Life of Roger Bacon

Excerpt from J. Hackett, From Sapientes antiqui at Lincoln to the New Sapientes moderni at Paris c. 1260-1280: Roger Bacon’s Two Circles of Scholars, in J. Cunningham and M. Hocknull (eds.), Robert Grosseteste and the Pursuit of Religious and Scientific Learning in the Middle Ages, Springer 2016, pp. 119-142, ivi 120-128.

The chronology established by Theodore Crowley, advocated by David C. Lindberg, and followed more recently by Yael Kedar is based one text alone. I believe that this chronology needs some adjustment. The one crucial foundational text for this chronology beginning with the words Multum laboravi has been excerpted from its context in Opus tertium, Chap. XX. This text is usually read in isolation and out of the context of the subject matter, that is, the education of Bacon’s own young student, the Iuvenis Iohannis, who is about 20/21 years old in 1267-1268, and who has been a student with Bacon for about seven years. It is clear from the evidence from the Opus tertium and related works that by 1267-1268, Roger Bacon was already an old person (a senex). In addressing the Pope in 1268, he speaks of ‘us old men’ (nos senes).

Roger Bacon could have been born as early as 1210. This date was argued for in the nineteenth century by Charles Jourdain (1874); he could have been born c. 1214 as has been argued by the renowned Franciscan Scholar, Arthur George Little (1914); this latter position is accepted by Thomas Maloney (1988), George Molland (2004) and Jeremiah Hackett (2013). However, the standard modem view is that of Theodore Crowley (1950) and David C. Lindberg (1996). They argue on the basis of just one text from the Opus tertium that Bacon was born forty-seven years before the writing of the Opus tertium in 1267. They calculate this on the basis of his statement that for the past forty years after he first learned the Alphabetum, he has been working on languages and sciences in studio, and that he had expenses as others commonly have. The problem then centers on which alphabetum is the object of Bacon’s concern in Chap. XX, and what is the scope of in studio in the context of his remarks on the education of his own young student, the young John.

Theodore Crowley has also argued that Bacon could have been at Oxford in one of the Grammar schools directed by the Chancellor of the University, and Crowley may well be correct in this supposition (Ibid.). This would mean that Bacon was born c. 1220, educated at Oxford c. 1234-1241, and Professor at Paris c. 1242-1247/1248. It is sometimes held that c. 1248 he returned to Oxford, where he attended the lectures of Adam Marsh OFM. He would then have become a Franciscan Friar c. 1256/1257.

Here we run into a number of problems. First, Chap. XX of the Opus tertium is concerned with instruction in languages and mathematics, and the word Alphabetum, has been taken by Crowley and Lindberg to mean the first alphabet at the age of about 7, when Bacon was technically a Puer. A few paragraphs later in Opus Tertium (1859), Chap. XX the word Alphabetum is explicitly used to speak about the Alphabetum philosophiae, especially the basic knowledge of mathematics. Second, Bacon uses the standard terms such as Adolescens, Iuvenis, Senex. And since he is talking about a youth who is learning mathematics and is talking about his own study of language and mathematics to indicate the he once was in the position of the iuvenis Iohannes, he is hardly speaking about a Puer. As a iuvenis, he would first have been taught by a grammar-master (Grammaticus) before proceeding onto the study of mathematics around the age of 11. Third, the dating of the birth at c. 1220 could not account for the following remark from the Compendium studii theologiae: ‘Even the books of logic were not received and taught until late in the day. For Blessed Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury was the first to teach the Sophistical Elenchs [of Aristotle] in my times (temporibus meis), and I both saw Master Hugh, who first taught the Posterior Analytics [of Aristotle], and I perused the words [in his book]’ (Maloney 1988).

Sir Richard Southern holds that Blessed Edmund departed Oxford in 1222, and Bernard G. Dodd, the expert on logic, dates the teaching of Master Hugh to c. 1210 (Southern 1992; Dodd 1982). Further, who is the great expert on natural philosophy and perspectiva mentioned in the Tractatus de experiential in communi who mentored Bacon a iuventutl The only known expert on natural philosophy and perspectiva during Bacon’s early years at Oxford was Robert Grosseteste.

