The unity of knowledge

Daily Reading for October 9 • Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, 1253

In the opinion of Luard, the editor of [Robert Grosseteste’s] Letters, “probably no one has had a greater influence upon English thought and English literature for the two centuries that followed his age.” Wyclif ranks him even above Aristotle, and Gower calls him “the grete clerc.”

Apart from his important position as a patriot, a reformer and a statesman, and as a friend of Simon de Montfort, he gave, in the words of his latest biographer, F. S. Stevenson, “a powerful impulse to almost every department of intellectual activity, revived the study of neglected languages and grasped the central idea of the unity of knowledge.” One of the earliest leaders of thought in Oxford, a promoter of Greek learning, and an interpreter of Aristotle, he went far beyond his master in the experimental knowledge of the physical sciences. Roger Bacon lauds his knowledge of science, and he is probably referring to Grosseteste when he says that no lectures on optics “have as yet been given in Paris, or anywhere else among the Latins, except twice at Oxford.”

Matthew Paris, who resented his zeal for the reform of the monasteries, generously pays the following tribute to his memory: “Thus the saintly. . . bishop of Lincoln passed away from the exile of this world, which he never loved. . . . He had been the rebuker of pope and king, the corrector of bishops, the reformer of monks, the director of priests, the instructor of clerks, the patron of scholars, the preacher of the people, . . . the careful student of the Scriptures, the hammer and the contemner of the Romans. At the table of bodily food, he was liberal, courteous and affable: at the table of spiritual food, devout, tearful and penitent: as a prelate, sedulous, venerable and never weary in well-doing.”

From The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume 1, From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

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