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Books and ideas on the move in thirteenth-century Europe

The manuscripts of an anonymous Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism

The Greek medical doctor and philosopher Sextus Empiricus (c. AD 160–c. 210) was a follower of Skeptic philosophy – a school of thought that basically suspended judgement about philosophical, scientific or theoretical matters as long as certainty could not be attained, and dedicated themselves to inquiry (Greek skepsis ‘speculation, inquiry’) – in the variant attributed to Pyrrho (365/360–275/270 BC; he did not write anything himself), which aimed at a tranquil state of mind in the face of the ever-changing events that humans are confronted with. His other preserved works are currently subsumed under the title Against mathematicians, which actually only covers a treatise in six books, Against professors (i.e. against logicians, physicists and ethicists) and Against dogmatists (i.e. against grammarians, rhetors, geometers, arithmeticians, astrologers, and musicians).

Augustine integrates some elements of Skepticism into his theological thinking and the influential Sunnite philosopher Al-Ghazali (1055/6–1111) also deals with the tenets of Skepticism. Sextus Empiricus, specifically the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, was rediscovered in the sixteenth century by French humanist Henri Étienne (1528?–1598), who also translated it into Latin and printed it (Sexti philosophi Pyrrhoniarum hypotyposeon libri III […] latine nunc primum editi, interprete Henrico Stephano. [Parisiis] 1562). However, there is an earlier anonymous Latin translation datable to the thirteenth century, which shows an interest in the Skeptic thought well before the Renaissance. While the preserved five Greek-language manuscripts transmitting the Outlines are from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the three volumes containing the Latin translation are from the thirteenth. The discoverer of the medieval Latin translation, the German Classical scholar Hermann Mutschmann (1882–1918), who published a critical edition of Sextus’ complete works in Greek (Sexti Empirici opera. Lipsiae 1912–1914), noticed that the Latin translation had been made from a Greek text that seemed nearer to the Greek original than the later Greek-language manuscripts.

Stefania Fortuna’s study of the characteristics of the translation, based on the observation of e.g. about twenty frequently used Greek words and their Latin equivalents in medieval translators, points to the translator following partly the techniques of well-known translators of Aristotle sponsored by Manfred of Hohenstaufen, king of Sicily, i.e. Bartholomew of Messina, active at the Manfred’s court between 1258 and 1266, Stephen of Messina (fl. 1261), who was also a poet of the Sicilian school, as well as, last but not least, the Dutch Dominican friar William of Moerbeke (1215–1225–c. 1286), who not only worked in the Latin Empire (1204–1261) established by Westerners in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, but also at the papal court in Viterbo and Orvieto. In addition to the textual importance of the Latin translation, its transmission consisting of three late thirteenth-century manuscripts sheds light on the scholarly circuits interested in Sextus in a period of time known for intellectual effervescence and great international mobility of people and ideas.

Arabo-Latin science and philosophy from England and Northern France

The manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14700 (digitised) was written by one textual hand of Northern French origin at the very end of the thirteenth century. There is a list of contents for most of the volume written by an English hand c. 1300, completed by another near-contemporary hand. The volume not only presents a rarity, the Latin translation of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, but also Latin translations made mainly in twelfth-century Toledo of Aristotelian treatises in Greek as well as (Pseudo-)Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic treatises in Arabic. Authors include Aristotle, Al-Kindi (c. 800–870), mathematician and the first Muslim philosopher strongly influenced by Aristotle and Neo-Platonism, Al-Farabi (c. 872–950/951) philosopher, in particular logician, and theoretician of music, Ibn Gabirol (1021/2–1057), Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher and poet of Al-Andalus, and Al-Ghazali (see above), influential Sunnite philosopher, theologian and legal scholar, who successfully introduced Aristotelianism, as interpreted by Avicenna, into Muslim theology. Translators are Burgundio of Pisa (d. 1193), eminent lawyer and ambassador known for his translations from Greek, Dominicus Gundissalinus/Gundisalivi (d. c. 1190) and Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187), among others. There is also a series of twelfth-century treatises by scholars with international careers but originating in Britain. One of them is Alfred of Shareshill (c. 1153/53–after 1220), canon of Lichfield, one of the first Aristotelians, who studied in Spain and was connected to the Toledan school of translators. Another is Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–c. 1150), scholar, author and translator. He possibly studied at Tours, in Southern Italy and Asia Minor, and was a pioneer of Arab mathematics in Christian Europe. Their texts are inspired by Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic and, in the case of medicine, Galenic doctrines. Robert Grosseteste (c. 1168–1253) is present with the translation of a text by John of Damascus (675/676–749), Syrian theologian and philosopher. Altogether, the manuscript would seem to originate in the scholarly community of Northern France and England, still reflecting the cultural patterns of the Angevin Empire of the twelfth century.

St Victor of Paris in the seventeenth century. Engraving by Merian
Source:, Public Domain.

