The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford

§ 18. Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon, a native of Ilchester, was the most brilliant representative of the Franciscan order in Oxford. He there attended the lectures of Edmund Rich of Abingdon, who had studied in Paris, who could preach in French and who was possibly himself the French translator of his principal Lating work, the Speculum Ecclesiae. Rich was the first in Roger Bacon’s day to expound the Sophistici Elenchi at Oxford. It was probably under the influence of Grosseteste and Marsh that Bacon entered the Franciscan order, a society which, doubtless, had its attractions for his studious temperament. He is said to have been ordained in 1233. Before 1245 he left Oxford for Pairs. He there distinguished himself as a teacher; but he had little sympathy with the scholasticism of the day, and he accordingly returned to England about 1250.

In the order of St. Francis there was room for freedom of thought, no less than for mystic devotion; but, some seven years later, so soon as the party of the mystics was represented in the new general of that body, Bacon fell under suspicion for his liberal opinions, and, by command of the “seraphic” Bonaventura, was sent to Paris and there kept in strict seclusion for ten years (1257–67). He probably owned his partial release to the good-will of Clement IV, who had heard of the studies of the Franciscan friar before his own elevation to the papal see, and, by a letter written at Viterbo on 22 June, 1266, drew him from his obscurity and neglect by pressing him for an account of his researches. Thereupon, in the wonderfully brief space of some eighteen months, the grateful and enthusiastic student wrote three memorable works, the Opus Majus, the Opus Minus and the Opus Tertium (1267). These were followed by his Compendium Studii Philosophiae (1271–2), and by a Greak Grammar of uncertain date. In his Compendium, he had attacked the clergy and the monastic orders and the scholastic pedants of the day; and, by a chapter of the Franciscans help in Paris in 1278 he was, on these and, doubtless, other grounds, condemned for “certain suspected novelties” of opinion. Accordingly, he was once more placed under restraint; but he had again been released before writing his Compendium Studii Theologiae (1292). At Oxford he died, and was buried among the Friars Minor, probably in 1294.

Before entering the order, he had written nothing on science; and, after his admission, he came under the rule that no friar should be permitted the use of writing materials, or enjoy the liberty of publishing his work, without the previous approval of his superiors. The penalty was the confiscation of the work, with many days of fasting on bread and water. He had only written a few “chapters on various subjects at the request of his friends.” Possibly, he is here referring to the pages on the secret works of nature and art, on Greek fire, on gunpowder and on the properties, of the magnet, on which he had discoursed in letters addressed either to William of Auvergne (d. 1248), or to John of Basingstoke (d. 1252). He was surrounded with difficulties; he found philosophy and theology neglected in the interests of civil law, and despised under the delusion that the world knew enough of them already. He had spend forty years in the study of the sciences and languages, and during the first twenty years specially devoted by him to the attainment of fuller knowledge (possibly before joining a medicant order), he had expended large sums on his learned pursuits. None would now lend him any money to meet the expense of preparing his works for the pope, and he could not persuade any one that there was the slightest use in science. Thankful, however, for the pope’s interest in his studies, he set to work with enthusiasm and delight, though he was strictly bound by the vow of poverty, and had now nothing of his own to spend on his literary and scientific labours.

His principal works, beginning with the three prepared for the pope, are as follows: The Opus Majus, which remained unknown until its publication by Samuel Jebb in 1733. It has since been recognised as the Encyclopèdie and the Organon of the thirteenth century. It is divided into seven parts: (1) the cause of human ignorance; (2) the connection between philosophy and theology; (3) the study of language; (4) mathematical science; (5) physics (especially optics); (6) experimental science; and (7) moral philosophy. The part on language was preserved in an imperfect form; that on moral philosophy was omitted in Jebb’s edition.

The Opus Minus was first published by John Sherren Brewer in 1859 (with portions of the Opus Tertium and the Compendium Studii Philosophiae). It was written partly to elucidate certain points in the Opus Majus, partly to meet the risk of the earlier treatise failing to reach its destination. It enters more fully into an examination of the schoolmen; it exposes the pretensions of the Franciscan Alexander of Hales, and of an unnamed Dominican. It recapitulates the passages in the previous work which the author deems specially important, and discusses the six great errors that stand in the way of the studies of Latin Christendom, namely (1) the subjection of theology to philosophy; (2) the general ignorance of science; (3) implicit trust in the dicta of the earlier schoolmen; (4) exaggerated respect for the lecturers on the Sentences, in comparison with the expounders of the text of the Scriptures; (5) mistakes in the Vulgate; (6) errors in the spiritural interpretation of Scripture due to ignorance of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, archaeology and natural history, and those due to misunderstanding of the hidden meaning of the Word of God. After a break, there next follows a comparison between the opinions of French and English naturalists on the elementary principles of matter, and, after a second break, an account of the various metals. Only a fragment, equivalent to some 80 pages of print, has been preserved in a single MS. in the Bodleian.

