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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > G > Robert Grosseteste

Robert Grosseteste

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Bishop of Lincoln and one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages; b. about 1175; d. 9 October, 1253. He came from Stradbroke in the county of Suffolk. Little is known of his family, but it was certainly a poor one. His name is probably a family name. The first definite date which we can connect with his life, is that of a letter written in 1199 by Giraldus Cambrensis to recommend him to the Bishop of Hereford. Giraldus spoke of his knowledge of the liberal arts and of literature, and of his excellent character and industry. We may also gather from this letter, that he was acquainted with law and medicine. If he was in 1199 a "master" of such distinction he must have gone to the young, but already very flourishing, University of Oxford not later than 1192 or 1193. That he afterwards studied and taught theology in Paris is intrinsically probable, and is indirectly confirmed by a local tradition, by his intimacy with a number of French ecclesiastics and with the details of the Paris curriculum, and perhaps, for a man of his origin, by his knowledge of French. One of the most popular of the many writings attributed to him was a French religious romance, the "Chasteau d'Amour". He was back, however, at Oxford fairly early in the thirteenth century, and, with the possible exception of a second visit to Paris, he seems to have remained there till his election as bishop in 1235. Dignities and preferments soon began to flow in upon the most distinguished of the Oxford masters. He was for a time (the exact dates are uncertain) head of the university, either as chancellor or with the more modest title of "master of the schools". His practical abilities led to his being appointed successively to no less than four archdeaconries. He held several livings and a prebend at Lincoln. Pluralism of this kind was not uncommon in the thirteenth century, but an illness which came upon him in 1232 led to his resigning all his preferments except the Lincoln prebend. He was moved to this act mainly by a deepened religious fervour which had aroused his scruples and by a real love of poverty. In 1235 he was freely elected to the Bishopric of Lincoln, the most populous diocese in England, and he was consecrated in the abbey church of Reading, in June of the following year, by St. Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Grosseteste was a man of such varied interests and his career was so many-sided that it will be better to touch separately on his numerous activities than to attempt a chronological account of his life. His work as a teacher, a philosopher, and a man of learning, is naturally more especially connected with his Oxford career, but his episcopal duties, so zealously performed, did not diminish his scholarly interests, while the fact that Oxford was in his diocese, and in a sense under his government, kept him in the closest touch with the university. He repeatedly intervened in university affairs, settled questions of discipline and administration, and contributed to those early regulations and statutes which determined the constitution and character of Oxford. It is not easy to define exactly Grosseteste's position in the history of thirteenth century thought. Though he was from many points of view a schoolman, his interests lay rather in moral questions than in logical or metaphysical. In his lectures he laid more stress on the study of Scripture than on intellectual speculation. His real originality lay in his effort to get at the original authorities, and in his insistence on experiment in science. It was this which drew from Roger Bacon the many expressions of enthusiastic admiration which are to be found in his works. In the "Opus Tertium" he says: "No one really knew the sciences, except the Lord Robert, Bishop of Lincoln, by reason of his length of life and experience, as well as of his studiousness and zeal. He knew mathematics and perspective, and there was nothing which he was unable to know, and at the same time he was sufficiently acquainted with languages to be able to understand the saints and the philosophers and the wise men of antiquity." In theology proper we have the titles of between two and three hundred sermons and discourses of Grosseteste and of more than sixty treatises. There are commentaries on the Gospels, and on some of the books of the Old Testament, as well as an interesting collection of "Dicta", or notes for lectures and sermons. His Aristotelean studies were considerable. His commentaries on the logical works were repeatedly printed in the sixteenth century. His most valuable contributions, however, to the knowledge of Aristotle and to medieval philosophy were the translations which he procured from the original Greek. The "Eudemian Ethics" he commented on while at Oxford, and in the lasts years of his life he was occupied with a translation of the "Nicomachean".

More original still were his studies in Christian antiquities. He had translations made of the "Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs" and of some of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, though no doubt he thought that in both cases the attributions were genuine. His translation of the Epistles of St. Ignatius is a work of permanent value, so important indeed as to lead a recent writer, James (Cambridge Modern History, I, 587), to date from Grosseteste's studies the first beginnings of the "Christian Renaissance". In addition to this knowledge of Greek, he was also partly acquainted with Hebrew, a rare accomplishment in the thirteenth century. Besides being learned in the liberal arts, Grosseteste had an unusual interest in mathematical and scientific questions. He wrote a commentary on the "Physics" of Aristotle; and his own scientific works included studies in meteorology, light, colour, and optics. Amongst his mathematical works was a criticism of the Julian calendar, in which he pointed out the necessity for the changes introduced in the Gregorian. He attempted a classification of the various forms of knowledge; and few indeed, among his contemporaries, can have had a more encyclopedic range. Nor did he neglect the practical side of life. He had Walter of Henley's "Treatise on Husbandry" translated from the Latin, and drew up himself some rules on estate management, known as "Les Reules Seynt Robert", which throw much light on the agricultural conditions of the time. Finally, lest we should think that the claims of art had been neglected, his contemporaries celebrate his love of music. It is not surprising that Grosseteste's reputation as a philosopher and a universal genius long survived him. Few thirteenth-century writers are as frequently quoted as "Robertus Lincolniensis", and even after the invention of printing many of his writings were issued and re-issued, especially by the presses of Italy. His scientific interests naturally won for him in a later age the compliment of being popularly spoken of as a magician.

