting in her book The Ornament of the World , that Muslims, Jews, and Christians created “cultures of tolerance” despite salient cultural differences. Good read though it is, the book advocates a romanticized view of Spain’s medieval past, a view that lingers in contemporary constructions of Spanish nation-making. Whether or not Spain was unusually multicultural during much of its medieval period is not the question here; historical records, literature, music, and art suggest it was. My problem with this apparent celebration of cultural diversity is that it appears to homogenize rather than highlight difference, and that it has become a strategy to create a politics of memory. But using multiculturalism as a political tool would have come as no surprise to the political elites of twelfth-century Toledo, a city that, if not quite a religious sanctuary for Jews and Muslims in an eminently Christian land, did serve as a de facto buffer zone for people of diverse origins—East and West.

Due to its strategic location in central Castile, Toledo was the capital of Iberia’s most powerful kingdom, a center that, in the words of Dorothee Metliztky, allowed “the Latin ‘intelligentsia’ to come into closest contact with Islamic society.” (10) It was here that a relative permissiveness towards non-Christian Iberians occurred, but only to a certain extent and for purely political reasons. Castilian monarchs understood that, if they were to implement their ambitious imperial programs, they had to pragmatically welcome Jewish and Arab aides in their political circles, as they considered academic learning an effective instrument of conquest and colonization. Around the year 1170, a young Anglo-Norman princess, Eleanor, daughter to the very Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been betrothed to marry king Alfonso VIII of Castile.[1] Like all medieval dynastic marriages, the union of Eleanor of England and Alfonso was meant to strengthen political links, but it also had unlikely, if fortunate consequences: the presence of an English queen in Toledo signaled the beginning of direct cultural traffic between England and the Iberian Peninsula, and with that, the circulation of astronomical texts and treatises a century later.

As Sigmund Eisner notes, the modern distinction between astronomy and astrology did not mean the same to medieval Europeans. It could mean anything from determining the aligning of planets to arts of calculation or simply measuring geographical direction. Such blurred concepts feature prominently in Ptolemy’s Almagest, the Hellenistic text that would become the principal astronomical treatise of medieval Europe. Before the twelfth century, the only available versions of the text existed in Greek and Arabic. It was Gerard of Cremona, a Toledo-based translator and scholar, who was responsible for the transmission of the text into Latin. Gerard arrived in Toledo around 1140 so he could be in contact with Arabic science and consequently, work with versions of the Almagest that existed in the city’s scriptoria.

Toledo was a center of polyglot, cosmopolitan learning, home to one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. At its heyday in the mid-twelfth century, the so-called Toledo School of Translators saw its clerics work effectively in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and of course, Spanish. Shortly after the marriage of Leonor and Alfonso, an Englishman whose figure remains shadowy arrived in Toledo via Oxford and Paris to become a disciple of Gerard. Daniel of Morley (born ca. 1140) a cleric from Norwich, studied directly from Gerard’s translations and witnessed the scriptorium’s use of Castilian as a vehicle for scientific lore, something that presumably impressed him. We know for example that at least some of Daniel’s firsthand experience with translation involved Spanish (“in lingua Tholetana”), according to Charles Burnett (254). As such, many of the Arabic materials and texts that the English astronomer would have been familiar with were in fact, adaptations or versions from the Spanish language. After spending many years in Spain, the scholar returned to Norwich and ultimately, to Oxford, where, according to Lynn Thorndike, he had brought a considerable number of scientific manuscripts directly linked to Toledo, including versions of the Almagest (540). Thus, in the travel from Hellenistic Greece to twelfth-century Oxford, Spain played a fundamental role not only as a bridge between languages and cultures. Importantly, the role of Spanish as a scientific vernacular also impacted the transmission of what was arguably the dominant astronomic text of the Middle Ages.

