The Latin Translation of Peter the Venerable And Robert of Ketton (1143), As Edited by Bibliander (1543-1550)
The Latin translation presented here played a particularly important role in the perception of the Muslim religion in the West from at least the 12th to the 17th century. This was the first complete version of the Qur’ān to ever be translated into a Western European language. It was done by Robert of Ketton and was part of the Cluny Corpus, a collection of texts relating to Islam which was ordered and supervised by the abbot Peter the Venerable. This collection, completed in 1143, circulated throughout the Middle Ages as a manuscript. In 1543, exactly four centuries after being completed, it was published as a printed book at the initiative of the protestant humanist Theodor Buchmann, also known as Bibliander. The latter published a revised version of the book in 1550. The text presented here comes from this second and final edition.
Peter the Venerable and the Cluny Corpus
The Benedictine Order of Cluny was founded at the beginning of the 10th century. In 1122 when Peter, known as the Venerable, was granted the position of abbot, the Order was going through a period of crisis. The Cluniacs had to face competition with another newly formed branch of Benedictine-monasticism: the Order of Cistercians, and their figurehead Bernard of Clairvaux. Peter the Venerable was given the task of reforming Cluny along with the various monasteries that depended on it, some of which were in Spain. The reform was probably the reason which drove him to the Iberian Peninsula between 1142 and 1143. He was also invited by Alfonso 7th of León and Castile, a powerful supporter of his order. However, despite the ongoing Inquisition, the Muslim issue was even more pressing in Spain than anywhere else in Europe. Peter the Venerable seemed to be concerned about that context. During the same period he produced a polemical text against heretics and Jews which echoed with his works on Islam.
Peter the Venerable initially thought that Christians did not have the required knowledge to refute Muslims. Consequently, he entrusted a team of translators based in Spain with the task of translating the Qur’ān into Latin, along with three pamphlets supposed to be important references in the Islamic world: two stories going back to Creation; and a dialogue between Muhammad and the Jew “Abdias” or ‘Abdallâh ibn Salâm, which lead to the conversion of the latter in Islam. The pamphlets also contained a Christian refutation of Islam called Risāla in Arabic, written under the pseudonym of Al-Kindī, and translated under the title of Apologia. The whole work constitutes what is called “the Cluny Corpus”, and the original copy is kept at the Library of the Arsenal in Paris under the shelfmark “Latin manuscript 1162”. Peter the Venerable introduced the Corpus with two short texts: an “overall summary of heresy and of the diabolical sect of Saracens or Ismailits” (Summa totius hæresis Saracenorum), in which he briefly describes Islam in a polemical manner; the second text is a letter to Bernard of Clairvaux urging him to use the provided material to write against the Muslims. As Bernard of Clairvaux did not respond to his demand, Peter the Venerable composed another treatise called “Against the Saracens’ sect” (Contra sectam Saracenorum). The two books composing this possibly unfinished treatise seemed to have been written soon before his death in 1156, and were not part of the Cluny Corpus strictly speaking, even though they encompass an obvious continuation of it.
It is interesting to note that the author assigned two different objectives to his endeavour: to convert Muslims in a peaceful manner through discussion, but also to protect Christians who could be attracted by Islam. Which one of these objectives was more important to him? Was the first one just a pretext? A modern commentator might hesitate before giving an answer. Moreover, Peter the Venerable’s thoughts on the Crusade, as expressed through his various texts, are nuanced enough to cause doubt. On the one hand, he never condemned the principle, and furthermore, in a letter to the King of France Louis VII for instance, he expressed his hopes for success. On the other hand, he feared unnecessary bloodshed, reckoned that wars were no business for monks like himself, and for that reason, adopted a very different point of view than that of Bernard of Clairvaux. He considered attacking “not with weapons (…) but with words, not with force but with reason, not with hate but with love”.
Robert of Ketton’s Version
There were no translators specialized in Muslim theology at the beginning of the 12th century in Western Europe. The main reason lied in the fact that controversial and apologetic literature on the subject was just starting to develop. Widely described as a heresy since John of Damascus – the first known controversist to work on the subject during the 7th century – Islam was not viewed by Christians as a fully-fledged religion and was of no proper matter of interest. In the West, the most influential refutation can be found in a book by Petrus Alfonsi, voluntarily entitled “Dialogues Against the Jews” (around 1110). This helps us to better understand why Peter the Venerable had Robert of Ketton and Hermann of Carinthia translate religious texts, whereas their previous work was mainly focused on Arab texts relating to the field of sciences.
