Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

12th - 13th Century

The scientist known as Dr Wonderful takes a hands-on
approach to the optics of rainbows.

Image: lindawettengel.com

STARTING UNIVERSITIES
& HOSPITALS,
RESEARCHING LIGHT,
DEFENDING REASON

1100s TRADITION OF ASTRONOMICAL AND COMPUTATION STUDIES ESTABLISHED

Scholars such as Walcher of Malvern and Adelard of Bath develop astronomical and computational studies in the early years of the twelfth century, followed by Daniel of Morley, Robert of Ketton, Robert of Chester, Roger Infans of Hereford, and Alfred of Shareshill in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Robert Grosseteste (see below) will build on their work.

1100s INFIRMARY ESTABLISHED AT WESTMINSTER ABBEY

Thorney Island was an eyot on the Thames, upstream of mediæval London, where Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace (now the Houses of Parliament) were built. It was formed by rivulets of the River Tyburn, just where they entered the Thames. Though it was described in an old charter as a "terrible place", St Dunstan founded a monastery here, and the monks tamed the brambles. By the time of Edward the Confessor, it was "a delightful place, surrounded by fertile land and green fields".

It was here, probably as long ago as the 11th century, that Benedictine monks established what is now the oldest continuously planted garden in England. College Garden as it is now called included an infirmary garden to grow medicinal herbs for the Abbey. Some of them, such as fennel and hyssop, are still grown in the garden today.

Great hall of St Bart's hospital

The walls of St Bartholomew's Great Hall display plaques which list, in detail, the sums of money given to the hospital by its many benefactors.

Image: Nevilley

1123 PLAYBOY WITH A VISION BUILDS BART'S, ONE OF WORLD'S GREAT, OLDEST CONTINUOUSLY OPERATING HOSPITALS

The young playboy from Britain was in Rome when he was felled by malaria. Promising he would build a hospice if only he recovered, he had a vision of St. Bartholomew telling him exactly where to build it in London.

Rahere follows the instructions he received in his vision. His hospice becomes a place of rest for weary travellers, pilgrims, the sick, and the helpless. Despite plague, fire, and antagonistic politicians, St. Bartholomew's, colloquially known as Bart's, has been providing compassionate and steadily improving medical care for the poor for almost nine hundred years. It has been "a spiritual sanctuary in stone" for the sick, the poor and the homeless wanderer.

1188 YOUNG BRITS LAUNCH OXFORD UNIVERSITY

Like water upwelling from hidden springs, meeting and streaming together, Brits have been thinking about ideas and writing about them over the previous thousand years. Alfred's push to establish grammar schools in towns around England, including Oxford, and the educational focus of the monasteries have contributed to the rising waters of thought, but now a brilliant and turbulent group of older students want more. They take matters into their own hands, and begin meeting in houses in Oxford, and paying their teachers for a liberal education.

The word liberal comes from the Latin word liber meaning free – free to enquire, free to investigate. The Christian faith calls reason a gift from God, and in Christian Europe, where universities are springing up, a liberal education is intended to free a student from the chaos of irrationality. Along the way the young Brit in Oxford intends to acquire the training he needs for a career in law, business, the church, or education.

It's exhilarating that students – not the church, not government – launch Oxford University. As the number of teachers and students at Oxford grows, generous men and women establish colleges. An early patron, Walter de Merton, envisions a self-governing community of scholars living together in a college that consists of a series of halls built around a quad or court. He puts his idea into stone around 1264, and his plan becomes a model for both Oxford and Cambridge universities.

One of the people who helps Merton is Piers de Montfort. After fighting for liberty and losing his land, he regains his inheritance and makes some of it available for building Merton College. For details of his fight for freedom, see Liberty! The Timeline, 13th century

Oxford University towers with students

Four kings, 46 Nobel Prize winners (and counting),
several great poets, the inventor of DNA "fingerprinting", and three saints have studied or taught at Oxford University.

Photo: audioworm@istockphoto.com

Over the centuries Oxford becomes one of the greatest universities in the world with museums, research labs, and a distinguished press that publishes hundreds of books every year, including the mother lode of English, The Oxford English Dictionary.       

1200s - 1250s ROBERT GROSSETESTE EXPLORES THE MATHEMATICAL STRUCTURE OF NATURE AND THE NATURE OF TYRANNY

Robert Grosseteste is a poor boy whose brains take him to school in Cambridge before the university is founded, when scholars and students were first gathering there. He goes on to the diocese of Hereford, the most active centre of scientific studies in England, where he studies the properties of light, law and medicine.

In his 30s, Grosseteste tackles Classical Greek. He is the first man in Britain or Europe to write about Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, which describes scientific principles for establishing knowledge.

Grosseteste is inspired by the idea that the natural world can be observed and facts can be proved. From Aristotle (who had it from Socrates) he takes the idea of deducing universal laws from particular observations, and then predicting particulars from universal laws. Grosseteste calls this "resolution and composition". It is a method crucial to the development of science.

Grosseteste breaks with the conventional ideas of the time by teaching that a mathematical structure underlies the natural world. He writes about light in the scientific text De Luce.

