Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon

Overview
Roger Bacon, O.F.M. (c. 1214–1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis (medieval accolade, meaning "wonderful teacher"), was an English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 philosopher and Franciscan
Franciscan
Most Franciscans are members of Roman Catholic religious orders founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. Besides Roman Catholic communities, there are also Old Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, ecumenical and Non-denominational Franciscan communities....

 friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods. He is sometimes credited, mainly starting in the 19th century, as one of the earliest Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an advocates of the modern scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 inspired by the works of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 and later pseudo-Aristotelian works, possibly of Arabic origins.
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Encyclopedia
Roger Bacon, O.F.M. (c. 1214–1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis (medieval accolade, meaning "wonderful teacher"), was an English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 philosopher and Franciscan
Franciscan
Most Franciscans are members of Roman Catholic religious orders founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. Besides Roman Catholic communities, there are also Old Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, ecumenical and Non-denominational Franciscan communities....

 friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods. He is sometimes credited, mainly starting in the 19th century, as one of the earliest Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an advocates of the modern scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 inspired by the works of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 and later pseudo-Aristotelian works, possibly of Arabic origins. However, more recent reevaluations emphasize that he was essentially a medieval thinker, with much of his "experimental" knowledge obtained from books, in the scholastic tradition
Scholasticism
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

. A survey of the reception of Bacon's work over centuries found that it often reflects the concerns and controversies central to the receivers.

Life


Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester
Ilchester
Ilchester is a village and civil parish, situated on the River Yeo or Ivel, five miles north of Yeovil, in the English county of Somerset. The parish, which includes the village of Sock Dennis and the old parish of Northover, has a population of 2,021...

 in Somerset
Somerset
The ceremonial and non-metropolitan county of Somerset in South West England borders Bristol and Gloucestershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west. It is partly bounded to the north and west by the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the...

, possibly in 1213 or 1214 at the Ilchester Friary
Ilchester Friary
Ilchester Friary was founded between 1221 and 1260 as a Dominican monastery in Ilchester Somerset, England.The buildings were restored in the 13th and 14th centuries until the site occupied a site, and by the 15th century it extended beyond the town walls....

. The only source for his date of birth is his statement in the Opus Tertium, written in 1267, that "forty years have passed since I first learned the alphabet". The 1214 birth date assumes he was not being literal, and may have meant 40 years had passed since he matriculated at Oxford
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

 at the age of 13. If he had been literal, his birth date was more likely to have been around 1220/1222. In the same passage he reports that for all but two of those forty years he had always been engaged in study. His family appears to have been well-off, but, during the stormy reign of Henry III of England
Henry III of England
Henry III was the son and successor of John as King of England, reigning for 56 years from 1216 until his death. His contemporaries knew him as Henry of Winchester. He was the first child king in England since the reign of Æthelred the Unready...

, their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile.

Bacon studied and later became a master at Oxford, lecturing on Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

. 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 to lecture at the university of Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, then the centre of intellectual life in Europe. His whereabouts between 1247 and 1256 are uncertain, but about 1256 he became a friar
Friar
A friar is a member of one of the mendicant orders.-Friars and monks:...

 in the Franciscan Order. As a Franciscan friar, Bacon no longer held a teaching post, and after 1260 his activities were further restricted by a Franciscan statute forbidding friars from publishing books or pamphlets without specific approval.

Bacon circumvented this restriction through his acquaintance with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, who became Pope Clement IV
Pope Clement IV
Pope Clement IV , born Gui Faucoi called in later life le Gros , was elected Pope February 5, 1265, in a conclave held at Perugia that took four months, while cardinals argued over whether to call in Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of Louis IX of France...

 in 1265. The new Pope issued a mandate ordering Bacon to write to him concerning the place of philosophy within theology. As a result Bacon sent the Pope his Opus Majus
Opus Majus
The Opus Majus is the most important work of Roger Bacon. It was written in Medieval Latin, at the request of Pope Clement IV, to explain the work that Bacon had undertaken. The 840-page treatise ranges over all aspects of natural science, from grammar and logic to mathematics, physics, and...

