Order of Friars Minor
Statue of Roger Bacon
in the Oxford University Museum
|Other names||Doctor Mirabilis|
|Organization||Order of Friars Minor|
Roger Bacon, OFM (c. 1214 – c. 1292), also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for "wonderful teacher"), was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods. He is sometimes credited (mainly since the nineteenth century) as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method inspired by Aristotle and later scholars such as the Arab or Persian scientist Alhazen. However, more recent re-evaluations emphasise that he was essentially a medieval thinker, with much of his "experimental" knowledge obtained from books in the scholastic tradition. 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.
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, 1213 or 1214, to 1214 or 1215, or c. 1220, the only source for his birthdate is a statement from the 1267 Opus Tertium that "forty years have passed since I first learned the Alphabetum". 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. Further, the number forty was used in Medieval Latin as a synonym for many, making any precision impossible.
His family appears to have been well-off, but during the stormy reign of Henry III of England their property was seized and several family members driven into exile. Bacon studied at Oxford and may have been a disciple of Grosseteste. He 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. Sometime between 1237 and 1245, he began lecturing at the University of Paris, then the centre of European intellectual life. Where he was between 1247 and 1256 is unknown, but about 1256 he became a friar in the Franciscan Order, and no longer held a teaching post. The passage in the Opus Tertium discussing his age further states that at some point, he took two years apart from his studies. After 1260, his activities were restricted by a Franciscan statute prohibiting friars from publishing books or pamphlets without prior approval.
Bacon circumvented this through his acquaintance with Guy le Gros, Cardinal de Foulques, who became Pope Clement IV in 1265. Clement IV issued a mandate ordering Bacon to write to him concerning the place of philosophy within theology. Bacon sent the Pope his Opus Majus, which presented his views on how to incorporate the philosophy of Aristotle and science into a new Theology. Bacon also sent his Opus Minus, De Multiplicatione Specierum, and possibly other works on alchemy and astrology.
Pope Clement died in 1268 and Bacon lost his protector. The Condemnations of 1277 banned the teaching of certain philosophical doctrines, including deterministic astrology. Sometime 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. Modern scholarship
At some point after 1278, Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies and is presumed to have spent most of the rest of his life. His last dateable writing—the Compendium Studii Theologiae—was completed in 1292. He seems to have died shortly thereafter and been buried at Oxford.
Medieval European philosophy often relied on appeals to the authority of Church Fathers such as St Augustine and on works by Plato and Aristotle only known at second hand or through (sometimes highly inaccurate) Latin translations. By the 13th century, new works and better versions—in Arabic or in new Latin translations from the Arabic—began to trickle north from Muslim Spain. In Roger Bacon's writings, he upholds Aristotle's calls for the collection of facts before deducting scientific truths against the practices of his contemporaries, arguing that "thence cometh quiet to the mind".
With regard to theology, Bacon also called for reform. He argued that, rather than training to debate minor philosophical distinctions, theologians should focus their attention primarily on the Bible itself, learning the languages of its original sources thoroughly. He was fluent in several and was able to note and bemoan several corruptions of scripture and the works of the Greek philosophers that had been mistranslated or misinterpreted by scholars working in Latin. He also argued for the education of theologians in science ("natural philosophy") and its addition to the medieval curriculum.
In his Opus Majus, Bacon criticises his contemporaries Alexander of Hales and Albertus Magnus, who were held in high repute despite having only acquired their knowledge of Aristotle at second hand during their preaching careers. Albert was received at Paris as an authority equal to Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroës, a situation Bacon decried: "never in the world [had] such monstrosity occurred before."
In Part IV of the Opus Majus, Bacon proposed a calendrical reform similar to the later system introduced in 1582 under Pope Gregory XIII. Drawing on ancient Greek and medieval Islamic astronomy recently introduced to western Europe via Spain, Bacon continued the work of Robert Grosseteste and criticized the then-current Julian calendar as "intolerable, horrible, and laughable". It had become apparent that Eudoxus and Sosigenes's assumption of a year of 365¼ days was, over the course of centuries, too inexact. Bacon charged that this meant the computation of Easter had shifted forward by 9 days since the 325 Council of Nicaea. His proposal to drop one day every 125 years and to cease the observance of fixed equinoxes and solstices was not acted upon following the untimely death of Pope Clement IV in 1268. The eventual Gregorian calendar drops one day from the first three centuries in each set of 400 years.
