Avner Ben-Zaken, Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean,1560-1660

Avner Ben-Zaken, Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). xii+246pp. £31 Hb. ISBN 9780801894763

In The White Castle Orhan Pamuk uses the capture of a Christian ship by a Turkish galley to ruminate on that seemingly perennial theme, east-west relations. A novelistic sleight of hand symbolically dissolves identity and difference as an Italian scholar and his Ottoman master are each shown to be drawn to, rather than repelled by, the culture of the other. In his account of early modern science and the transactions and influences from east to west and west to east Avner Ben-Zaken has undertaken the scholarly equivalent of Pamuk’s postmodernist fiction to challenge one of the most disabling of orthodoxies, namely that superior western thought overcame an inferior and paralyzing eastern superstition-based dogma, heralding the decline of the east and the rise of the Christian world. Central to the book’s argument is the view that the dissemination of scientific ideas ‘did not stem from intellectual networks and agendas, but rather from mundane networks of contact’ (163). The kind of piracy dramatized in The White Castle, as well as chance encounters and the transcription and transmission of texts via diplomats, travellers, merchants and scholars, produced serendipitous cross-cultural discovery and co-operation, rather than simply reinforcing the familiar binary opposition. It is through addressing links across cultures, rather than focusing on scientific enclaves as autonomous and isolated schools of thought, that a new story can be told about this great age of scientific discovery, Ben-Zaken proposes.

Spanning a century of east-west interaction, Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean pivots on the most momentous development in early modern science and humanist thought, the emergence of the Copernican conception of the universe. It is against the backdrop of an Ottoman Empire that engaged with as well as threatened the Christian west that the adoption and adaptation of a heliocentric model of the universe informed relations and transactions between scholars across the eastern Mediterranean. While the Copernican revolution provides a ‘macro’ frame for the book’s narrative, the focus and methodology very much concern the ‘micro’: science is less a series of natural laws which would, as the seventeenth century progressed, become subject to Baconian experiment and deduction than a material as well as theoretical endeavour, dependent on a decentralised and often chance exchange of manuscripts, printed texts, instruments, and ideas between scientific communities in some of the key outposts of learning Ben-Zaken identifies – Venice, Constantinople, Naples, and Salonika, among others – which constituted ‘a nexus of places rather than a single center of circulation’ (6). This is a story, then, of the transmission of knowledge between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, who (notwithstanding local political allegiances and patronage structures) shared a common cause in scientific experiment and discovery. All eyes were drawn to the skies, of course, and the desire to uncover its mysteries explains in large part the significance and attractiveness of the Copernican cosmology.

The book offers five case studies, each of which takes the reader into fascinating territory, as the titles suggest: ‘Trading Clocks, Globes, and Captives in the End Time’; ‘Exchanging Heliocentrism for Ur-Text’; ‘Transcending Time in the Scribal East’; ‘Converting Measurements and Invoking the “Linguistic Leviathan”’; and ‘Exchanging Heavens and Hearts’. Each chapter is amply illustrated (though naturally black and white reproduction cannot do justice to the rich tapestry of scientific representation in the visual arts on display), and here, indeed, is a parallel story of the artistic expression of scientific achievement that underscores the study’s underlying theme of science as textual, material presence, celebrated, promoted, exchanged, copied, bought and sold. Thus the study operates simultaneously as challenging occidental prejudices in the academy (a welcome trend in recent years) and aligning itself with a materialist sensibility now firmly established in early modern scholarship. This serves as an important reminder that intellectual history does not take place in the abstract but is contingent and (ideally) resistant to teleological retellings. And yet this produces its tensions and difficulties nonetheless, since the aim here is in part to resist the straightforward narrative emplotment that historians customarily employ, with the result that the five case studies represent precisely that, and arguably work best as separate though interlocking narratives rather than as components of a book with an overarching thesis. Like Pamuk, Thomas Kuhn is mentioned only in passing in Avner Ben-Zaken’s book, but his sociology of science is surely relevant here, too: both, in different ways, offer insights into how the kind of accidental, contingent exchange of knowledge leads to further discoveries – developments whose contingency and localism is flattened out in the writing of history.

Taking the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as a starting point for the processes explored in this book is hardly controversial (though historians might quibble with the claim that Lepanto was the Ottomans’ first defeat) but what is most impressive throughout is the treatment of the intersecting as well as doctrinally-opposed religious traditions and how the scientific developments were and were not reconciled with theological systems of thought. Clocks, for example, were ‘one of the main European currencies of gift exchange and trade’ (15) and much prized, but not merely for their accuracy in timekeeping, for ‘the art of clock-making [in the Ottoman Empire] aim[ed] to recapture the role of God in the creation’ (18). Here science served rather than challenged faith, which was not of course the case with Galileo in the west. Indeed, where Muslim scholars embraced the latest technology in ‘telescopes compasses, quadrants, mechanical clocks, maps [and] globes’ (164), Christian travellers sought out ancient Greek and Hebrew texts to demonstrate their scientific theories. This, of course tallies with traditional notions of ‘the Renaissance’, the rediscovery and re-evaluation of library holdings which the Turkish victory in 1453 heralded; but Ben-Zaken provides ample evidence of a more complex interchange between east and west, drawing our attention to hitherto neglected texts, contexts, and stories which offer new narratives of early modern scientific discovery.

Mark Hutchings (University of Reading)