Robert Grosseteste

1175 - 1253
by David F. Coppedge

The next entrant is extremely important to the development of modern science, yet sure to be almost unknown to most readers.  This medieval pastor, however, exemplifies the theme of our series, that it was Christian beliefs that motivated science, and it was great Christians who started the scientific revolution.

When studying any historical biography, we have to understand the tenor of the times.  The conditions in medieval Europe, totally dominated by the Catholic church, often corrupted by its own power, were often far from Christlike.  We would hasten to distance ourselves from the abuses that were all too pervasive: bloody Crusades, immoral popes, dogma and human tradition exalted above Scripture.  As mentioned in the Introduction, however, many of the abuses were done by the rulers, not the monks, pastors, and common people, except to the extent they believed and obeyed false doctrines.  Those nearest to the teachings of Jesus were the monks and pastors who knew the ancient languages, copied the Scriptures and had dedicated their lives to the gospel as they understood it (this can be illustrated by the fact that Jon Hus, Martin Luther and other later reformers often came from the ranks of monks).  Corrupted as church doctrine had become with works and extra-biblical traditions, there still remained a Christian outlook on the world of nature, though compromised at times by Greek philosophy (particularly of Aristotle).  It was the Christian worldview, in contrast to the mythologies of pagan empires, that was to be the seedbed of the scientific revolution.  (See our section on worldviews in the Introduction).

Robert Grosseteste was a seminal figure in the history of science; some have even characterized him as an early practitioner of the scientific method.  Although a theologian and bishop by profession, he took great interest in the natural world.  What drove this interest?  That is the question we want to explore.  Certainly most of his attention was devoted to the pastorate and the training of pastors, of which the Grosseteste website says, “During his eighteen years as a bishop, Grosseteste became known as a brilliant, but highly demanding, church leader.  He insisted that all his clergy be literate and receive some training in theology.” His insistence on high moral and intellectual standards even led him, on several occasions, to rebuke the church leadership.  He did not hesitate to lecture the pope on practices he felt were intolerable and unscriptural, such as corruption and political favoritism.  The InfoPlease online encyclopedia says, “Some historians see in Grosseteste’s protests against Rome an influence upon Wyclif and a foreshadowing of the Reformation.”  In particular, out of outrage for the corruption with which papal appointees were collecting church revenues, he resisted Pope Innocent IV to his face.  The portrayal of Grosseteste as a proto-Protestant is probably a beyond what history warrants, but even the Catholic Encyclopedia, which argues he never doubted the authority of the pope, admits:

What he did maintain was that the power of the Holy See was “for edification and not for destruction”, that the commands of the pope could never transgress the limits laid down by the law of God, and that it was his duty, as bishop, to resist an order that was “for manifest destruction”.  In such a case “out of filial reverence and obedience I disobey, resist, and rebel.” [a quote from a letter to the pope’s secretary.]

This admission is telling.  Papist or not, it shows that Robert Grosseteste had a high regard for Scripture and was a man of integrity and moral courage.  In fact, he strongly and sternly argued into his old age about the abuses of the Curia which amounted to extortion and political favoritism.  Such righteous indignation was dangerous in those days, but Grosseteste was held in such high regard, even the Pope respected his reproofs: in his mid-seventies, Grosseteste “read out in the presence of the pope an impressive recital of the evils of the time and a protest against the abuses of the Curia, ‘the cause and origin of all this.’ ; Innocent listened without interruption….” (Catholic Encyclopedia). He even resisted a nepotistic appointment by the pope under threat of excommunication, but was later vindicated.

In addition, Grosseteste steadfastly fought political corruption in his diocese and attempts to weaken the mandates of the Magna Carta.  It is easy to see in Robert Grosseteste an example of courage and integrity that set an example for later reformers who, either within or eventually outside the church, could not bear to see the purity of Scriptural teaching corrupted by personal greed.  With this background of his virtuous character, let us now turn to the subject of what made him a pivotal individual in the history of science.

