October 9th is the Feast Day of a medieval Bishop who also has a serious claim to be the first “real physicist”, Robert Grosseteste, who was Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253. He was born at Stradbroke in Suffolk circa 1175 and his early education and clerical service were in Hereford where Bishop William de Vere was encouraging the newly transmitted Aristotelian scientific learning from the Arabic world to take root, extending the study of the liberal arts to include physics and observational astronomy.
After de Vere’s death Grosseteste moved to a benefice in Lincoln diocese, and used this as a base from which to study and then teach at Oxford which was then within the bounds of that huge diocese then (and probably at Paris too). At Oxford his main work was to teach the Franciscan friars who were studying there (he taught Roger Bacon), and it is possible that his reputation was such that he also became the Master of Students for the emergent University – effectively its first chancellor.
The same reputation commended him as the right candidate to break a deadlock in choosing a new Bishop for the diocese and despite his advancing years he proved a most active one, remaining in post for 18 years until his death, raising standards, challenging the Pope on bad practices, and after his death being seen as saint, although formal canonisation was blocked by the papal court he had confronted.
As a bishop Grosseteste remained an active author, and most of his works – even though he had taught theology at Oxford – were on scientific subjects such as light (around which mush of this thinking developed) and the rainbow in particular, the generation of sound, geometry, and astronomy, as well as more generally on the liberal arts (which is how I became interested in his work).
The importance of Grosseteste as a pioneer of modern scientific thinking is now being recognised as mediaevalists, scientists and even theologians collaborate in the prize-winning Ordered Universe Project to produce a new edition of his treatises to be published by Oxford University Press, using all their skills together in a sort of academic archaeology to unearth the real meaning and message of his work. It’s a most exciting adventure, and you can follow its progress at https://ordered-universe.com/.
At the heart of Grosseteste’s integration as a Christian bishop of faith and science is the belief that the universe was called into being by God in a wonderfully ordered way – an order that we can still see and measure and wonder at in both scientific and spiritual ways, but an order too that has been broken as creation has turned away from its maker, most particularly by the wrong use of human free will. But his Christian faith teaches him that the same God who made the world in love also entered that world in love to begin a new work of restoration and redemption, in which we humans are invited to join. For Grosseteste joining in that work or restoration took many inter-linked forms: personal prayer of course, and the liturgy and good ordering of the church, but also and importantly education, training our understanding to see again the good order of God’s world and our desires to work towards it (aspect and affect as he would have called them). So the liberal arts and new sciences are very much part of our total work of becoming fully and properly human, as we were intended to be, and restoring the created world too to its proper order and balance.
This is a vision that we can whole-heartedly affirm today as educationalists, environmentalists and believers alike. So don’t let October 9th pass by without remembering the bishop who was perhaps our first modern scientist, and whose thinking still has the power to inspire us today.
To help in his remembrances I have gathered together a selection of prayers and readings and other liturgical material, which you will find beneath the fold.
Robert Grosseteste (meaning ‘large-head’) was born at Stradbroke in Suffolk in about 1175. He studied at Oxford and Paris and held various posts until, after a grave illness, he returned to Oxford, where he taught at the Franciscan house of studies. He became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235, then the largest English diocese, which received from him a thorough visitation soon after his arrival. He met opposition in his attempts at vigorous reforms in the shape of his dean and chapter in the cathedral at Lincoln, who saw themselves as beyond his jurisdiction. The affair was settled in 1245 when the pope issued a bull giving the bishop full power over the Chapter. Robert attended the Council of Lyons that year and also travelled to Rome a few years later. His wide-ranging interests covered mathematics, optics and many of the sciences; he translated large numbers of theological works from Greek and wrote his own theological commentaries and philosophical works. He died on this day in the year 1253. (from Exciting Holiness)
Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the true of heart. Rejoice in the Lord you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name. (Diocese of Lincoln)
Almighty God, whose servant Robert was given such great gifts by you that he was keen of heart to order the world around him for good, and keen of mind to understand and teach how order and goodness come from you, grant us also to desire all that is good, and to have the insight to learn and teach it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (DT)
Almighty God who endowed your bishop Robert Grosseteste with wisdom to unveil the wondrous things of your law, and with diligence to tend your flock: direct with your wisdom our schools of thought and science: and raise up in your church faithful pastors, to lead your people out of darkness into your own marvellous light. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive … (Diocese of Lincoln)
Almighty God, the light of the faithful and shepherd of souls, who set your servant Robert to be a bishop in the Church, to feed your sheep by the word of Christ and to guide them by good example: give us grace to keep the faith of the Church and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
God, shepherd of your people, whose servant Robert revealed the loving service of Christ in his ministry as a pastor of your people: by this eucharist in which we share awaken within us the love of Christ and keep us faithful to our Christian calling; through him who laid down his life for us, but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever. Amen. (Common Worship: Common of Saints – Pastor who is a Bishop)
A Prayer of Robert Grosseteste
God be with us through his mercy, and defend us from evil and sin, and grant us to do his will, and keep us in health, and lead us to be agreeable to the living and merciful to the dead. And may God grant us to live well and to die well, and to come to great joy. And may God be with us and grant us his grace and a good end and eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables. He serves among the great and appears before rulers; he travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot. He sets his heart on rising early to seek the Lord who made him, and to petition the Most High; he opens his mouth in prayer and asks pardon for his sins. If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer. The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries. He will show the wisdom of what he has learned, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant. Many will praise his understanding; it will never be blotted out. His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations. Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise.
