An image of a bishop meant to depict Robert Grosseteste.
Robert H. Taylor Collection Med. Ms. 1. Manuscripts Division. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library.
A remarkable man
For an idea of Robert Grosseteste’s prominence in the intellectual and ecclesiastical life of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England, we need only read his contemporaries’ praise of him.
And when in 1253, the last year of his life, Grosseteste refused to provide Pope Innocent IV’s nephew with a prebend the pope’s adviser cautioned Innocent against retaliation, noting that Grosseteste
"has not his equal among the prelates. All the French and English clergy know this . . . He is esteemed as a great philosopher, learned in Greek and Latin literature, zealous for justice, a reader in the schools of theology, a preacher to the people, and active enemy of abuses."1
prebend: a stipend used to support a member of the Cathedral clergy that was derived from a fixed portion of a church's landholdings
The course of Grosseteste's life
Given such fame we might hope to know a lot about Grosseteste’s life. But in fact much of it is clouded in obscurity. He is said to have come from a humble Anglo-Norman family in Suffolk, England, and to have died an old man in 1253. He was a master of arts by about 1190, and thus then probably at least 20 years old. This suggests he was born no later than about 1170.
Grosseteste lived during a period of great and rapid change. He saw in his lifetime the beginnings of the European universities and of the intellectually prominent Franciscan and Dominican religious orders, as well as the influx of Latin translations of Greek and Islamic science and philosophy that were to change Western thought. He played an important role in these developments.
Medieval documents indicate that Grosseteste was a member of the household of the bishop of Hereford before 1198, and his name appears occasionally in documents of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. He was a deacon by 1225, when he was presented to the church of Abbotsley and perhaps became a priest. He became archdeacon of Leicester in 1229. But we know little more than this about his life before about 1230.
Scholars have attempted to fill out the picture in different ways. Daniel Callus suggested that Grosseteste taught the liberal arts at Oxford at the start of the thirteenth century, left to study theology in Paris between 1209 and 1214 during the closure of the Oxford schools, and returned to Oxford in 1214 to become a regent master of theology and the first chancellor of the newly chartered university. Sir Richard Southern rejected this view. He proposed that Grosseteste never studied in Paris but had a purely provincial education, and that he only taught at Oxford after 1225 and was chancellor in this later period. Other scenarios have also been proposed.
We may hold with confidence only that Grosseteste did teach at Oxford in the late 1220s and that he was probably at some point the university’s chancellor, in function at least, if not title. Beyond this, we can only make educated guesses.
The obscurity that surrounds Grosseteste’s life clears around 1230. Documentary sources, which include a large collection of Grosseteste’s letters, throw considerable light on the remainder of his life. In 1229/30 he accepted an invitation to become the first lecturer to the Franciscans at their then newly established convent at Oxford. The chronicler, Thomas Eccleston, relates how under Grosseteste the friars
"within a short time . . . made incalculable progress both in scholastic disputation and the subtle moralities suitable for preaching."2
Grosseteste did not himself join the Franciscan or any other religious order, but he was reputed to have had a lifelong fondness for the Franciscans and Dominicans. His memory was particularly venerated by English Franciscans.
Grosseteste’s life took another turn in 1235, when he was elected bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England, whose scope included the town of Oxford and its university. He thereafter came to be called Lincolniensis (the Lincolnian). He was a compromise candidate acceptable to competing factions, who presumably viewed him as harmless to their interests.
But Grosseteste was not a man to engage in half measures, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as bishop. An exacting bishop, he was deeply concerned with the salvation of his flock and, in consequence, with the quality of his clergy. He could not stand to see unqualified men take up clerical positions, and he refused to make clerical appointments, not only of certain foreigners designated by the pope, but even of his own friends and countrymen, when he thought them unqualified.
Grosseteste was a member of the English delegation to the first Council of Lyons in 1245, the town to which the papal court had relocated in flight from the emperor Frederick II in the previous year. Grosseteste returned to the papal court in Lyons in 1250. Appearing before the pope, he related problems in the church, criticized inappropriate clerical appointments, and attacked restrictions the archbishop of Canterbury was placing on the English bishops’ pastoral powers.
In 1253, Grosseteste wrote a letter to the papal notary returning to the theme of inappropriate clerical appointments, though this time he directed his complaints at the pope himself, refusing to obey a directive to confer a prebend on the pope’s nephew. In no uncertain terms, he made it clear he took this directive to be an abuse of the papal authority.
Grosseteste died in October of 1253 in his manor at Buckden, Huntingdonshire. A number of attempts were later made to have him declared a saint, but all failed. He was buried in Lincoln cathedral, where his remains still lie under the south-east transept. His original tomb was destroyed but relics from his grave remain on display at the cathedral.
Grosseteste the Philosopher
One of our earliest references to Grosseteste is a letter Gerald of Wales wrote recommending him to the bishop of Hereford. He commends Grosseteste’s wide reading and skill in business and legal affairs, medicine and the liberal arts, and also mentions his moral integrity. Hereford was famous as a twelfth-century center of scientific studies, and it is likely that Grosseteste engaged in studies there. One of Grosseteste's earliest writings is a little treatise on the liberal arts, written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.
It would appear that by the 1220s, now a man in his fifties, Grosseteste had acquired a considerable grasp of the scientific knowledge of his day. His scientific interests are displayed in short treatises he wrote on natural phenomena such as the rainbow, comets, and so forth. Science in this period was of course nothing like the experimental science with which we are now familiar and is often not sharply distinguished from philosophical speculation. Thus, these treatises contain a mix of philosophical speculation, appeals to the authority of earlier writers, and ordinary observation.
But Grosseteste was not just interested in the how and why of particular natural phenomena. As a philosopher he wanted to understand the nature of scientific knowledge itself and of the fundamental features of the physical world. Thus he was drawn, probably in the 1220s, to study Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and Physics, two difficult works that had been available in Latin translation for some decades but had been little studied. He wrote the earliest Latin commentaries on these works known to survive, though he appears not to have completed his still substantial commentary on the Physics. His commentary on the Posterior Analytics became a standard work used throughout the Middle Ages. These commentaries, together with his later translations of some of Aristotle’s works into Latin, made him one of the most important figures in the early medieval reception and assimilation of Aristotle’s thought.
Although Grosseteste was deeply impressed by Aristotle and other non-Christian thinkers, he was no mere expounder of their thought. On some issues he was highly critical. He vehemently rejected, for example, Aristotle’s view that the universe had no beginning. And he developed his own original theory of the origin and fundamental nature of the universe, known as the “light metaphysics,” which he set out in his little masterpiece On Light. According to this theory, physical phenomena are at root manifestations of the activity of light. The physical universe itself is the product of the instantaneous and infinite expansion of a point of light that God created at its beginning. Grosseteste’s conception of light as the reality underlying the physical world no doubt also underlay the emphasis he gave to the importance of mathematics for understanding physical phenomena, since the fact that light obeyed mathematical laws was well known to medieval thinkers.
Grosseteste the Theologian
Grosseteste was not just a philosopher and scientific thinker, however, but also a theologian. It is tempting to think that his studies followed a neat course: science and philosophy followed by theology, then the highest branch of learning. But it seems likely that his studies in these fields overlapped to some extent.
By the 1220s Grosseteste had probably already engaged in a careful reading of the theological writings of St. Augustine, the dominant influence on his thought. We find ideas, for example, from Augustine lurking throughout his Aristotle commentaries. By the end of the 1220s, it would seem, he had composed works in the more speculative side of theology, on such matters as:
By the 1230s Grosseteste had become interested in the exegesis of the Bible and pastoral theology and gotten into his stride as a theologian. He composed commentaries on Genesis and the Psalms, among other books of the Bible, into which he interwove his scientific concerns. In his discussion of Genesis, for example, he relates the various competing theories of the structure of the heavens. His commentary on the Psalms contains a wealth of learning about the natural world. He also wrote treatises On the Ten Commandments and On the Cessation of the Ceremonial Precepts, arguing, among other things that Christ would have become incarnate even if human beings had not fallen. His theological writings include his large collection of Dicta -- short treatments of theological topics in which, again, he often uses his scientific learning to theological effect. His duties as priest and bishop involved preaching to his flock, and a very large collection of his sermons also survives.
