Robert Grosseteste

On the Properties of Fire

Introduction by Neil Lewis

Robert Grosseteste says: “Fire sometimes expresses the spirit of god, sometimes the Holy Spirit, sometimes charity, sometimes desire, sometimes malice, sometimes understanding, sometimes distress, sometimes anger, and sometimes pleasure. It indicates the will of God when it is said: God is a devouring fire [Dt. 4: 24, Hebr. 12: 29]; The Holy Spirit when it is said: God descended in fiery tongues onto the apostles, when he enlightened them with the light of wisdom. It signals charity, like that which is in the Gospel: I have come to send fire onto the earth, and would that it were burning [Lc 12: 49]. Desire, like in Exodus [35: 3]: You will not kindle fire in any of your houses during the day of the sabbath; that is, he forbids the fire of desire to rise in human hearts and in all their assemblies. It signals malice through a crookedness of the soul towards lesser things, about this fire it is said: fire will consume the enemy. For, as fire rouses an amorous mind, so does fire envelop a malicious mind. ”

Original Latin

Grosseteste frequently incorporates his scientific interests in his theological writings. The second piece below is an example. It belongs to a large collection of short theological writings called the dicta (lit. 'things said'). Grosseteste's concern is with the use of fire in the Bible to stand as a sign of such things as God's zeal, the Holy Spirit, charity, cupidity, malice, understanding, tribulation, anger and pleasure. Grosseteste holds that if we are to understand how fire can serve as a sign of such things, we must understand the properties and kinds of fire itself and so we must consider fire from a scientific perspective. The account he gives draws heavily on Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a work written in XXX and much quoted by later thinkers. This work would have been somewhat old-fashioned in Grosseteste's day, but Grosseteste's discussion also contains ideas drawn from Aristotle. Although Aristotle lived some XXX years before Isidore, his writings on the physical world had only been available in Latin translation from the latter part of the twelfth century and were considered to provide the most accurate account of the physical world hitherto produced. Following Aristotle, Grosseteste views fire as one of the four fundamental elements of which the earth is comprised (the others being earth, air, and water). He holds that fire is a body, meaning that it has length, breadth and width, and that it is the lightest body, as is seen in the fact that it naturally goes upward. Indeed, Aristotle held that the universe consists of a system of nested spheres, with the earth in the center and, under the sphere carrying the moon, a sphere of fire - the natural place to which fire, as it were, wants to go.