Roger Bacon Facts
Born: circa 1214
Died: 1292 (age 78)
Period: Early modern
Roger Bacon Summary
Roger was an English savant and Franciscan minister who set extensive accentuation on the investigations of nature through empirical techniques. Primarily since the nineteenth century, he is sometimes credited as one of the earliest-known European supporters of the modern day “scientific method”, a strategy created by Aristotle and used late by Arabic researchers such as the Muslim researcher Alhazen. However, later re-assessments stress that he was basically a medieval thinker, with a lot of his exploratory information acquired from books during the period. A recent review of how Bacon’s work was received by the public throughout the hundreds of years was noted that it frequently mirrored the concerns and contentions that were fundamental to his readers.
Roger Bacon was conceived in Ilchester in Somerset, England, between 1213 or 1214 at the Ilchester Friary. The only known information in regards to his birth is his announcement in the 1267 biography Opus Tertium, saying “forty years have passed since I first learned alphabet”. The 1214 conception date is implied that 40 years had passed since he registered at Oxford at age 13. On the other hand, if what he stated was more in the literal sense, then it is more probable that he was conceived around 1220 to 1222, however the number forty was generally utilized in the Middle Ages basically as an equivalent word for “many”, leaving his real date of conception in uncertainty. In the same entry he said that for all except two of the forty years he had been occupied with his studies. His family seems to have been fortunate, however amid the difficult rule of Henry III of England, their property was seized and a few relatives driven out of the country.
Bacon acquired his education at Oxford and he may have been a supporter of Grosseteste, another English philosopher. He earned his Masters at Oxford, becoming a lecturer on Aristotle. There is no known confirmation that he was ever honored a doctorate—the title of Doctor Mirabilis was awarded post-mortem and non-literal. At some point around 1237 and 1245, he started his lectures at the University of Paris, where back then was core of European knowledge on intellectual life. It is unknown what his whereabouts were sometime around 1247 and 1256, however around 1256 he chose to leave behind his teaching post to become a monk in the Franciscan Order. After 1260, his actions were confined by a Franciscan statute, which forbade ministers from distributing books or leaflets without approval.
Bacon evaded this statute through his fellow cardinals, one of them being Guy le Gros de Foulques, who went on to become Pope Clement IV in 1265. Clement IV then issued a command requesting Bacon to keep in touch with him concerning the spot of logic inside philosophy. Bacon sent the Pope his book called Opus Majus, which introduced his perspectives on the best way to consolidate the reasoning of Aristotle and science into another theology. Bacon likewise sent another book called Opus Minus, De multiplicatione specierum, and probably more books on astrology and alchemy.
After Pope Clement’s passing in 1268, Bacon lost his best supporter and protector. Sooner or later around 1277 and 1279, Bacon was evidently detained or subjected to house arrest for his over-the-top credulity in speculative chemistry and for his brutal treatment for other would-be pioneers of his time. In 1278 Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he resumed his studies and is speculated to have spent his remaining days. He is said to have passed away in June of 1292 (the year of his last dated written work, Compendium studii theologiae) and laid to rest in Oxford.
Articles Featuring Roger Bacon From British Heritage Magazine
Within the studious atmosphere of their library were gathered the brethren of the Oxford Franciscans. The friars watched as pages were torn from a leather-bound manuscript and nailed to the plans of the library shelves. When the last vellum sheet of the contraband work had been hung to yellow and fade, the friars left the room in silent procession. One or two of the younger novitiates had not known Brother Roger Bacon in his days of fiery verbal assault against mediaeval education and educators. Perhaps they paused to glance at his scrawled handwriting on the desiccated pages and wondered at the nature of his crime. He had died only that month, June 1292.
With the post mortem rejection by his home convent began the web of legend that has surrounded Roger Bacon for seven centuries. Popular history has pictured him as a secretive necromancer, while scholars have classed him as everything from a visionary to a cranky old man.
Bacon is thought to have been born in the West of England between the years of 1210 and 1215. His family is thought to have been of substantial wealth and social position. Supporters of Henry III during his struggles with his barons, they several times purchased the release of Roger’s elder brother from the hands of the King’s enemies. Another brother, says Roger, was a scholar like himself. A family with resources enough to support two sons through a university education and to repeatedly ransom a third was most likely able to provide a tutor for Roger’s earliest educations.