Now it is important to read Bacon’s own words: sometimes he simply states that he has seen some of the ancients, when for example as we will see below he states many times Nam vidimus with regard to Robert Grosseteste and select scholars at Lincoln, and at Oxford. But of course, the important issue is the force of the term ‘Nam vidimus’. There is only one text where he notes a particular conversation with another scholar, that is, with Adam Marsh OFM. Otherwise, he always uses the term ‘Nam vidimus’. The proper sense of the word perceive in Bacon is not the loose sense of a general glance at someone, but rather a direct encounter with an individual. He states that he witnessed some Franciscans questioning Master Adam Marsh OFM concerning the nature of the Agent Intellect. This, most likely was some time before 1257 and after Bacon ceased teaching in the Arts at Paris c. 1248. He tells us that he had seen Thomas of Wales, Bishop of St. David in Wales, but the latter died in 1255, and prior to that he had been a Bishop in Wales. And then his hero Robert Grosseteste passed away in 1253. Thus, he had to have seen these three scholars at some time before 1251, since he was in Paris at that time and seems to have been there until 1257 and later. Thus, we must look to the late 1220s to 1250 as the possible time for Bacon having seen the Sapientes antiqui.

Roger Bacon had a life-long concern with government and with the education of the Prince (Hackett 2006). Matthew Paris tells how Friar Robert Bacon of the Order of Preachers, in a speech before the King at Oxford, June 24, 1233, denounced the royal favorites, the Bishop of Winchester (Pierre des Roches) and Pierre de Rivleaux. A young Clericus de curia regis, one Roger Bacon made a witty remark about rocks. A. G. Little notes that while we do not have evidence that our Roger Bacon ‘was ever a clerk of the royal court,’ ‘he had some knowledge of the inner workings of a chancery’ (Little 1914). Still, we know that later in Paris c. 1265, Bacon moved in Ambassadorial Circles, and had intimate knowledge of the household of the brother of the King of Prance, Alphons of Poitiers. It would appear that after 1280 at Oxford, the edition of the Secretum secretorum, the very important Mirror for Princes was written for a Royal patron. Purther, we will note below his close connections with Master Raymond of Laon, an official of Cardinal Guy le Gros de Poulque, who in February 1265 was elected Pope Clement IV.

It was the firm conviction of the late James A. Weisheipl that Roger Bacon began his teaching in the Arts at Paris c. 1237, and in this I am inclined to agree. Certainly, I do not think he began to teach there much later than 1240. Now, it is standard lore that Bacon ceased to teach at Paris c. 1247-1248, and that he returned to Oxford from about 1248-1257. Sometime around 1256/1257 he joined the Franciscan Order. Bacon writes about the twenty years when I especially worked in the arts and sciences neglecto sensu vulgi. This phrase, however, is taken by most scholars to mean he had lectured on the texts of Aristotle et sequaces eius vulgariter or per modum scholasticum until 1247/1248. And then from 1248 to 1268 there is the new ‘scientific’ work neglecto sensu vulgi. But as we will see, this is an impossible hypothesis since Bacon tells us that from about 1256 to 1267 he did not do any professional academic work.

Statue of Roger Bacon in Oxford, UK

But since Bacon distinguishes himself as one of the Sapientes in opposition to the leaders of the vulgus philosophorum et theologorum at Paris, and since in 1271 he talks of himself as having been a long experienced scholar of Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes (sicut ego expertus sum omnino) I doubt he ever thought of himself as one of the vulgus. My argument, as I will indicate below, is that the term neglecto sensu vulgi has a specific determinate sense in Roger Bacon. It indicates work first in Languages, namely the grammar and logic of that language, and more importantly, it indicates a competence in the Quadrivium. This is precisely what Bacon states. For Bacon, mathematics is the alphabetum philosophiae. Note the words of the text: he had expenses, he organized scientific research, he organized schools. As we will see below, he certainly did not perform this task as a Franciscan Friar beginning c. 1257, nor did he do so as a puer. Writing in the Opus tertium, Bacon himself states that almost twenty years ago he was the Magister Regens at the inception of new masters in matters dealing with the Quadrivium, and none but he was fully competent in geometry. This could have been as late as 1250-1252. That he was in Paris in 1251 is clear from his reference in Opus maius IV to have seen the leader of the Pastoreaux Rebels (Bacon 1964, Opus maius). Further, as Alain de Libera has argued, and as Thomas S. Maloney confirmed, the method and subject matter of the Summulae dialectics (Summa Logica) is more appropriate and typical of the late 1240s than the early 1240s (Maloney 2009). Further, Bacon states that he heard Richard Rufus of Cornwall ‘stultissimus’ solemnly lecture at Paris after he had previously lectured at Oxford (1250-1253), that is, from 1253 to 1256. But of course by this stage, Bacon is thinking of become a Franciscan friar and by c. 1256-1257 he has become a Franciscan friar. The accumulated evidence here suggests that we must push the date of birth back before c. 1220. Further, I believe I have offered good reasons to question the common belief that Bacon was at Oxford from 1248 to 1257 where he attended the theology lectures of Master Adam Marsh O. F. M. It is likely that he did visit Oxford c. 1248 but he was back in Paris in 1251 and again 1253-1256, and remained there until possibly 1280. It is not impossible that his two years of rest from teaching took place at Oxford.