, which presented his views on how the philosophy of Aristotle and the new science could be incorporated into a new Theology. Besides the Opus maius Bacon also sent his Opus minus, De multiplicatione specierum, and, perhaps, other works on alchemy and astrology.

Pope Clement died in 1268. Sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was probably imprisoned or placed under house arrest. The circumstances for this are still mysterious. Sometime after 1278 Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies. He is believed to have died in 1294.

Changing interpretations of Bacon



In the 19th century it was a widely held interpretation that Bacon was a modern experimental scientist who 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 characterization of the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 as the "Dark Ages". Some writers of the period carried this account further. For instance, according to Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White was a U.S. diplomat, historian, and educator, who was the co-founder of Cornell University.-Family and personal life:...

, Bacon was repeatedly persecuted and imprisoned because of the opposition of the medieval Church. In this view, which is still reflected in some 21st century popular science
Popular science
Popular science, sometimes called literature of science, is interpretation of science intended for a general audience. While science journalism focuses on recent scientific developments, popular science is broad-ranging, often written by scientists as well as journalists, and is presented in many...

 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
Frederick Mayer
Frederick Mayer was an educational scientist and philosopher of the University of Redlands, California and one of the leading creativity experts. One of his most important aims was a global humanism. Until the very last days of his life he was active as an author...

 wrote that Bacon predicted the invention of the submarine, automobile, and airplane.

However, in the course of the 20th century, the philosophical understanding of the role of experiment in the sciences has been substantially modified. Starting with works of Pierre Duhem
Pierre Duhem
Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem was a French physicist, mathematician and philosopher of science, best known for his writings on the indeterminacy of experimental criteria and on scientific development in the Middle Ages...

, Raoul Carton, and Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike was an American historian of medieval science and alchemy...

, Bacon's advocacy of scientia experimentalis has been argued to differ from modern experimental science. New historical research has also shown that medieval Christians were not generally opposed to scientific investigation and revealed the extent and variety of medieval science
Science in the Middle Ages
Science in the Middle Ages consisted of the study of nature, including practical disciplines, the mathematics and natural philosophy in medieval Europe. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the decline in knowledge of Greek, Christian Western Europe was cut off from an important...

. 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
Inductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning, also known as induction or inductive logic, is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates propositions that are abstractions of observations. It is commonly construed as a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances...

 should be submitted for further experimental testing is very much like Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste or Grossetete was an English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk. A.C...

's 'Method of Verification', and Bacon's work on optics and the calendar also followed the lines of inquiry of Grosseteste.

As a result, the picture of Bacon has changed. One recent study summarized 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". Bacon is thus seen as a leading, but not isolated 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
Henry of Ghent
Henry of Ghent , scholastic philosopher, known as Doctor Solemnis , also known as Henricus de Gandavo and Henricus Gandavensis, was born in the district of Mude, near Ghent, and died at Tournai...

, Albert Magnus, Thomas Acquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham
William of Ockham
William of Ockham was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of...

.

As to the alleged persecution, the first known reference to an imprisonment originates around 80 years after Bacon's death. It says the order was given by the head of the Franciscans because of unspecified "suspected novelties". However, the fact that no earlier report has been found drives skepticism over the assertion. Moreover, current historians of science who see an incarceration as plausible typically don't 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, 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
Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

, written against a background of apocalyptic
Apocalypse
An Apocalypse is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception, i.e. the veil to be lifted. The Apocalypse of John is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament...

 expectation and informed by the driving concerns of the friars. It was designed to improve training for missionaries
Missionary
A missionary is a member of a religious group sent into an area to do evangelism or ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care and economic development. The word "mission" originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin...

 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
Antichrist
The term or title antichrist, in Christian theology, refers to a leader who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ, while resembling him in a deceptive manner...