In Part V of the Opus Majus, Bacon discusses the physiology of eyesight and the anatomy of the eye and the brain, considering light, distance, position, and size, direct and reflected vision, refraction, mirrors, and lenses. His treatment was primarily oriented by the Latin translation of Alhazen's Book of Optics. He also draws heavily on Eugene of Palermo's Latin translation of the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Optics; on Robert Grosseteste's work based on Al-Kindi's Optics;  and, though Alhazen, on Ibn Sahl's work on dioptrics.
In his own writings of 1260–1280 Bacon cited Secretum secretorum, which he attributed to Aristotle, far more than his contemporaries did. Often used as an argument for the special influence that this work had on Bacon's own is the manuscript of Secretum that Bacon edited, complete with his own introduction and notes, something Bacon seldom did with others' works. Although some early 20th century scholars like Robert Steele have pushed further along this path, arguing that Bacon's contact with the Secretum was a turning point in Bacon's philosophy, transforming him into an experimentalist, there is no clear reference to such a decisive impact of the Secretum in Bacon's own words. The dating of Bacon's edition of the Secretum is a key argument in this debate, but is still unresolved, with those arguing for a greater impact dating it earlier than those who urge caution in this interpretation.
The cryptic Voynich manuscript has been attributed to Bacon by various sources, including by its first recorded owner, in a book drafted by William Romaine Newbold and posthumously edited and published by Roland Grubb Kent in 1928, and in a 2005 book of Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone published by Doubleday and Broadway Books. In strongly worded terms, historians of science Lynn Thorndike and George Sarton have dismissed these claims as unsupported. (The vellum of the Manuscript has since been dated to the first part of the 15th century.)
Another work of contentious date and even origin is the Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae (meaning Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature, and on the Vanity of Magic), sometimes alternatively entitled De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae (On the Wonderful Powers of Art and Nature). This treatise dismisses magical practices like necromancy, and contains most of the alchemical work attributed to Bacon, chiefly a formula for philosopher's stone, and perhaps one for gunpowder. It also contains a number of passages about hypothetical flying machines and (what we today call) submarines, attributing their first use to Alexander the Great.
Bacon is also the ascribed author of the alchemical manual Speculum Alchemiae, which was translated into English as The Mirror of Alchimy in 1597. It is a short treatise about the composition and origin of metals, espousing "conventional" (with respect to the period) Arabian theories of mercury and sulphur as the constituents of metals, and containing vague allusions to transmutation. About this work, John Maxson Stillman wrote that "there is nothing in it that is characteristic of Roger Bacon's style or ideas, nor that distinguishes it from many unimportant alchemical lucubrations of anonymous writers of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries". M. M. Pattison Muir had a similar opinion, and Edmund Oscar von Lippmann considered this text a pseudepigraph.
Bacon is often considered the first European to describe a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder. Based on two passages from Bacon's Opus Majus and Opus Tertium, extensively analysed by J. R. Partington, several scholars cited by Joseph Needham concluded that Bacon had most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, possibly obtained with the intermediation of other Franciscans, like his friend William of Rubruck, who had visited the Mongols.[n 1] The most telling passage reads: "We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children's toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e. a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre [together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."
More controversial are the claims originating with Royal Artillery colonel Henry William Lovett Hime (at the beginning of the 20th century) that a cryptogram existed in Bacon's Epistola, giving the ratio of ingredients of the mixture. These were published, among other places, in the 1911 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. An early critic of this claim was Lynn Thorndike, starting with a letter in the 1915 edition of the journal Science, and repeated in several books of his. M. M. Pattison Muir also expressed his doubts on Hime's theory, and they were echoed by John Maxson Stillman. Robert Steele and George Sarton also joined the critics. Needham concurred with these earlier critics in their opinion that the additional passage does not originate with Bacon. In any case, the proportions claimed to have been deciphered (7:5:5 saltpetre:charcoal:sulfur) are not even useful for stuffing firecrackers, burning slowly while producing mostly smoke, and failing to ignite inside a gun barrel. The ~41% nitrate content is too low to have explosive properties.
In the early modern period, Bacon gained a reputation as the epitome of a wise and subtle possessor of forbidden knowledge, a Faust-like magician who had tricked the devil and so was able to go to heaven. Of these legends, one of the most prominent was that he created a brazen talking head which could answer any question. The most famous account of Bacon from this point of view is Robert Greene's late sixteenth-century Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.[n 2]
In the 19th century, it was a widely held interpretation that Bacon was a modern experimental scientist who had emerged before his time. This reflected two prevalent views of the period: an emphasis upon experiment as the principal form of scientific activity and a general acceptance of the characterisation of the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages".[n 3] Some writers of the period carried this account further. In this view, which is still reflected in some 21st-century popular science books, Bacon would be an advocate of modern experimental science who somehow emerged as an isolated figure in an age supposed to be hostile toward scientific ideas. He was also presented as a visionary; for instance, Frederick Mayer wrote that Bacon predicted the invention of the submarine, automobile, and aircraft.