Now, as I will argue towards the conclusion of this chapter, I am convinced that Bacon was indeed a very sincere and committed Franciscan, but he was a Franciscan in a mold similar to but yet different from Bonaventure and his friend Richard Rufus of Cornwall. Still, he shared much in terms of theological method with his English colleague, John Pecham. The latter represents Bacon’s philosophical and theological interests, with the possible exception of Bacon’s deep commitment to the applications of astrologia to human affairs (Hackett 2003).

It is clear from the Opus tertium that apart from Richard Rufus of Cornwall (standing for Bonaventure?) and Alexander of Hales, the main object of Bacon’s criticism is the vulgus philosophantium at Paris, and the Capita eorum, namely, Albertus Coloniensis. The more I read these texts, the more I see that Roger Bacon is proposing a ‘Research Program’ to the Pope in Science, Philosophy and Theology that is directly defined over against the ‘Research Program’ of Albert of Cologne, and his followers at Paris, including the regular teachers of Philosophy such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, and Albert’s student, Thomas D’Aquino. We must turn to Bacon’s own training and to his debts to those he calls the ancient wise ones.

Now Roger Bacon often writes about the circle of scholars around Robert Grosseteste. In both the Opus maius, and the Opus tertium, he states: ‘For we have seen some of the ancient wise persons who worked in languages such as the aforementioned Lord Robert, the translator and Bishop, and Thomas the Venerable Bishop of St. David, recently deceased, and Brother Adam Marsh and Master Hermann, the translator and certain other wise scholars.’

Again, in the Compendium studii philosophiae (1271), he states that the modern Seculares who c. 1267 teach theology have dismissed the old ways, and are drawn solely to honors and riches. ‘And so they totally dismiss the ways of the ancient wise teachers some of whom we have seen in our own times, such as, Lord Robert, once Bishop of Lincoln, of holy memory, Lord Thomas, Bishop of St. David in Wales, Brother Adam Marsh and Master Robert Marsh, and Masters William Lupus [the treasurer of Lincoln Cathedral] and Master William of Sherwood.’ These men who flourished in the 1230s and by the 1240s, were a major part of Grosseteste’s administrative staff as indicated by the following quote from Sir Richard Southern: ‘In his general plan, the group of friars in his household were his missionaries, and his Archdeacons were his chief local agents comparable to Royal Sheriffs. To this office he appointed men who were his close collaborators in his learned enterprises and administration-such men as John of Basingstoke, Thomas Wallensis, William Lupus, William of Arundel, Richard of Gravesend and Robert Marsh. If he had his way, episcopal government would have been the strongest ruling force in England’ (Southern 1992). Many of these men are the very ones that Bacon claims he has seen (Nam vidimus).

When we add to this the fact established by A. B. Emden that members of a Bacon family resided in the 1240s at a domus scholarum, a graduate residence at Oxford, and possessed a copy of Avicenna’s Healing, and when one of them, Nicholas Bacon was appointed a diocesan official in 1244/1245 (Emden 1966) by Robert Grosseteste, one must think seriously about Roger Bacon’s connections with Oxford and Lincoln. As we will see below, writing to the Pope c. 1268, he speaks of not being able to contact his brother the scholar in England.

Bacon states explicitly to the Pope that when he was in the other form of life as a Master of Arts he had spent about 2000 Parisian librae on books, experiences, and on travel to visit the Sapientes. He tells us that he visited all the Sapientes. Since he praises Grosseteste, his household, and Master Adam Marsh as the greater clerics of the world and as the greater Sapientes, we must assume that he used this money to visit such persons. The other wise ones mentioned are Albert the Great (whom he could have seen at Paris c. 1245-1248), whom he would have met at Paris c. 1245-1248. And then there is the Biblical Scholar who is referred to as Sapientissimus who flourished in Paris in the late 1260s and 1270s.

Now, I do not doubt that Bacon had visited Oxford, and I believe he may even have visited Lincoln. But when he did so is still a mystery. Did it take place in the 1230s prior to his move to Paris to teach in the Arts? Could it have taken place after 1251? This latter hypothesis as we have just seen is impossible. Thus, there is reason to think that he met some of these scholars before 1248 or at possibly some of them between 1248 and 1251.

But how can we account for his knowledge of the works of Robert Grosseteste? Scholars hold that he must have learned about them in the 1250s when Grosseteste’s Library was given to the Franciscan Studium at Oxford following Grosseteste’s death in 1253. But this position which was proposed by the late James McEvoy is difficult to sustain. A period at Oxford or at home somewhere in England c. 1248-1251 would account for his contact with Master Adam Marsh and for his knowledge of Grosseteste’s scientific works such as De iride, De cometis, De lineis, etc. One has to assume that Adam Marsh had access to these works. Such an encounter would account for Bacon’s great knowledge of Perspectiva, especially the Optics of Ibn al-Haytham. Bacon notes that the subject was taught only at Oxford, that just on two separate occasions. And since this required knowledge of Ibn al-Haytham (al-Hacen’s) Optics, it must have been in the late 1240s. If he is correct about the claim that optics was taught only at Oxford prior to 1270, then, Bacon, the comprehensive master of Optics, must have learned his craft at Oxford.

