Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon

Bornc. 1219/20[n 1]
near Ilchester, Somerset, England
Diedc. 1292[2][3] (aged about 72)
near Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
Alma materUniversity of Oxford
EraMedieval philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests
Natural philosophy
Notable ideas
Experimental science

Roger Bacon OFM (ən/;[6] Latin: Rogerus or Rogerius Baconus, Baconis, also Frater Rogerus; c. 1219/20 – c. 1292), also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis, was a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism. In the early modern era, he was regarded as a wizard and particularly famed for the story of his mechanical or necromantic brazen head. He is sometimes credited (mainly since the 19th century) as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method inspired by Aristotle and by Alhazen.[7]

His linguistic work has been heralded for its early exposition of a universal grammar. However, more recent re-evaluations emphasise that Bacon was essentially a medieval thinker, with much of his "experimental" knowledge obtained from books in the scholastic tradition.[8] He was, however, partially responsible for a revision of the medieval university curriculum, which saw the addition of optics to the traditional quadrivium.[9] A survey of how Bacon's work was received over the centuries found that it often reflected the concerns and controversies that were central to his readers.[10]

Bacon's major work, the Opus Majus, was sent to Pope Clement IV in Rome in 1267 upon the pope's request. Although gunpowder was first invented and described in China, Bacon was the first in Europe to record its formula.


The memorial to Roger Bacon at St Mary Major, Ilchester

Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester in Somerset, England, in the early 13th century, although his date of birth is sometimes narrowed down to c. 1210,[11] "1213 or 1214",[12] or "1215".[13] However, modern scholars tend to argue for the date of c. 1220, but there are disagreements on this.[11] The only source for his birth date is a statement from his 1267 Opus Tertium that "forty years have passed since I first learned the Alphabetum".[14] The latest dates assume this referred to the alphabet itself, but elsewhere in the Opus Tertium it is clear that Bacon uses the term to refer to rudimentary studies, the trivium or quadrivium that formed the medieval curriculum.[15] His family appears to have been well off.[16]

Bacon studied at Oxford.[n 2] While Robert Grosseteste had probably left shortly before Bacon's arrival, his work and legacy almost certainly influenced the young scholar[11] and it is possible Bacon subsequently visited him and William of Sherwood in Lincoln.[18] Bacon became a master at Oxford, lecturing on Aristotle. There is no evidence he was ever awarded a doctorate. (The title Doctor Mirabilis was posthumous and figurative.) A caustic cleric named Roger Bacon is recorded speaking before the king at Oxford in 1233.[19]

A diorama of Bacon presenting one of his works to the chancellors of Paris University

In 1237 or at some point in the following decade, he accepted an invitation to teach at the University of Paris.[20] While there, he lectured on Latin grammar, Aristotelian logic, arithmetic, geometry, and the mathematical aspects of astronomy and music.[21] His faculty colleagues included Robert Kilwardby, Albertus Magnus, and Peter of Spain,[22] the future Pope John XXI.[23] The Cornishman Richard Rufus was a scholarly opponent.[21] In 1247 or soon after, he left his position in Paris.[23]

A 19th-century engraving of Bacon observing the stars at Oxford

As a private scholar, his whereabouts for the next decade are uncertain[24] but he was likely in Oxford c. 1248–1251, where he met Adam Marsh, and in Paris in 1251.[21] He seems to have studied most of the known Greek and Arabic works on optics[22] (then known as "perspective", perspectiva). A passage in the Opus Tertium states that at some point he took a two-year break from his studies.[14]

By the late 1250s, resentment against the king's preferential treatment of his émigré Poitevin relatives led to a coup and the imposition of the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster, instituting a baronial council and more frequent parliaments. Pope Urban IV absolved the king of his oath in 1261 and, after initial abortive resistance, Simon de Montfort led a force, enlarged due to recent crop failures, that prosecuted the Second Barons' War. Bacon's own family were considered royal partisans:[25] De Montfort's men seized their property[n 3] and drove several members into exile.[2]

Wellcome Library, oil
Ernest Board's portrayal of Bacon in his observatory at Merton College

In 1256 or 1257, he became a friar in the Franciscan Order in either Paris or Oxford, following the example of scholarly English Franciscans such as Grosseteste and Marsh.[21] After 1260, Bacon's activities were restricted by a statute prohibiting the friars of his order from publishing books or pamphlets without prior approval.[26] He was likely kept at constant menial tasks to limit his time for contemplation[27] and came to view his treatment as an enforced absence from scholarly life.[21]

By the mid-1260s, he was undertaking a search for patrons who could secure permission and funding for his return to Oxford.[27] For a time, Bacon was finally able to get around his superiors' interference through his acquaintance with Guy de Foulques, bishop of Narbonne, cardinal of Sabina, and the papal legate who negotiated between England's royal and baronial factions.[25]

In 1263 or 1264, a message garbled by Bacon's messenger, Raymond of Laon, led Guy to believe that Bacon had already completed a summary of the sciences. In fact, he had no money to research, let alone copy, such a work and attempts to secure financing from his family were thwarted by the Second Barons' War. However, in 1265, Guy was summoned to a conclave at Perugia that elected him Pope Clement IV.[28] William Benecor, who had previously been the courier between Henry III and the pope, now carried the correspondence between Bacon and Clement.[28] Clement's reply of 22 June 1266 commissioned "writings and remedies for current conditions", instructing Bacon not to violate any standing "prohibitions" of his order but to carry out his task in utmost secrecy.[28]

While faculties of the time were largely limited to addressing disputes on the known texts of Aristotle, Clement's patronage permitted Bacon to engage in a wide-ranging consideration of the state of knowledge in his era.[21] In 1267 or '68, Bacon sent the Pope his Opus Majus, which presented his views on how to incorporate Aristotelian logic and science into a new theology, supporting Grosseteste's text-based approach against the "sentence method" then fashionable.[21]

Bacon also sent his Opus Minus, De Multiplicatione Specierum,[29] De Speculis Comburentibus, an optical lens,[21] and possibly other works on alchemy and astrology.[29][n 4] The entire process has been called "one of the most remarkable single efforts of literary productivity", with Bacon composing referenced works of around a million words in about a year.[30]

Pope Clement died in 1268 and Bacon lost his protector. The Condemnations of 1277 banned the teaching of certain philosophical doctrines, including deterministic astrology. Some time within the next two years, Bacon was apparently imprisoned or placed under house arrest. This was traditionally ascribed to Franciscan Minister General Jerome of Ascoli, probably acting on behalf of the many clergy, monks, and educators attacked by Bacon's 1271 Compendium Studii Philosophiae.[2]

Modern scholarship, however, notes that the first reference to Bacon's "imprisonment" dates from eighty years after his death on the charge of unspecified "suspected novelties"[31][32] and finds it less than credible.[33] Contemporary scholars who do accept Bacon's imprisonment typically associate it with Bacon's "attraction to contemporary prophesies",[34] his sympathies for "the radical 'poverty' wing of the Franciscans",[33] interest in certain astrological doctrines,[35] or generally combative personality[32] rather than from "any scientific novelties which he may have proposed".[33]

Sometime after 1278, Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies[36] and is presumed to have spent most of the remainder of his life. His last dateable writing—the Compendium Studii Theologiae—was completed in 1292.[2] He seems to have died shortly afterwards and been buried at Oxford.[3]