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Vernacular languages and science

The incipient use of the vulgar tongue (or vernacular languages) as a means for the communication and diffusion of knowledge is one of the most interesting features of scientific production in western Europe during the final centuries of the Middle Ages. Even though the phenomenon has been detected throughout the Latin West, historians of science have remarked for some time that this trend can be shown to manifest within the Iberian kingdoms a precocity and complexity unknown north of the Pyrenees. We now know that, amongst all the Iberian languages, Catalan rapidly showed its special vitality, above all if one bears in mind its always limited number of speakers compared with the power of the linguistic domains surrounding it. The rise of the use of vernacular languages, Catalan amongst them, in the spread of medicine—and of science more generally—in medieval Latin Europe, was a phenomenon which closely linked both to the changes occurring at the heart of western society in the Later Middle Ages and to the development of new medical and scientific systems.

The chief area in which we find works in the Catalan vernacular in the 14th and 15th centuries is that of both practical and theoretical medicine: there are Catalan translations of the primers of scholastic medicine (the Articella) as well as of the great compendia (Avicenna’s Canon). The Regiments de sanitat [‘On the Regulation of health’] were manuals of hygiene (there is one by Arnold of Villanova, dedicated to James II of Aragon). There were treatises upon the plague, writings concerning cosmetics, gynaecology and obstetrics and also volumes devoted to remedies: pharmacopoeia and tracts regarding antidotes. The most numerous medical texts in the vernacular were the surgical treatises. There were also translations of books dealing with diseases of the eye and veterinary manuals, concerning the health of horses and mules, but also of hunting birds and of dogs.

There also existed encyclopedic treatises in medieval Catalan, some being translations, others being the work of local authors, such as Ramon Llull and Francis Eiximenis.  There were also examples of astronomical-astrological tracts, both translations and originals, books on magic, anonymous alchemical treatises, falsely attributed to Ramon Llull and Arnold of Villanova, optical treatises, and travel books containing maps and portolanos. The bestiaries, lapidaries and herbaria were sources of information describing, respectively, these three realms of nature. In the 14th and 15th centuries, there also circulated in Catalan treatises upon agriculture, cookery, arithmetic, and commerce, with special attention to monetary issues.

It would seem that the differing regional rhythms in both respects are fundamental if one wishes to explain the different variations in the phenomenon. In this sense, the period of prosperity shared by the commercial bourgeoisie in the coastal countries of the Crown of Aragon, who travelled most actively along the principal business routes across the Mediterranean, coincided with the reign of certain monarchs—from the time of James I (1213-1276) to that of Martin I (1397-1410)—who were particularly sensitive to whatever concerned health and medicine and, more generally, to the promotion of all fields of knowledge. This bourgeoisie and these monarchs earnestly supported these novel scientific and medical systems at the very time they was beginning to spread.

Source: Lluís Cifuentes, La ciència en català a l’Edat Mitjana i el Renaixement, “Col·lecció Blaquerna” 3 (Barcelona-Palma de Mallorca: Universitat de Barcelona-Universitat de les Illes Balears, 2006), pp. 27 and 35-36.

The social presence of the vernacular language in the spread of scientific and technical knowledge from the beginning of the 14th century onwards, compared to the Latin of the official science of the Universities and of the Church, can help one to understand why Llull used Catalan at a very early date (that is to say, from 1274 onwards) in an area of his production with a scientific, philosophical, and theological character: Llull was addressing himself, in the vernacular, to the same urban public, bourgeois or aristocratic, who promptly devoured the technical prose of treatises on health, astrology or commercial practice of which we have knowledge.