We come now to the big unasked and unanswered Question: when and where did Bacon get such a good training in Mathematics, and above all his skilled training in grammar and logic? (Pinborg 1979) We have just seen that he already had training in mathematics and perspectiva. But where did he get his training in Greek?

It was the considered belief of S. A. Hirsch that Roger Bacon’s command of Greek, that included knowledge of grammar, orthography, idiom, etymology was acquired in England from mature teachers of Greek such as Nicholaus Graecus (1914). There is not time here to develop this topic, but the arguments of S. A. Hirsch seem to be very strong. This thesis is borne out by the great interest in Greek and Hebrew exhibited by Bacon c. 1272 in the Compendium studii philosophiae and in other related texts of that time. This raises a question about Bacon’s concerns: was he working with the named Sapientissimus on the Biblical Text at the Franciscan House of Studies in the late 1260s? At any rate, his interest in Greek at this time is professional and serious. And so, there is reason to think that he may have acquired this knowledge from scholars associated with the circle of scholars influenced by Grosseteste.

“Roger Bacon” – Painting by Eraldo Colli Acchiappati, 2016

We come now to the high point of Bacon’s life, his encounter with the man who would become Pope Clement IV. Before looking at the chronology, allow me once again to draw on the wisdom of the late John North. In his important essay Roger Bacon and the Saracens, he paints a picture of the concerns of Roger Bacon that serves as an antidote to the over the top speculations of nineteenth-century historians and philosophers (North 1999). He places Roger Bacon in the context of the worlds of Islam and the Latin West in the mid-thirteenth century. While at times he seems more concerned with warfare in England, Italy and France, the world of Islam especially is close to Bacon’s concerns. And it is in this context that the figure of Pope Clement IV takes on much significance. Bacon thought that the latter would be the good Pope who would lead the charge to prevent the expansion of Islam, especially after the destruction of Bagdad by the Mongols in 1258, and the loss of Damascus to the Mamlucks in 1260, where ‘the old axis of Saladin had been re-instated.’ Now, Bacon is truly interested in geo-politics and warfare and this interest is closely tied into his great interest in the Secretum secretorum and his moral philosophy.

1260 is a very important year for Roger Bacon. First, the war between the King and the Barons begins and lasts until 1264, and the man who would be Pope in 1265, Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulque, was ambassador of the Papal Court to England, but had been detained in France and was not allowed to enter England. In this war, Bacon’s family suffered the costs of ransom, and he lost contact with his brother the scholar. Where did this scholar brother reside? Was it at Oxford? Further, any chance that Roger Bacon might continue his scholarly pursuits was finished by the statutes of the Council of Narbonne under the presidency of Bonaventure. It should be noted here that Cardinal le Gros de Foulque was Archbishop of Narbonne in 1260. No writing especially De antichristo could be published without the permission of the superiors, especially Bonaventure. Caught in this bind, what does Bacon do? He does an end-run around his superiors. That is never good policy. Given the statutes of Narbonne, it had practical consequences, namely, a time of isolation on bread and water. To return to the matter of Islam, North remarks:

“The Saracens were for Bacon ‘a sect in one of the principal nations,’ a sect bound by the law of Mohammed. How then could he reconcile himself to paying homage to the Saracens, when their religious views were in direct conflict with those of his own church? (Ibid.)”.

We come now to the re-birth of Roger Bacon as an active scholar c. 1266. We have the Mandatum that Pope Clement IV sent to Bacon in June 1266. Scholars are in agreement that in July 1266, Bacon received a directive or Mandatum from Pope Clement IV to write a work on philosophy and on other matters:

“To our dear son, Brother Roger, called Bacon, of the Order of Friars Minor. We have received your devoted letters gladly. And indeed we have attended carefully to the explanation of them which our beloved son, Sir William, called Bonecour, related orally to us, as faithfully as possible. So that we can obtain a clearer idea of what you intend, we command you by apostolic letters notwithstanding [non obstante] the contrary instruction of any prelate, to send to as soon as you can a fair copy of that work, which, when we were in a lesser office [Cardinal-Legate], we asked you to communicate to our beloved son Raymond of Laon, and explain in your explicit writings to us the remedies that you think we should adopt to address those issues that you have described on the occasion of such great danger, and do this quickly and as secretly as possible”.