We have few biographical sources on these two translators, who were colleagues and friends. And the available sources tell us little about their translation choices; thus, we will not linger over the matter. We will only point out that Robert of Ketton added a short preface to his version. In this preface, he expressed his negative impressions about the Qur’ān, as did Peter the Venerable in his overall summary, both conforming with what Christian readers expected at the time. Robert of Ketton specified subjects for which he had real interest: geometry and astronomy. And more importantly, he claimed to have not removed nor altered anything significant in the original text, if only to make himself understood. This restriction is of importance because Ketton’s version appears to paraphrase the Arabic text rather than translate it literally. It is true that translation is rendered interpretatio in Latin, which gives a little more room for the translator’s subjectivity. However, there are other Latin versions of the Qur’ān, composed by Marcos of Toledo around 1210, John of Segovia in 1455-1456, Raimondo Moncada in the 1480s, Juan Gabriel de Teruel in 1516, and Ludovico Marracci in 1698. Except for the latter, which in addition marked the first step toward a critical publication of the Qur’ān, their dissemination remained limited. We only know of John of Segovia’s version through its prologue. But to a certain extent, all of these Latin translations observed a certain fidelity to the literal meaning of the Arabic text, which we can assess with more certainty because at that time the variant readings (al-Qirā’āt) had become more standardized, and also due to the fact that the Quranic text is in any case rather homogenous: on this topic, you may refer to Hassan Chahdi’s introductory note to the Cairo edition. Such fidelity to the Arabic text appears to be less significant in Robert of Ketton’s translation.
In the latter’s work, we are struck by the major changes he implemented in the very content of the sūrahs. The comparative view of the different versions available on our website allows the reader to visualize these modifications very easily. The changes can be grouped in three main types: inversions, conglomerations and deleted verses. One can refer to the “Fātiḥa”, or the opening sūrah, for a first example of each of these phenomena. Actually, in the Arabic text, the general structure of this sūrah is concentric: verses 1 to 4 deal with adoration, verses 6 to 7 are about prayer, verse 5 constitutes central transitional point sending us back to adoration then to prayer. Rhythms are binary: verses 1 and 3 respond to each other by repeating the holy names “the Most Merciful, the Merciful”; verses 2 and 4, by the common idea of kingship (“Lord” and “Ruler”); verse 6 and the beginning of verse 7 are opposed at the end of verse 7 by the antithesis between “Straight Way” and “Way of the Wanderers”. However, in Robert of Ketton’s work the seven verses in question are merged into one long sentence, and we can no longer find the structure or these parallels. The translator has arguably chosen to apply syntax and rhythms of the Ciceronian-style sentence to the Arabic text. Ketton’s taste for paronomasia, derivation, homeoteleuton, and other stylistic devices also demonstrate his Ciceronian tendencies.
It is very likely that this stylistic choice contributed to the success of Robert of Ketton’s translation: for instance, John of Segovia later considered him a rhetorician and a poet, even though he criticized the inaccuracies noted in his work. Besides, the reader should not rule out the idea that this exaggerated Latinization might have been undertaken as a tribute to the aesthetic quality of the original text. In any case, one should refrain from hastily considering that Robert of Ketton meant to distort the Qur’ān. This sort of intention is always hard to prove, and the paraphrased elements may have come from readings of the Quranic exegesis, or resulted in a consultation of scholars familiar with those texts. We know, for instance, from Peter the Venerable that Robert of Ketton received help from a certain - and rather unknown - Muhammad who was maybe the one who gave him access to tafsīr-s.
The numerous approximations present in this Latin translation of the Qur’ān must not obscure the philological preoccupations which operate in this manner as well. These preoccupations can still be found in the footnotes of the original manuscript, where degrading observations on Islam and the Qur’ān coexist with informative remarks concerning the meaning of a given sūrah, the supposed occasions of its revelation, the importance of a verse, or the transliterated term corresponding to the translated word.
