Superpriest

Denton Fox

  • Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe by R.W. Southern
    Oxford, 337 pp, £30.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 826450 X
  • Politics, Policy and Finance under Henry III, 1216-1245 by Robert Stacey
    Oxford, 284 pp, £27.50, July 1987, ISBN 0 19 820086 2

Robert Grosseteste, scientist, theologian and bishop, is rather like the elephant that was interpreted so differently by the various blind men. Even in his lifetime men had contrasting opinions of him: Matthew Paris, who must have known him well, called him at one time ‘heartless and inhuman’, and at another ‘liberal, urbane, cheerful, affable’. Wycliffe hailed him as his glorious predecessor; Wycliffe’s opponents found they could quote him to good purpose. As a proto-Protestant, he figures in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; scholars recently have thought of him as a leading but perfectly moderate scholastic. Professor Southern’s great achievement has been to work through all the evidence – itself no mean task, since Grosseteste was seldom shortwinded and not always lucid – and to produce a remarkably clear and coherent account of a complicated and profoundly interesting man.

Grosseteste appears very occasionally in the records between about 1190 and 1225, as a member of one or another bishop’s household, but if he had died when he was fifty-five he would scarcely have rated an obituary in the local newspaper. The most interesting thing about his early career is that he did not do what he should have done, and what the other eminent scholar-bishops and scholar-administrators of the period did: go to Paris. For an Englishman, the normal pattern would be to spend some years, after an elementary education at home, in the great schools there, then to return home to find employment and, as soon as possible, a benefice, then to go back for a further period of study at Paris or perhaps Bologna, after which he would be fit for the highest offices. If scholasticism is now sometimes thought to be arid and useless, the situation was far different then, and these schools served as a very efficient sort of international Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

Since there is no factual evidence against it, scholars have recently thought that this was probably the pattern of Grosseteste’s early life. But there are two difficulties here. One, the less important, is that Grosseteste was of humble origin. It may be no more than a story that he had to beg his bread as a boy, after the death of his widowed mother, but almost all of the early writers who mention him remark on his low birth – which suggests that a lowborn bishop was as unusual as a one-armed paper-hanger. As far as we can judge from his contemporaries, one could not go to the schools at Paris without at least some money. The other difficulty is that there is hardly a trace, in his genuine works, of scholastic method, no use of the scholastic Quaestio, with its setting out, balancing and analysing of authorities pro and contra. It is hard to imagine how anyone exposed to the excitement of the Paris schools could be so untouched by, indeed apparently ignorant of, scholasticism.

There were advantages, though hardly material ones, in Grosseteste’s separation from the main currents of Continental thought. Southern suggests that the English schools he must have gone to would have been, even at Oxford, more provincial, less up-to-date, less specialised than the Paris ones, but they would also have been opener, contained more variety, and given more opportunity for a scholar to follow his own bent. Grosseteste’s work up to about 1225, according to Southern’s chronology, was scientific, and in England he could find a tradition of scientific thought going back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Grosseteste’s predecessors, Adelard of Bath and Daniel of Morley, and his contemporary, Alfred of Sareshel or Shareshill, all journeyed to the Arab world to study the Greek scientific learning preserved and carried on by the Arabs. It is true enough, of course, that Medieval science, like scholasticism, relied heavily on the old authorities, but as Southern neatly puts it, ‘in grammar, logic, theology and law, the dialogue was between one book and another ... In the natural sciences, the dialogue was between things and books.’ Where to the scholastics nature was an abstract concept, to Grosseteste it was a collection of phenomena, to be observed and understood. Grosseteste’s method, not only in his scientific writings but throughout his life, was to start with particulars and to fit them together, to examine them until their meaning revealed itself. This is the method of a historian, as Southern remarks (and his book is a brilliant example of it), as well as of a scientist, and could hardly be more different from the scholastic method.

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