This then is the Papal Mandate issued in June, 1266. Yet, as is clear, Bacon had earlier contact with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulque (Guido Fucoldi), sometime prior to his becoming Pope in 1265. What did the Cardinal think of Bacon’s ideas? How important was his encouragement as a motive for Bacon to begin writing? In the Gasquet Fragment, which is an introduction to the Opus maius, Bacon states explicitly that he had received a prior, first Mandatum from Pope Clement IV when the latter was in ‘a lesser office, namely that of Cardinal.’ This fact has been downplayed in the scholarship. Bacon had received an explicit Mandatum to write from Cardinal Le Gros de Folque. In this introduction to the Opus mains, Bacon writes: ‘Certainly, your Magnificence was aware, since both Mandates asserted it, that I was under obligation by the strictest precept that I not communicate any writing which I made in this state of life [as a Franciscan Friar], just as all our congregation is known thus to be firmly obliged, and so I utterly shrank from writing.’ This is a very important text, in that he provides us with a true picture of Bacon’s actual absence from active work in the arts and sciences. By 1267, he had been an exile for about ten years. Further, he had written nothing.

Again, he speaks about the many impediments placed on him by his Franciscan superiors. In the Opus tertium, he compares his plight with that of the great Cicero: ‘First, therefore in the Second Work, after the manner of the Letter of Cicero when he was called back after exile, and humbled himself and congratulated the Roman Senate, considering myself now for ten years an exile with respect to my fame for study \Opus tertium 7).

When did the Cardinal send Bacon the first Mandatum? I believe it was in the period c. 1261-1262. Writing in the Opus tertium Bacon states that he began his instruction of his student Johannes, which has now lasted for six or seven years, since he first received a mandate from Cardinal Le Gros de Foulque. He also states that he began the composition of his central work, the De multiplicatio specierum when he first received the first Mandatum from the Cardinal. Further, he states that it is ten years since he received that Mandatum {Opus tertium 38). Bacon began the educational preparation of his messenger, the Iuvenis lohannes, on receipt of this first Mandatum from Cardinal Guy le Gros de Folque. Thus, sometime in the very early years of the 1260s, probably around 1260-1261, Bacon began his writing projects.

The big question therefore arises: When did Bacon write the Opus tertium? It is important to get a verifiable result on this since much of the chronology depends on this fact. After all as we saw above, scholars have tended to give 1267 as the time for the writing of the Opus tertium. This simply does not make any sense: Bacon tells us in the Opus tertium that he did not begin to finally write the Opus maius until after Epiphany, 1267, and if one takes into account that he has to draft the De multiplicatio specierum, the Perspectiva, Communia naturalium and the Moralis philosophia, we must push the writing of the Opus tertiium up to the years 1268-1269. Moreover, recent Bacon scholarship on ‘Roger Bacon’s Communia Naturalium: A thirteenth-century Philosopher’s Workshop,’ has come to a conclusion that this latter work was composed sometime between 1269 and 1270 (not later than 1271), and as I prove there, Bacon uses material from the Opus tertium in Part IV of Book two of the Communia naturalium (Bernardini and Rodolfi 2014; Hackett 2014). Hence, it is likely that this material was written sometime between 1268, when Pope Clement IV was still alive, and 1269.

He completed his edition of the Secretum secretorum at the Franciscan Studium in Oxford. By 1292, he had completed his Compendium studii theologiae, and he probably died at Oxford sometime after 1292.

Diagram from a manuscript of Bacon’s De multiplicatione specierum

Excerpt from C. Panti, The Theological Use of Science in Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh According to Roger Bacon: The Case Study of the Rainbow, in J. Cunningham and M. Hocknull (eds.), Robert Grosseteste and the Pursuit of Religious and Scientific Learning in the Middle Ages, Springer 2016, pp. 143-163, ivi 145-151.

Although it seems undisputable that Bacon met both Grosseteste and Marsh, no documentary evidence testifies his familiarity with them or his having been their pupil. However, Bacon’s numerous references to both scholars and his open affiliation with their alleged method of teaching suggest that his contacts could not be limited to accidental knowledge.

