09 October 2015

A mediaeval bishop and ‘founder
of the tradition of scientific thought’

Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Philosopher and Scientist … commemorated in ‘Common Worship’ on 9 October

Patrick Comerford

I am leading this morning’s service in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute [9 October 2015]. My introduction this morning helps to set the tone for next week’s emphasis in the chapel on Anglican Spirituality, by pointing to the calendar in the Church of England.

On this day [9 October], the Calendar in Common Worship recalls both Denis, Bishop of Paris, and his Companions, ca 250, and Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Philosopher, Scientist, 1253 [see Common Worship, p. 14].

Robert Grosseteste has been described as ‘a mediaeval Dr Johnson in his powers of mind and personality.’ A leading Biblical scholar and commentator, he also wrote extensively on philosophy and science, and translated Aristotle. His biographer, Sir Richard Southern, said he was the greatest product of Oxford University but a man who ‘difficult to please and difficult to follow.’ AC Crombie, the Australian historian of science, describes him as ‘the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in mediaeval Oxford.’

Grosseteste – his surname means ‘large-head,’ ‘Bighead’ or even ‘Fathead’ – was born into a peasant family in Stradbroke, Suffolk, about 1175. He may have studied in Oxford, where he is said to have distinguished himself in law, medicine, languages, natural sciences and theology, and in Paris.

He held various posts until, after a grave illness, he returned to Oxford ca 1229/1230, where he taught at the Franciscan house of studies. His students included the Franciscan Roger Bacon, who acquired an interest in the scientific method from him. He may have become what is now called Chancellor of Oxford University in 1224, and at the same time he was Archdeacon of Leicester and a canon of Lincoln Cathedral.

He became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235, then geographically the largest diocese in England. Soon after his appointment to Lincoln, Robert immediately set about om a thorough visitation of his diocese.

His attempts at vigorous reforms were opposed by the dean and chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, who argued they were beyond his jurisdiction as bishop.

In his first year as bishop, he deposed no fewer than 11 abbots and priors. He vigorously opposed the practice by which the Pope appointed Italians as absentee clergy for English churches and collecting salaries from those churches without ever setting foot in the country. He insisted that his priests spend their time in the service of their people, in prayer, and in study.

His dispute with the dean and chapter of Lincoln Cathedral was settled in 1245 when the Pope issued a bull giving the bishop full power over the chapter.

Grosseteste believed that the fundamental duty of the Church is pastoral and the care of souls. He explained what he meant at the Council of Lyons in 1250: ‘The pastoral charge does not consist merely in administering the sacraments, saying the canonical hours, celebrating masses, but in the truthful teaching of the living truth, in the awe-inspiring condemnation of vice and severe punishment of it when necessary. It consists also in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, covering the naked, receiving guests, visiting the sick and those in prison … By the doing of these things is the people to be taught the holy duties of the active life.’

At the papal court in Lyons in 1250, he also denounced the Pope and the cardinals for ‘acting contrary to Christ’. The papal see, he told them, ‘the throne of God, the sun of the whole world … has been perverted and it has become a source of perdition and destruction.’

His wide-ranging interests covered mathematics, optics and many of the sciences. He translated large numbers of theological works from Greek and wrote his own theological commentaries and philosophical works.

It has been argued that Grosseteste played a key role in the development of the scientific method. His ideas about how the universe was created are close to the Big Bang Theory, he was the first scientist to identify the cause of the rainbow as refraction and he seems to have understood centuries before anyone else that the universe is expanding.

He introduced to the Latin West the notion of controlled experiment and related it to demonstrative science, as one among many ways of arriving at scientific knowledge. He was the first of the Scholastics to fully understand Aristotle’s vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning: generalising from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again from universal laws to prediction of particulars.

Grosseteste worked from Latin translations of Arabic versions of Aristotle’s texts. These had been translated from the original Greek by Islamic scholars. Jewish scholars based in southern Europe curated and distributed the texts to western scholars.

His commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics was one of the first and most influential of the mediaeval commentaries on this fundamental work. Other important writings belonging to the first period are his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics; independent treatises on astronomy and cosmology, the calendar (with proposals for the reform of the inaccurate calendar then in use), sound, comets, heat, optics, and other scientific subjects; and his scriptural commentaries, especially the Moralitates in evangelica, De cessatione legalium, Hexaëmeron and commentaries on the Pauline Epistles and the Psalms.

He began to study Greek in 1230-1231, and used this learning by translating into Latin translations Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and De caelo, of the De fide orthodoxe of Saint John of Damascus, of Pseudo-Dionysius and of other theological writings. He brought assistants who knew Greek to Lincoln to work with him, and also arranged for a translation of the Psalms from the Hebrew.

His writings on the first chapter of Genesis include an interesting anticipation of modern cosmological ideas. He read that the first thing created was light, and said that the universe began with pure energy exploding from a point source.

In a paper in the journal Nature Physics last year [July 2014], a group of scientists discussed how they are re-examining Grosseteste’s work. They showed his contributions to the field of optics have yet to be assimilated into the canon of science. For example, his insight into the physics of rainbows enabled the researchers in the Ordered Universe Project at Durham and Oxford Universities to create a new co-ordinate system for colour.

Robert Grosseteste died at Buckden in Huntingdonshire on this day in 1253. He is buried in a tomb in his memorial chapel in Lincoln Cathedral.

A campaign was launched last year [2014] by Dr Jack Cunningham, a theology lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln for a statue to be erected in Lincoln to Bishop Robert Grosseteste. ‘Grosseteste was revolutionary in the history of science because he knew that everything was about mathematics and that good scientists should base their knowledge on what they observe and not what they think,’ he says.

The plaque on his tomb says: ‘He was a man of learning and an inspiration to scholars a wise administrator while a true shepherd of his flock, ever concerned to lead them to Christ in whose service he strove to temper justice with mercy, hating the sin while loving the sinner, not sparing the rod though cherishing the weak.’


‘In the Divine Mind all knowledge exists from eternity.’

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