It was while at Oxford that Grosseteste formed an intimate and lifelong friendship with the newly arrived Franciscans. It is quite possible that he was chancellor when the friars first came to Oxford, the Dominicans in 1221 and the Franciscans three years later; he at any rate befriended the latter in a very practical manner by being the first lecturer in the school which was one of the earliest of their very simple buildings. Short of becoming a friar himself, as indeed he at one time thought of doing, he could not have identified himself more closely with the sons of St. Francis, and his influence with them was proportionately great. He must have helped to give the English Franciscans that devotion to learning which was one of their most distinguishing characteristics, and which affected the whole history of the order. Though it was contrary to their founder's own ideal of "poverty", the friars without it would have lost a most powerful means of influencing a century in which intellectual interests played so large a part. Grosseteste and the Friars Minor were inseparable for the rest of his life. The most intimate of his friends was Adam Marsh, the first Franciscan to lecture at Oxford, a man of great learning and an ardent reformer. Adam's letters to his friends give us much valuable information about Grosseteste, but unfortunately the answers have not been preserved. The Bishop of Lincoln could do even more for the friars than the Chancellor of Oxford. He extended the sphere of their evangelizing work, and facilitated the relations, at times a difficult enough task to perform, between the secular and monastic clergy and the Franciscans. In a letter to Gregory IX he spoke enthusiastically of the inestimable benefits which the friars had conferred on England, and of the devotion and humility with which the people flocked to hear the word of life from them. The diocese which for eighteen years Grosseteste administered was the largest in England; it extended from the Humber to the Thames, and included no less than nine counties; and the work of government and reform was rendered particularly difficult by the litigious character of the age. In every direction the bishop would find powerful corporations exceedingly tenacious in their rights. From the very first he revived the practice of visitations, and made them exceedingly searching. His circular letters to his archdeacons, and his constitutions enlighten us on the many reforms which he considered necessary both for the clergy and their flocks.

These visitations, however, brought the bishop into conflict with the dean and chapter, who claimed exemption for themselves and their churches. The dispute broke out in 1239 and lasted six years. Grosseteste discussed the whole question of episcopal authority in a long letter (Letter cxxvii, "Rob. Grosseteste Epistolæ", Rolls Series, 1861) to the dean and chapter, and was forced to suspend and ultimately to deprive the dean, while the canons refused to attend in the chapter house. There were appeals to the pope and counter appeals and several attempts at arbitration. Eventually, Innocent IV settled the question, in the bishop's favour, at Lyons in 1245. The visitations affected the majority of the numerous religious houses in the diocese as well as the secular clergy, and in his very first tour Grosseteste deposed seven abbots and five priors. Only in one of these cases was there any moral turpitude involved, and indeed he seldom complains of the moral conduct of the monks; his chief grievance against them was connected with their control over the parishes. Even in the twelfth century more than two-thirds of the parish churches are said to have been under the control of the monasteries, and in many cases the latter made merely temporary and uncertain arrangements for the care of souls. Grosseteste made it his object to insist on a worthy and resident parish clergy by compelling the monasteries to appoint and pay permanent vicars. Throughout his whole episcopacy this question occupied much of his energy. His greatest difficulty was with the Cistercian houses, which were exempt from his rights of visitation, and a desire to remedy this state of affairs was one of the reasons which induced him to visit the pope at Lyons in 1250.

His efforts were partially successful, but the rigour with which he visited the monasteries and nunneries under his rule led the St. Alban's chronicler, Matthew Paris, to call him a "persecutor of monks"; and it is probable that at times he was unnecessarily severe. In 1243, during a vacancy of the archiepiscopal see, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, actually excommunicated him. Though he treated the sentence with contempt, he had again to get the pope's assistance to bring the dispute to an end.

The reputation which Grosseteste has acquired since the Reformation has been due in large part to his relations with the papacy. That he opposed to the utmost of his power the abuses of the papal administration is certain, but a study of his letters and writings should long ago have destroyed the myth that he disputed the plena potestas of the popes. This error, which has been common among non-Catholic writers from Wyclif till recent years, can partly, however, be explained by the exaggerations and inventions of Matthew Paris, and by a confusion of two men having the same name. The letter in which Grosseteste expressed most strongly his resistance to what he considered the unrighteous demands of the pope was addressed to "Master Innocent". It was assumed even by Dr. Luard, the editor of Grosseteste's letters, in the Rolls Series, that this correspondent was Innocent IV, whereas as a matter of fact he was one of the pope's secretaries then resident in England. It is, however, admitted by all recent historians that Grosseteste never denied the pope's authority as Vicar of Christ and Head of the Church. What he did maintain was that the power of the Holy See was "for edification and not for destruction", that the commands of the pope could never transgress the limits laid down by the law of God, and that it was his duty, as bishop, to resist an order that was "for manifest destruction". In such a case "out of filial reverence and obedience I disobey, resist, and rebel". It is impossible to discuss here, or even to enumerate, the abuses which drew so strong an expression of his position from a man who had constantly shown his devotion to the papacy. The English people at large complained chiefly of the enormous revenue which the pope and the Italians drew from the country; Grosseteste, however, fully realized how necessary it was to support the papacy against the Emperor Frederick II, and his objection was chiefly to the manner in which much of this revenue was raised, the appointment of papal partisans in Italy to English benefices and preferments. Such a practice necessarily involved much spiritual damage, and was consistently resisted by the bishop. He felt, also, very deeply the abuses of the Curia, and the ease with which exemptions and privileges which counteracted his own reforms could be obtained from Rome by means of pecuniary supply. On the other hand, he himself constantly appealed to Rome, and frequently received papal support.