A first possibility for placing this meeting is the late twenties or early thirties, which implies that Bacon was born in about 1214 and was in Oxford as a student of Arts. The piece of evidence associating him with the town is, however, only a record attesting that in 1233, when he would have been, more or less, 20 years old, he acted as a cleric of the king’s court. By that time, he would have already fulfilled his studies in Arts and perhaps a basic instruction in Law, which would justify his position at the court. In 1233, Roger was neither a Franciscan, nor might he have been connected with the friars’ school, where Grosseteste was teaching theology. At approximately the same year, Adam Marsh was entering the order. Adam made his profession a few years later, at Worcester, where he probably served his novitiate (Lawrence 2006 & 2010). If Bacon first arrived at Oxford in 1233, he would have had only an indirect knowledge of Grosseteste and Marsh. However, the reputation of Grosseteste and his friendship with the Oxford Franciscans and specifically with Adam Marsh might have nourished his later confidence in associating himself with their theological and mathematical interests. Moreover, the example by Marsh, a master of Arts from a noble family close to the king, who resigned his status and possessions for love of Francis, may have instilled in Bacon the seed of his later conversion. Bacon himself belonged to a wealthy and noble family close to the king, and was early in life to become master of Arts at Paris.

More importantly, the Opus tertium (Bacon 1859a) also tells us that Grosseteste was the master of Adam {Opus tertium c. 50,186-7; quoted below). This noteworthy remark may signify that Marsh was in Grosseteste’s classroom either as a student of Arts, before 1226, or as a student of theology, during his novitiate in 1232/33-1235. This last possibility matches perfectly with Bacon’s presence at Oxford in 1233, and reinforces his assertions of the common objectives of the two scholars.

Apart from the event of 1233, it is likely that Bacon had been at Oxford as a student of Arts since about 1227 (Power 2013). Documentary evidence is missing, with the exception of two autobiographical notes, which point directly to Bacon’s early scientific interests and specifically to the discussion on the rainbow at Oxford. In the Opus tertium, Bacon states:

“This science [namely perspective], has not been taught up to now among Latins except twice at Oxford, in England, and there are no more than three men who know its value (Opus Tertium c. 11, 37).

In the Opus maius (Bacon 1900), he adds:

“In fact, in the translation of the books on Meteorology divulged among Latins up to now, it is stated that a rainbow cannot be made by moon rays but twice every fifty years; and the greatest natural philosopher and expert on perspective, whom I saw, wanted both to save this truth and to explain its cause while I was his pupil in my youth” (Opus maius, vol. 2 pt. 6, 173, addendum).

If read together, these statements imply that the young Roger was in the classroom of an Oxonian master of Arts, an expert in optics, who lectured on Aristotle’s Meteorological Bacon knew Grosseteste’s De iride, written in late twenties, which makes use of the Meteorologica, though it does not refer to lunar rainbows. Is it possible that this master was Grosseteste? A positive answer would imply that Bacon attended Grosseteste’s last lessons in the Arts, and this, in turn, requires that Grosseteste started teaching theology as late as 1229, when he was asked to teach the Franciscans. This matches with Bacon’s biography only if we assume that he was bom no later than 1214, because students of Arts were teenagers and in the late twenties Bacon should have been in his teens.

As regards Adam Marsh, he incepted as master of Arts at Oxford in 1226 and resigned his post in 1232 or 1233, when he took the Franciscan habit (Lawrence 2006 & 2010). Thus, although it seems more likely that Bacon might have been in his rather than in Grosseteste’s classroom, and notwithstanding Bacon’s assertion that Marsh was also a great mathematician, it is hard to accept that he might have referred to Marsh as maximus perspectivus. Besides, in recalling his attendance at Marsh’s scholarly discussions (that will be mentioned below), Bacon states that Adam was a friar and this likely indicates that Bacon is referring to discussions that happened in biennium 1248-1250, when Adam was teaching theology.

Diagrams from a manuscript of Bacon’s Communia naturalium

Bacon’s insistence on associating Grosseteste and Marsh based on their interests in mathematics and perspective seems to refer, finally, to his alleged acquaintance with them in the late twenties. However, a difficulty in confirming this hypothesis is that Bacon made rare use of Grosseteste’s writings in the works related to his teaching years at Paris. In other words, if he had been Grosseteste’s pupil, it seems that the teachings of his master had hardly any immediate effect on him. Yet, after Bacon left his post as Master of Arts, it seems that he had a sort of afterthought. Perhaps, his subsequent return to England in 1247 was a sort of second chance for him in rediscovering his cultural roots after years of disappointment at Paris. However it may be, if these data are collected together, they tell us that Bacon’s supposed first stay at Oxford coincided with crucial changes in Grosseteste’s and Marsh’s lives, determined by the establishment of a growing Franciscan community and the development of their school.

The second possible occasion for Bacon to meet Marsh and Grosseteste might have taken place in a completely different milieu. In 1244/45, Bacon was a Master of Arts at Paris, and might have met them there, on their way to the council of Lyon.

Grosseteste was now a bishop and Adam a friar. Two autobiographical notes by Bacon, respectively from the Opus maius and the Opus tertium, seem to attest to this meeting, although their interpretation is controversial:

“For when the University of Paris was convoked, I twice saw and heard the venerable William, Lord Bishop of Paris of Blessed memory, in the presence of all, teach that the agent intellect cannot be a pars animae, and the Lord Robert Bishop of Lincoln and Adam Marsh and elders of this rank supported the same teaching: (Opus maius vol. 3, pt. 2, c. 5,47; trans: Hackett 1996).

