10 Questions... Violet Moller

In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the journey taken by the ideas of three of the greatest scientists of antiquity through seven cities and over a thousand years. From Muslim Córdoba to Catholic Toledo, from Salerno’s medieval medical school to Palermo, capital of Sicily’s vibrant mix of cultures and, finally, to Venice, where that great merchant city’s printing presses would enable Euclid’s geometry, Ptolemy’s system of the stars and Galen’s vast body of writings on medicine to spread even more widely. Moller reveals the web of connections between the Islamic world and Christendom, connections that would both preserve and transform astronomy, mathematics and medicine from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Here she answers our 10 questions...

1. Tell us about the writing process. Where did the idea for The Map of Knowledge come from, and how much did it change as you researched and wrote it?

I first began thinking about places where different cultures connected with one another and ideas were transferred when I visited Sicily in my early 20s. I was amazed by the layers of history left behind by the many civilisations that had lived there over time, making me wonder which other places had fulfilled a similar role. When I started planning the book, the narrative unfolded quite naturally and it actually didn’t change much during the writing process, although I did get distracted by many things along the way!

2. The strands of history you follow are fragmentary and fragile. How did you overcome those challenges to build a coherent "map"?

Right from the start, I realised I needed to choose a few strands and be quite strict about following them so as not to get lost in the general history of knowledge, which would have been overwhelming, both for me and for the reader. I selected three classical writers – Euclid, Ptolemy and Galen – and because their texts were so important, they tended to be preserved, translated and worked on in the same places. I used their journey through the Middle Ages as the basis for my narrative and each major city they were studied in became a different chapter in the book.

3. In researching the book, what was the most surprising thing you discovered?

I was not aware of the wonderful sophistication of Arabic culture in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain in the early Middle Ages, and how much it influenced Western Europe. I hope that The Map of Knowledge will help to bring this fascinating period of history to a wider audience.

4. You talk about stepping back to a point that "the intricate web of connections between different cultures comes into focus, giving us a broader, more nuanced and ultimately more vivid view of our intellectual heritage." Taking that wide perspective now, what do you make of the East-West dynamic today?

It is so complicated and inevitably the negative aspects of the dynamic are what make the headlines and dominate the discourse: war, violence and extremism. So often, religion seems to polarise people and push them towards extreme ideas. It would be better if we could focus on what we have in common, and our scientific heritage is just one example of that. We have benefitted by sharing ideas in the past, we could and should do so in the future.

5. If you could boil the book down to a key thought or message what would that be?

We owe the scholars of the past a huge amount.

6. You place "an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusivity towards different nationalities and religions" as a crucial part of allowing scholarship to flourish. What impact do you think the state of public discourse today will have on contemporary scholarship?

The current outlook isn’t great and as a historian of the distant past I find it extremely depressing that, here in the twenty-first century, we seem to be moving away from tolerance and inclusivity, making it more difficult for scholars to work collaboratively across national boundaries. This does feel like a step backwards, and I can’t imagine that it will have anything other than a negative impact on scholarship. Having said that, phases like this have always come and gone in history, so I guess we just have to hope that it will not last long and will be replaced by a period of increased openness and enlightenment as soon as possible.

7. For readers who love The Map of Knowledge, what other books would you recommend?

I loved Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, sumptuously illustrated and written in such an easy, entertaining way, while Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads encompasses a huge sweep of history and places. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve tells the story of how early Renaissance manuscript hunters unearthed lost texts, while anyone wanting to discover more about Arabic science should read Jim al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom which examines each discipline in lively detail. Two of my all-time favourite history books are Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror – both deliver first class scholarship in a readable manner.

8. What was the first book you loved?

I was one of those children who spent most of my time reading and I actually can’t remember the first book I fell in love with, but when I was about 10 I had got through all the children’s books at home so my Mother gave me an old hard-back copy of Katherine by Anya Seton, a novel that tells the (true) story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt in fourteenth century England. It was the first book that really took me back to another time, it showed me that the past is reachable, you just need the knowledge and the imagination to get there. I have re-read it many times and it is still one of my favourites.

9. What was the last book you read?

I read David Nott’s extraordinary book, War Doctor, a few weeks’ ago and am still in a state of shock and awe about what he has, and continues to, achieve working with medics, providing training and life-saving surgery in war and disaster zones. It is a breath-taking story that puts everything else into perspective. On a much lighter note, I also recently enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

10. What are you working on now?

I am currently reading a lot about Archimedes and trying to work out how I can escape to Syracuse in Sicily to do some research!


Violet Moller talks The Map of Knowledge at Hay Festival Wales on Sunday 26 May. Tickets here. Listen again on Hay Player shortly after here.