Grosseteste's Work as Greek Translator
It was perhaps through an interest in biblical exegesis that Grosseteste took up the study of ancient Greek in the early 1230s or perhaps even late 1220s. We must bear in mind that in the Middle Ages very few thinkers in Western Christendom were able to read ancient Greek. Instead they had to rely on Latin translations, which, as Grosseteste was acutely aware, were often very bad. Grosseteste evidently had a talent for languages (he was already trilingual, speaking Anglo-Norman, English, and Latin, and he is even said to have studied Hebrew). His knowledge of Greek gave him access to works of Greek theology unavailable to his contemporaries, and in his theological writings he made increasing use of Greek theology. He set himself to producing improved, and in some cases, totally new translations of works of Greek theology, notably works by John of Damascus and the Pseudo-Dionysius, the latter accompanied by his own original commentary.Grosseteste’s facility in Greek appears to have led him back to the philosophical writings of Aristotle. In the 1240s he made the first full Latin translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to circulate in the Latin West, as well as translations of Greek commentaries on this work. His translation of the Ethics, like his commentary on the Posterior Analytics, was used throughout the Middle Ages. Very late in life he even translated parts of Aristotle’s cosmological work On the Heavens.
By the fourteenth century Grosseteste had achieved the status of an “authority,” someone whose name could be invoked in support of one’s views, a rare privilege, since medieval thinkers tended to refer to their contemporaries anonymously as “a certain person” or “someone.” He continued to be read in England throughout the fourteenth century. The precise extent of his influence remains a matter of scholarly research.
In philosophy Grosseteste developed no systematic viewpoint and founded no school of thought, as did thinkers such as Aquinas and Duns Scotus. His philosophical and theological writings were instead mined by later thinkers for bits and pieces in support of their own often conflicting views. His influence as a scholar of Aristotle was clearly very great, however, as his translation of the Ethics and commentary on the Posterior Analytics became standard works employed throughout the middle ages. His influence as a theologian remains to be studied, but would not appear to have been great.
Later, precursors of the Protestant Reformation, such as John Wycliffe, appealed to Grosseteste in support of their criticisms of the papacy, and there is no doubt that a picture of Grosseteste as a papal critic helped his memory survive in England in later centuries, despite the distortions such a picture involved.
The last fifty years have seen a remarkable growth in the number of studies, editions and translations of Grosseteste’s works, but an enormous amount of scholarly work remains to be done.
1. Quoted and translated by William A. Pantin, in “Papacy and the Crown,” in Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop, ed Daniel A. Callus, Oxford, 1955, p. 194.
2. Quoted and translated in Daniel A. Callus, “Robert Grosseteste as Scholar,” in Robert Grosseteste: Scholar and Bishop, ed. Daniel A. Callus, Oxford, 1955, p. 11.
The best overall treatment of Grosseteste’s life and works for the non-specialist and specialist alike is James McEvoy’s Robert Grosseteste, Oxford, 2000.
McEvoy's The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste, Oxford, 1982, is a magisterial treatment of Grosseteste’s philosophical thought.
Daniel A. Callus’s hypothesis regarding the course of Grosseteste’s life is presented in his essay “Robert Grosseteste as Scholar,” which forms part of an important collection of essays he edited, Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop, Oxford, 1955.
Sir Richard Southern’s contrasting account is found in his ground-breaking work, Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe, 2nd. ed., Oxford, 1992.
Steven Marrone’s William of Auvergne and Robert Grossteste: New Ideas of Truth in the Early Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1983, is a good source of information on Grosseteste’s understanding of the Posterior Analytics.
James Ginther provides the first study of Grosseteste as a theologian in Master of the Sacred Page: A Study of the Theology of Robert Grosseteste, Ca. 1229/30-1235, Aldershot, 2004.
The website of the Electronic Grosseteste contains a large amount of material pertaining to Grosseteste, including an extensive collection of Latin texts, a large bibliography, and a good biographical essay by James Ginther.
Regrettably, most of Grosseteste’s writings remain untranslated, although as of 2008 translations of his letters and his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics are underway.
Christopher F. J. Martin has translated Grosseteste’s very important theological work the Hexaëmeron in Robert Grosseteste: On the Six Days of Creation: A Translation of the Hexaëmeron, Oxford, 1996.
Clare Riedl translated On Light in Robert Grosseteste On Light, Milwaukee, 1942, though this translation is based on the unreliable edition published by Ludwig Baur in 1912.
Translations of Grosseteste’s short scientific works Concerning Lines, Angles, and Figures, On the Rainbow and the possibly inauthentic On the Causes of the Tides may be found in A Sourcebook in Medieval Science, ed. Edward Grant, Cambridge, Mass., 1974.