19 August 2010
Two Bodleian treasures – the Book of Roger and a revised version of Ptolomy's Almagest in Arabic - were featured in the last episode of The Normans on BBC2 yesterday evening. In this major series, Professor Robert Bartlett, who currently holds the position of Wardlaw Professor of Mediaeval History at the University of St Andrews, examined the extraordinary expansion and unchecked ambition of the Normans, and shows how they transformed the history of Europe.
The Book of Roger is a 12th century geographical compendium written in Arabic by Al-Idrisi. The author was possibly born in Morocco in 1100 and began his travels at the age of 16 visiting Asia Minor, the southern coast of France, England, Spain, and North Africa. In 1138 he was invited by Roger II (1097-1154), the Norman king of Sicily, to his court in Palermo where he composed the Book of Roger, which was completed in January 1154.
The Bodleian’s manuscript, dated 1553, was copied in Cairo and was bought by the Bodleian Library in 1692 from the widow of Edward Pococke. Pococke was the foremost Arabist of his time and was the first incumbent of the Chair of Arabic set up at Oxford University by Archbishop Laud. It is not known where or how Pococke acquired this manuscript.
The second manuscript featured in the BBC programme is a revised version of Ptolomy's Almagest in Arabic done by the well-known scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi who died in 1274. The Almagest (2nd century) was the greatest influence on the development of Arabic astronomy. The work was translated several times into Arabic in the 9th century, and in the ensuing centuries attracted countless commentaries. The Bodleian’s manuscript was copied in 1397, and, like the Book of Roger, came from the collection of Edward Pococke.
The programme is available on the BBC iPlayer until 25 August 2010: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00thpzb/The_Normans_Normans_of_the_South/.
The Book of Roger is also featured on ‘A History of the World’ website.