From Our Followers: The Best Medieval Minds

Edited by Meredith Guthrie

Oresme’s spheres
Oresme’s spheres

‘There have been found some famous men, such as Robert [Grosseteste]…who have known how by the power of mathematics to unfold the causes of all things and to give a sufficient explanation of human and divine phenomena…the impression [of the elements], on the rainbow and the comets, on the sphere, and on other questions appertaining both to theology and to natural philosophy.’ – Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius, 1267

Aside from the historians who study it, the medieval period is not often recognised for its scientific innovation. The discipline of science is attributed to later epochs. For non-specialists, ‘science’ in early modern history recalls images of Galileo or Newton teasing out the challenges of the cosmos through the diligently cultivated paths of what eventually became the scientific method. The modern world is built on the foundations of technological development and inquiry, the products of which are the fodder of our daily lives. Perhaps the assumption that the medieval period was a time of intellectual inertia is a problem of definition: what we might call science, others- like the contemporary Roger Bacon- would call natural philosophy. Medieval scholars did not compartmentalise their cerebral pursuits. Discovery was driven by the need to understand God’s plan for humanity by observing processes on Earth. It should be no surprise, then, that many of the medieval period’s more influential thinkers came from within the ranks of clerics and churchmen. We asked our Twitter followers who were some of the most notable or memorable medieval minds, and here is what they said:

Ruins of Malmesbury Abbey, Hugh Llewelyn from Keynsham, UK
Ruins of Malmesbury Abbey, Hugh Llewelyn from Keynsham, UK

Eilmer of Malmesbury

Eilmer of Malmesbury was the country’s first aviator c1005 AD. His epic Daedalus like story is told by William of Malmesbury - a “flight” of a furlong ending in two broken legs!

Gareth Johnstone @Geejay

By Gareth Johnstone

All that is known of Eilmer, an eleventh-century Benedictine monk, is known from William of Malmesbury who wrote about him in his Gesta Regum Anglorum, perhaps having spoken to those who knew Eilmer as an old man. This story of Britain’s first aviator both serves as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale.

William tells the story of how, as a youth, Eilmer was inspired by the legend of Daedalus, who escaped from Crete by flight. Eilmer designed his own set of wings, which he tied to his own arms and feet.

Having more belief in the fable than he perhaps should have, Eilmer leapt from the walls of the tower of Malmesbury Abbey. For a brief few moments, he caught the breeze, and was held aloft for a furlong, some 200 metres. Then, agitated by the wind, and realising too late the foolishness of the attempt, Eilmer crashed, broke both his legs and was lame thereafter. He used his story to warn others, having forgotten to provide himself with a tail.

Following Eilmer’s attempt at man-powered flight, his story went on to inspire others, and is celebrated to this day. His flight was commemorated in Malmesbury in 2010.

Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire
Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire

Robert Grosseteste

Robert Grosseteste, pioneering scientist, bishop of Lincoln 1235-53: 'seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste describes the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallization of matter to form stars and planets… [Grosseteste's] De Luce is the first attempt to describe the heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws. Implying ... a family of ordered universes in an ocean of disordered ones'.' Full article in Nature.

Dr Sophie Ambler @RG1253

By Meredith Guthrie

Portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, eyes crossed, seated with miter and crozier, his right hand raised in blessing. Unknown fourteenth-century scribe.
Portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, eyes crossed, seated with miter and crozier, his right hand raised in blessing. Unknown fourteenth-century scribe.

A man of humble origins, Robert Grosseteste would eventually ascend the ecclesiastical ranks to become the bishop of Lincoln in 1235, and in doing so he became the custodian of the largest dioceses in England. His career as a bishop reveals his voracious energy for reform and pastoral care, and his moral principles would, at times, put him in opposition to both kings and popes who did not discharge their sovereign duties with sufficient righteousness.

Yet while Grosseteste’s theological and political frankness placed him in the centre of many of the most important movements of the thirteenth century, his earlier writings underscore an equally intriguing aspect of the bishop’s ravenous curiosity. During his middle years, he was living and working in the Hereford dioceses- a rural area near the present-day Welsh border. In the early thirteenth century, when universities were still yet nascent, the local cathedral schools offered education to those willing and able to attend. Hereford was a renowned centre for scientific learning, and it was here that Grosseteste wrote some of the most important tracts of the century.