“However, it is false that the agent intellect is a part of the soul. (…) And all the old wise men, including some who are still alive, said that it was God. Hence, I twice heard the Venerable Bishop of the Church of Paris, the Lord William of Auvergne, with the university congregated before him, reprove those < who said that it was a part of the soul > and dispute with them. And he proved through certain reasons, which I give, that all of them were in error. In fact, the Lord Robert, the Bishop of Lincoln, and Brother Adam Marsh, very great clerics of the world and perfect in divine and human wisdom, supported this same teaching. As a result, when certain impudent Franciscans on account of derision and temptation asked Brother Adam ‘What is the agent intellect?’ he replied: ‘The raven of Elias’, wishing through this to say that it was God or an angel. But he did not wish to explain because they asked not in order to gain wisdom, but in order to embarrass him” (Opus tertium c. 23, 74-5. trans: partly modified- Hackett 1996).

Both passages are placed in the context of a discussion on the nature of the agent intellect and, immediately after, of angels. According to Bacon, all old wise men such as William of Auvergne, Grosseteste and Marsh rightly defended the opinion that the agent intellect is not a part of the soul, but God or an angel; he mentions a couple of university convocations held at Paris and lead by William on this subject. The jest by Marsh in the second of these passages refers to the Biblical event of Elias nourished by ravens, namely angels, sent him by God (1 Kings 17: 2-6). Now, if his remark is read together with the episode of the double university convocation, it implies that Grosseteste and Marsh were present at one of these events, on their way to Lyon. If this were true, the subtle statement by Marsh would signify that he, a Friar Minor, could not openly manifest his thought, because it was contrary to the teaching of his Parisian confreres, such as John de la Rochelle, who was the regent master at that time. Adam was already an outstanding scholar, because, on his coming back from Lyon, he was requested for one of the two Franciscan chairs of theology, left vacant at Paris exactly in these days, after the death of both John de la Rochelle and Alexander of Hales.

If, however, these passages are divided into two parts, they simply mean that Grosseteste and Marsh on one side and William of Auvergne on the other shared the same opinion as regards the agent intellect, at least according to Bacon. But this, in turn, would mean that Bacon, at some point in his life, and surely before 1259, the year of Marsh’s death, attended a discussion between Adam and other Franciscans, likely a dispute held during Adam’s teaching at the school of Oxford, in the biennium 1248-1250. Thus, if we exclude the idea that Adam’s remark refers to the Parisian convocation, the third and last possibility of Bacon’s meeting with Adam (though not necessarily with Grosseteste) took place at Oxford in 1248, when Bacon returned to England, after he gave up his post at Paris. As far as we know, he might have been among the students of the Franciscan school exactly at the time of Adam’s regency, namely by the end of 1247 up to 1250. This would mean that Roger had been a novice since then, and that he remained in this status until about 1257, the year which is commonly posited as his entrance into the Order. This long lasting novitiate is not easy to justify, especially because in this decade Bacon was involved with his independent scientific research. However, it must be considered that many of the novices were magistri in search of a theological education, like Marsh himself had been. Besides, we know that Bacon was back in Paris in 1250/51 (Opus maius, vol. 1, 401), exactly when Marsh resigned his teaching. Bacon’s alleged contact with Marsh and the Oxford Franciscan School, accordingly, lasted only for the two years of Adam’s teaching. If this were true, it is possible to justify another remark of the Opus tertium concerning Adam: namely, how he tackled the problem of the movement of angels. In fact, subsequent to the second passage on the Parisian convocation quoted above, Bacon enters into details on the nature of angels and their being nowhere and immobile and, in developing his reasoning, he includes a query he asked Adam (Et cum quaesivi). Again, Bacon reports the direct answer by Marsh (respondit quod), a further remark pronounced by him (dixit) and, finally, expressly states that Marsh’s teachings were in agreement with those of Grosseteste, his master:

“And when I asked a very wise man, namely Brother Adam Marsh, how it was possible that the soul of Blessed Ambrose attended the funeral of Saint Martin, he answered that the corporeal distance is nothing for the soul. (…) In fact, if spiritual beings have no relation with the divisions of the corporal distance, a demon burning in person in the Hell is not missing from any other place; why would he not operate those things that are permitted to him, such as inducing men to commit sins? Indeed, Brother Adam said: ‘As two sentences are not physically distant according to their property, likewise two spiritual beings, such as a human soul here and an evil spirit in Hell’. (…) However, some < scholars > tickle themselves in these and other things, for they are induced to this not by the power of reason but by their imagination, enjoying falsities more than truths. Consequently, they vilify this claim, provided it is true. Indeed, it stood from the consent of old wise men, such as Brother Adam and his master Robert Grosseteste, and others” (Opus tertium c. 50, 186-7).