Having completed his elementary education at home, the 13 year old Roger was sent to the young university at Oxford. For six years he faithfully attended lectures in the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic). His texts were selected from among the few ancient authors whose works were known to the 13th Century, and were supplemented by the commentaries of well-known mediaeval scholastics. His command of the ‘arts and sciences was further developed by means of philosophical disputation with his peers and professors. Through this programme of lectures and debates, he learned that the study of astronomy included not just observation of the stars, but also a knowledge of world geography. His teachers convinced him that the world was round, as could be deduced by the curved shadow that it cast on the moon during an eclipse. In his logic class he discovered that the universe was infinite for no finite cosmos could contain an infinite God.
In 1233, Bacon received his baccalaureat; an additional year of study entitled him to wear the hood and gown of the Master of Arts. He was now qualified, in fact required, to teach, and shortly thereafter presented his first lectures in philosophy at Oxford. He did not, however, follow the usual course of action for students of his day, the pursuit of a doctorate in theology. His interests were instead captured by the progressive work of several of his fellow faculty members.
Robert Grossteste served as Chancellor of the University until 1229. Though Bacon may or may not have heard him lecture, his written works greatly influenced the younger man, who later described him as perfect in all knowledge. This praise was shared with Adam Marsh, who was not only a famed theologian but, according to Bacon, excelled in the study of mathematics and languages. Both Grossteste and Marsh encouraged their students to seek empirical as well as philosophical knowledge of the world around them and both hoped to use mathematics to express their observations.
The science of experiment or experience, as practised by Marsh and Grossteste, did not find such a warm reception in other mediaeval universities. The scholars of the 13th Century were also churchmen and distrust of experimental science was in the tradition of the Christian Church. Coming of age in the shadow of the pagan Roman Empire, early Christianity competed for converts with a number of popular cults which proved their verity by means of Greek science. In practice, however, this science was no more than an amalgamation of sorcery and superstition. To the early Christian writers science and heresy were synonymous. The feeling of the age was well summarised by Bishop Ambrose of Milan when he stated that to discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of the life to come.
The general complaisance of mediaeval scholars towards science was shattered in the 11th Century. Conflicts with the forces of Islam in the Holy Land and Spain brought Europeans face to face with four centuries of Moslem learning. Christian sailors found the astrolabe more effective than the human eye for charting a ship’s course by the stars. Arabic numerals proved less cumbersome to use than Roman numerals and were soon adopted by merchants for calculating investments and by churchmen in determining the date of Easter. Most revolutionary of all to Christian thinkers were the Arabic translations of and commentaries on Aristotle, who soon became known as the prince of philosophers. His observations of physical as well as spiritual phenomena provided meat for active minds.
While the works of Aristotle were being assimilated by university scholars, Roger Bacon was gaining reputation as a lecturer. He chose to centre his discourses on the new science and must have demonstrated admirable command of his subject as well as eloquence in his delivery. In 1241 he was invited to Paris to present a lecture series on the Aristotelian corpus.
The invitation from Paris brought Bacon to a cross-roads in his academic career. He had to decide whether to continue teaching philosophy with his master’s degree, or to persevere towards a doctor of divinity. There was no better place to do either than Paris. Many an Englishman had gone there to study theology and returned to England, a distinguished expert in the field, to fill a bishopric. On the other hand, a number of English scholars with an interest in science had likewise studied and lectured there.
Bacon’s inclination was heavily weighted against the study of theology. The baccalaureat program in Divinity required eight years of study beyond what he had already completed, plus an additional eight to earn the title of Doctor. He was now nearly 30 years old and could not picture himself attending lectures on elementary theology surrounded by boys who lacked half his years in age and all his years in philosophical training. One thing further influenced his final decision: he loved Aristotelian philosophy and desired to become a renowned authority,’ whose opinions would shape the European awareness of the subject. A lectureship in Paris with the Faculty of Arts seemed an opportunity to realise this all-important goal. Shortly thereafter Paris became his place of residence.
Bacon’s appointment as magister regens lasted from 1241 to 1250. During those years he gained recognition as a teacher who argued according to sense and Aristotle. This was no more than he expected, for he considered himself a good teacher. He discovered, however, that he had much to learn from his students. His Spanish-born pupils laughed at him during a lecture when he mistakenly referred to a Spanish word as Arabic. This embarrassment convinced him that there was merit in the study of languages. He set out to master the four languages which he felt most essential to the study of philosophy: Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Chaldean. In his spare time he began a Greek grammar, the first book of the volume on the grammar of languages other than Latin. His writings also included a text for his students, the Quaestiones, in the form of a disputation between a teacher and his students.
In addition to his academic duties, Bacon found time to audit lectures at the Faculty of Theology. Several times he amused himself by confounding a lecturer with some obscure philosophical point. He attempted to prove himself more learned than the doctors by designing problems of geometry that their theology could not solve. These intellectual gymnastics earned him little love from the theologians of Paris.
In one thing only was Bacon disappointed: he did not become a respected authority on Aristotle. His decision to devote himself to secular philosophy rather than to theology had guaranteed that he would not achieve the renown of Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas, his fellow Paris scholars. His only hope of scholastic greatness seemed to lie in further study and reading. He threw himself more deeply into the new learning in search of a way to legitimise science by demonstrating its value to theology and so secure his reputation. When his friends invited him to join them in a goliardic romp through the streets of Paris, or to an evening of drinking at the local inn, he declined. They could only shake their heads and marvel at his determination to work himself to death.
Bacon’s perseverance was at last rewarded with his discovery of the Secretum Secretorum, and obscure Arabic text which had been translated into Latin in 1243. Though actually of early mediaeval origin, the Secret of Secrets was thought to be the work of Aristotle. bacon read eagerly its description of the science of Enoch and Adam. This science was a mixture of Arabic and Christian mysticism, declaring that alchemy could be used to purify the human soul and that astrology provided a means of controlling the personalities of individuals and nations. Such powers were available only to those devoted to the virtues needed for integrity of life. To Bacon, already living in voluntary frugality, the Secretum Secretorum guaranteed him access to more divine revelation than Albertus or Aquinas would achieve through a lifetime of studies.
When his appointment as magister expired, Bacon returned to Oxford and set out to become a master of the sciences. After tapping the well-spring of his family’s fortune, he spent some £2,000 (in 20th Century funds, approximately £10,000) on secret books and various experiments, and on languages and instruments, and astronomical tables. He sent to continental apothecaries for alchemical powders and essences which were unavailable in England. His vendors across the Channel also supplied him with prisms and lenses and drawings of instruments such as the astrolabe, which were unavailable, to be shipped to him. He was not always successful: the materials that he sought were difficult and most expensive, for which reason those who know the art . . . are not able to operate and the books on that science are so secreted that a man car scarcely find them.
What experiments Bacon performed with his purchases were, of necessity, simple. Using a bell jar, he observed that a lighted candle ceased to burn when he left inside a closed container. He completed drawings of the human eye and began calculations on the effects of the moon upon the tides. Building upon Grossteste’s work on the refraction of light, he sprayed mouthfuls of water into the air and noted that the colours apparent in the tiny droplet were the same as the colours of the rainbow.
Yet Bacon accomplished little of his research by actual experimentation. He depended to a large extent upon the reports of travellers or men who claimed to have performed the miracles described in his sourcebook. His eagerness to verify the Secretum Secretorum led him to believe some rather incredible stories; however, he also discovered many fascinating truths about the world in which he lived. While interviewing a French Franciscan who had recently returned from Central Asia, he learned of the Parliament of Religions which had been held by the Mongol ruler Mangu Khan in order to determine which of man-kind’s religions was most reasonable. From men who had journeyed to Tartary (China), he learned of the substance called blackpowder: a device a size as small as the human thumb packed with this powder produced a horrible noise when set on fire. His fruitful dealings with these and other people led him to declare proudly that I have learned more truths . . . from men of humble station . . . than from all the famous doctors.
Bacon’s fellow scholars observed his indefatigable efforts with amazement, but they did not disapprove of his principles. They, and the university officials with them, were more hardpressed to ignore his outspoken criticisms of Oxford’s famous doctors and his mischievous games of rhetoric in their lecture halls. Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Bacon denounced those who accepted authority unworthy and fragile as the basis for their knowledge. Among the men against whom he railed was a Franciscan theologian, Richard of Cornwall.