So prominent were these ideas on vernacularization that, by the time Alfonso X (the Wise) rose to power in 1252, Spanish had already superseded Latin and Arabic as the principal languages of academic learning. Quite unlike any of his Castilian predecessors, Alfonso’s tenure saw the most remarkable achievements in literature, science, and the arts ever experienced within an Iberian Christian kingdom in the Middle Ages, as William D. Phillips notes: “Alfonso’s [cultural contributions] were part of a large movement of the transmission of knowledge from the Islamic world to the Latin west through translation, often by Jewish scholars in Spain both fluent in Arabic and Latin, of Arabic scientific treatises and Arabic versions of Hellenistic scientific and philosophical works.” (73) In addition to Cremona’s work in the previous century, Toledo had seen other important accomplishments, most notably the composition of the Toledan Tables, which measured the movements of celestial bodies considering Toledo as a center. These tables are a collaborative work; no one author can be directly identified as the sole producer, but they follow closely the theories of a tremendously important astronomer from Andalusia based in Toledo, al-Zarqali, most commonly known as Azarkel.[2] Gerard of Cremona himself translated these tables into Latin, and given, his collaboration with Daniel of Morley, it would be reasonable to suggest that the tables made their way to England sometime in the mid-twelfth century as well. In 1272, an important Castilian text specifically commissioned by Alfonso X was meant to supply the Arabic and Latin versions respectively, and remained, according to José Chabás and Bernard Goldstein, the dominant tables in the late Middle Ages.[3]

Alfonso pursued an aggressive foreign policy, which contemplated England. In 1254, Alfonso’s half-sister, Eleanor of Castile, married Edward I, famous for the expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290. Like her half-brother, Eleanor was heavily invested in cultural patronage. Historical records show that she was well liked in England and that her marriage to Edward was reasonably successful. A culturally interesting fact is that this Spanish queen established a scriptorium in England that was known for the circulation of illuminated manuscripts and miscellanies, many of them associated with Oxford. The Alfonsine Tables are likely to have circulated at these literary courts. In fact, later English adaptations adjusted the center and latitude to focus on Oxford as a center rather than Toledo. As such, the connection between two major European centers of learning was secured thanks to astronomy and translation. Eleanor was also responsible for the transmission of another important scientific compilation that, though not originating in Iberia, did become retranslated at Toledan courts in the twelfth century, De Compositione et Operatione Astrolabii, widely attributed to the eighth-century Judeo-Persian astronomer Massha’allah ibn Athari (Messahallah). In the thirteenth century, astrolabes were already well known in Western Europe, but the models available to Englishmen might have had some Spanish influence. Messahalla’s treatise, then, is important because it speaks to the astrolabe’s journey from Greece to the Islamic centers of culture in the Arabian peninsula, on to Andalusia, and ultimately, to England and the rest of the European continent. Because medieval notions of translation were imagined to include physical displacements, one could argue that Eleanor was therefore responsible for the material introduction of astrolabes to England in the mid-thirteenth century, thus transferring an important array of scientific lore from the classical, Muslim, and Iberian worlds (Eisner 9). By the late-fourteenth century, when Granada remained the only Muslim-governed territory in Iberia, but England had for sure benefitted from more than three centuries of Iberian translation.

So far, I have mentioned three entities with direct connection to Spain, but Hispano-Muslim scientific traditions also impacted the work of major writers indirectly. Consider, for example, the very Geoffrey Chaucer, who in addition to being a superb storyteller, was also an accomplished translator and wrote about science in the vernacular, like his Toledan counterparts had done in the previous century. Astronomy features prominently in many of Chaucer’s major works. In the Miller’s Tale (the second story in the larger Canterbury Tales project), Nicholas, a young, lustful clerk, is known to study and reference the Almagest extensively, a text which had been retranslated in Spain. More central to this discussion’s concern though is Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, based partly on Messahalla’s text for his ten-year-old son Lewis. Although there is no one direct source for the treatise, a number of scholars generally agree that, in addition to De Compositione, Chaucer would have probably been familiar with the work of al-Zarqali and its subsequent Alfonsine translation in Castilian (we do not know conclusively if Chaucer read Spanish despite being deeply connected to John of Gaunt, who was married to a Castilian noblewoman). The Astrolabe, however, makes no explicit mention of any direct source, although Chaucer does acknowledge that his goal is to write in understandable English because his son is too young to read Latin proficiently: “Latyn canst thou yit but small, my litel sone” (27-8), and he proceeds to mention the cultural circumstances of translation, suggesting that whatever knowledge he might have about astronomy, he owes it to the Greeks, Arabs, Jews, and, importantly Latin translators. Such context of polyglotism is, in fact, historically consistent with the Toledo School of Translators. And, just as Alfonso and his predecessors calculated stars and objects in relation to Toledo, Chaucer instructs his son to use his astrolabe “after the latitude of Oxenforde.” (10) Of perhaps greater importance, however, is the fact that Chaucer’s Astrolabe envisions English—a vernacular language—as a suitable means to write about science and technology, something that would have struck learned Iberians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as only natural.

