Photo credit: Paula Jayne
In medieval Europe and the Middle East power and scholarship went hand in hand. Many rulers were passionate scholars in their own right, and their closest advisers were often doctors, astronomers, and mathematicians. Scientific innovation was the source of enormous power, so it isn’t surprising that the cleverest kings and caliphs surrounded themselves with the most able scholars of the day. Funding and promoting the study of mathematics, medicine, and astronomy, these subjects brought huge advantages to the Christian and Muslim civilizations that ruled the Mediterranean world during the period 700-1300 AD; among other things they adopted the Hindu-Arabic numeral system we use today, developed equipment to improve their ability to observe the heavens, invented tools and medicines to combat disease, and ensured the survival of a huge number of ancient scientific texts along the way. These men (and unfortunately, they were all men) were brilliant, cultured, fascinating — with them around the table, the conversation would flow and the evening would definitely go off with a bang.
As ruler of the Islamic Empire from 786 to 809, Harun played a pivotal role in establishing Baghdad as a major center of learning by founding the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) and filling it with scholars. This helped kick-start a fashion that resulted in the creation of hundreds of libraries around the city as wealthy noblemen rushed to emulate their ruler. Harun was someone who worked as hard as he played, whether severing heads on the battle field, relaxing in his harem, or discussing scientific ideas with his scholars, he approached every aspect of his life with inexorable enthusiasm. His lifestyle was one of breath-taking extravagance — it was said that his wife’s robes were encrusted with so many jewels she could not stand up without being supported on each side.
As Harun’s son, al-Mamun carried on many of his father’s traditions — the lavish lifestyle, the enormous harem, and the passion for learning. His palaces thronged with scholars; he loved an intellectual debate and fostered scientific progress by asking them challenging questions. He demanded that they work out the circumference of the globe, he broke into the pyramids when on campaign in Egypt and tried to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphics inside. An intensely curious man, dinner with him would certainly not be dull. Probably best not to seat Mamun too close to his Father though — he wasn’t Harun’s chosen heir, but several years of brutal civil war and a murdered brother later, Mamum had won the throne for himself.
Roger II of Sicily
Growing up in Sicily’s eclectic mix of Byzantine Greek, Arab, and Norman society made Roger II into an exceptionally sophisticated man. The de Hauteville family came a long way in a short space of time — both socially and geographically. Roger’s father (also called Roger), was the son of a minor and somewhat poverty-stricken nobleman in Normandy, so Roger I’s prospects at birth were underwhelming to say the least. Along with several of his numerous brothers, he traveled to Italy as a young man and, thanks to a combination of luck, cunning and brute force, became ruler of Sicily in 1091. Roger I made sure his son had all the education and advantages his own childhood in Northern France had lacked, and when Roger II became ruler of Sicily, he embraced the various cultures of his island, was an enthusiastic patron of scholarship, and loved to show off his power with extravagant ceremony and lavish clothes.
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
Like his grandfather Roger II, Frederick was fascinated by Arab culture and would have been keen to meet Harun and al-Mamun — as a fluent Arabic speaker he would have no problem chatting with them — and their shared passions for astronomy, math, and falconry would give them plenty to talk about. Frederick grew up in the multicultural atmosphere of medieval Palermo; such was his brilliance and charisma that he was known as Stupor Mundi "Wonder of the World." Not everyone was such a fan of his, however; the Pope called him by some very different names, "the antichrist" being one.
Fibonacci’s real name was Leonard of Pisa, and he was the son of a talented merchant from the northern Italian city of Pisa who spent his childhood travelling around the Mediterranean world with his father. While living in North Africa he was taught mathematics by local Muslim scholars; among other things, they introduced him to the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which was relatively unknown in Europe. Urbane, gifted, and cosmopolitan, Fibonacci fit in perfectly when he joined Frederick II’s glittering court — the two of them spent many happy hours discussing mathematical problems together, and through the books he wrote, Fibonacci was responsible for helping to popularize the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in Europe.
Adelard of Bath
Confident and, in his own way, brilliant, Adelard was an English scholar and nobleman who lived in the 12th century. He would probably arrive for dinner wearing his apple green cloak and matching magical ring, and as a passionate admirer of Arabic culture, he would be thrilled to meet so many great Muslim rulers. Adelard was also a bit of a show-off, so he would no doubt regale everyone with stories about his adventures in Europe and the Middle East, especially the episode where he survived an earthquake by hiding under a bridge near Misis (in modern-day Turkey), and the time when he played the cithar (a stringed instrument) for the Queen of France. He would also enjoy discussing mathematics and astronomy, both subjects dear to his heart; he was one of the first to bring books on these subjects to England, where he translated them into Latin.
Hasdai ibn Shaprut
Hasdai began his career as a doctor, but rose to prominence as a personal advisor to Caliph al-Rahman III of Andalusia in Spain. Born into a powerful Jewish family, he would have felt very much at home in the company of men like Frederick II and al-Mamun — he spent much of his career negotiating with rulers on behalf of Rahman and had the reputation of being an exceptional diplomat. Even more impressively, he is rumored to have cured King Sancho the Fat of his obesity.
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is a historian and writer based in Oxford, England. She received a PhD in intellectual history from Edinburgh University, where she wrote her dissertation on the library of a 16th-century scholar. She has written three pop reference books for the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library. The Map of Knowledge
is her first narrative history.