While less irascible men had borne Bacon’s criticism and interruptions with laboured patience, Friar Richard did not. Like his rival, was outspoken and quick to lash out at those who disagreed with him. Both Richard and Bacon were of the temperament which mediaeval physicians referred to as choleric. The exact nature of their quarrel is not known, although their ire was great enough that Bacon was still making scurrilous remarks about his rival in his last work some 30 years later. Whatever its cause, the battle seems to have ended only when Adam Marsh intervened by obtaining an appointment for the enraged Franciscan at the University of Paris.
Feeling himself triumphant, Bacon returned to his experiments and interviews. Then, in the midst of his building momentum, he received a stunning blow: a letter or visit from his elder brother informed him that his family could no longer afford to support his expensive studies. The times in England were tumultuous: civil war between Henry III and his barons seemed imminent and the Bacons feared that all their resources would be needed to protect the family estate through the months ahead. Roger was told to seek money from a source other than his family’s purse.
Though he had already exhausted a small fortune in the pursuit of his research:, Bacon knew that his work was far from complete. He began to cast about desperately for alternative sources of revenue. His options were those of all scholars of his day. Mediaeval society was essentially a system of patronage: lords, prelates, religious orders and universities provided funds for artists and intellectuals. The universities themselves were often the recipients of large benefices from interested patrons. But King Henry, with war on his hands, could not be expected to be a patron of Bacon’s science and the Oxford University officials viewed him more as a troublemaker than a scholar. His last hope lay in taking holy orders. He chose to join the Franciscans.
The Order of St. Francis was a natural choice for an Englishman who sought support for his studies. Many great English scholars had been members of the Greyfriars, among them the encyclopaedist Bartholomew Anglicus and the alchemist Thomas Bungay. Robert Grossteste had join the order in his later years, and Adam Marsh was its Provincial General. The funds, manuscripts and mind-power of the Oxford chapter would certainly prove beneficial to Bacon’s work.
Not everyone, however, was able to see the benefits of Bacon’s membership in the Order. Many among his fellow friars brought their complaints to Brother Adam: Brother Roger lacked Christian humility, he shirked his work duties, he was not always punctual in his attendance at divine services, he spent long hours pondering magical implements and he openly criticised a many respected member of the Order.
Those members of the Order whom Bacon criticised most loudly where the theologians. The members of mendicant orders were not allowed to pursue degrees in secular philosophy. The were, however, encouraged to study theology, a programme that usually required candidates to possess a master of arts. To side-step this requirement, the young oblates were granted wax degrees, dispensations bearing the official seal of a high-ranking prelate which entitled them Masters. Bacon felt this practice to be the reason for many poorly educated theologians who he so greatly envied and despised. His verbal and written campaign against the boy theologians was bitter and vindictive. Since many of his Franciscan brothers counted among these boys, his remarks earned him great resentment. He suffered the backlash of his sharp tongue when, in 1258, Adam Marsh died and Richard of Cornwall returned to Oxford as Provincial General of the English Greyfriars. Brother Richard immediately assumed the offensive against his outspoken underling. For his arrogance, Bacon was made to endure penance’s of bread and water and to spend more hours in prayer. His experiments were curtailed and his frustrations caused him to fall ill.
Bacon’s life was further complicated by developments within the Franciscan Order itself. The early 13th Century witnessed an increase in mysticism, spurred on by the crusades and by various apocalypses written during this time. Foremost among these prophecies was the Everlasting Gospel from the pen of the monk Joachim of Flora. The ideas found in Joachim’s Gospel served as the inspiration for the Children’s Crusade in 1212 and the Pastoureaux or Shepherd’s Crusade in 1250.
The ideals of the Everlasting Gospel could not fail to inspire a number of the Franciscans who maintained the rigorous discipline of St,. Francis himself. Its emphasis upon a revelation of divine knowledge also proved enticing to Bacon. Joachim’s belief in an elite group of men who would preserve the True Faith and usher in the Age of the Holy Spirit reinforced the ideas that he had drawn from the Secretum Secretorum. He embraced the cause of the Spiritual Franciscans, as those became known who adhered to the Joachist interpretation of history. In doing so, he called down further trouble upon himself.