In their obsession with primeval sources and indirect references, literary medievalists are in many ways archaeologists. Nonetheless, in this travel from England to Iberia in the Middle Ages, it is sometimes possible to supply concrete documentary evidence to illustrate a number of facts. Chaucer’s Franklin Tale, set on the shores of Brittany, is a salient example. In this genuine love story, Aurelius has fallen in love with Dorigen, who is nonetheless married to Averagus. While the latter goes to England on a knightly quest, Aurelius seizes the opportunity to court Dorigen, and, after repeated attempts, she assures that he can sleep with her only if he manages to make the dangerous rocks off the coast of Brittany disappear so that her husband’s ship won’t crash on his way back. Aurelius secures the services of an obscure magician, who, in order to make the spell work, must recur to a certain text for astronomical calculations:

His tables Tolletanes forth he broght,
Ful wel corrected, ne ther lakked nought,
Neither his collect ne his expans yeeris,
Ne his rootes, ne his othere geris,
As been his centriz and his argumentz
And his proporcioneles convenientz
For his equaciouns in every thyng.
And by his eighte speere in his wirkyng
He knew ful wel how Alnath was shove
Fro the heede of thilke fixe Aries above,
That in the ninthe speere considered is;
Ful subtily he kalkuled al this.
                                 (Franklin V 1273-84)

[He took out his Toledan Tables,
Fully adjusted, nothing was missing,
Neither his one-year tables, or those of twenty,
Or even his calculations or the rest of his gear
Were as (good) as his table to measure centers and arguments
And their respective planetary proportions
For his exact equations for everything
And by his eight sphere in his working
He knew how Alnath was distributed[4]
From the fixed head of Aries,
(Which we can observe in the ninth sphere);
All this he knew and calculated carefully].[5]

Regardless of the implicit associations between the Tables and sorcery, that Chaucer is referring to a text that had been composed roughly a century before as an authoritative scientific source not in a classical language is important. It demonstrates how Spain featured prominently in the imaginary of late medieval English authors; and, what’s more, reveals the less evident, unwritten story I have attempted to tell: in many ways, Spain brought astronomy to England. We know well that the nature of Anglo-Hispanic relations changed in subsequent centuries, but if one wishes to recreate a story of collaboration, travel, and translation, these brief notes may serve to illustrate that, in the England of the Middle Ages, Spain was always on the horizon.


  • Burnett, Charles. “The Coherence of the Arabic-Latin Translation Program in Toledo.” Science in Context 14. 1/2 (2001): 249-88.
  • Chabás, José, and Bernard R. Goldstein. The Alfonsine Tables of Toledo. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrect/Boston/London, 2013.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Larry Dean Benson. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Eisner, Sigmund. A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Vol. VI: The Prose Treatises, Part One: “A Treatise on the Astrolabe.” Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  • Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Christians and Jews Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
  • Metlitzky, Dorothee. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Phillips, William D. A Concise History of Spain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Thorndike, Lynn. “Daniel of Morley.” The English Historical Review 37.148 (1922): 540-44.
  • Vernet Ginés, Juan. La cultura hispanoárabe en Oriente y Occidente. Barcelona: Ariel, 1978.
  • Walker, Rose. “Leonor of England and Eleanor of Castile: Anglo-Iberian Marriage and Cultural Exchange in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” in England and Iberia in the Middle Ages, 12th-15th Century: Cultural, Literary, and Political Exchanges, ed. María Bullón-Fernández. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 67-87.


  1. A comparison between Eleanor of England, the English queen of Castile between 1177 and 1214; and Eleanor of Castile, the Spanish queen of England between 1272 and 1290, see Walker, 64-87.  // back
  2. A salutary study of the contributions of Muslim Spain to Europe is Juan Vernet, La cultura hispanoárabe en Oriente y Occidente  // back
  3. See the introduction to The Alfonsine Tables of Toledo, eds. Chabás and Goldstein, at 1.  // back
  4. “Alnath” (النطح), or Beta Tauri, is the Arabic name for a major star in Taurus. The name was already known to Andalusian astronomers.  // back
  5. My adaptation.  // back

RAÚL ARIZA-BARILE is a lecturer in English literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico City) and a PhD Candidate in English and Medieval Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies Anglo-Iberian contacts in the Middle Ages and has interests in medieval romance, Chaucer, and liturgical drama.