Like other philosophers of his time, Grosseteste often turned his eye to the natural world and wrote on the subjects of astronomy and heavenly bodies (de Motu Supercaelestium, and de Cometis are notable examples), on the rainbow (de Iride), on colour (de Colore) on geometric principles (de Lineis, Angulis et Figuris), and on the generation of sound (de Generatione Sonorum). Yet while Grosseteste shared similar interests with his scholastic contemporaries, his work reflected a more developed sense of what we might call a scientific perspective. He was the first to write Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, which expounded the relationship between observation, calculation, and demonstration.

More elucidating, still, is his writings on light: a subject that is something of a theme in Grosseteste’s anthology of work. Light was more than just an allegorical tool to explain the nature of God’s design. Grosseteste makes an extensive study of the ways in which light reveals the genesis of the cosmos. De Luce seu de inchoatione formarum and De motu corporali et luce, completed in 1225, describes the origins of the universe as an explosion, propelling matter outward into what we perceive to be the planets and stars in the night sky. This treatise has, rightly, been the subject of considerable attention by both historians and scientists alike. Durham University is home to the Ordered Universe Project, an interdisciplinary initiative that attracts scholars from across the globe to bring together science and humanities to explain our intellectual and cosmological origins.

Nicole Oresme

Nicole Oresme, bishop of Lisieux (1377-82). Intellectual heavyweight & polymath extraordinaire. He was well known for his translations of Aristotle and pioneering work on economics. He also developed theories on atmospheric refraction & analytic geometry.

Meredith Guthrie @MeredithGuthr17

By Meredith Guthrie

Modern mathematics owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the work of Nicole Orseme, bishop of Lisieux (1377-82). He was born some time around 1320 and studied at the University of Paris under Jean Buridan, eventually attaining a doctorate in theology. Like his mentor, Oresme challenged many of the Aristotelian doctrines that defined space and time that had been intellectual touchstones of previous decades. In his Livre du ciel et du monde, Oresme denounced the idea of the Aristotelian theory that a static Earth was surrounded by a rotating sphere of stationary stars and discussed the possibility that the Earth rotated along an axis (although he concluded by affirming his belief in a fixed Earth).

Yet despite his eagerness to interrogate conventional wisdom, he was also instrumental in dissemination the philosophical works of Ethics, Politics, On the Heavens, and the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics to the wider world. He translated them from Latin into the vernacular French at the behest of Charles V, and in doing so, Oresme introduced a new vocabulary derived from the scholarly texts and adapted them into the French language.

His mathematical work arguably reverberated with greater force. In de Configurationibus Qualitatum et Motuum and Questiones super geometriam Euclidis, Oresme puts forward a model of mathematical representation by which variables that could be tabulated could be transferred onto rectangular planes. Even though he did not use numerical values, in essence, he laid the foundations for coordinate geometry centuries before the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650). He also developed the proof that demonstrated that the Harmonic Series was divergent. The Harmonic Series derives its name from the concept of musical overtones, the wavelengths of which have a consistent fractional relationship to the fundamental wavelength. Guitar players are familiar with this mathematical proof, which when applied correctly can produce pleasant effects at the seventh and twelfth frets.

Perhaps even more impressive is Oresme’s work on atmospheric refraction in de Visione Stellarum. His predecessors in the study of optics held the belief that refraction could only occur when light travelled through two media of varying densities. Oresme proposed that refraction occurred along a curve across the atmosphere using infinitesimals. This was over 300 years before the likes of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Other contributions in the field include his work on fractional exponents, the first proof of the Merton theorem, musicology and acoustics, and economics.

Further Reading:

  • The Opus Maius of Roger Bacon, ed. J.H. Bridges, 3 vols. (London, 1900), I, 108. Translated by A.G. Little, Franciscan Paper, Lists, and Documents (Manchester, 1943), 60-1. This excerpt was taken from S.T. Ambler, Bishops in the Political Community of England, 1213-1272 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), which offers a thorough discussion of Grosseteste.

  • McLeish, T., Bower, R., Tanner, B. et al., ‘History: A medieval multiverse’ in Nature, 507, 161–163 (2014)

  • R.M. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, vols. I and II (Wiley, 1997, 2001)

  • Robert Grosseteste, De Luce – On Light, English transl. by Claire C. Riedl, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1942), pp. 10-17 Gareth Johnson is a first-year Phd student at Lancaster University studying Cumbrian medieval religious houses of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Meredith Guthrie is a third-year PhD student and Coordinating Editor for EPOCH magazine. She studies the role of English bishops during the minority governments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.