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

INGENIOUS INVENTORS, INNOVATIVE THINKERS

Eye in the sky with rainbow

Courteous and confident, and not afraid to rattle the establishment, Robert Grosseteste saw justice, nature and mathematics as one luminous whole.

Seeing Light

Born in the late 12th century to a poor family, Robert Grosseteste had brains, curiosity and energy, but no money to go to school. Adam of Wigford - one of a long line of donors to British education - paid his way. After completing school, Grosseteste found a job and his vocation working in the diocese of Hereford, the most active centre of scientific studies in England.

In our time, religion and science have seemed opposed. In Hereford, research into science was supported by Christians who believed that God had given them brains to understand his cosmos. Grosseteste studied and wrote about the Movements of the Planets and the Origins of Sounds. He also made a scientific breakthrough we depend on today.

Scientific breakthrough

Grosseteste was inspired by Aristotle's idea (who had it from Socrates) that universal laws can be deduced from particular observations, and that particulars can be predicted from universal laws. Grosseteste called this resolution and composition. It was the first time that anyone in the medieval world had understood that this method was crucial to the development of science.

Grosseteste proceeded to overturn the conventional ideas of the time by teaching that a mathematical structure underlies the natural world. He published the results of his research into light in De Luce. His career took a new turn when he became de facto chancellor of Oxford University and then a bishop.

A bishop who fought for people and the English language

Over 6 feet tall, Grosseteste was a man who enjoyed the company of other people. As a bishop he lived simply.

Grosseteste was in his forties, in 1215, when the bishops, barons, knights, and the people of the big towns forced John to affirm Magna Carta. History has so many misty gaps, we don't know if Robert Grosseteste was with them, on horseback in the lush meadow of Runnymede.

What we do know is that Grosseteste helped to propel the cause of liberty by advocating just government against tyranny in a published essay. He was a friend of Simon de Montfort, who held Britain's first Parliament in defiance of Henry III, and sacrificed his life for justice.

Grosseteste also defended the English language. He detested 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. . ."

In the last years of his life, Grosseteste's concern was the pastoral care of the people. Ever a realist and visionary, he saw that the real world proved that nepotism and greedy materialism were wrong spiritually and practically.

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass