House of Wisdom Study Guide

House of Wisdom Study Guide
Geography is important for understanding this book. Find a map of the Mediterranean world. Be sure
that it includes cities that were significant in the Middle Ages – not just at present. Locate the city of

  1. Why does Lyons depict the city as the “cusp between east and west?” (p. 3)
  2. How is Adelard also representative of that “cusp?”
  3. What is the political context that surrounds Antioch? What does it mean for the
    economic and socio-cultural reality of the city?
    Like any book, Lyons is presenting you with an argument. Identify his argument for the book on page
  4. What does Lyons mean when he says that the “West’s willful forgetting of the Arab
    legacy began centuries ago…” (p. 5)?
  5. Identify the four themes that still resonate about Islam today.
  6. How does the Renaissance contribute to this process outlined in the two questions
    Chapter 1: The Warriors of God
    As you read the opening of this chapter, who do you think that Lyons is describing: Christian Soldiers
    or Muslim Soldiers?
  7. What is meant by a “populist echo?” (p. 10)
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  8. Pope Urban II
  9. Peter the Hermit
  10. Saladin
    Again, it is important to have a sense of the geography when you are reading this book. Find a map
    that has important cities from the Middle Ages and identify the following cities: Civetot, Antioch,
    Jerusalem, Constantinople, Mara, Edessa, Genoa, Venice.
  11. What do these cities have in common? How do they differ from each other?
  12. Write down three facts about the Crusades that you did not know previously, that
    surprised you, that presented a different perspective about the Crusades.
  13. While we tend to understand the Crusades as a war between Christianity and Islam,
    what attitude had the Church adopted toward war under Gregory VII? Why is that an
    important context for the Crusades?
  14. Who were the first victims of the Crusaders and why is that important?
    Pay attention to the discussion about Edessa. Consider what the Pope had called the crusaders
    to do and compare that to the actions of Baldwin at Edessa. While he is not a figure that you
    need to commit to memory, do pay attention to the “state building” that is taking place. (p. 17-
  15. After considering political aspirations, make note of the Arab response to the Crusaders.
    What “offended their sensibilities?” (p. 20)
  16. On page 23, Lyons talks about the “potent Christian propaganda machine… .” What does
    that propaganda rationalize?
  17. Despite the conflict of the Crusades, what begins to flourish between East and West?
    What role do Venice and Genoa play in this?
    Go back to the first question in this section of the study guide. Most likely, you read the first and
    second paragraph of the book expecting that Lyons was talking about Arab/Muslim forces. Now is
    when you need to reflect on the argument that he is making through this book. Take the thesis that
    he is presenting and consider what this “upside-down” perspective of the Crusades contributes. Does
    it build his argument, counter his argument, …? You need to be able to weigh his evidence in relation
    to the thesis that he is putting forward. Once you can connect the information in this chapter to his
    thesis, start reading the second chapter.
    Chapter 2: The Earth is Like a Wheel
    Locate a map that will help you find medieval cities in Western Europe. Identify the following regions
    and the countries in which they are located: Normandy and Catalan
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  18. Adelard
  19. Henry I
  20. St. Benedict
  21. Emperor Constantine
  22. Gebert d’Aurillac – Pope Sylvester II
  23. St. Augustine of Hippo
    A great deal of time is spent in this chapter outlining the short-comings of education and knowledge
    in Europe. Identify the main areas that Lyons brings to your attention. Why do you think that these
    are significant?
  24. Where did Gebert d’Aurillac go to study? Again, why is this an important geographical
    location to take note of?
  25. What change does he (Gebert) advocate to the Western European curriculum?
  26. What is the astrolabe?
    On page 41, Lyons discusses this “first generation touched ever so slightly by Arab learning…”. He
    gives you insight into the shift that will take place from “the how to the why” (p. 41). Understand
    what he means by that and consider it as you read the next section of the chapter about Adelard.
  27. What is taking place at Bath? Why would William the Red sell a city to the Bishop?
  28. What role does Bishop John give to Adelard – or hope that Adelard will fill?
  29. What text is Adelard credited with writing? Why is it significant?
    Starting on page 45, Lyons traces the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo. You should understand how
    he frames learning and knowledge in Europe. How does his framing contribute to beliefs about the
    Apocalypse in the year 1000? These are important developments that help explain the fervor around
    “potent Christian propaganda machine” that Lyons talks about in Chapter 1. If you are tracking the
    reading, you should now understand the following:
    ü The European need for Arab learning
    ü The role of the Church in framing life in Europe
    ü The intellectual and spiritual context in Europe on the eve of the Crusades
    Chapter 3: The House of Wisdom
    Chapter 3 marks the start of Part II of the book. Lyons is now taking you to the Arab world to set the
    context there. Think for a moment about what he has already told you about the Arab world. What is
    their framework for understanding their neighbors and their place in the world?
    Locate a map of the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia. Identify the following cities: Baghdad,
    Damascus, Samarkand
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  30. Abu Jafar al-Mansur
  31. Prince Abd al-Rahman
  32. Alexander the Great
  33. Abbas
  34. Prophet Muhammad
  35. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizami
  36. al-Mamun
    Think for a moment about the legacy that Western Europe is trying to trace for themselves (p. 5).
    What is the traditional path of Greek ideas that we trace through “Western History”? Contrast that
    with the discussion that begins at the bottom of page 61. What is the path of Greek ideas that the
    Arabs trace?
  37. What disciplines do the Abassid caliphs emphasize?
  38. What technology/invention makes wide-spread learning possible? What region is
    responsible for this technology?
  39. Who is able to share ideas and teaching under Muslim rule? Who is not able to share
    ideas and teaching? What is the rationale that governs who is included and who is
  40. What is the overriding function of the House of Wisdom?
  41. Who are the “types” of people who benefit from the holdings of the House of Wisdom?
    Understand the interplay of disciplines as Lyons is presenting them. Look at the interests of al-Mamun
    and consider how it plays into the context and work of al Khwarizami. Pay attention to the discussion
    of the zij that starts on page 72. It will recur throughout the text.
  42. Consider the great application/value of the zij. What are the Muslims trying to
  43. What other field does Khwarizami develop? What influences are recognized? Consult
    page 74.
    The way that Lyons ends chapter 3 echoes the end to chapter 2. St. Augustine of Hippo offers his
    assessment of learning. What is the assessment that we find in al-Mamun’s dream. What larger
    debate is being addressed? Consider that question and think about the cultural differences. Relate
    those back to the thesis of the book.
    Chapter 4: Mapping the World
    This chapter starts with the history of Muhammad. While Lyons has traced the history of learning in
    chapter 3, he is now continuing the discussion that he raised at the end of the previous chapter. If we
    are to understand the Crusades as a clash between two societies that use religion to frame their world
    view, what accounts for the different attitudes toward learning? Keep that question in mind as you
    read through the history of the founding of Islam.
    Again, on a map, locate the following cities: Mecca, Medina, Palermo (Sicily)
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  44. Muhammad
  45. al-Sharif al-Idrisi
  46. Roger II
    Make sure that you understand the following terms: Koran, Hadith, qibla
  47. Consider the early attempts to assimilate groups of people into Islam. How does that fit
    with your understanding of Islam?
  48. How does Islam absorb people and traditions?
  49. Why does geography have such importance in Islam? Consider that religious value in
    relationship to the learning that is part of the House of Wisdom.
    Contrast the similarity in the need to tell time within Christianity and Islam. On page83, Lyons talks
    about the fact that “folk astronomy” no longer suffices for determining time. Why is that so? What is
    the different context in the case of Islam?
  50. Consider how faith and science interact in Islam. How does this influence disciplines of
    medicine, astronomy, chemistry?
  51. Why is Caliph al-Mamun interested in mapping the world? What knowledge is employed
    to that end?
  52. Consider the element of Human Geography that is discussed. While the goal most likely
    was effective role, what other consequences can you infer resulted from the attention
    to other peoples and cultures?
    Keep track of the “corrections” that Muslim Cartographers make to knowledge about the world. How
    will that influence navigation and exploration?
  53. What is the extent of the influence of Arab maps?
    When you reach the end of chapter 4, you’ve concluded the counterpoint section to part I. Stop and
    reflect on the mirroring that Lyons is doing. You have read two chapters that address the state of
    learning in the Christian world and Arab world respectively. You have also read two chapters that
    consider the religious framing of learning. Both sections consider the influence that rulers can exert on
    learning, knowledge, etc. If you are tracking the reading in part II, you should understand the
    ü The religious context for learning in the Arab world.
    ü The need for standardized disciplines and knowledge in an empire
    ü The cultural interactions that are taking place within and beyond the Mediterranean world.
    Chapter 5: The First Man of Science
    Chapter 5 marks the start of Part III of the book. Now that you have the two spheres of learning, read
    with an eye to how those spheres begin to interact and mix. Lyons will use the person of Adelard
    (primarily) to show this.
    Again, on a map, locate the following cities: Pisa, Chartres
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  54. Roger Bacon
  55. Stephen of Pisa
  56. Euclid
  57. Copernicus
    Consider the influences and many sources of knowledge that are being presented in the opening of
    the chapter. What shifts can you discern as you read?
  58. What is the importance of the discussion of alchemy?
  59. On page 111, Lyons talks about the discovery of the “natural world”. What does that
  60. How does Euclidian geometry play into this new perspective?
  61. What legacy can modern sciences credit to Euclid?
  62. What does transliteration mean? (p. 114)
    If you keep in mind the importance of “application” in Western learning, how is architecture an
    important reminder of the influence of Arab learning. Why do you suppose we talk about a “Gothic”
    arch rather than an “Arab” arch?
  63. What aspects of Arab learning first caught the attention of the Church?
  64. How does Adelard begin to understand the relationship between learning and religion?
    Lyons is ending the chapter showing a shift in attitude among the learned classes of Europe. The
    debate over faith and reason is an old one. What rationale does Adelard hold? Is it similar to the
    perspective of the Arabs?
    Chapter 6: “What is Said of the Sphere…”
    This chapter is a short one (compared to the others). Before you start reading, what does the chapter
    title mean? Think about that. Lyons is giving a separate discussion to this topic. Why is it important for
    his reader to give attention to the topic at hand?
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  65. Chaucer
  66. Piers Alphonse
  67. Plato
  68. Aristotle
  69. Ptolemy
  70. St. Augustine
  71. Albumazar
    Consider how understandings of the Universe had begun to change. What does it mean that the
    “universe was no longer an ineffable divine masterpiece…Attributes such as time and distance were
    no longer vague abstractions but took on real numerical values…” (p. 128)?
  72. What underlying premise shaped study of the universe from the Ancient Greeks
  73. Why do the planets pose a problem?
  74. Why would the University of Paris ban the study of natural philosophy and its
  75. According to St. Augustine, where should inquiry begin? (p. 134)
  76. What contribution did Albumazar make?
    Think to the story you learned about Christopher Columbus. Did he think that the earth was round or
    flat? What does this chapter tell you about the state of knowledge regarding the shape of the earth?
    What “willful forgetting” can you identify in this chapter?
    Chapter 7: “The Wisest Philosophers of the World”
    Despite contemporary attempts to “forget” the Muslim influence, Lyons talks of a “Gold Rush” effort
    to absorb the writings and knowledge of the Arabs. Why is he making that comparison? What does it
    indicate about the exchange and its value?
    Make sure that you understand the roles of and can identify the historical figures listed below:
  77. Michael Scot
  78. Peter the Venerable
  79. Frederick II
  80. Dante
    Again, locate a map that you can use to identify key sites in North Africa and Spain: the Strait of
    Gibraltar, al-Andalus, Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, Sicily
  81. In the gold rush for Arab knowledge and translations, what problems
  82. Despite the problems, what other consequences did the interest in Arab texts foster?
  83. Lyons goes back over the story of the exiled Umayyad rulers. Can you trace out the
    chronology? Why is important to understand their rule in Spain?
    Consider how Lyons’ discussion of the Umayyad dynasty correlates to Armesto’s discussion of the daral Islam in chapters 8-9. Again, what argument is Lyons putting forth about the different cultures of
    Islam and Christianity? Pay close attention to the discussion in the pages following page 144.
  84. Trace the various goods, ideas, technologies, etc. that moved through the Muslim world.
    How does this represent a global system?
  85. In what two areas did the Andalusi excel? What is the larger significance of that
  86. What does Lyons mean by Green Revolution?
  87. How does the reconquista respond to the Muslim achievements? Consider the story of
    the fall of Seville (p. 151).
    As Lyons moves you back into the period of the Crusades (and Reconquista), how does the “willful
    forgetting” begin to take place?
  88. Consider the warning given by Ibn Abdun on page 152. How much do you think his
    concern was realized?
  89. Consider the story of Peter the Venerable. What does he represent?
  90. What “traps” did Peter fall into, according to Lyons? How much have we extracted
    ourselves from those traps today?
  91. What indications can you identify that the intellectual sophistication of Western Europe
    was improving?
  92. How has history treated Michael Scot? (Make sure you know what Dante’s Inferno is.)
  93. Pay attention to the description and comparison of Arab and European cities on page
    159-160. What resources are committed in the two cultures?
    The end of Chapter 7 marks the end of the third part of the book. Lyons has taken you through two
    mirrored sections of the text in parts I and II. He has now walked you through the intellectual
    interaction that is in the historical background of the Crusades. If you are tracking the reading, you
    should understand the following:
    ü The tension that exists between the Church and scholars in Europe.
    ü The early contact between the different cultures of the Arabs and Europeans.
    ü The importance of the Umayyad dynasty and the cultural system of Islam
    ü The significant advances that begin to emerge in European scholarship
    Chapter 8: On the Eternity of the World
    As you move into the final part of the book, you should understand the different cultures and their
    respective attitudes toward learning – and its relationship to religion. Hopefully, the cooperative
    relationship within Islam and the contrast to Christianity is clear. The final section of the text is going
    to bring the role of rulers to the fore. Pay close attention to Frederick II. Understand his lineage…don’t
    forget Roger II. Know why both are important!
    Overwhelmingly, this part of the book is a review of the major figures and places that the book has
    covered. Go back through the guide as you read and make sure that you are identifying them
    correctly. Add the following to your list:
  94. St. Thomas Aquinas
  95. Averroes – Ibn Rushd
  96. Avicenna – Ibn Sina
  97. Leonardo of Pisa – Fibonacci
  98. Pope Gregory IX
    Trace the story of Frederick II. What would he represent today?
  99. Why was Frederick ex-communicated….twice? What does this show about the
    relationship between rulers and the Church?
  100. How did European Christians describe Frederick? How does that contrast to the Arab
    descriptions of Frederick?
  101. Consider the story of Frederick’s control of Jerusalem. What has changed since the first
    chapter on the Crusades? (Read page 167 carefully.)
  102. What is the value of “Arab learning” to Frederick? How is Frederick and his reign an
    important “way station” in the West’s journey toward scientific advances? (p. 171)
    In light of Lyons argument about willful forgetting, consider his discussion of Averroes. Very
    importantly, look at how Averroes is acknowledged in the Renaissance….by Dante and Raphael. What
    tension or hypocrisy does it reveal?
  103. What questions do the philosophies of Averroes and Avicenna allow Europeans to
  104. How is the “Eternity of the World” explained by different thinkers? How does Frederick
    II understand or seek to understand it?
  105. How effectively does St. Thomas Aquinas communicate the ideas of the Arab
    Most people are quick to recognize that the debate over “Reason and Faith” is a very old one. This
    chapter has shown some of the major developments of that debate. Think about how this time period
    shaped our current understandings.
    Chapter 9: The Invention of the West
    Think about the title of this chapter. Most of you have gone through school with a firm understanding
    of “the West”. You have learned its history – a nice narrative of the rise of the state and progression
    toward modern democracy. What would it mean that the West is invented? This is the final chapter of
    the text. Keep the argument of the book in mind. Understand how a “willful forgetting” and an
    “invention” go hand in hand.
  106. Why does the Church give up on “Condemnations?”
  107. What shift takes place in education, particularly higher learning?
  108. How is Thomas Aquinas meant to resolve this tension? How do you think he resolves the
  109. What do the condemnations of 1227 show about the tensions within intellectual
    traditions? (p. 195)
    Lyons ends this chapter with a discussion of Copernicus. What had you learned about him up to this
    point? Lyons has done this repeatedly throughout the book. He has challenged your understanding of
    the Crusades, exploration, the “flat earth”…etc. What is the legacy of a “willful forgetting” in your
    education? How might we better understand the world if we re-incorporate these aspects of the
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