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Robert Grosseteste

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Grosseteste bishop

Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 - October 9, 1253), English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and bishop of Lincoln, was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk. A.C. Crombie calls him "the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in mediaeval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition".


Grosseteste wrote a number of early works in Latin and French while he was a clerk (see biography below), including one called Chasteua d'amour, an allegorical poem on the creation of the world and Christian redemption, as well as several other poems and texts on household management and courtly etiquette. He also wrote a number of theological works including the influential Hexaëmeron in the 1230s.

However, Grosseteste is best known as an original thinker for his work concerning what would today be called science or the scientific method.

From about 1220 to 1235 he wrote a host of scientific treatises including:

  • De sphera. An introductory text on astronomy.
  • De luce. On the "metaphysics of light."
  • De accessione et recessione maris. On tides and tidal movements.
  • De lineis, angulis et figuris. Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
  • De iride. On the rainbow.

He also wrote a number of commentaries on Aristotle, including the first in the West of Posterior Analytics, and one on Aristotle's Physics.


In his works of 1220-1235, in particular the Aristotelian commentaries, Grosseteste laid out the framework for the proper methods of science. Although Grosseteste did not always follow his own advice during his own investigations, his work is seen as instrumental in the history of the development of the Western scientific tradition.

Grosseteste was the first of the Scholastics to fully understand Aristotle's vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning: generalizing from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again from universal laws to prediction of particulars. Grosseteste called this "resolution and composition". So for example looking at the particulars of the moon, it is possible to arrive at universal laws about nature. And conversely once these universal laws are understood, it is possible to make predictions and observations about other objects besides the moon. Further, Grosseteste said that both paths should be verified through experimentation in order to verify the principles. These ideas established a tradition that carried forward to Padua and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.

As important as "resolution and composition" would become to the future of Western scientific tradition, more important to his own time was his idea of the subordination of the sciences. For example when looking at geometry and optics, optics is subordinate to geometry because optics depends on geometry. Thus Grosseteste concluded that mathematics was the highest of all sciences, and the basis for all others, since every natural science ultimately depended on mathematics. He supported this conclusion by looking at light, which he believed to be the "first form" of all things, it was the source of all generation and motion (approximately what we know as biology and physics today). Hence since light could be reduced to lines and points, and thus fully explained in the realm of mathematics, mathematics was the highest order of the sciences.

Gresseteste's work in optics was also relevant and would be continued by his most famous student: Roger Bacon. In De Iride Grosseteste writes:

This part of optics, when well understood, shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close, and large near things appear very small, and how we may make small things placed at a distance appear any size we want, so that it may be possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distances, or to count sand, or seed, or any sort or minute objects.


Grosseteste received his education at Oxford where he became proficient in law, medicine and the natural sciences. Giraldus Cambrensis, whose acquaintance he had made, introduced him, before 1199, to William de Vere, bishop of Hereford. Grosseteste aspired to a post in the bishop's household, but being deprived by death of this patron betook himself to the study of theology. It is possible that he visited Paris for this purpose, but he finally settled in Oxford as a teacher, and as head of Greyfriars.

His next preferment of importance was the chancellorship of the university. He gained considerable distinction as a lecturer, and was the first rector of the school which the Franciscans established in Oxford about 1224. Grosseteste's learning is highly praised by Roger Bacon, who was a severe critic. According to Bacon, Grosseteste knew little Greek or Hebrew and paid slight attention to the works of Aristotle, but was pre-eminent among his contemporaries for his knowledge of the natural sciences. Between 1214 and 1231 Grosseteste held in succession the archdeaconries of Chester, Northampton and Leicester.

In 1232, after a severe illness, he resigned all his benefices and preferments except one prebend which he held at Lincoln. His intention was to spend the rest of his life in contemplative piety. But he retained the office of chancellor, and in 1235 accepted the bishopric of Lincoln. He undertook without delay the reformation of morals and clerical discipline throughout his vast diocese. This scheme brought him into conflict with more than one privileged corporation, but in particular with his own chapter, who vigorously disputed his claim to exercise the right of visitation over their community. The dispute raged hotly from 1239 to 1245. It was conducted on both sides with unseemly violence, and those who most approved of Grosseteste's main purpose thought it needful to warn him against the mistake of over-zeal. But in 1245, by a personal visit to the papal court at Lyons, he secured a favourable verdict.

