University of Durham Researchers Speak on Robert Grosseteste

by Jonathan Gaworski


In an interdisciplinary event bridging science, philosophy, theology, and the humanities, Boston College played host to a pair of researchers from the University of Durham, who opened a window into the mind of the Medieval scholastic Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253). A polymath of far- ranging interests, Robert Grosseteste wrote celebrated works of astronomy, geometry, music, philosophy, and theology.

Low- born and penniless, he received his education through the good graces of clerics who recognized his potential. Grosseteste quickly rose through the ecclesiastical ranks, eventually becoming bishop of the expansive Diocese of Lincoln, which covered one quarter of English soil. Despite his many administrative duties, Grosseteste was indefatigable in intellectual pursuits.


Grosseteste took great interest in the Greek and Byzantine texts which were brought into Western Europe during the Crusades. He engaged a Greek tutor from Constantinople and began studying Classical Greek in his sixties while serving as bishop of Lincoln. Having rapidly mastered this ancient language, Grosseteste went on to produce preeminent translations into Latin of many Greek texts, including works of Aristotle and Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. Characteristic of Grosseteste’s thought was his aversion to the mainstream commentators on Aristotle such as Averroes and Avicenna, instead preferring his own close engagement with the texts of the Aristotelian corpus. Subsequent scholars lauded his intellectual prowess and accomplishments. The Lancaster Chronicle hailed Grosseteste as “lowest in birth but most brilliant in knowledge.” Roger Bacon venerated Grosseteste and commended him in his Opus Tertium for knowing all the sciences and languages of the philosophers.

Many folktales sprung up about this improbable Medieval bishop and scholar. One such tale recalls a dinner hosted by Bishop Grosseteste for a powerful earl. Through an accident, the butler served Grosseteste the largest fish, which led Grosseteste to loudly protest that his honorable guest ought to be preferred at table. The earl reacted with surprise that a man of humble origins would behave with such deferential and genteel manners. Grosseteste responded that although he was of common birth, he had been nurtured by the noblest of men, the philosophers and theologians whose writings nourished his hungry mind.


Giles Gasper and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn presented highlights from their research into Grosseteste at Stokes Hall the evening of October 25. Their endeavor, The Ordered Universe Project, involves over 150 scholars and universities across Europe and North America. It has been running since 2010 with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom. Collaborators are working on a seven-volume series with Oxford University Press to present new editions, English translations, and extensive analyses of the scientific works by Grosseteste. Alongside this, they produce papers for scientific and humanities journals. The Ordered Universe Project also includes within its collaborative ethos creative artists over a wide range of media. The cosmological models theorized by Grosseteste and investigated by the Ordered Universe Project have inspired works of art including sculptures and light shows. The Ordered Universe Project also produces a series of activities for public audiences and schools. 


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