After serving as de facto chancellor of Oxford University, he becomes a bishop and a church reformer who opposes the church's nepotism and materialism. He emphasises pastoral care. There is evidence that he becomes friends with Simon de Montfort and influences his fight for justice against Henry III's tyranny. See Liberty, 13th century

1200s THE ENGLISH PROTECT AND SUSTAIN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

In the 11th century, when the Normans invaded England, only French and Latin was spoken by rulers and clergy, yet the English hung on to their sturdy language. For one hundred years or more books were not written in English, but the English spoke English. They insisted on speaking English. They absorbed French and Latin and Greek words, and added them to English words that came from Old German and Old Norse. They made English richer, more subtle, more precise. The Normans, meanwhile, intermarried with the English, and learned to speak English - playful, pungent, philosophical, practical, poetic English.

This is one of the British people’s greatest achievements and it belongs to all of them, first saving their language from conquest, and then letting it grow freely, with all the people deciding which words they liked, and wanted to keep, and which words they'd scuttle. In the intervening years they have invented and added a million new words, including half million technical and scientific terms. (German has about 185,000 words and French has fewer than 100,000.)

Grosseteste, who also appears in the Freedom Timeline, is one of those who defends the English language. He detests Henry III's court, filled with Frenchmen who "strive to tear the fleece and do not even know the faces of the sheep; they do not understand the English tongue. . ."

1209 OXFORD STUDENTS FOUND CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY

After turbulent quarrels with townspeople, a number of Oxford students decamp to East Anglia where they establish Cambridge University. In subsequent years, Cambridge will found the first printing and publishing house in the world. (The press has 24,000 authors currently in print.)

In the Middle Ages, Christian thinkers urged students to search for the truth about God's world, and this search remains central to the university's mission. Today, Cambridge University numbers over 100 departments, colleges, and research institutes. Many of the 20th century's major scientific discoveries were made at the university's Cavendish Laboratory, including splitting the atom and discovering DNA.

View of Cambridge University across meadows with cows

Scientists of stellar intellect – Newton, Maxwell, Rutherford, Watson, and Crick – have studied or taught at Cambridge along with one queen, several martyrs, and more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution in the world.    

Photo: guyerwood@istockphoto.com    

1250s ANGLICUS CAPTURES 'KNOWN' WORLD IN HIS ENCYCLOPAEDIA

A student of Robert Grosseteste, Bartholomaeus Anglicus immerses himself in Classical texts, which have recently become available. Heading to a monastery in Saxony, he decides to put down in one place everything that is known “about the nature of things.” In De Proprietatibus Rerum, one of the earliest encyclopaedias, Anglicus encapsulates everything then understood about the human body, illness, birds, colours, clouds, time, God, angels, mountains, minerals, and snow. With his liking for facts he would have appreciated the irony that historians believe he may also be the man known as Bartholomaeus of Glanville. They remain a bit befuddled about his identity.

1240s - 1290s DR WONDERFUL ADVANCES IDEA CRUCIAL TO DEVELOPMENT OF SCIENCE

Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1294) is another student of Robert Grosseteste. Bacon develops an idea essential to science – testing an idea with controlled experiments. In what is called the ‘Dark Ages’ – a period considerably brighter than its name suggests – Bacon is the great advocate of experimentation. Brits who follow his lead will develop remarkable inventions based on theories they have tested with experiments.

Called Dr Mirabilis (Doctor Wonderful), Bacon investigates the optics of the rainbow and writes the formula for gunpowder (in code to keep it secret). He predicts the invention of the airplane, submarine, and robot, and he, too, writes an encyclopaedia. His researches create suspicion, and he depends on the Pope to protect him from charge of necromancy. After the Pope dies, Bacon is tried as a magician, and incarcerated for ten years.

The word curious does not have real equivalents in every language. For instance, Arabic lacks an equivalent. Less than one hundred years after Bacon lived, and due in part to his scientific explorations, the word curious entered English with a definite and passionate meaning: the desire to know and learn.

Woman weighing vegetables in a supermarket

Brits achieve consensus on the weight of a pound, an advance that streamlines business, and protects families from fraud.

Photo: sjlocke@istockphoto.com

1266 GETTING WEIGHTS DOWN

Buying or selling food is frustrating if everyone is uncertain exactly how much a pound weighs, or if a pound of bread weighs one thing in London and something else in Winchester and something else again in Bristol or York. Quarrels and losses disrupt trade and industry, and families suffer.

Magna Carta called for standard weights and measures in 1215. By 1266 Brits have standardised weights and measures with considerable success. They base their measure of weight on the ancient Roman libra (hence the abbreviation lb for pound). They modify this weight considerably. The pound remains the standard measure in the United States, a common sense decision based on how easy the pound is to understand and use.

1280s - 1300 THE 'SUBTLE' DOCTOR ADVOCATES LOGICAL PROOFS AND EXPERIMENTATION

John Duns Scotus (ca. 1270-1308) believes that a person may want both what is advantageous to him and what is just. This is a valuable psychological insight, realistic and optimistic, with implications for free government. In subsequent centuries, a number of Brits will prove his insight correct.

Called Dr Subtilis, the “Subtle Doctor”, Duns Scotus creates proofs for the existence of God and human freedom. He is an ardent advocate of the use of reason. A professor at Oxford University and the University of Paris, Duns Scotus actively promotes observation and experimentation before dying at the age of 38.

Despite the dangers and superstitions of the time, the Brits have the ideas of Bacon, Grosseteste, and Scotus firmly in hand, and two universities. They are on their way, and even the Black Death, which kills almost one-half their people cannot stop them, though it does slow them down.

To 14th Century

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass