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.
But then in 1225, when he was about fifty-five, he received his first benefice, and that a substantial one – though it should have come a good twenty-five years earlier, in the normal pattern of a successful career. It may be that this preferment was connected with the young Henry III, who was released from the control of his guardians in the early 1220s, and whom Grosseteste may have served as secretary and keeper of his secret seal. With his new independence, Grosseteste went to Oxford, where he was from about 1225 to 1235. In the first half of this period he was a very successful theological lecturer, elected Chancellor of the University by his colleagues; then, with a change of heart, he gave up his honours and most of his revenues to become lector in theology to the community of Franciscans at Oxford.
Grosseteste’s shift to theology is not as surprising as it might seem. Grosseteste came in his later years to think of science and theology as being almost identical, both being basically attempts to gain a knowledge of God. Both the Bible and the world had been created for man, and everything in both spoke of God to man: it was hence man’s duty to study both. Grosseteste came to think that, in Southern’s words, ‘nature and the supernatural are one ... the physical objects of our sense perceptions, the general laws of nature, the symbolic meanings of every creature, the purposes of the Creator, and (so far as it is knowable) the nature of God, are all parts of a single field of knowledge.’ Certainly Grosseteste’s theology and science continually fructify each other, as in his very pleasing explanation of the Incarnation. The Aristotelian doctrine that a cause must be greater than its effects suggests that the usual explanation is wrong: the fall of man cannot be considered greater than the Incarnation, and so the cause of the Incarnation cannot lie within history. There is also the problem that the universe must have within it a single unifying principle: this cannot be God, because he is not within nature; it cannot be mankind, since they are many rather than single, and in any case of insufficient power. It must be the God-man, whose coming, planned from the beginning, was necessary to complete the Creation and to perfect man and nature, but who, because of Adam’s sin, came also as Saviour.
However, if the immediate subject of science is nature, for Grosseteste the immediate subject of theology, Southern suggests, was the Bible, God’s other book. This had two consequences. One was that he restored the primacy of the Bible, a primacy that had been somewhat obscured by the scholastics, who found the Fathers often more useful for their purposes. The other was that in his fifties he learned Greek: translations would do well enough for scientific works, but for the Bible, where the words themselves were the material of study, Greek was necessary, and, as he soon found out, it opened up for him the Greek fathers. While ordinarily learning Greek would have been impossible, by luck there was a clerk in England who had spent some time in Athens. With his usual energy, Grosseteste set to work comparing manuscripts and collecting ancient commentaries; even during the very busy years of his bishopric he found time, with helpers, to make elaborate and meticulous translations of, for instance, Aristotle’s Ethics.
Suddenly, in 1235, when he was about sixty-five, he was elected bishop of Lincoln, became one of the most powerful men in England, and entered into the active phase of his career. His diocese contained somewhat more than eight counties and about a fifth of the population of England – over whom, Southern remarks, he was a ruler more effective than the king could ever be. We have, as it happens, a copy of the words that he later spoke to the Pope about his notion of his responsibilities. ‘When I became a bishop I believed it to be necessary to be a shepherd of the souls committed to me, whose blood would be required of me at the Last Judgment unless I used all diligence in visiting them as Scripture requires. So I began to perambulate my bishopric, archdeaconry by archdeaconry, and rural deanery by rural deanery ... I and my clerks gave our attention to enquiring into things which needed correction or reform so far as they lay within our power.’ This is perfectly orthodox and proper, though with seventy-seven rural deans in his diocese he was undertaking a considerable job. The difficulty is that he took literally and unswervingly, as few bishops did, his responsibility for the souls in his care, and he followed the rule he had written years before he became bishop, that a prelate ‘ought to aim with all his power at the eradication and destruction of all sinners’. Though Grosseteste was by all accounts a genial and cheerful man, one can see where Matthew Paris’s ‘heartless and inhuman’ comes from: in his first year as bishop he deposed eleven heads of religious communities.
Grosseteste was in some sense outside the normal social hierarchies. As a man of no family, he had been born beneath them; he apparently had not learned, or not wanted to learn, the skills necessary to climb the usual ladder of success; presumably university lecturers, then as ever, were more or less outside society; now as bishop he was above the hierarchies – the king was certainly not his lord, and he regarded the Pope as his brother-bishop, subject as he was to the Gospel. Like someone coming to England from a different planet, he lacked the usual sense that there were some people above him, and superior to him, and others below, and inferior. The story is told that Richard of Clare, Earl of Hertford and Gloucester, asked Grosseteste how he, a man of humble birth, could have such courtesy. Grosseteste acknowledged that his parents were humble, but said that he had lived his life among really great men – the men in the Bible. Both parties sound a bit rude, but perhaps in both cases unintentionally, Richard merely having the usual manners of the English aristocracy and Grosseteste believing that the manners of the men in the Bible might be a better guide to courtesy.
In his writings, Grosseteste was admirably tentative and modest. After he proffered his explanation of the Incarnation, he added: ‘I confess I do not know if I am right, and I am afflicted by my ignorance on this matter.’ But in his actions, he accepted no compromise. This may be partly because he was influenced so little by scholasticism and by its characteristic method of taking two apparently contradictory authoritative texts and finding a solution congruent with both. But I suspect that if someone had asked Grosseteste why he was so stubborn, he would have thought it a stupid question, and replied with a few texts, such as ‘Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.’