In Paris and elsewhere, the outcries of the Spirituals against the clergy and scholars of the Church resulted in extreme censure for all mendicants. The flames of conflict were fanned by the publication of An Introduction to the Everlasting Gospel by Friar Gerard of San Borgo. His work identified Joachim’s Faithful elite with the Franciscans, an interpretation heartily opposed by the Dominicans who, until that time, had shared persecution with the Greyfriars. The Dominicans joined with their erstwhile enemies, the clergy and university officials, to assault the power and reputation of their rivals. Their campaign resulted in the imprisonment of Brother Gerard; his Introduction and other Joachist works were declared anathema and were no longer published or studied.
The Franciscans found themselves fighting for their corporate life. Their Minister General, St. Bonaventura, sought tentative reconciliation with the leaders of the Dominicans, then turned to the housekeeping of his own Order. His primary concern was the elimination of the schismatic Spirituals. An order went out to the various convents that any member suspected of Joachist learnings should be closely watched or sent to a place where he could be.
Brother Roger’s eccentric experiments with light and tides could be viewed with more scorn and fear. Heterodoxy, however, was nothing to laugh at or ignore. When the Oxford house received word of Bonaventura’s decree, they lost not time in delivering Bacon to their Paris chapter for observation. The friars there treated him with reserve and suspicion, knowing him to be a potential schismatic and critic of the Order’s leadership. Bacon writes: My superiors and brothers . . . kept me under close guard and would not let anyone come to me, fearing that my writings would be divulged to others . . .
Since he was not, strictly speaking, a prisoner, Bacon was allowed to speak with the novitiates of the Order. Among these he found a few young men who appreciated his biting with and approved of his experiential science. H met with them for private discussions, instructing them in the use of mathematical tables and in the methods of experiment’. Their interest encouraged him to continue their research which his transfer to Paris had interrupted.
Suspicion of the Joachist philosophy did not decrease during the time of Bacon’s confinement. In 1260 Bonaventura met with the other Franciscan ministers at Narbonne, France, and drafted a document that established limits on the writings of their members. No work by a brother was to be published until a panel of Franciscan authorities had read and approved its contents. The author who transgressed against the rule would incur forfeiture of his manuscript and imprisonment. Bonaventura did not wish his Order to suffer an embarrassment similar to that experienced at the publication of Gerard’s Introduction.
Though much of his work stressed points of view which he shared with Albertus Magnus and other accepted authorities of his day, Bacon was a ware that the antagonism of this Franciscan brothers posed a stumbling block to his publishing. Desperate at the thought of censureship, he did that which the Order was most sure to frown upon: he stepped beyond their fellowship in search of a patron. The person upon whom he hung his hopes was Guy de Foulques, Cardinal Bishop of Sabina. Bacon approached the Cardinal through his secretary with a summary of his proposed writing project, asking for financial support. Unfortunately, the secretary thought him to mean the opus was ready for review; the response from the Cardinal included no gold, only a request for the polished manuscript to be delivered to him. Finding himself once again misunderstood, Bacon did not attempt to clarify his situation to this correspondent: Foulques’ request remained unacknowledged.
In February of 1265, Cardinal Foulques was elected Pope, taking the name Clement IV, and Bacon decided it was worth his while to again approach him. He sent his second message by way of an English knight, William Bonecor, who was en route to the Vatican as an envoy from the English King. Bacon entrusted his countryman with a letter to Clement, reminding him of the work which he had suggested two years earlier. In obedience to courtly etiquette, he did not mention finances in the letter. Instead, he explained his situation to the knight: Sir William listened patiently as Bacon detailed his need for copyists, equipment, artists, books and parchment. Then he continued on his journey, leaving the friar to nervously await the Pope’s response.
Thirty days of travel and the excitement of his arrival at Rome caused Sir William to forget Bacon’s oral message. Although Clement sent a missive, Dated 22nd June 1266, affirming his continued interest, he included no papal gold to assist the beleaguered friar. Instead, he laid upon Bacon the burdens of haste and secrecy. Well aware of the schism within the Franciscan order, he prudently wished to spare Brother Roger, as well as himself, the attention of Bonaventura.
The papal mandate presented Bacon with both a triumph and a timetable. To claim a pope as patron was no mean honour, nor would his Order be able to stifle his work if it bore Clement’s seal of approval. On the other hand, Clement’s expression of interest was no guarantee of his support once he had read Bacon’s work. The proposed manuscript did not yet exist. Bacon’s troubles of the past eight years had severely hampered his creativity and many of his experiments and ideas had remained incomplete. He still lacked the money necessary to draw his research to a close.