Twenty-four manuscripts of the Cluny Corpus have survived to this day, which is quite significant for an undeniably important text. Despite the 1311 Pope Clement V call to open chairs for Arabic studies in universities, clerics who knew the language were rare in the Middle Ages. Clerics would quote the Qur’ān either by using excerpts found in polemical Christian texts, or by referring to Robert of Ketton’s Latin version. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that this version was the one chosen by Bibliander when he delivered the first complete version of the Qur’ān ever to be printed.
Bibliander is the Hellenized form of the German patronym Buchmann, which can be translated as “man of books”: a Hellenization characteristic of a humanist approach. It is true that humanism and taste for languages are largely present in the work of this eminent Protestant theologian. In 1531, the year of Ulrich Zwingli’s death, the main architect of the Zurichian Reformation, Bibliander was chosen to succeed Zwingli and to give public lectures on the Old Testament in the Alemannic city. He professed his reformed convictions in his classes, while exploiting at the same time his great knowledge of Hebrew, which he acquired from his masters Konrad Pellican and Johannes Oecolampadius. For instance, in a treatise De ratione communi omnium linguarum et literarum published in 1548, Bibliander demonstrated that all languages and alphabets have a common structure, tracing their origins back to the Hebrew source.
His knowledge of Arabic came from this Hebraic education, but it was superficial. It was probably too risky for Bibliander to translate the Qur’ān under his name, but it was also not certain that he was capable of doing it either. This was probably the reason why he settled on presenting in a very faithful manner Robert of Ketton’s version. Indeed, in the first edition, his main interventions consisted in identifying textual variations based on two manuscripts from the Cluny Corpus in addition to the one he consulted, as well as on one or two manuscripts of the Qur’ān in Arabic. In the second edition, released in 1550, this critical apparatus is no longer present, and the suggested corrections were directly included in the slightly modified text.
These modifications justify our recourse to the text from this second edition rather than from the 1543 edition. But one should add that the original edition poses daunting problems, since there are no less than seven different versions of it. This is largely due to the complex history of its genesis. In the summer of 1542, Bibliander entrusted his friend Johannes Oporinus with the task of printing the Latin Qur’ān, without informing the City Council of Basel, where the printer worked. However, the clandestine printing of the Qur’ān came to the knowledge of the censor. The council banned the distribution of the printed sheets and then briefly threw Oporinus in prison. Different Protestant authorities were then consulted on the advisability of this publication. Bucer, in Strasbourg, and particularly Luther, the father of the Reformation, were in favour. In Luther’s view, the publication of the Qur’ān is dangerous only for Muslims, who would prefer to hide it; he also stated that one cannot refute Islam without having a good knowledge of it. Convinced by these arguments, the Council lifted the ban in January 1543. However, the edition would be published under the following conditions: the title page would not mention Basel, and Bibliander would have to sign the preface, or “apologia for an edition of the Koran”, in which he would defend his project. In reality, Bibliander even went further by asking Luther and Melanchthon, two of the most respected figures in the Protestant world, to write two preliminary caveats. The different stages of the edition published in 1543 were due not only to the variants within the text itself, but also to the disposition of the fundamental pieces of the volume, and finally because of the presentation of these two caveats: the one written by Melanchthon came first and was mistaken for Luther’s, which came later. As a result, their writing and the position of their texts within the volume changed several times.
Throughout this series of events, we should keep in mind that publishing the Qur’ān was risky and did require caution. More than century later, André Du Ryer’s French translation and the English version that followed experienced similar misfortunes. Furthermore, Bibliander made sure to include the contentious text within a three-part piece entitled “The lives and doctrine of Muhammad, prince of the Saracens, and of his successors, with the Qur’ān itself” (Machumetis Saracenorum principis, ejusque successorum vitæ, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran). The fact that the name of Muhammad is put forth in this title suggests that he is, in the eyes of the humanist, the author of the Quranic message, and that, consequently, his message was not revealed to him by God.
The Latin translation is found in the first volume: it is preceded by Bibliander’s preface and Peter the Venerable’s letter to Bernard of Clairvaux, along with his overall summary of Islam. It is followed by the Muslim pamphlets, previously translated upon Peter the Venerable’s request, then with remarks on the Qur’ān, mistakenly attributed to a modern commentator, but which correspond in reality to comments made in the margin of the Cluny corpus dating back to the 12th century. The second volume contains Christian refutations of the Muslim religion. The third volume brings together various written works, mostly historical, about the Saracens and the Turks. All of these texts tainted with vigorous controversy underline Bibliander’s orthodoxy.