The manuscript entered the library of St Victor of Paris by the middle of the fifteenth century. The lower margin of f. 2r exhibits the fifteenth-century St. Victor ex-libris: J(esu)s. maria. S(anctus) victor. S(anctus) Aug(ustin(us).//Hic liber est sancti victoris parisiensis.//Inueniens quis ei reddat amore dei. (Jesus, Mary, St Victor, St Augustine. This book belongs to St Victor of Paris. If somebody finds it, he should bring it back to the monastery for the love of God). The manuscript was registered in the early sixteenth-century catalogue by librarian Claude de Grandrue. During the French revolution, in 1791, the library was closed down. In 1796 the 1800 volumes were distributed between the new Bibliothèque nationale, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal and the Bibliothèque Mazarine. The Paris manuscript lat. 14700, together with 943 other Latin-language manuscripts, went to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Natural sciences and philosophy from a late thirteenth century international centre

The manuscript Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, lat. 10112 (digitised) was written by one textual hand, possibly French or English, datable to c. 1300. In addition to the anonymous Latin translation of the Outlines it contains a representative collection of cutting-edge astronomical and other scientific texts mainly written in the second half of the thirteenth century. Among the most important authors we may mention Campanus of Novara (1220–1296), who served between 1263 and 1296 as papal chaplain at the curia, first in Orvieto and then in Viterbo. He was also an eminent mathematician, astronomer and physician. The Madrid manuscript transmits his treatise De quadrante, which explains the use of the quadrant, an instrument used to measure the height of the sun. Another author of renown featured in the manuscript is Peter of Maricourt (d. 1269), master of experiments at the University of Paris, whom Roger Bacon called mathematicus perfectus, perfect mathematician, in his Opus tertium. The volume contains his Nova compilacio astrolabii explaining the use of the astrolabe, a device known since the Antiquity for measuring the altitude above the horizon of a celestial body; Peter’s treatise takes into account the latest developments of this instrument. Last but not least, Roger Bacon of Oxford (c. 1214/1220–1292?), one of the most versatile scholars of the thirteenth century, with connections to the papal court, is represented in the volume by his Perspectiva, part of his Opus maius written for Pope Clement IV (1190–1268). Furthermore, the volume contains anonymous treatises on signs and principles.

The manuscript entered Toledo Chapter library before July 1360. It might have already come there from the collections bequeathed to Toledo by Archbishop Gonzalo Pétrez (in office 1280–1299), Cardinal-Bishop of Albano (1298–1299), who was famous for his contribution to politics and science during the reign of king Alfonso X the Wise of Castile (1221–1284), in particular through his patronage of translators, and long stays at the papal curia. In 1360, another king of Castile, Peter I the Cruel (1334–1369), was in dire need of funds for the war with his half-brother and future successor, Henry of Trastámara. Peter I ordered the confiscation of the possessions of the see of Toledo. The books, including the present manuscript, were taken from the library by Mateo(s) Fernández of Cáceres, Peter’s Grand Chancellor, who marked most of them with a note bearing his name. The sale of the books, however, never materialised due to the turmoil of Peter’s reign. The manuscript remained in Toledo until the First Spanish Republic (1873–1874). The Toledo Chapter library was first confiscated but subsequently returned on the Bourbon restoration in 1874, to the exception of 234 manuscripts, including this one, that were transported to the National Library for study and classification and never returned to Toledo.

A collection of Sextus’ works from an international centre

The manuscript Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, lat. X 267 (=3460) (digitised) was written by both Transalpine and Italian hands at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is a Sextus Empiricus volume, with the Outlines and some books of Against mathematicians and Against dogmatists, thus showing an unusual interest in the Skeptic philosopher. It is also most important from the textual point of view, since it is the only one to contain the full text of the Outlines, even chapters 101–167 (145, 1–160, 20) of book III that are missing in the other two manuscripts. Again, it is difficult to identify the place(s) of origin of the volume – France or an international centre in Italy.

Venice, BNM, lat. X 267 (=3460), f. 11v. List of expenses incurred by Johannes (de Pereto?). Photo Venice, BNM. © CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IT

We know, however, where it was at the beginning of the 1320s. It then belonged to a certain Johannes, who, on f. 11v, added a list of expenses incurred in Montagliano (in the Upper Sabina region, province of Rieti) due to “persecutions” suffered in Petescia (now Turania in the province of Rieti). He may be the Johannes de Pereto (from Pereto, now in the province of L’Aquila) in front of whom a certain Stefano Passavanti of Villa S. Agnese, near to Montagliano, made his testament dated 1323, found on f. 46v of this manuscript. In 1747 the manuscript belonged to the extensive library of Vitaliano Donati (Donà) of Padua, soon to be appointed Professor of natural history and botany at the University of Turin. It was later acquired by Jacopo Morelli, custos (librarian) of the Marciana library of Venice. It entered the Marciana in 1819 with Morelli’s bequest of 600 manuscripts.

For the time being, it is impossible to say if the anonymous Latin translation of Sextus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism originated in France, England or in an international centre in Italy such as the papal court or the royal court of Sicily in the middle of the thirteenth century. The manuscripts transmitting the text do not give definitive answers, though all of them provide solid clues to a well-connected community of scholars spread over France, England and Italy, interested in natural sciences, philosophy and medicine, including the not-quite-mainstream Skeptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus, who was judged worth of dissemination through a Latin translation made in the second half of the thirteenth century. Although this interest seems to wane between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century, the translation is a powerful piece of evidence of the extraordinary intellectual curiosity of thirteenth-century Europe.

Outi Merisalo is full professor of Romance philology at the University of Jyväskylä and PI of the Lamemoli project (Academy of Finland and University of Jyväskylä no. 307635, 2017–2021).

Select bibliography

Fortuna, S. – Merisalo, O. “The first Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism (I),” Scripta 10/2017, 57–67.

Fortuna, S. – Merisalo, O. “The first Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism (II),” Scripta 13/2020, 79–86.

Vogt, K. “Ancient Skepticism,” in E.N. Zalta, ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2018 Edition,, 13 February 2021.



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