For the second time in his life, Bacon was faced with a major financial crisis. As a friar he had no private savings and no property which might be pawned for cash. He first sent a plea for aid to his brother in England, unaware of the ruin which his family’s fortune had suffered during the recent Barons’ War. After waiting impatiently for the reply which never came, he approached a number of his wealthy friends, begging for loans or benefices. They were wary of his requests, since he would not explain the reason for his need. In desperation, he turned to the less well-to-do among his acquaintances. Threatening and cajoling, he managed to gather the meagre sum of 70 French pounds, barely enough to cover the cost of his parchment and ink. At last he sat down to organise his opus.
Bacon’s fund-raising efforts and his secretive writing did not pass unnoticed by the officials of the Paris convent. Inevitably he was called to account for his work. His only defence lay in the mandate from clement; this he must have produced for them, since he was not prevented from completing his work. They could not gracefully deny him assistance for a project already sanctioned by the Holy Father. The Franciscan copyists were put at his disposal and he was allowed time to complete his work.
Having accepted the aid of this Order, Bacon spent long hours struggling to compose his thoughts in a clear and concise form. At last the Opus majus was complete and he hurried it into the hands of the waiting scribes. Even before it was returned to him he began a second manuscript, hoping to touch upon a number of points which were covered only superficially in the first. This text, the Opus minor, threatened to grow as voluminous as his first; still not satisfied, he cut it short and sent it also the Scriptorium. His third effort resulted in the Opus tertium, in which, for the benefit of his would-be patron, he included a history of his troubles.
The first two manuscripts returned to him and Bacon quickly read them to assure himself that nothing had been edited by the Franciscans. The work was not the best of which he was capable, but he had kept the Pope waiting or two years since the second letter of inquiry. The Opus majus and Opus minor were entrusted to one of his pupils, rather than to a Franciscan courier. Bacon wrote the boy a glowing letter of introduction, ladened him with the two substantial manuscripts and a number of his shorter treatises and sent him down the road to Rome. The Opus tertium followed later that same year, 1268.
In Bacon’s persuasio, as he himself called his three-volume effort, Clement must have found much food for thought. The friar presented nothing less than an outline for educational reform. Many of his ideas were based upon the efforts and conclusions of his scholastic predecessors. Even his much lauded prophecies, in which he envisioned devices permitting men to walk on the ocean floors and to lift great weights by means of a small machine, were not original.
Bacon’s truly remarkable contribution to the science of his day lay in his desire for an Academy of Sciences. He envisioned a congress of experts in all fields of physical and philosophical sciences, working hand in hand with technicians. The creative skill of inventors and engineers would be used to transform the theories of the scientists into practical reality. The supervision of the Academy would lie in the hands of a small group of dedicated and virtuous churchmen, who would ensure that scientific knowledge remained the hand-maiden of Christianity. To avoid the uncertainties of financial support, the scholars would live on funds gathered from all the prelates and princes of Europe.
In his belief that an Academy of scholars could gather an interdisciplinary body of knowledge about the natural and supernatural worlds, Bacon was centuries ahead of his time. What Clement thought of his progressive plan, however, remains unknown for the Pope died in November of 1268, before he had communicated his opinions to Bacon.
The sudden death of his prospective patron was a crippling blow to Bacon’s hopes. His depression and bitterness were increased by the realisation that his Opus majus was not of a length and depth of expression equivalent with the other summas of his day. Yet in spite of the Pope’s untimely demise, Bacon was no longer ignored by the members of his Order. His commission had gained him some respect in their eyes and his confinement was ended. He was allowed to return to his native land and resumed his studies among the Oxford brothers.
Much as the situation in his private life had improved, the world around him remained one of political tempests and religions dissension. The rivalry between the clergy and the mendicants had broken out again, with a rash of polemics against the Joachists. Italy was overrun by the French forces of Charles of Anjou; the succession to the Holy Roman Empire was open to dispute. The last of the great crusades, led by the French King, St. Louis, had met with defeat on the plains north of Cairo. The world of the late 13th Century did not appear a stable one to its citizens. Like his fellow friars, Bacon was acutely aware of the struggles within the Church and between Europe’s princes, perhaps more so because of his personal involvement. As the afterglow of his limited success began to fade, he felt himself once more unheard, forgotten, buried. The task of revising his earlier, incomplete works, which he had set for himself, provide time-consuming and unimaginative. He began to turn once more to the philosophy of the Joachists, who interpreted the turmoils of Europe as signs of the imminent appearance of Anti-Christ.