This display of orthodoxy is even more important given Bibliander’s particular relationship with the Muslim world. The events that motivated him certainly came from the fear that was widespread at the time. After Hungary was seized by the Ottomans in 1541, the Turkish peril was more imminent than ever before. It reinforced vivid threatening images of the Last Days, with Christians going through divisions. Bibliander’s volume represented an encyclopedia on Islam that one might have to refer to, whether one liked it or not, when Europe would be under the Sultan’s rule and Christians would have to fight against Muslims on a spiritual level. In 1542, the humanist Bibliander published a “Consultation to the people of the Christian name, on the means by which the fierce power of the Turks can and should be repelled by Christian people” (Ad nominis Christiani socios consultatio, qua nam ratione Turcarum dira potentia repelli possit ac debeat a populo Christiano). Yet, Bibliander exposed early rather apocalyptic views and pushed towards religious universalism, which was related to his ideas on linguistic universalism. As early as 1533, he announced the arrival of a messiah who would reconcile religions by spreading Christianity throughout the whole world, notably by converting Jews and Muslims, a task that would have to be subsequently undertaken. The treatise he wrote on his prediction is entitled “On the supreme, legitimate and eternal monarchy of the universe” (De monarchia totius orbis suprema, legitima et sempiternal). However, the treatise remained in manuscript form and was never published, which is probably not a coincidence. In fact, not to mention Bibliander’s mysticism, the treatise reveals a form of irenicism that was inaudible to most people of his time. In other words, the common polemical elements which Bibliander made recourse to were compulsory passages in order to be able to publish his work. Even though the caveats and refutations he included in the Latin translation of the Qur’ān are degrading to Islam, they still provide a form of openness that is far from self-evident. If we do not contextualize them, we would risk misunderstanding their meaning, or at least not grasp their strategic dimension.
More generally speaking, Bibliander’s choices nuanced, if not invalidated, the impression that he was too much biased against the text he was editing. If he placed the marginal annotations of the Cluny Corpus at the end of the first volume, it was because he substituted them with his own side notes. These side notes take two forms in our digital presentation : either a summary of a verse or a sūrah, or a comment on this verse or that sūrah. This classification is our own, but it allows us to claim that the humanist knew he had to keep a certain distance from the text on which he was commenting. Indeed, even if they are used to highlight one passage rather than another, and sometimes to identify an interesting sentence, the summaries reflect a relative neutrality. There is undoubtedly an element of factuality in them.
It is interesting to point out that the comments themselves are not necessarily polemical. Some of them obviously are, and we must keep in mind that Bibliander may be giving tokens of faith to his Christian readers. Other comments suggest, on the contrary, similarities with the Bible, which was not the case for the Cluny Corpus. Since Quranic exegesis did not seem to have been consulted, we could state that the philological preoccupations of the Corpus find here a certain continuity, but in a different approach. And again, it is the philologist within Bibliander who scrupulously edited Robert of Ketton’s version, using for instance, as the latter did, paragraph marks, also called ‘pilcrows’, to signal ḥizb, a liturgic division corresponding to a sixtieth of the text.
It may therefore come as a surprise that the printed Qur’ān contains one hundred and twenty-four sūrahs, and not the expected one hundred and fourteen. However, there were already one hundred and twenty-three sūrahs in the Cluny corpus: the first sūrahs are considered too long not to be divided up, in compliance with the milestones represented by the ḥizb-s. In fact, Bibliander only moved away from the original translation on three points. He included the “Fātiḥa” in his numbering, in contrast to Robert of Ketton: the latter probably based his translation on a North African copy of the Qur’ān, as the “Fātiḥa” was generally considered as an introduction in the copies of the Arabic text circulating in the Maghreb at that time. Bibliander also suppressed another subdivision of what we would consider sūrah 2. Finally, he distinguished between what for us constitute sūrahs 7 and 8, a distinction which is absent from his Cluniac source and which explains the final discrepancy between his edition and Ketton’s text. As to the rest, his only notable intervention consists in presenting, for the “Fātiḥa”, three different translations: that of Robert of Ketton; a more faithful translation, but which had already been included in the margins of this sūrah in the manuscripts of the Cluny corpus; and finally, a version drawn from the book Arabic grammar (Grammatica arabica) published around 1540 by the French humanist Guillaume Postel.
