The Book Of Roger

Map via Wikipedia

Map via Wikipedia

We have much to thank Roger for.

Because Roger was a fabulous conduit.

Roger was a Norman. And here in England we know the Normans well, because they came over and thrashed Harold and his armies and brought sturdy civilisation to our wild and wooly shores, though that’s a wild and wooly generalisation in its own right.

But think motte-and-bailey castles. Think ruthless organisation like the Domesday Book. These days the Normans are us and we are the Normans; they run in our blood. And in our little English capsule we forget that we were not alone. The Normans, between 1016 and 1189, were a world power, with lands stretching from England to Sicily, and Antioch in the East.

And Sicily: that bit was really important.

Because Sicily sat on the edge of the Arab world, with its incredible wealth of learning: all its developments in geography, astronomy, science and medicine. And these days, we look back at that place and realise that it was a means by which such wisdom could flow through to the West.

But if the Normans had chosen one of their standard kings it might all have been lost. The Normans would move in and suddenly everything was Frankish; assimilating the culture of the countries they invaded was not always a strong point.

On September 27th, 1130, an antipope gave Kingdom of Sicily to Roger; an enlightened man, son of Roger, a great count.

“He adopted the customs of Muslim Kings with regard to the officers he appointed to his court,”  historian Ibn al-Athir recalled about 30 years after Roger’s death, “…..Roger, moreover, always treated Muslims with great honour. He was familiar with them, and favoured them even against the Franks.”

Roger loved learning. He fostered those who cosseted the wisdom of ages and sought out its next steps. Between the lines of scraps from old texts, I read that Roger II was a very wise man.

And beloved. So much so that the celebrated geographer, Muhammad Al-Edrisi, names his greatest work after his patron and friend.

The Book Of Roger. 15 years, it took, at Roger’s court in Sicily, to create this map of the world and its commentary, y interviewing travellers as they came through this hub of learning and exploration. Only when many travellers agreed on a point did Al-Edrisi include it in his map; and thus he ended with a surprisingly accurate representation of Eurasia. Even today, geographers celebrate the incredible achievement, the incisive conclusions, of Roger’s friend, almost 1000 years ago.

Roger had it engraved on a great silver plate. and today ten versions stil exist; five have the complete text, and eight have maps. You can read a version here.

To finish, I’ll use Al-Edrisi’s words, commissioned by Roger II of Sicily, to take your breath away, written more than 500 years before the work of Newton. “The earth is round like a sphere,” he writes,  “and the waters adhere to it and are maintained on it through natural equilibrium which suffers no variation.”


35 thoughts on “The Book Of Roger

  1. Wonderful piece, as usual.
    I have read, and been told personally by antiquarians in UK, that the Normans set England back a number of centuries in development, and that the Saxons were a superior bunch. I’d never heard of this important codger Roger! Or of Al Eldrist coming to grips with the gravity of the situation. So the schools all teach lies generally, it would seem. History is a very inexact discipline.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about Roger, though Al-Edrisi hadn’t registered with me that I remember. Sicily is a part of the world we both have fantasies about visiting, but it hasn’t happened yet!

    By the way, tried the link and it Oops! it appeared to be broken.

  3. Wow, how did he work out the round earth thingy – unbelievabubble! Might have been an alien abroad – you get a much better sense of the round earth thingy from outer space, especially when landing your ship 😉

    1. You are probably right, Gabrielle. The Arabic world drew a lot from the world of the ancient Greeks, who were at home with the idea of a round earth from about the 3rd century BC. Only an alien, with his space-side view, could have begun to speculate about why everything didn’t just fall off 😀

  4. I have never heard of Roger. William, yes. The Normans, certainly. I am very intrigued, and not only because of that last sentence.

    Part of my off-the-blog research for novel writing has involved plumbing the depths of the history of North America. Reading all the different theories about old world visitors, long before Columbus, is fascinating. What’s even more interesting is that a couple of them, like the Viking sagas, have been given credence via archeology. Most Americans don’t think of North America as old. I mean, we know Native Americans preceded recent European explorers, but because of what happened to those Natives, we don’t typically like to think too much about ‘before.’ Of course, being me, I find ‘before’ captivating.

    1. Andra, what an absorbing train of thought. I have heard of the theory that the Vikings got to America. I shall be very interested indeed to learn what you uncover in your research.

  5. I read this on my lunch break at The Grind while my colleague was listening to a podcast about “a high end escort” — quite a contrast in tale-telling, Kate. Great minds and great leadership transcend the centuries. Mind blowing about how Muhammad Al-Edrisi knew that the earth was round so long ago. Imagine what a thinker like that could accomplish in today’s world?

  6. This is a incredible piece of history, Kate. What an enlightened way to arrive at a description of the world–interviewing travelers and then finding consensus before recording. What a story!

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