Adam Marsh and Roger Bacon

On the Scholar

Introduction by Rega Wood

Adam Marsh says: “You know, my beloved, how precious and useful the presence of Richard is to your brothers. That makes the distinguished evidence of his titles to praise pleasing to all friars. His conversation is worthy; his science is brilliant; his piety is warm; his opinions, sound. His capacity to teach and to examine is subtle. The arguments of his merits are so well-known that their manifest consideration supports our profession among the great, the middle [class], and those of the lowest [condition] -- both clerical and popular -- [prompting] them to associate with the friars and fostering faithful friendship.”

Roger Bacon says: “Because of ignorance in regard to these two problems the multitude holds that dead Caesar is a man, that a dead man is an animal, and that Christ was a man during the three days [in the tomb] and [it holds] another unlimited number of false and very foolish things abut restriction and ampliation in propositions and about necessities and contingencies and other things, all of which are to be disputed in an orderly way in their proper places.”

Original Latin

This lesson presents two assessments of the same scholar, Richard Rufus of Cornwall. The first is a recommendation by Adam Marsh, Rufus' superior at the Franciscan Oxford convent to his bishop, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. Marsh asks Grosseteste, himself a famous scholar and bishop, to confirm that Rufus has permission to travel to the University of Paris, and he asks Grosseteste to approve sending a secretary along to work with Rufus, because among other things the young friars like to work with Rufus who is generous with them. Marsh reminds Grosseteste that Rufus is so beloved at the Franciscan friary that everyone there enjoys hearing his knowledge and his piety praised. Rufus' reputation is such that the Franciscan Order benefits from the regard in which he is held by people of every station of life.

Despite his high reputation, Rufus found himself uncomfortable at Oxford, which is why he wanted to transfer to Paris, where he lectured for the Franciscans on theology as he had at Oxford. After a few years, Rufus was recalled to Oxford where he became the Franciscan Regent Master of theology.

Like Richard Rufus, Roger Bacon was active both at Oxford and at Paris. But though Bacon became famous in the 19th century, he encountered resistance in the 13th century, where he criticized new innovations in the scholastic curriculum and also many of his more famous contemporaries -- such as, Albert the Great, Rufus, and Bonaventure. Here Bacon criticizes Rufus for what he considers a dangerous logical error. At issue is whether it is possible to make true (or false) statements about something that does not now exist. Rufus says it is, and Bacon denies that possibility. In the thirteenth century Rufus' opinion was more common, though William Ockham and many others agreed with Bacon in the 14th century.

What is surprising about Bacon's assessment of Rufus is not that he disagrees, but the violence of his criticism of "the worst and most foolish" of authors. Bacon admits that Rufus is famous at Oxford and highly regarded by many people. However, Bacon suggests that anyone who thinks highly of Rufus is foolish. Since Bacon regarded Adam Marsh as one of the greatest authorities of the age, surely he would have been surprised if he had read Marsh's letter to Grosseteste.

According to Bacon, wise men at Paris criticized Rufus according to Bacon. Which wise men? The only evidence we have that people at Paris criticized Rufus takes the form of a series of marginal notes in the only surviving manuscript of the theology lectures Rufus gave at Paris. Typically they read: "Censured: this is calumny." Often enough the opinion condemned is that of St. Bonaventure, which Rufus has reported in the third person. Like Rufus, Bonaventure was highly regarded as a theologian, so these censures are difficult to understand. It may well be that Bacon himself was responsible for inserting them in the manuscript.

Not only does Roger Bacon condemn Richard Rufus, but he claims to have known him well. Since both men were Franciscan friars, that is possible, but as far as can be determined, the two men were seldom in the same town at the same time. So it does not seem likely that Bacon's dislike was personal. More likely Bacon was disturbed by the popularity of newer forms of philosophical discussion popularized by Rufus. Bacon, for example, argued for the importance of learning foreign languages, while Rufus knew only Latin. Bacon esteemed Avicenna more highly than Averroes, while Rufus was deeply suspicious of Avicenna and very respectful of Averroes even when he rejected Averroes' views. Medieval scholastics generally followed Rufus rather than Bacon and perhaps that explains his hostility.