In ecclesiastical politics the bishop belonged to the school of Becket. His zeal for reform led him to advance, on behalf of the courts, Christian pretensions which it was impossible that the secular power should admit. He twice incurred a well-merited rebuke from Henry III upon this subject; although it was left for Edward I to settle the question of principle in favour of the state. The devotion of Grosseteste to the hierarchical theories of his age is attested by his correspondence with his chapter and the king. Against the former he upheld the prerogative of the bishops; against the latter he asserted that it was impossible for a bishop to disregard the commands of the Holy See. Where the liberties of the national church came into conflict with the pretensions of Rome he stood by his own countrymen.

Thus in 1238 he demanded that the king should release certain Oxford scholars who had assaulted the legate Otho. But at least up to the year 1247 he submitted patiently to papal encroachments, contenting himself with the protection (by a special papal privilege) of his own diocese from alien clerks. Of royal exactions he was more impatient; and after the retirement of Archbishop (Saint) Edmund constituted himself the spokesman of the clerical estate in the Great Council.

In 1244 he sat on a committee which was empanelled to consider a demand for a subsidy. The committee rejected the demand, and Grosseteste foiled an attempt on the king's part to separate the clergy from the baronage. "It is written," the bishop said, "that united we stand and divided we fall."

It was, however, soon made clear that the king and pope were in alliance to crush the independence of the English clergy; and from 1250 onwards Grosseteste openly criticized the new financial expedients to which Pope Innocent IV had been driven by his desperate conflict with the Empire. In the course of a visit which he made to Innocent in this year, the bishop laid before the pope and cardinals a written memorial in which he ascribed all the evils of the Church to the malignant influence of the Curia. It produced no effect, although the cardinals felt that Grosseteste was too influential to be punished for his audacity.

Much discouraged by his failure, the bishop thought of resigning. In the end, however, he decided to continue the unequal struggle. In 1251 he protested against a papal mandate enjoining the English clergy to pay Henry III one-tenth of their revenues for a crusade; and called attention to the fact that, under the system of provisions, a sum of 70,000 marks was annually drawn from England by the alien nominees of Rome. In 1253, upon being commanded to provide in his own diocese for a papal nephew, he wrote a letter of expostulation and refusal, not to the pope himself but to the commissioner, Master Innocent, through whom he received the mandate. The text of the remonstrance, as given in the Burton Annals and in Matthew Paris, has possibly been altered by a forger who had less respect than Grosseteste for the papacy. The language is more violent than that which the bishop elsewhere employs. But the general argument, that the papacy may command obedience only so far as its commands are consonant with the teaching of Christ and the apostles, is only what should be expected from an ecclesiastical reformer of Grosseteste's time. There is much more reason for suspecting the letter addressed "to the nobles of England, the citizens of London, and the community of the whole realm," in which Grosseteste is represented as denouncing in unmeasured terms papal finance in all its branches. But even in this case allowance must be made for the difference between modern and medieval standards of decorum.

Grosseteste numbered among his most intimate friends the Franciscan teacher, Adam Marsh. Through Adam he came into close relations with Simon de Montfort. From the Franciscan's letters it appears that the earl had studied a political tract by Grosseteste on the difference between a monarchy and a tyranny; and that he embraced with enthusiasm the bishop's projects of ecclesiastical reform. Their alliance began as early as 1239, when Grosseteste exerted himself to bring about a reconciliation between the king and the earl. But there is no reason to suppose that the political ideas of Montfort had matured before the death of Grosseteste; nor did Grosseteste busy himself overmuch with secular politics, except insofar as they touched the interest of the Church. Grosseteste realised that the misrule of Henry III and his unprincipled compact with the papacy largely accounted for the degeneracy of the English hierarchy and the laxity of ecclesiastical discipline. But he can hardly be termed a constitutionalist.

Grosseteste died on October 9, 1253. He must then have been between seventy and eighty years of age. He was already an elderly man, with a firmly established reputation, when he became a bishop. As an ecclesiastical statesman he showed the same fiery zeal and versatility of which he had given proof in his academic career; but the general tendency of modern writers has been to exaggerate his political and ecclesiastical services, and to neglect his performance as a scientist and scholar. The opinion of his own age, as expressed by Matthew Paris and Roger Bacon, was very different. His contemporaries, while admitting the excellence of his intentions as a statesman, lay stress upon his defects of temper and discretion. But they see in him the pioneer of a literary and scientific movement; not merely a great ecclesiastic who patronized learning in his leisure hours, but the first mathematician and physicist of his age. He anticipated, in these fields of thought, some of the striking ideas to which Roger Bacon subsequently gave a wider currency.

Bishop Grosseteste College, a stone's throw away from Lincoln Cathedral, is named after Robert Grossesteste. The University College provides Initial Teacher Training and academic degrees at all levels.


Crombie, A. C. Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Southern, R. W. Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-825455-0 (pbk).

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