Bacon’s frustrations and fears found a voice at last in what should have been life’s masterpiece. Although he had set for himself the task of discussing his scientific scheme, his Compendium Studii Philosophiae degenerated into an attach on the shortcomings of persons and institutions around him. No one was spared his criticisms: princes, priests, shepherds and craftsmen were all accused of corruption and lack of spirituality. The educational system, in particular, he pointed up as responsible for the failings of society, due to its neglect of the sciences.
Bacon never completed his Compendium. After many pages of angry denunciations he abandoned it, his bitterness spent for the time being. Probably he never intended that it be read by eyes other than his own, knowing that its criticisms of men great and small would have damned him in the eyes of his Order. His reputation as a troublemaker and his prestige as a man who had once gained the attention of a Pope already made him someone to be watched. The superiors of his convent feared that he would, sooner or later, declare himself a follower of the Joachist heresies and were watching his writings carefully.
The Copmpendium, falling unfortunately into the hands of one of his enemies, proved the lever to move Bacon before a mendicant court. The Oxford brothers communicated their concerns and suspicions regarding Bacon to the new Minister General of their order, Jerome d’Ascoli, who agreed with them that steps should be taken to silence potential fomenters of dissent. Jerome ordered Brother Roger sent to Paris for trial. The accusation publicly brought against him was one of suspected novelties, a convenient name for the threat posed by his pen and tongue. More dangerous in the eyes of his judges and the real reason for their concern, were his Joachist learnings.
Bacon was condemned by a court of his peers and sentenced to confinement within the walls of that Paris convent which, in his Compendium, he had denounces as the very centre of corruption. Orders were given to all the brethren that none should hold his doctrine, but avoid it as reprobated. Bacon’s imprisonment was less severe than that suffered by Spirituals elsewhere. He was kept on scanty rations, but was not chained, and was allowed to participate in the Sacraments. More wearing upon him than his physical hardships were his mental sufferings. No longer able to teach or study, his activities limited to prayer and brooding, he aged quickly. The years passed and his bitterness mellowed into melancholy.
For 14 years, Bacon’s world was his cell in the Paris convent. Then, slowly, the wheel of fate turned once more. Jerome d’Ascoli relinquished the leadership of the Franciscans to assume the papal tiara as Nicholas IV. The office of Minister General fell, in 1289, to Raymond de Gaufredi, who was sympathetic to the beliefs of the Spirituals. When the anti-Joachist efforts of Nicholas were cut short by his death in 1292, Brother Raymond proceeded to release those members of the Order who had been imprisoned for their views. Among those whom he set free was now the aged and pale Bacon.
Brother Roger was now nearly 80 years old, no longer their energetic man whose venomous pen had angered the authorities of his day. The time for innovation had passed and he recognised this. Since theological disputes are solved by means of authorities and arguments, he stated in his last work, the Compendium Studii Theologiae, I will conform. Begun shortly after his release in 1292, the Theologiae was never completed, cut short by either exhaustion or death. He had returned once again to Oxford and there he went to his rest, tradition setting this date on 11th June.
Bacons’ vision of a Science serving Christian Theology was not to be; even during his lifetime the two disciplines assumed opposing rather than supportive positions, one towards the other. Scholasticism of the later Middle Ages was dominated by the assertion that man could never understand God’s Creation. Rather than stimulating scientific thought, Aristotelian philosophy proved a stifling influence which was not cast off by European thinkers until the 16th Century. Bacon himself was not remembered by later generations as a publicist for Science, the fame which he had so much coveted. Rather, he was pictured as a wizard who received prophecies from a brazen head and who held the secret to transmutation of lead into gold. Many magical handbooks were erroneously ascribed to his authorship, including the Mirror of Alchemy. The frustrated experimentalist, the sensitive mystic embittered by the corruptions of his world, the idealist dreaming of a better day for Science: this was the Roger Bacon who was forgotten by history.
Copyright 2014 British Heritage.