Violet Moller has written a narrative history of the transmission of books from the ancient world to the modern. In The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found (Doubleday, 2019), Moller traces the histories of migration of three ancient authors, Euclid, Ptolemy and Galen, from ancient Alexandria in 500 to Syria and Constantinople, to Baghdad in 800, and then to Renaissance Venice in the 15th century. Moller demonstrates how tenuous were the chances of such ancient works’ survival, from the depredations of invading armies to the hazards of fire and flooding, to the problems of translation through multiple languages over the centuries. The migration of ancient texts from Greece to the Middle East and back to medieval Europe is a fascinating story of how knowledge was preserved when certain conditions were met, such as political stability, the willingness of itinerant scholarly “manuscript hunters” to risk life and limb to find obscure, ancient texts, and the openness to tolerate and embrace knowledge derived from other cultures and civilizations. Moller’s book is the story of how the texts upon which the modern world was built were acquired through fortuitous accident and scholarly diligence.
Ian J. Drake is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University. His scholarly interests include American legal and constitutional history and political theory.
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