. It cannot usefully be read solely in the context of the history of science and philosophy."

His works



Bacon made many discoveries while coming near to many others, despite many disadvantages and discouragements. His Opus Majus
Opus Majus
The Opus Majus is the most important work of Roger Bacon. It was written in Medieval Latin, at the request of Pope Clement IV, to explain the work that Bacon had undertaken. The 840-page treatise ranges over all aspects of natural science, from grammar and logic to mathematics, physics, and...

contains treatments of mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 and optics
Optics
Optics is the branch of physics which involves the behavior and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behavior of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light...

, alchemy
Alchemy
Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base...

, and the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies.

His view of the past


The scientific training Bacon had received showed him the rare defects in existing academic debate. Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 was known only through translations, as none of the professors would learn Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

; the same was true of Scripture and many of the other auctores ("authorities") referenced in traditional education. In contrast to Aristotle's argument that facts be collected before deducing scientific truths, physical science was not carried out by observations from the natural world, but by arguments based solely on tradition and prescribed authorities (see Scholasticism
Scholasticism
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

).

Bacon withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research. The mathematicians whom he considered perfect were Peter of Maricourt
Peter of Maricourt
Pierre Pelerin de Maricourt , Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt or Peter Peregrinus of Maricourt; was a 13th century French scholar who conducted experiments on magnetism and wrote the first extant treatise describing the properties of magnets...

 and John of London
John of London
John of London , mathematician, was praised by Roger Bacon as one of two "perfect" mathematicians, together with Pierre de Maricourt, and superior to two good mathematicians, Campanus of Novara and Master Nicolas...

, and two were good: Campanus of Novara and a Master Nicholas. Peter was the author of a famous letter to a friend, Epistola de Magnete, in which he described some of the earliest European experiments with magnetism. Campanus wrote several important works on astronomy, astrology, and the calendar. Bacon often mentioned his debt to the work of Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste or Grossetete was an English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk. A.C...

 and Adam Marsh
Adam Marsh
Adam Marsh was an English Franciscan, scholar and theologian.-Biography:He was born about 1200 in the diocese of Bath, and educated at Oxford under the famous Grosseteste....

, as well as to other lesser figures. He was clearly not an isolated scholar in the thirteenth century.

A new approach


In his writings, Bacon calls for a reform of theological study. Less emphasis should be placed on minor philosophical distinctions than had been the case in scholasticism. Instead, the Bible itself should return to the centre of attention and theologians should thoroughly study the languages in which their original sources were composed. He was fluent in several languages and lamented the corruption of the holy texts and the works of the Greek philosophers by numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations. Furthermore, he urged all theologians to study all sciences closely, and to add them to the normal university curriculum. With regard to the obtaining of knowledge, he strongly championed experimental study over reliance on authority, arguing that "thence cometh quiet to the mind". Bacon did not restrict this approach to theological studies. He rejected the blind following of prior authorities, both in theological and scientific study, which was the accepted method of undertaking study in his day.

In the Opus Minus he criticizes his contemporaries Alexander of Hales
Alexander of Hales
Alexander Hales also called Doctor Irrefragabilis and Theologorum Monarcha was a notable thinker important in the history of scholasticism and the Franciscan School.-Life:Alexander was born at Hales ,...

 and Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus, O.P. , also known as Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, is a Catholic saint. He was a German Dominican friar and a bishop, who achieved fame for his comprehensive knowledge of and advocacy for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion. Those such as James A. Weisheipl...

 who, he says, had not studied the philosophy of Aristotle but only acquired their learning during their life as preachers. Albert was received at Paris as an authority equal to Aristotle, Avicenna
Avicenna
Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā , commonly known as Ibn Sīnā or by his Latinized name Avicenna, was a Persian polymath, who wrote almost 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects, of which around 240 have survived...

, and Averroes
Averroes
' , better known just as Ibn Rushd , and in European literature as Averroes , was a Muslim polymath; a master of Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy,...