1 John 1:5-2:2
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world..
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
From Grosseteste’s Theological Sayings
Jesus Christ, the Word and Wisdom of the Father, likens himself to the planting of a rose in Jericho. For, until the time of its blooming, the flower of the rose is enclosed and protected by five sepals with a rough skin cupping it close together. Furthermore, as the whole flower opens, five outer petals are first revealed next to the sepals. Again, within this first closure of five there are many circles of similar red petals but without any determinate number – sometimes more than five and sometimes less. And then, in the middle of every open flower, there are certain minute petals of a golden colour. In his flowering he gave to the eye five red petals when he allowed his body to be bloodied by the red of five wounds. The other petals of indeterminate number embraced within these five are the countless martyrs reddened by the blood of the mystical body of Christ. The golden corolla in the centre is the splendour of his Divinity. However, one might interpret “Jericho” as a symbol of the moon, or an eclipse. This Rose, therefore, was planted in Jericho when he was nailed to the cross and disappeared through death as if in eclipse. He was eclipsed, and so was the faith of all except the Blessed Virgin; but in her, who is beautiful as the moon, this Rose was planted for the firmness of her faith. Truly, if the heat of prayer should rise from the fire of loving-kindness to this Rose, it will be distilled into the unclouded water of grace; and when the diseased eye of the mind is washed in this water, it will gain the strength to see the light of his Divinity. (Bishop Grosseteste University)
From the Prologue to the Middle English version of Grosseteste’s treatise on the Liberal Arts
Glorious and marvellous God, in all his works the true craft of wisdom of the father of heaven, who in the beginning being before all creatures, as Scripture witnesses, made all creatures from nothing, and man according to the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, putting him in so high and great dignity, endowed him with such great gifts both in body and in soul, and in so merry and pleasant a place as paradise, that he could not have been put in a more cheerful place until he should attain to the very sight of the Godhead, so that the body was whole and not corrupt and did not trouble the soul, for the law of the flesh was not contrary to the law of the soul, but rather his outer and inner wits submitted to reason, reason to his will, and his will to God alone. This was called our state of righteousness: and, in order to teach this with a figure, man is made of the right stature in body that he should also be in his soul. But our first father, thus put in so great a grace when he was in honour and worship did not understand it, and disobeying the commandment of his maker, had a grievous fall both in the works of his soul and of his body, so that the light of his understanding was made dark by ignorance, and his desire in will and affection did not come to its due term or else passed without moderation its due term and end, and also the motive power of his body was made feeble and imperfect through the corruption of the clog of his flesh. Wherefore the Lord of all power, and God of all knowledge, the very wisdom of the father, considering the foul fall in both original and actual sin ordained a remedy when the fullness of time came, as Saint Paul says, and cut out from his passion seven pillars, that is to say, seven sacraments, washing away by them both original and actual sin. And before this time he cut out of the great treasure of his wisdom another seven pillars, the seven special sciences to help man direct himself in his works and to purge all errors, for that is the office of the seven liberal sciences, as Lincoln says, to correct a man’s operations and to lead them from error to perfection; the works that are in man’s power, they are in the knowledge of his reason and understanding or in the affection and desire of his will or in bodily motions or in bodily desires.
And now we give you thanks because you enrich humanity with people of sound learning and a zeal for new discovery, by whom our eyes are opened to the wonders of your creation, and our hearts are opened to the yet more marvellous operations of your redemption in Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore with angels …
Christ who is the light of the world shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path; and the blessing …