Grosseteste’s love of learning was the equal of his intolerance for evil.  Though born in a poor family, he became one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages, mastering Greek and Hebrew.  He contributed influential translations of the writings of church fathers and Greek philosophers to the corpus of medieval literature.  He became Bishop of Lincoln, which included Oxford, of which he was head for a time.  He was closely associated with the young university, from which he may have graduated as a youth.  A lifelong lover of knowledge, Grosseteste both absorbed and influenced the best scholarship of the early 13th century.  The Catholic Encyclopedia states:

It is not easy to define exactly Grosseteste’s position in the history of thirteenth century thought.  Though he was from many points of view a schoolman [i.e., scholastic philosopher], his interests lay rather in moral questions than in logical or metaphysical.  In his lectures he laid more stress on the study of the Scripture than on intellectual speculation.  His real originality lay in his effort to get at the original authorities, and in his insistence on experiment in science.  It was this which drew from Roger Bacon [one of his students] the many expressions of enthusiastic admiration which are to be found in his [Bacon’s] works.  In the “Opus Tertium” he says: “No one really knew the sciences, except the Lord Robert, Bishop of Lincoln, by reason of his length of life and experience, as well as of his studiousness and zeal.  He knew mathematics and perspective, and there was nothing which he was unable to know, and at the same time he was sufficiently acquainted with languages to be able to understand the saints and the philosophers and the wise men of antiquity.”

This brings us to the scientific side of this amazing individual.  The encyclopedia goes on to describe the tremendous breadth of his knowledge and interest, from liberal arts to music to husbandry to finance to classical literature: “Besides being learned in the liberal arts, Grosseteste had an unusual interest in mathematical and scientific questions.  He wrote a commentary on the ‘Physics’ of Aristotle; and his own scientific works included studies in meteorology, light, colour and optics.  Amongst his mathematical works was a criticism of the Julian calendar, in which he pointed out the necessity for the changes introduced in the Gregorian.  He attempted a classification of the various forms of knowledge; and few indeed, among his contemporaries, can have had a more encyclopedic range.”  Why would a bishop be interested in science?  The Grosseteste website explains,

During his lifetime, Grosseteste was an avid participant in European intellectual life.  His early education had given him a taste for natural philosophy.  He began producing texts on the liberal arts, and mainly on astronomy and cosmology.  His most famous scientific text, De luce (Concerning Light), argued that light was the basis of all matter, and his account of creation devotes a great deal of space to the biblical text of God’s command, ‘Let there be light.’  Light also played a significant role his [sic] epistemology, as he followed the teachings of St. Augustine that the human intellect comes to know truth through illumination by divine light.  Grosseteste’s interest in the natural world was further developed by his study of geometry, and he is one of the first western thinkers to argue that natural phenomenon [sic] can be described mathematically.

Notice how Genesis gave him the inspiration to pursue a mathematical analysis of light.  Robert Grosseteste is a prime example of how a Biblical worldview stimulated science.  In more than one case, an actual Bible verse was the stimulus.  This counters the criticism of naturalistic scientists that presume scientific research comes to a halt when the answer is “God did it.”  On the contrary, the question How did God do it? often spurred great thinkers to uncover the laws that they believed the great Lawgiver had designed.

Grosseteste is memorable not only for his own scientific pursuits, but also for the fact that he was mentor to Roger Bacon, who caught the spark and envisioned even greater possibilities for the experimental method.  Be sure to continue our study on the life of Roger Bacon.

While in hindsight we might not endorse everything Robert Grosseteste believed and taught (such as papal supremacy and other extra-biblical doctrines), he exemplified a Christian attitude toward the natural world that almost ignited a scientific revolution hundreds of years before Galileo and Newton.  On top of that, he had a tremendous love of the truth, high standards of integrity, an exceptional inquisitiveness into nature, and a huge measure of godliness and compassion that alone would make his life worth noting.  Dan Graves says of him, “Devoted pastor, dedicated church reformer, groundbreaking scientist, renowned educator, careful historian, and meticulous translator–in each field, Robert Grosseteste raised the standard for God-fearing academics to follow for generations” (Scientists of Faith, p. 23).

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