, leading Bacon to proclaim that "never in the world [had] such monstrosity occurred before."

Optics


The study of optics in part five of Opus Majus draws heavily on the works of both Claudius Ptolemy (his Optics in Arabic translation) and the Islamic scientists
Islamic science
Science in the medieval Islamic world, also known as Islamic science or Arabic science, is the science developed and practised in the Islamic world during the Islamic Golden Age . During this time, Indian, Iranian and especially Greek knowledge was translated into Arabic...

 Alkindus
Al-Kindi
' , known as "the Philosopher of the Arabs", was a Muslim Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, and musician. Al-Kindi was the first of the Muslim peripatetic philosophers, and is unanimously hailed as the "father of Islamic or Arabic philosophy" for his synthesis, adaptation and promotion...

 (al-Kindi) and Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham).
He includes a discussion of the physiology of eyesight, the anatomy of the eye and the brain, and considers light, distance, position, and size, direct vision, reflected vision, and refraction, mirrors and lenses. His research in optics was primarily oriented by the legacy of Alhazen through a Latin translation of the latter's monumental Kitab al-manazir (De aspectibus; Perspectivae; The Optics), while the impact of the tradition of al-Kindi (Alkindus) was principally mediated through the influence that this Muslim scholar had on the optics of Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste or Grossetete was an English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk. A.C...

. Moreover, Bacon's investigations of the properties of the magnifying glass
Magnifying glass
A magnifying glass is a convex lens that is used to produce a magnified image of an object. The lens is usually mounted in a frame with a handle ....

 partly rested on the handed-down legacy of Islamic opticians, mainly Alhazen, who was in his turn influenced by Ibn Sahl
Ibn Sahl
This article is about the physicist. For the physician, see Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari. For the poet, see Ibn Sahl of Sevilla.Ibn Sahl was a Muslim Persian mathematician, physicist and optics engineer of the Islamic Golden Age associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad...

's 10th century legacy in dioptrics.

Calendar


Drawing on the recently discovered Greco-Muslim astronomy and on the calendaric writings of Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste
Robert Grosseteste or Grossetete was an English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk. A.C...

, Bacon criticized the Julian calendar
Julian calendar
The Julian calendar began in 45 BC as a reform of the Roman calendar by Julius Caesar. It was chosen after consultation with the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria and was probably designed to approximate the tropical year .The Julian calendar has a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months...

, describing it as intolerable, horrible and laughable. He proposed to correct its errors by deleting a day from the calendar every 125 or 130 days.

Other attributed works


In his own writings of 1260–1280 Bacon cited Secretum secretorum
Secretum Secretorum
Secretum secretorum is a medieval treatise also known as Secret of Secrets, or The Book of the Secret of Secrets, or in Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, or the Book of the science of government: on the good ordering of statecraft...

, which he attributed to Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, 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
Robert Steele (medievalist)
Robert Steele was a British scholar, best known for editing between c. 1905 and 1941 the 16-volume Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Bacon....

 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
Voynich manuscript
The Voynich manuscript, described as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", is a work which dates to the early 15th century, possibly from northern Italy. It is named after the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912....

 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
Roland Grubb Kent
Roland Grubb Kent was the founder of the Linguistic Society of America. He was the first to translate Varro's De Lingua Latina into English. His 1903 doctoral thesis on the history of Thessaly traces the history of the country with particular attention to the times between 600 and 300 BC...

 in 1928, and in a 2005 book of Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone published by Doubleday and Broadway Books
Broadway Books
Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a Division of Random House, Inc., released its first list in Fall, 1996. Broadway Books has since published many New York Times bestsellers in hardcover and paperback, including Elizabeth Edwards’ memoir Resilience, Bill O’Reilly’s memoir A...

. In strongly worded terms, historians of science Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike was an American historian of medieval science and alchemy...

 and George Sarton
George Sarton
George Sarton was a Belgian chemist and historian who is considered the founder of the discipline of history of science. He left Belgium because of the First World War and settled in the United States where he spent the rest of his life researching and writing about the history of science...

 have dismissed these claims as unsupported.

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
Necromancy
Necromancy is a claimed form of magic that involves communication with the deceased, either by summoning their spirit in the form of an apparition or raising them bodily, for the purpose of divination, imparting the ability to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge...

, and contains most of the alchemical work attributed to Bacon, chiefly a formula for philosopher's stone
Philosopher's stone
The philosopher's stone is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal...

, 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 sulfur as the constituents of metals, and containing vague allusions to transmutation
Transmutation
Transmutation may refer to:*Biological transmutation, the claim that nuclear transmutation occurs within living organisms*Dimensional transmutation, a physical mechanism that transforms a pure number into a parameter with a dimension...

. About this work, John Maxson Stillman
John Maxson Stillman
John Maxson Stillman was a pioneer of the history of science in the United States. He was also the first head of the chemistry department at Stanford University, as well as its first Chemistry Professor...

 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
M. M. Pattison Muir
Matthew Moncrieff Pattison Muir, FRSE, FCS was a chemist and author. He taught chemistry at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and was head of the Caius Laboratory there...

 had a similar opinion, and Edmund Oscar von Lippmann
Edmund Oscar von Lippmann
Edmund Oscar von Lippmann [also Edmund Oskar von Lippmann] was a German chemist and natural science historian....

 considered this text a pseudepigraph.

Gunpowder


Bacon is often considered the first European to describe a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder
Gunpowder
Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate - with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer...

. Based on two passages from Bacon's Opus Maius and Opus Tertium, extensively analyzed by J. R. Partington
J. R. Partington
James Riddick Partington MBE was a British chemist and historian of chemistry.- Life and work :Partington was born in Bolton, Lancashire and was educated at the University of Manchester, where he obtained First Class Honours...

, several scholars cited by Joseph Needham
Joseph Needham
Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, CH, FRS, FBA , also known as Li Yuese , was a British scientist, historian and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, and as a fellow of the British...

 concluded that Bacon had most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecracker
Firecracker
A firecracker is a small explosive device primarily designed to produce a large amount of noise, especially in the form of a loud bang; any visual effect is incidental to this goal. They have fuses, and are wrapped in a heavy paper casing to contain the explosive compound...

s, possibly obtained with the intermediation of other Franciscans, like his friend William of Rubruck
William of Rubruck
William of Rubruck was a Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo....

, who had visited the Mongols. 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
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 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
Encyclopædia Britannica
The Encyclopædia Britannica , published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., is a general knowledge English-language encyclopaedia that is available in print, as a DVD, and on the Internet. It is written and continuously updated by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 expert...

. An early critic of this claim was Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike
Lynn Thorndike was an American historian of medieval science and alchemy...

, starting with a letter in the 1915 edition of the journal Science
Science (journal)
Science is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is one of the world's top scientific journals....

, and repeated in several books of his. M. M. Pattison Muir
M. M. Pattison Muir
Matthew Moncrieff Pattison Muir, FRSE, FCS was a chemist and author. He taught chemistry at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and was head of the Caius Laboratory there...

 also expressed his doubts on Hime's theory, and they were echoed by John Maxson Stillman
John Maxson Stillman
John Maxson Stillman was a pioneer of the history of science in the United States. He was also the first head of the chemistry department at Stanford University, as well as its first Chemistry Professor...

. Robert Steele
Robert Steele (medievalist)
Robert Steele was a British scholar, best known for editing between c. 1905 and 1941 the 16-volume Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Bacon....

 and George Sarton
George Sarton
George Sarton was a Belgian chemist and historian who is considered the founder of the discipline of history of science. He left Belgium because of the First World War and settled in the United States where he spent the rest of his life researching and writing about the history of science...

 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 saltpeter:charcoal:sulfur) are not even useful for stuffing firecrakers, 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 fiction


To commemorate Bacon's seven hundredth anniversary, Professor John Erskine
John Erskine (educator)
John Erskine was a U.S. educator and author, born in New York City and raised in Weehawken, New Jersey. He graduated from Columbia University ....

 wrote A Pageant of the Thirteenth Century, a biographical play which was produced at Columbia University and published as a book by Columbia University Press
Columbia University Press
Columbia University Press is a university press based in New York City, and affiliated with Columbia University. It is currently directed by James D. Jordan and publishes titles in the humanities and sciences, including the fields of literary and cultural studies, history, social work, sociology,...

 in 1914.

An accessible description of Roger Bacon's life and times is contained in the fiction book Doctor Mirabilis, written in 1964 by the science fiction author James Blish
James Blish
James Benjamin Blish was an American author of fantasy and science fiction. Blish also wrote literary criticism of science fiction using the pen-name William Atheling, Jr.-Biography:...

. This is the second book in Blish's quasi-religious trilogy After Such Knowledge, and is a recounting of Bacon's life and struggle to develop a 'Universal Science'. Though thoroughly researched, with a host of references, including extensive use of Bacon's own writings, frequently in the original Latin, the book is written in the style of a novel, and Blish himself referred to it as 'fiction' or 'a vision'. Blish's view of Bacon is uncompromisingly that he 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'.

Many writers of earlier times have been attracted to Roger Bacon as the epitome of a wise and subtle possessor of forbidden knowledge, similar to Faustus. A succession of legends and unverifiable stories has grown up about him, for example, that he created a brazen talking head
Brazen Head
A Brazen Head was a prophetic device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it...

 which could answer any question. This has a central role in the play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy written by Robert Greene. Widely regarded as Greene's best and most significant play, it has received more critical attention than any other of Greene's dramas.-Date:The date of authorship of Friar...

written by Robert Greene
Robert Greene (16th century)
Robert Greene was an English author best known for a posthumous pamphlet attributed to him, Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, widely believed to contain a polemic attack on William Shakespeare. He was born in Norwich and attended Cambridge University, receiving a B.A. in 1580, and an M.A...

 in about 1589.

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
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

 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
Edward I of England
Edward I , also known as Edward Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots, was King of England from 1272 to 1307. The first son of Henry III, Edward was involved early in the political intrigues of his father's reign, which included an outright rebellion by the English barons...

 and Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan , born Kublai and also known by the temple name Shizu , was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294 and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China...

. 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.

See also

  • Roger Bacon: On Experimental Science, 1268
  • Roger Bacon High School
    Roger Bacon High School
    Roger Bacon High School is a high school in St. Bernard, Ohio, USA based in the Franciscan Tradition.This high school was dedicated in 1928, and was under the administration of and staffed by the Brothers and Priests of the Order of Friars Minor, and lay men and women...

  • Oxford Franciscan school
    Oxford Franciscan school
    The Oxford Franciscan school was the name given to a group of scholastic philosophers that, in the context of the Renaissance of the 12th century, gave special contribution to the development of science and scientific methodology during the High Middle Ages...

  • History of geomagnetism
    History of geomagnetism
    The history of geomagnetism is concerned with the history of the study of Earth's magnetic field. It encompasses the history of navigation using compasses, studies of the prehistoric magnetic field , and applications to plate tectonics.Magnetism has been known since prehistory, but knowledge of the...

  • History of the scientific method
  • History of science in the Middle Ages
  • List of Roman Catholic scientist-clerics
  • Witelo
    Witelo
    Witelo was a friar, theologian and scientist: a physicist, natural philosopher, mathematician. He is an important figure in the history of philosophy in Poland...

  • Baco (crater)
    Baco (crater)
    Baco is a lunar impact crater that lies in the rugged southern highlands on the near side of the Moon. The rim and inner wall has been eroded and worn by countless minor impacts since the original formation of the crater. As a result any terraces have been worn smooth and the rim is overlaid by...

     on the Moon
  • Translation

External links