Robert Grosseteste Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Robert Grosseteste c. 1160-1253

English theologian, philosopher, scientific writer, and translator.

A prolific writer, gifted administrator, and respected teacher, Grosseteste was a leader of the English church in the thirteenth century. Considered one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages, he was a chancellor at Oxford University and also served as Bishop of Lincoln for eighteen years. During both terms he instituted significant reforms at these institutions while continuing wit his own studies. Grosseteste composed over three hundred works, including essays on theological subjects as well as original works addressing scientific and philosophical questions. Notable among his publications are the scientific treatise De Luce (1939; On Light); a commentary on Genesis, the Hexaëmeron (1982; Hexaëmeron); the philosophical essay De Veritate (On Truth, 1214-35); translations of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (both published between 1235 and 1253); and a commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics (1214-35). The ideas expressed in Grosseteste's writing had a significant impact on the philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages and he is credited with bringing the thought of ancient Greece, particularly Aristotle, to Christian Europe. His influence can also be seen in the works of John Wyclif, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. In his own day, Grosseteste was regarded as a pioneer of a new literary and scientific movement and as the first mathematician and physicist of his age. Although specialists continue to consider Grosseteste one of the central figures of the thirteenth century, because of the technical nature and subject matter of his works, he is largely unknown to a general audience. Scholars continue to investigate his writings and discuss the importance of his contributions in the areas of early experimental science, philosophy and theology.

Biographical Information

Grosseteste was born around 1160 into a humble family from Stowe, Suffolk. Details about the early years of his life are obscure, but it is likely that he completed the first stages of his education at a cathedral school, perhaps in Hereford; he is recorded as being a member of the household of Bishop William de Vere at Hereford in 1190. He studied law, medicine, and the natural sciences at Oxford, and sometime after 1198 he began teaching there. From then until 1225, there is no historical record of his life, although there is evidence that he acted as judge-delegate in Hereford sometime between 1213 and 1216. Some scholars speculate that during 1209 and 1214, when the university ceased to exist because of a murder case, Grosseteste went to Paris to study theology. An early thirteenth-century charter from Paris names a Robert Grosseteste residing at a house in Paris, but since it concerns the property claims of his children, some historians believe that it refers to another Robert Grosseteste. It was during these “missing” years that Grosseteste produced many of his most important scientific writings. Sometime around 1214 Grosseteste returned to teach at Oxford and by 1225 he was chancellor there. The next mention of Grosseteste in any historical document is in the Episcopal register of Hugh of Lincoln, which notes that he was given a benefice with pastoral responsibilities in the diocese of Lincoln, also mentioning his position at Oxford. Grosseteste left the university in 1229 and devoted his time to teaching the young Franciscan friars at Oxford, a practice that led to the humanities becoming a major part in the education of the friars, enabling them to read and interpret sacred Scripture in a critical manner. During these years Grosseteste continued to write prolifically on a variety of subjects, although he began to move away from scientific and philosophical treatises focusing his energies increasingly on works on theology.

In 1235 Grosseteste was elected Bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England. Soon after he was consecrated Bishop, he launched into a vigorous reformation campaign, organizing a team of translators to produce clear and precise translations of Greek and Hebrew works. During his eighteen years as Bishop he also produced his own translations, gaining a reputation as a brilliant but highly demanding church leader. He insisted that all his clergy be literate and receive some training in theology. He also became involved in a number of disputes in various parts of his dioceses, and his treatise on his concept of church leadership, included with his collected letters (not published until 1861), is regarded as one of the most comprehensive discussions of ministry and authority in the medieval church. Grosseteste also clashed with the papacy on several occasions, pointing out major problems of the contemporary church. This led some scholars, particularly those writing after the Reformation, to view him as a proto-protestant, but most modern historians now reject this characterization. Grosseteste died in October 1253 while serving as Bishop of Lincoln.

Major Works

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the details of his early life, and because of his busy and varied career in later years, it is difficult to date many of Grosseteste's writings. The sheer volume of his output also makes it difficult for scholars to organize his works. He likely began his writing career after he began teaching at Oxford, at first producing texts on the liberal arts, particularly astronomy and cosmology. Many of his scientific and philosophical treatises are believed to have been written between 1214 and 1235, although at least one scholar claims that he did not write down any of his ideas until after 1225. Grosseteste's most famous scientific work is his On Light, in which he argues that light is the basis of all matter, combining Christian creation doctrine with Aristotle's system of the universe. Grosseteste also wrote important essays on meteorology, color, and optics as well as on mathematics; he was one of the first western thinkers to argue that natural phenomena can be described mathematically. Among Grosseteste's original philosophical contributions are an attempt to classify the various forms of knowledge in On Truth. Grosseteste also wrote a number of short theological treatises between 1214 and 1235, covering subjects such as free will, causes emanating from God, and the knowledge of God. These writings also engaged his scientific and philosophical interests; critics note that Grosseteste's writings, whether on scientific, philosophical, or theological subjects, emphasized a synthesis of ideas across disciplines.

Although science was important to Grosseteste, he devoted most of his intellectual energies in later life to questions of theological import. Of particular interest to biblical scholars are his translations and works of pastoral care written between 1235 and 1253. He also produced a new translation of the works of the Byzantine theologian John Damascene as well as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a text that he considered further proof that Jesus was the promised Messiah. His Hexaëmeron, or commentary on the Book of Genesis, which emphasized the eternity of the world, was particularly influential on other thirteenth-century authors.

Grosseteste also played a pivotal role in the introduction of Aristotle to scholastic thought, producing commentaries on a number of the ancient philosopher's works. His translation of the Nicomachean Ethics made this important work available to the West in its entirety for the first time. Grosseteste's translation was used, for example, by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, opening up a whole new area of moral discussion in the Middle Ages.

Critical Reception

Scholars concede that it is difficult to define Grosseteste's position in the history of thirteenth-century thought. Today he is virtually unknown outside a small scholarly circle of medievalists, yet his impact on the development of learning in the Middle Ages is immeasurable. He was one of the pioneers of scholasticism, although his interests lay in moral questions rather than in logic or metaphysics. He laid great emphasis on clear thinking and intellectual pursuits, yet he also stressed the importance of the study of scripture. During his own time Grosseteste was known for his scientific learning; the writer Roger Bacon, who was also a critic of Grosseteste, declared that “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.” Bacon also admired Grosseteste's broad knowledge of mathematics, philosophy, language, and the Bible, noting, “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.” His translations of Aristotle from the Greek and theological works from the Hebrew were invaluable to medieval thinkers after him, including Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Wyclif. Critics have asserted that perhaps Grosseteste's greatest achievement was in producing a synthesis of thought in science, philosophy, and theology that was to become central in the intellectual development of the Middle Ages, paving the way for the synthesis of reason and faith that was Aquinas's great contribution.

Because of its technical nature, much of Grosseteste's work remains unedited. Most modern scholars have concentrated on his scientific writings, although there has been some discussion about his contributions to the development of the intellectual history of the thirteenth century. Critics have also been impressed by Grosseteste's care and accuracy in translating Aristotle's works, with his wide range of intellectual interests and his concern with more practical matters, and by his sensitive discussion of detailed theological issues. They have also remarked on the evolution in Grosseteste's thought from his time in Oxford to his days as Bishop. All in all, Grosseteste is an admired figure among specialists in medieval philosophy and theology for his vast learning and contributions to the intellectual development of his age.