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X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford

§ 16. Robert Grosseteste and the Franciscans

The Franciscan friars of 1224 were well received by the university, and, in those early times, were on excellent terms with the secular clergy. They were men of cheerful temper, and possessed the courtesy and charm that comes from sympathy. From Eccleston’s account of the coming of the Friars Minor we learn that, “as Oxford was the principal place of study in England, where the whole body (or universitas) of scholars was wont to congregate, Friar Agnellus (the provincial Head of the Order) caused a school of sufficiently decent appearance to be built on the site where the Friars had settled, and induced Robert Grosseteste of holy memory to lecture to them there; under him they made extraordinary progress in sermons, as well as in subtle moral themes suitable for preaching,” and continued to do so until “he was transferred by Divine Providence from the lecturer’s chair to the episcopal see.” He was already interested in them about 1225; and, it was, possibly, before 1231 that he was appointed their lecturer. He was then more than fifty years of age, not a friar, but a secular priest, and one of the most influential men in Oxford. To the friars he was much more then a lecturer; he was their sympathetic friend and adviser, and, after he had become bishop of Lincoln in 1235, he repeatedly commended the zeal, piety and usefulness of their order. About 1238, he wrote in praise of them to Gregory IX: “Your Holiness may be assured that in England inestimable benefits have been produced by the Friars; they illuminate the whole land by their preaching and learning.”

Grosseteste, a native of Stradbroke in Suffolk, was educated at Oxford. It is often stated that he also studied in Paris; but of this there is no contemporary evidence. It is true that, as bishop of Lincoln, he writes to the regents in theology at Oxford, recommending them to abide by the system of lecturing adopted by the regents in theology in Paris, but he says nothing of Paris in connection with his own education. While he was still at Oxford he held an office corresponding to that of the chancellor in Paris, but he was not allowed by the then bishop of Lincoln to assume any higher title than that of Magister Scholarum. At Oxford he prepared commentaries on some of the logical treatises of Aristotle, and on the Physics, and a translation of the Ethics, which appeared about 1244, was known under his name. He himself produced a Latin rendering of the “middle recension of” the Epistles of Ignatius, beside commenting on Dionysius the Areopagite, and causing a translation to be made of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Greek MS. of which (now in the Cambridge Library) had been brought from Athens by his archdeacon, John of Basingstoke. In his Compendium Scientiarum he classified all the departments of knowledge recognised in his day. The printed list of his works extends over twenty-five quarto pages; it includes treatises on theology, essays on philosophy, a practical work on husbandry. Perhaps the most interesting of his works is a poem in 1757 lines in praise of the Virgin and Son, an exquisite allegory called the Chateau d’Amour, originally written in “romance” for those who had ne letture ne clergie, and soon translated from French into Latin, and ultimately into English. Robert de Brunne, in his translation of the Manuel des Pechiez, tells us of the bishop’s love for the music of the harp.

In the opinion of Luard, the editor of his Letters, “probably no one has had a greater influence upon English thought and English literature for the two centuries that followed his age.” Wyclif ranks him even above Aristotle, and Gower calls him “the grete clerc.” Apart from his important position as a patriot, a reformer and a statesman, and as a friend of Simon de Montfort, he gave, in the words of his latest biographer, F. S. Stevenson, “a powerful impulse to almost every department of intellectual activity, revived the study of neglected languages and grasped the central idea of the unity of knowledge.” One of the earliest leaders of thought in Oxford, a promoter of Greek learning, and an interpreter of Aristotle, he went far beyond his master in the experimental knowledge of the physical sciences. Roger Bacon lauds his knowledge of science, and he is probably referring to Grosseteste when he says that no lectures on optics “have as yet been given in Paris, or anywhere else among the Latins, except twice at Oxford.” Matthew Paris, who resented his zeal for the reform of the monasteries, generously pays the following tribute to his memory:

  • Thus the saintly … bishop of Lincoln passed away from the exile of this world, which he never loved.… He had been the rebuker of pope and king, the corrector of bishops, the reformer of monks, the director of priests, the instructor of clerks, the patron of scholars, the preacher of the people, … the careful student of the Scriptures, the hammer and the contemner of the Romans. At the table of bodily food, he was liberal, courteous and affable: at the table of spiritual food, devout, tearful and penitent: as a prelate, sedulous, venerable and never weary in well-doing.