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Calculating Conversion: The Role of Mathematical Deliberation in Arabic Language Schools of Iberia and North Africa, ca. 1240-1300

April 17, 2017 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Nicholas Jacobson wearing a colored shirt standing in front of a wood-paneled wall
Monday Seminar

Nicholas Jacobson

William Coleman Dissertation Fellow (2016-2017)

History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, UW-Madison


In the middle decades of the thirteenth century, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries established schools devoted to the study of “oriental” languages in the Christian-occupied regions of Arabic Iberia and North Africa. At these sites friars studied Arabic and Hebrew grammar as well as Arabic natural philosophy and Jewish law for use as weapons in a sort of spiritual warfare against their adversaries. Curiously, although the friars mastered the midrash to better challenge Jewish scholars in disputation, they rarely marshalled the Qur’ān or hadith in analogous conversion attempts among Muslims. Rather, they adopted the logical and mathematical techniques of analysis, which they called “natural reasons” (rationes naturales), in order to challenge their Muslim interlocutors. It might seem that the missionaries based anti-Muslim polemics on rational foundations as a way of creating a neutral epistemic space for argument. In fact, this was not the case. Rather the ideal Muslim whose authority they sought to challenge took the form of a deliberative philosopher almost as a religious or even ethnic stereotype, which they applied to elite Arab culture generally.  How did this ethnographic stereotype come to figure in the Latin missionary imagination, and what were its social consequences?


Nicholas Jacobson is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests focus on the interplay of mathematical and moral conceptions of civil society in the thirteenth-century Mediterranean world.  His research has been generously supported through two UW-Madison Global Studies’ FLAS Scholarships for the study of the Arabic language and two UW-Madison University Fellowships, as well as the William Coleman Dissertation Fellowship through the Institute for Research in the Humanities. His teaching interests include networks of cross-cultural scholarly exchange during the Global Middle Ages and the development of practical knowledge alongside the “religions of the book” and the theoretical sciences of the Medieval Mediterranean World. He received his BA in 2007 at Seattle Pacific University Summa cum laude, and his MA in 2011 from the UW-Madison. He is currently working on his dissertation, “The Ends and the Means: Trans-Mediterranean Networks of Calculation and the Development of a Civil Theory of Proportion (1215-1315).”


April 17, 2017
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States