Richard Rufus of Cornwall was an early Scholastic philosopher-theologian who taught at the Universities of Paris and Oxford between 1231 and 1255. In those years he played a vital part in the transformation of philosophy and theology in early thirteenth-century Western Europe.

Scholastic: the method of teaching that dominated the schools of Western Europe from about 1100 until about 1600.

Richard Rufus and the Transformation of Western Education
When Rufus began to teach, undergraduate education focused on the seven liberal arts:

The trivium:

  • grammar
  • rhetoric
  • logic 
and the quadrivium:
  • arithmetic
  • geometry
  • astronomy
  • music
By the time Rufus left Paris two decades later in 1253, the foundations of Western science had been laid, and Western philosophy and theology had been transformed. Aristotelian philosophy was at the core of the arts degree, and the curriculum included for the first time:
  • biology and psychology
  • ethics
  • metaphysics
  • physics and chemistry
metaphysics: the study of the first principles of philosophy
Richard Rufus pioneered the teaching of these disciplines at Paris, the center of the Western intellectual world. When he began teaching in the arts faculty, lectures on the libri naturales were forbidden.  No one was supposed to teach Aristotle's metaphysics and his natural philosophy (physics, psychology etc.).  When Rufus left Paris for the last time, the libri naturales were required reading and all students were examined on them.

An admirable philosopher, Rufus was considered a great man in thirteenth-century Paris. At Paris Rufus gave the earliest lectures on Aristotelian physics and metaphysics of which a record survives. Though he was very famous (“famosissimus”) at Paris, Rufus exercised his greatest influence in Oxford. At Oxford, his is the first surviving commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences by an Oxford bachelor of theology.  John Duns Scotus cited Rufus as the ancient doctor who anticipated his views on the formal distinction.

formal distinction: an account of things that are really distinct from each other although inseparably united in the same subject

Scotus also adopted Rufus' argument for the existence of God and found in Rufus an early statement of Scotus' views on individuation.

individuation: the relation of particular individuals to their species

The Origins of Scholastic Aristotelianism
Modern scholars have not studied in depth the origins of Scholasticism before 1250, because until recently it was thought that its authors were capable only of elementary paraphrases of Aristotle. But what we have recently learned about Richard Rufus, as a teacher of Aristotelian natural philosophy, shows that view to be mistaken.

Rufus applied rigorous Aristotelian methods to topics as diverse as physics and theology.  He often modified or rejected Aristotle's solutions. His was an original mind and an inquisitive spirit. On reflection, the excitement of Rufus' approach is surely what we ought to have expected to explain the radical change that put the libri naturales at the center of the scholastic curriculum.

The Early Modern Response to Scholasticism
The great thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Galileo and Descartes, were educated in the Scholastic tradition. In spite of the anti-Scholastic climate in which they worked, they incorporated many important Scholastic concepts into their own explanations.

During the Renaissance, authors who owed their education to Scholastic philosophers unfairly depicted Western intellectual life in the 13th and 14th centuries as a dark age.  Early modern polemics suggested it was a dark age, since medieval scholars were preoccupied with answering age old questions in light of Aristotle's authority. They devoted their efforts to refining distinctions in a manner that was little better than splitting hairs.  By contrast, the modern humanist concentrated on cultivating beautiful literary styles and often incorporated ancient and scholastic insights without acknowledgment.

In philosophy, Renaissance polemicists persuaded many historians that Aristotelian natural philosophy was the enemy of science. As we come to know the works of Rufus, however, we can begin to appreciate that even such distinctive contributions as Galileo's theory of projectile motion owe something to Rufus.

Rufus was the first Western medieval physicist who taught that Aristotle had not adequately explained projectile motion. Aristotle, who focused exclusively on the action of the projector on the medium, could not account for the fact that projectiles (arrows, for example) move in opposite directions in the same medium at the same time. So Rufus supplemented Aristotle's account by positing  'imprints' on projectiles by the projector. In deference to Aristotle, however, Rufus also allowed an impact of the projector on the medium. Antonius Menu, one of the Jesuits who  influenced Galileo's early teaching, made a similar claim: Projectile motion could only be explained if the projector acted both on the medium and on the projectile.

Natural Theology
In the study of God based on natural sources, too, Rufus was a founder of the Scholastic Aristotelian approach that dominated the high Middle Ages. He was, for instance, the first to criticize Anselm of Canterbury's argument for the existence of God as fallacious.  Thomas Aquinas later echoed the same criticism in his theology lectures . The theistic argument Rufus proposed in its stead formed the core of the modal proof now associated with Duns Scotus. Rufus' version runs roughly as follows: An entirely independent being either necessarily exists or its existence is impossible, since nothing could cause it to come into or go out of existence; an entirely independent being is possible; therefore it necessarily exists.

How we lost (and found!) Richard Rufus
Richard Rufus joined the Franciscan Order after beginning his study of Aristotle as a secular master. His devotion to the Franciscan ideal of humility led him deliberately to seek obscurity: he cited himself in the third person or not at all. 

Nevertheless, as Roger Bacon tells us, by 1300 Rufus' philosophy had become enormously influential. In the thirteenth century, Robert Grosseteste and Bonaventure consulted his theology lectures. In the fourteenth century, Rufus was cited by Duns Scotus and Roger of Nottingham.  By 1400, however, in part because of Rufus' attempts to remain anonymous, most of his works were lost or misattributed.  Thus, they did not become available with the advent of the printing press. 

Rufus' works disappeared for over 500 years, even though his ideas influenced many great thinkers over the course of the modern era.  Andrew G. Little and Franz Pelster, SJ, rediscovered them in 1926. Pelster found most of the theological works on exploratory trips to European libraries between 1926 and 1950. In his enthusiasm, Pelster sometimes based his case on inadequate evidence, so F. Henquinet and P. Raedts rightly rejected some of his attributions.

Auguste Pelzer discovered, Gedeon Gál OFM described, and Timothy Noone (with assistance from Leonard Boyle OP) authenticated the first of Rufus' philosophical works to be rediscovered, his Dissertatio in Metaphysicam. Most of the remaining philosophical works were discovered and authenticated by Rega Wood.

In 1996, Yale University's Divinity School and its Philosophy Department undertook jointly to sponsor an edition of Rufus' complete works under Rega Wood's direction. In 2000, the Richard Rufus Edition moved to Stanford University, where it is housed in Green Library and sponsored by the Philosophy Department.  Many of the texts by Rufus which you will encounter here in "Bartholomew's World" have not been studied or examined in depth for more than 600 years!

Rufus' Life
Today we know Rufus' life only from Franciscan sources that report the date and circumstances of his entry into the order and the chronology of his lectures.  About his personal life apart from the Order we know almost nothing.  We infer that Rufus was born in Cornwall because Roger Bacon calls him Richard of Cornwall.  We believe that he must have died after 1259, since in November 1259, Bishop Kirkham approved the will of Martin of St. Cruce, master of Sherborne hospital (near Durham, England).  Martin had bequeathed Richard of Cornwall, friar minor, a manuscript of the canonical epistles and a complete habit.1 

habit: uniform worn by members of a religious order - Rufus wore the Franciscan robe

Rufus himself, however, might have said we know more than enough.  We know that his confrere Roger Bacon despised him, saying that he was popular with the foolish multitude, but not with the wise few.  His Oxford superior, Adam Marsh, considered him an exemplary friar (epistle 205) and noticed that younger friars were glad to work with him because he let them use his books (epistle 192).  We even know Rufus' dream, or rather his nightmare: intellectual pride. At an Oxford Chapter meeting soon after he became a Franciscan, Rufus reported his dream. In this dream, Francis told Rufus that the Franciscan Order's most celebrated priestly lecturers had less merit than a humble lay contemplative brother.2

1. Wills and Inventories, Surtees Society Publications 2
(London: J. B. Nichols, 1835) pp. 10-11.  Little, A.,
The Grey Friars in Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892) p. 143.

2. Thomas Eccleston, Tractacus de adventu fratrum minorum in Angliam 11, ed. A. Little, Manchester 1951, pg. 51-52.