However, in the course of the 20th century, the philosophical understanding of the role of experiment in the sciences was substantially modified. Starting with works of Pierre Duhem, Raoul Carton, and Lynn Thorndike, it is argued that Bacon's advocacy of scientia experimentalis differed from modern experimental science. New historical research has also shown that medieval Western Christians were not generally opposed to scientific investigation[n 4] and has revealed the extent and variety of medieval science. In fact, many medieval sources of, and influences on, Bacon's scientific activity have been identified. For instance, Bacon's idea that inductively derived conclusions should be submitted for further experimental testing is very much like Robert Grosseteste's 'Method of Verification', and Bacon's work on optics and the calendar also followed the lines of inquiry of Grosseteste. Bacon praised Peter of Maricourt (the author of "A Letter on Magnetism") and John of London as "perfect" mathematicians and Campanus of Novara (the author of works on astronomy, astrology, and the calendar) and a Master Nicholas as "good"; he often mentioned his debt to the work of Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh, as well as lesser figures. He was clearly not an isolated genius.
As a result, the picture of Bacon has changed. One recent study summarised that: "Bacon was not a modern, out of step with his age, or a harbinger of things to come, but a brilliant, combative, and somewhat eccentric schoolman of the thirteenth century, endeavoring to take advantage of the new learning just becoming available while remaining true to traditional notions... of the importance to be attached to philosophical knowledge". Thus, rather than being isolated, Bacon is now seen as a leading figure in the beginnings of medieval universities at Paris and Oxford, among other contemporary exponents of this shift in the philosophy of science (as we call it today), including Grosseteste (who preceded Bacon), William of Auvergne, Henry of Ghent, Albert Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham.
As to the alleged persecution, the first known reference to an imprisonment originates around eighty years after Bacon's death. It says the order was given by the head of the Franciscans because of unspecified "suspected novelties".[n 5][n 6] However, the fact that no earlier report has been found drives scepticism over the assertion. Moreover, current historians of science who see an incarceration as plausible typically do not connect it with Bacon's scientific writings. Instead, if it happened, scholars speculate that his troubles resulted from such things as his sympathies for radical Franciscans,[n 7] attraction to contemporary prophecies, or interest in certain astrological doctrines. Bacon's personality has also been mentioned as a factor.
A recent review of the many visions that each age has held about Roger Bacon says contemporary scholarship still neglects one of the most important aspects of his life and thought: the commitment to the Franciscan order. "His Opus maius was a plea for reform addressed to the supreme spiritual head of the Christian faith, written against a background of apocalyptic expectation and informed by the driving concerns of the friars. It was designed to improve training for missionaries and to provide new skills to be employed in the defence of the Christian world against the enmity of non-Christians and of the Antichrist. It cannot usefully be read solely in the context of the history of science and philosophy."
In popular culture
To commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of Bacon's approximate birth, Prof. J. Erskine wrote the biographical play A Pageant of the Thirteenth Century, which was performed and published by Columbia University in 1914. A fictionalized account of Bacon's life and times appears in James Blish's 1964 novel Doctor Mirabilis, the second book of his After Such Knowledge trilogy. Blish portrays Bacon's struggle to develop a 'Universal Science'; his view is uncompromisingly that Bacon was the first scientist, and he provides a postscript to the novel in which he sets forth these views. Central to his depiction of Roger Bacon is that 'He was not an inventor, an Edison or Luther Burbank, holding up a test tube with a shout of Eureka!' He was instead a theoretical scientist probing fundamental realities, and his visions of modern technology were just by-products of "...the way he normally thought – the theory of theories as tools..." Blish indicates where Bacon's writings, for example, consider Newtonian metrical frameworks for space, then reject these for something which reads remarkably like Einsteinian Relativity, and all '...breathtakingly without pause or hiccup, breezily moving without any recourse through over 800 years of physics'.