In conclusion: the importance of Bibliander’s edition
The material accumulated by Bibliander in his three-part volume is so vast that it became, during the middle of the 16th century, the reference on Turks (Muslims) and their religion. For the first time ever, Western European readers could access quite easily the entire Qur’ān. The printing of the Arabic text in 1537 by the Venetian Paganino Paganini was not circulated and would have only reached a very small number of readers among Christians. In 1543, another Latin edition was published by the Catholic kabbalist and theologian Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter, but it was a mere abridged version based on a table of contents added at a late stage to the Cluny Corpus.
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Giovanni Battista Castrodardo referred to Bibliander’s work for his own translation of the Qur’ān into Italian. This translation was published in 1547 and was the first printed version of the text in a European vernacular language. His editor, Andrea Arrivabene, claimed that it was based on the Arabic text, but it was not the case. The Italian version was in turn translated into German by Salomon Schweigger in 1616, and this German translation later led to a Dutch version in 1641. It is only after André du Ryer’s French translation in 1647, Ludovico Marracci’s Latin version in 1698 and George Sale’s English translation in 1734, that Bibliander’s work started losing gradually its documentary value and influence.
Indeed, for more than five centuries, Christian Europe would have read the Qur’ān, directly or indirectly, through the mediation of the Cluny Corpus.
For more information
The present text was initially entered by Datactivity. It was then edited in 2010 by Tristan Vigliano, for the Mondes humanistes et classiques website. It was encoded in 2019 by Paul Gaillardon in XML-TEI. The latter also parallelized the edition along with Smaranda Marculescu. For initial bibliographical references, please see:
Alchoran Latinus, vol. 3, Editiones Theodori Bibliandri (1543 and 1550), ed. Anthony J. Lappin, Rome, ARACNE, 2011 [It is worth noting that this volume is based on the electronic edition of the Bibliander Qur’ān published in 2010 on the Mondes humanistes et classiques website: electronic edition reproduced and enriched on Qur’ān 12-21].
Bibliander (Theodor Buchmann, dit), Le Coran à la Renaissance. Plaidoyer pour une traduction, ed. and trans. Henri Lamarque, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2007 [edition and translation of Bibliander’s preface to his Qur’ān].
Alverny (Marie-Thérèse d’), “Deux traductions latines du Coran au Moyen Âge”, Archives d’histoire littéraire et doctrinale du Moyen Âge, vol. 16 (1948), p. 69-131.
Bobzin (Harmut), Der Koran im Zeitalter der Reformation: Studien zur Frühgeschichte der Arabistik und Islamkunde in Europa, Beyrouth / Stuttgart, Steiner, 1995.
Burman (Thomas), Reading the Qur’ān in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Cecini (Ulisse), Alcoranus latinus. Eine sprachliche und kulturwissenschaftliche Analyse der Koranübersetzungen von Robert von Ketton und Marcus von Toledo, Berlin, LIT, 2012.
De la Cruz Palma (Óscar) and Ferrero Hernández (Cándida), “Robert of Ketton”, in Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History [CMR], vol. 3, 1050-1200, p. 508-519.
Gordon (Bruce), “Theodor Bibliander”, in CMR, vol. 6, Western Europe (1500-1600), p. 675-685.
Hanne (Olivier), L’Alcoran : Comment l’Europe a découvert le Coran, Paris, Belin, 2019.
Iogna-Prat (Dominique), Ordonner et exclure. Cluny et la société chrétienne face à l’hérésie, au judaïsme et à l’islam, Paris, GF Flammarion, 2003.
Iogna-Prat (Dominique) and Tolan (John), “Peter of Cluny”, in CMR, vol. 3, 1050-1200, p. 604-610.
Finally, you may refer to the very valuable Islamolatina website, run by Professor José Martínez Gázquez. It is dedicated to the Latin translations of the Qur’ān and their framing, from the Middle Ages to approximately the 17th century. The website of the Biblioteca Ibérica Digital contains references to all the manuscripts of Robert of Ketton’s translation that still exist.
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The text in English is the result of a collaborative translation by Claire Gallien, Olivier Justet, Elisabeth Martineau, and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.