He visited the court of Innocent IV on two occasions: in 1245, when he attended the General Council at Lyons, and for the second time in 1250, when he came to beg the pope's help in his many difficulties. This time the aged bishop (he must have been about seventy-five), more zealous than ever for ecclesiastical reform, but troubled to the depths of his soul by the royal misgovernment, the resistance of the regulars to his measures, the difficulty of reforming the seculars, the financial demands of the Curia, which had not diminished with the defeat of Frederick, and finally by a quarrel in which he had been involved with his own archbishop, read out in the presence of the pope and cardinals an impressive recital of the evils of the time and a protest against the abuses of the Curia, "the cause and origin of all this". Innocent listened without interruption, and probably had some previous knowledge of the attack which the bishop intended to make upon his court. The last case in which Grosseteste refused to obey a papal order called forth the letter to "Master Innocent" which has been already mentioned. In the last year of his life Grosseteste received a letter which notified him that the Holy See had conferred a vacant canonry at Lincoln on the pope's nephew, Frederick di Lavagna, and had furthermore threatened excommunication against anyone who should oppose his installation. The bishop's refusal to acknowledge the papal choice, and the terms in which it was expressed, led to the report, quite unfounded, that he had actually been excommunicated before his death; and to much fanciful history on the part of Matthew Paris. As a matter of fact the protest was partly successful; in November, 1253, Innocent IV issued a Bull, restoring to the English ecclesiastical authorities their full rights of election and presentation.

The Bishop of Lincoln held a high position in the State, but his relations with the civil authorities were unusually difficult, as he had to carry out the duties of his office during such a period of misgovernment as the reign of Henry III. Personally, he was usually on friendly terms with the king and his family; but he was often in opposition to the royal policy, both in ecclesiastical and civil matters, and threatened on one occasion to lay the king's chapel under an interdict. Grosseteste's attitude on the question of ecclesiastical privilege was much the same as that adopted by St. Thomas. He took a prominent and sometimes a leading part in the constitutional opposition to Henry, and in 1244 was one of the committee of twelve nominated by Parliament to draw up a list of reforms. When, in 1252, the charters were solemnly confirmed, and a sentence of excommunication pronounced against anyone who should violate them, Grosseteste had the sentence read out to the people in every parish of his diocese. His friendship with Simon de Montfort was one of intimacy and long standing, and was celebrated in contemporary popular songs. It was of moment in confirming Simon in that devotion to national interests which distinguished him later from the other leaders of the baronial opposition. Grosseteste before his death was full of anxiety for the state of the country and dread for the civil war which was so soon to break out. He was buried in his cathedral. Very soon he was regarded almost universally in England as a saint. The chroniclers tell of miracles at his tomb, and pilgrims visited it. Early in the following century a Bishop of Lincoln granted them an indulgence. Efforts were made by different prelates, by Edward I, and by the University of Oxford to procure his canonization by the pope, but they were all unsuccessful.


Sources

Besides MATTHEW PARISH, whose monastic and anti-papal bias must never be forgotten, and the other chroniclers, the chief materials for Grosseteste's life are to be found in his Letters (Roberti Grosseteste Epistolæ, Rolls Series, ed. LUARD, 1861), in Monumenta Fraciscana, I (Rolls Series, ed. BREWER, in 1858), which contain Adam Marsh's letters, and in the Calendar of Papal Registers, ed. BLISS. The most important modern authorities are LUARD's Preface to the Letters; FELTEN, Robert Grosseteste, Bischof von Lincoln (Freiburg, 1887); STEVENSON, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (London, 1899), a most impartial work, which supersedes PERRY's rather biased Life and Times of Robert Grosseteste (1871). See also POHLE in Kirchenlex., s.v. Information of Grosseteste's Oxford career can be obtained from RASHDALL, Universities of Europe during the Middle Ages; LITTLE, Grey Friars at Oxford; and FELDER, Geschichte d. wissenschaftl. Studien im Franziskaner-Orden (Freiburg, 1904), 260 sqq. For a list of the printed editions of his works see LUARD in Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v.

About this page

APA citation. Urquhart, F. (1910). Robert Grosseteste. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07037a.htm

MLA citation. Urquhart, Francis. "Robert Grosseteste." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07037a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas J. Bress.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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