Bacon also appears as first scientist in The Black Rose, the most commercially successful book by Thomas Costain, written in 1945. The Black Rose is set in the Middle Ages. Bacon's personal presence in the narrative is brief, but includes a demonstration of gunpowder and a few sentences outlining a philosophy of science which might as easily be attributed to Francis Bacon centuries later. The novel's Roger Bacon serves to motivate Costain's protagonist, a fictional Englishman who journeys to China during the reigns of Edward I and Kublai Khan. Costain's narration includes technology such as the compass, the telescope, rockets and the manufacture of paper, all described by his young adventurer with an eye toward bringing these marvels back to Bacon for analysis. Returning to England to find Bacon gone and under house arrest, the traveller begs King Edward to intercede with the pope for the Franciscan's release, arguing that with Bacon's imprisonment a great light of the world is in danger of being put out. Costain's character also comes to argue for emancipation of the Saxon villeins (serfs), linking political with intellectual enlightenment under the fictional Bacon's influence.
In Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, the story follows the investigations of William of Baskerville, presented as an anachronistically empiricist contemporary and colleague of Roger Bacon who often quotes his late friend when explaining his own methods. Bacon is also a friend of the main character in John Bellairs's The Face in the Frost. In Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business (1970), "The Brazen Head of Friar Bacon" answers audience questions as part of Magnus Eisengrim's magic show.
Roger Bacon is a supporting character in the Shadow Hearts video game series. He is portrayed as a scientist and magician who became immortal and is now over 700 years old. Bacon is also mentioned briefly in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, in a readable document found by the player when hacking into various computer systems within the game's modern day setting.
- Roger Bacon High School
- Oxford Franciscan school
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- Europeans were prompted by all this to take a closer interest in happenings far to the east. Four years after the invasion of 1241, the pope sent an ambassador to the Great Khan's capital in Mongolia. Other travellers followed later, of whom the most interesting was William of Rubruck (or Ruysbroek). He returned in 1257, and in the following year there are reports of experiments with gunpowder and rockets at Cologne. Then a friend of William of Rubruck, Roger Bacon, gave the first account of gunpowder and its use in fireworks to be written in Europe. A form of gunpowder had been known in China since before AD 900, and as mentioned earlier...Much of this knowledge had reached the Islamic countries by then, and the saltpetre used in making gunpowder there was sometimes referred to, significantly, as 'Chinese snow'.
- Another key text promoting this image was The Famous History of Fryer Bacon, reprinted in Thomas.
- Charles Sanders Peirce noted, "To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen's conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth. He saw that experience alone teaches anything.... Of all kinds of experience, the best, he thought, was interior illumination, which teaches many things about Nature which the external senses could never discover, such as the transubstantiation of bread."
- "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities."
- The late-14th century Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals reports an imprisonment.
- "The assertion that Bacon was imprisoned (allegedly by the head of his own Franciscan order) ﬁrst originates some eighty years after his death and has drawn skepticism on these grounds alone. Scholars who ﬁnd this assertion plausible connect it with Bacon's attraction to contemporary prophecies that have nothing to do with Bacon's scientiﬁc, mathematical, or philosophical writings."
- Lindberg (p. 70): "...his imprisonment, if it occurred at all (which I doubt) probably resulted from his sympathies for the radical 'poverty' wing of the Franciscans (a wholly theological matter) rather than from any scientific novelties which he may have proposed..."
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- Hackett, Jeremiah M.G. (1980), "The Attitude of Roger Bacon to the Scientia of Albertus Magnus", Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, Studies and Texts, Vol. 49, Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, pp. 53–72, ISBN 0-88844-049-9.
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- Molland, George (1997), "Roger Bacon's Knowledge of Mathematics", Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, No. 57, Leiden: Brill, pp. 151–174, ISBN 90-04-10015-6 Unknown parameter
- North, John D. (1983), "The Western Calendar: – 'Intolerabilis, Horribilis, et Derisibilis': Four Centuries of Discontent"", Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican conference to commemorate its 400th anniversary, Vatican City: Specola Vaticana, pp. 75–113.
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- Roger Bacon entry by Jeremiah Hackett in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Roger Bacon entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Roger Bacon on Language entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- "Roger Bacon" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.
- 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia: Bacon, Roger
- Roger Bacon Quotes at Convergence
- Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera quaedam hactenus Inedita. Vol. I at Google Books. Contains the Opus Tertium, Opus Minus, and Compendium Philosophiae. Edited by John Sherren Brewer (1859).
- Roger Bacon: On Experimental Science, 1268
- O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Roger Bacon", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
- Brehm, Edmund A., ″Roger Bacon's Place in the History of Alchemy″