An administrator with principles is bad enough, but Grosseteste had in addition two of the worst possible other habits: he was, in Southern’s happy phrase, ‘a compulsive wakener of sleeping dogs’, and he did not confine his rebukes to those who were within his power. So the comparative success of his career as a bishop for many years speaks well for the respect in which he was held: he thwarted the king, but retained his friendship; Innocent IV gave him at least part of what he asked for. But serious trouble was inevitable. The clearest of the various issues is that of benefices. As Southern explains, the only regular source of public income was tithes, which were paid in theory by parishioners for the support of their local church. But a growing number of clerks were needed for both ecclesiastical and royal administration; in practice, these people were often rewarded by benefices, with the consequent tithes. Grosseteste was adamantly against giving benefices to those in the royal administration, and also against the common practice of giving benefices to those who were not priests and hence not capable of carrying out pastoral duties. In theory, he was right; in practice, Southern remarks that ‘if he had won all along the line, government would have come to a standstill.’
In 1250, when Grosseteste must have been at least eighty, he journeyed to the Papal curia at Lyons. His complaints were about the wrongful distribution of benefices and other abuses which were hindering him in his duty of saving souls. But behind the details was a more general argument. Christendom, he saw, was small, surrounded by enemies, filled with heretics and schismatics, and torn by deadly sin. He followed the Aristotelian principle that cause and effects must be within the same system; the cause of these troubles was the decay of the pastoral office, and the cause of this decay was the corruption of the Pope and the curia. A copy of the statement that he made to the Pope and the curia has been preserved, and its language is very strong:
I speak with the most vehement fear and trembling, but I cannot keep silent. To get to the cause of so great an evil we must go to the source. It lies in this curia ... The Papal see ... has been perverted and it has become a source of perdition and destruction.
There is no record of any reply to this speech, but it most certainly did not cause the change of heart that Grosseteste desired. Innocent IV was an aristocrat, a canon lawyer, a shrewd politician, and worked only for the aggrandisement of Papal power: it is sometimes thought that he marks a turning-point for the worse in the history of the Papacy. We do know that in 1253 the Pope wrote to his agent in England and to the Archdeacon of Canterbury (Grosseteste had apparently been placed under suspension) ordering them to give his nephew a canonry and benefice in Lincoln – a fitting gesture for a Pope whose motto was sedens ago. Later in that year Grosseteste died.
Southern is surely right in concluding that there was a contradiction in Grosseteste’s thought: ‘The spiritual could never continue to be spiritual and yet rule the world, for it could not rule without resorting to the compromises which make it possible to rule. Grosseteste wanted it to rule without compromise, and this was impossible.’ But it is hard to blame him: he lived in a world in which everything spoke of God, he had faith in human reason, and yet he saw daily the corruption of the Church and the consequent damnation of souls: was it not his duty to attempt to root out this corruption at its source? As it is, he saw early and clearly what many men saw later, Dante in, inter alia, the Donation of Constantine, Langland in Lady Meed, until too many men saw it and Europe was overturned. Grosseteste would not have approved of Wycliffe, but Wycliffe was right in claiming him as his predecessor.
Southern’s ideal reader would perhaps be Grosseteste himself, if it is fair to extrapolate this from his final disclaimer: ‘I am quite doubtful whether he would have agreed with all that I have written of him here.’ Robert Stacey’s book covers part of the same period, but Stacey’s ideal reader, at a guess, would be a Permanent Under-Secretary at the Treasury. His book, however, is intended for professional Medieval historians, who will not jib at his financial tables, or at statements like, ‘He also arrented a number of assarts’; who will be used to unravelling sentences that begin, ‘In addition to sending the king [Henry] £100 at Reading for his expenses, Henry ordered the treasurer to report ...’; and who will recognise with pleasure the sort of elegant variation so dear to historians (though not to Southern, who writes like an angel) that consists of occasionally referring to William of Savoy, for instance, as ‘the elect of Valence’, with the implied compliment – you, learned reader, will obviously know that William was the bishop-elect of Valence.
Stacey’s aim, as he explains, was to provide a more archival antidote to Powicke’s monumental King Henry III and the Lord Edward. His scope is of course much narrower: he deals only with the first part of Henry’s reign, and within that period his subject, as he states it, is the ‘reforms’ in the management of the king’s resources, and ‘their consequences for both king and kingdom’. His conclusions are in part the same as Powicke’s, whose ‘the solid normal basis of the king’s finances before 1259 was sound’ is modified only to ‘the king’s finances were fundamentally sound’ from 1236 ‘probably until ... 1253-4’: but they are based on a much more detailed survey of the evidence.
One misses the notably comprehensive and synthethising mind which Southern has, like Grosseteste, and which Southern praises in Powicke: ‘In whatever he wrote, the larger setting was always in his mind.’ No one would blame Stacey for concentrating closely on details: the trouble comes because it is difficult to make any judgment about details without implying a ‘larger setting’, and it is dangerous to use too modern and secular a setting – Southern has written elsewhere about the folly of historians who think that they can separate the Church from secular history. But Stacey seems almost as strong on the overriding importance of money as Grosseteste was on the overriding importance of Christianity. While all right-thinking men now might agree that a king’s prime duty is to make sure that his income exceeds his expenses, it is not obvious that this truth was clear to Henry – it certainly was not much in the minds of all those Medieval authors who spent their evenings writing still another ‘Advice to the King’. So when Stacey takes a cold view towards the lavish gifts that Henry gave for the crusade of his brother, Richard of Cornwall, partly in order to bring about their reconciliation, one may wonder whether Henry’s subjects thought this money frittered away on foreigners. (Even apart from the fact that Richard could not have saved Henry at Taillebourg except for the French friends he had made on crusade, and perhaps would not have bothered if he had not been reconciled with Henry.) Stacey condemns the annihilating taxes that Henry imposed on the Jewish usurers, not on humane grounds, but because he destroyed the source of future golden eggs. Yet many of Henry’s intelligent and otherwise humane contemporaries, like Grosseteste, would have thought that no price was too high to pay for stamping out usury.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.