The Opus Tertium, though written later, is intended to serve as an introduction to the two previous works. In the first twenty chapters we have an account of the writer’s personal history, his opinions on education, and on the impediments thrown in its way by the ignorance, prejudice, contempt, carelessness and indifference of his contemporaries. He next reverts to points that had been either omitted or inadequately explained in his earlier writings. After a digression on vacuum, motion and space, he dwells on the utility of mathematics, geography, chronology and geometry, adding remarks on accents and aspirates, and on punctuation, metre, and rhythm. A subsequent defence of mathematics, with an excursus on the reform of the calendar, leads to a discourse on chanting and on preaching.

The above three works, even in their incomplete form, fill as many as 1344 pages of print. It was these three that were completed in the brief interval of eighteen months.

The Compendium Studii Philosophiae, imperfectly preserved in a single MS. in the British Museum, begins with reflections on the beauty and utility of wisdom. The impediments to its progress are subsequently considered, and the causes of human error investigated. The author criticises the current Latin grammars and lexicons, and urges the importance of the study of Hebrew, adding as many as thirteen reasons for the study of Greek, followed by an introduction to Greek grammar.

The above is only the beginning of an encyclopaedic work on logic, mathematics, physics, metaphysics and ethics. The part on physics is alone preserved, and extracts from that part have been printed.

The Greek Grammar may be conveniently placed after the above Compendium, and before the next. The author’s knowledge of Greek was mainly derived from the Greeks of his own day, probably from some of the Greek teachers invited to England by Grosseteste. He invariably adopts the late Byzantine pronunciation; and, in his general treatment of grammar he follows the Byzantine tradition. This work was first published by the Cambridge University Press in 1902.

The Compendium Studii Theologiae, Bacon’s latest work, deals with causes of error, and also with logic and grammar in reference to theology. The above parts are extant in an imperfect form, and only extracts from them have been printed from a MS. in the British Museum. A “fifth part,” on optics, is preserved in a nearly complete condition in the same library.

Roger Bacon was the earliest of the natural philosophers of western Europe. In opposition to the physicists of Paris, he urged that “enquiry should begin with the simplest objects of science, and rise gradually to the higher and higher,” every observation being controlled by experiment. In science he was at least a century in advance of his time; and, in spite of the long and bitter persecutions that he endured, he was full of hope for the future. He has been described by Diderot as “one of the most surprising geniuses that nature had ever produced, and one of the most unfortunate of men.” He left no disciple. His unknown grave among the tombs of the Friars Minor was marked by no monument; a tower, traditionally known as “Friar Bacon’s Study,” stood, until 1779, on the old Grand Pont (the present Folly Bridge) of Oxford. The fact that he had revived the study of mathematics was recorded by an anonymous writer about 1370. A long passage in his Opus Majus, on the distance between the extreme east and west of the habitable globe, inserted (without mention of its source) in the Imago Mundi of Pierre d’Ailly, was thence quoted by Columbus in 1498 as one of the authorities that had prompted him to venture on his great voyages of discovery. Meanwhile, in popular repute, Friar Bacon was regarded only as an alchemist and a necromancer. During the three centuries subsequent to his dealth, only four of his minor works, those on Alchemy, on the Power of Art and Nature and on the Cure of Old Age, were published in 1485–1590. Like Vergil, he was reputed to have used a “glass prospective” of wondrous power, and, like others in advance of their times, such as Gerbert of Aurillac, Albertus Magnus and Grosseteste, to have constructed a “brazen head” that possessed a faculty of speech. The popular legend was embodied in The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, in Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1587) and in Terilo’s satire of 1604. At Frankfurt, the parts of the Opus Majus dealing with mathematics and optics were published in 1614; but a hundred and twenty years passed before a large portion of the remainder was published in England (1733), and the same interval of time preceded the first appearance of the Opera Inedita (1859). The seventh part of the Opus Majus, that on moral philosophy, was not printed until 1897. But the rehabilitation of Roger Bacon, begun by Brewer in 1859, had, happily, meanwhile been independently completed by Émile Charles in 1861

Friar Bacon is associated in legend with Friar Bungay, or Thomas de Bungay (in Suffolk), who exemplifies the close connection between the Franciscan order and the eastern counties. Bungay lectured to the Franciscans at Oxford, and afterwards at Cambridge, where he was placed at the head of the Franciscan convent. As head of the order in England, he was succeeded (c. 1275) by John Peckham, who had studied at Paris under Bonaventura, had joined the Franciscans at Oxford and was archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 to 1292. At Oxford, a number of grammatical, logical, philosophical and theological doctrines taught by the Dominicans, and already condemned by the Dominican archbishop, Robert Kilwardby (1276), a Master of Arts of Paris, famous as a commentator on Priscian, were condemned once more by the Franciscan archbishop, Peckham (1284). Thomas Aquinas had held, with Aristotle, that the individualising principle was not form but matter—an opinion which was regarded as inconsistent with the medieval theory of the future state. This opinion, disapproved by Kilwardby, was attacked in 1284 by William de la Mare, probably an Englishman, possibly an Oxonian, certainly a Franciscan. Both of them may have owed something to Roger Bacon. They were certainly among the precursors of the type of realism represented by Duns Scotus, the Doctor subtilis.