Bacon is here referring to the story reported in De miraculis Sancti Martini (I, 5, 918C-919A) by (Gregory of Tours 1879) that Ambrose apparently fell asleep while he was celebrating Mass in Milan, but, indeed, was miraculously present at the simultaneous funeral of Martin at Tours. This long passage shows a sense of familiarity that Bacon had with Marsh at some point in his life, likely when the latter was a teacher. This closeness justifies also Bacon’s knowledge of Marsh’s involvement with the program of translations from the Greek by Bishop Grosseteste and the affinity of the theological methods of the two men.

Roger Bacon in the Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum (1617)

The following scheme sets out the chronological details discussed above:

1227/28-1233: Bacon might have been at Oxford as student of Arts. He was in the classroom of the maximus perspective, who lectured on Meteorologica and on the nature of lunar rainbow.

1227-1230: last scientific writings by Grosseteste (Computus correctorius, De iride, De lineis, De natura locorum), all known to Bacon and quoted in his late works (after c. 1256).

1226: Adam Marsh incepts as Master of Arts at Oxford.

1229/30-1235: Grosseteste teaches theology at the Franciscan school of Oxford. 1233: Roger Bacon, clericus de curia, displays his wit before Henry III at Oxford. 1232/33: Adam Marsh enters the Franciscans; if he spent his novitiate at Oxford, he must have studied theology under Grosseteste (Bacon asserts that Adam was a pupil of Grosseteste).

1235: Grosseteste is elected bishop of Lincoln; Marsh makes his profession at Worcester.

1236/40-1247/48: Bacon is Master of Arts at Paris.

1235-1253: Grosseteste is Bishop of Lincoln, he introduces in England Greek books and speakers.

1244-46: Grosseteste and Marsh are at Lyon; Marsh is requested for a chair of theology at Paris, perhaps Bacon meets them at a university convocation at Paris. 1247-1250: Marsh is Master of Theology at the Franciscan school of Oxford. 1247/48: Bacon resigns his post at Paris and starts his involvement in experiments and knowledge of languages; he returns to England, perhaps attends Marsh’s lectures at Oxford.

1250: Marsh stops teaching theology; Bacon is back in France.

1253: Grosseteste dies.

1257 c.: Bacon enters the Franciscan Order, perhaps at Paris.

1259: Marsh dies.

One particular statement by Bacon concerning Grosseteste and Marsh verifies two occasions of his closeness to them at Oxford. This passage is from the Compendium studii philosophiae (Bacon 1859c), written in 1271. Bacon mentions by name a few masters who taught at Oxford or were related to Grosseteste’s circle there. His list puts them in an approximate chronological order that covers almost exactly the two periods of his supposed stays at Oxford: 1227/30-1233/38 and the biennium 1248-1250 (chronological details concerning those masters are in italics within square brackets):

“For forty years [since 1230] the secular clergy have neglected the study of theology and philosophy along the true paths of those studies (…) to such an extent that they have completely left the paths of the wise men, some of whom I have seen in my own time, namely the lord Robert, formerly bishop of Lincoln of holy memory, the Lord Thomas, Bishop of St. David in Wales [third master at the Franciscan school at Oxford, from 1238], Brother Adam Marsh, master Robert Marsh [brother of Adam, incepted in theology in 1250 at the presence of Grosseteste], masters William Lupus [archdeacon at Lincoln and master in Law and Arts in the early fifties] and William of Sherwood [formerly Parisian master of logic; since 1249 master at Oxford], and others like them” (Compendium studii philosophie c. 5, 428).

In this passage, Bacon witnesses the profound change in the methodology of university learning that had occurred gradually in the last decades, mainly at Paris, and had driven towards the refusal of the study of languages and experimental methods and the dismissal of the sacred texts, because of the introduction of the ‘Sentence-Method’ for the study of theology. According to him, Oxford preserved the seeds of the right model of learning as long as the interests of Grosseteste and Marsh remained alive. For Bacon, the new approach corresponds to the destruction of the Christian sense of wisdom and imposes the need for an overall reform of teaching and learning. This is actually the cultural context from which Bacon develops the urgency of re-uniting sciences to theology, the union of which constitutes a fundamental aspect of the proposal of reform that he illustrated to the pope in his later writings. It is in expressing this new demand that the references to Grosseteste and Marsh and their methodology are collocated. Hence, it is in this context that Bacon will introduce the case study of the rainbow as a bright exemplification of his and their claim of the importance of the sciences for theology.