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Roger Bacon

For the Nova Scotia premier see Roger Bacon (politician).

  Roger Bacon, O.F.M. (c. 1214–1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin: "wonderful teacher"), was one of the most famous Franciscan friars of his time. An English philosopher who placed considerable emphasis on empiricism, he was one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method.



Roger Bacon was born in Ilminster in Somerset in 1214, and not as some believe near Ilchester in Somerset, though he has also been claimed by Bisley in Gloucestershire. His date of birth is equally uncertain. The only source 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 meant 40 years had passed since he matriculated at Oxford at the age of 13. If he had been literal, his birth date was more likely around 1220. In the same passage he reports that for all but two of those forty years he had always been engaged in study.[1] His family appears to have been well-off, but, during the stormy reign of Henry III of England, 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. 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, then the center of intellectual life in Europe. His whereabouts between 1247 and 1256 are uncertain, but about 1256 he became a Friar 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.[2]

Bacon circumvented this restriction through his acquaintance with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, who became Pope Clement IV 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, 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.[3]

Pope Clement died in 1268, and sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was placed under house arrest by Jerome of Ascoli, the Minister-General of the Franciscan Order. Bacon's difficulties are probably related to the Condemnations of 1277, which banned the teaching of certain philosophical doctrines, including deterministic astrology. Sometime after 1278 Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies.[4]

Changing interpretations of Bacon

Bacon performed and described various experiments, which were for a time claimed as the first instances of true experimental science, some 500 years before the rise of science in the West. This widely held interpretation of Bacon as a modern experimental scientist, emerging before his time, originated in the nineteenth century. This image reflected the emphasis, dominant at that time, upon experiment as the principal form of scientific activity and the general acceptance of the characterization of the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages".[5] Some writers of this period, such as Andrew Dickson White, carried the account further by describing a concerted opposition to Bacon's ideas in which he was repeatedly persecuted and imprisoned as part of a medieval "Warfare of Science with Theology."[6] In this view 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.

In the course of the twentieth century the philosophical understanding of the role of experiment in the sciences has been substantially modified.[citation needed] And new historical research has shown not only that medieval Christians were not generally opposed to science,[7][8] but also revealed the extent and variety of medieval scientific activity. Consequently, the picture of Bacon has changed. His advocacy of scientia experimentalis has been argued to differ from modern experimental science,[9] and many medieval sources of and influences on his scientific activity have been identified.[10] In relation to this, 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".[11]

As to his assumed persecution for science, although texts indicate that Bacon was briefly confined for his doctrinal digressions, some modern accounts of his life show no evidence for any lengthy period of imprisonment and modern historians speak of his "alleged imprisonment."[12] As the historian of science David Lindberg writes: "his imprisonment, if it occurred at all (which I doubt) probably resulted with his sympathies for the radical "poverty" wing of the Franciscans (a wholly theological matter) rather than from any scientific novelties which he may have proposed".[13] Others do still argue that the Franciscans kept Bacon in isolated confinement for many years, and prevented from teaching his scientific views. Bacon is quoted as writing in 1267, about his time in a small cell in Paris, "…for my superiors and brothers, disciplining me with hunger, kept me under close guard and would not permit anyone to come to me, fearing that my writings would be divulged to others [rather] than to the chief pontiff and themselves," and that they treated him with "unspeakable violence" and "for ten years had been exiled from former University fame."[14]

A recent review of the variety of visions that each age has held about Roger Bacon says contemporary scholarship still neglects one of the most important aspects of Bacon's life and thought: his commitment to the Franciscan order. "His Opus maius was a plea for reform addressed to the supreme spiritual head of the Christian faith, written against a background of apocalyptic expectation and informed by the driving concerns of the friars. It was designed to improve training for missionaries 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. It cannot usefully be read solely in the context of the history of science and philosophy."[15]

His works


His view of the past

The scientific training Bacon had received showed him the defects in existing academic debate. Aristotle was known only through translations, as none of the professors would learn Greek; 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 experiment, but by arguments based solely on tradition and prescribed authorities (see Scholasticism).

Bacon withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research. The mathematicians whom he considered perfect were Peter of Maricourt and a John of London, and two were adequate: Campanus of Novara and a Master Nicholas. Peter was the author of a manuscript treatise, "De Magnete," and Campanus wrote several important works on astronomy, astrology, and the calendar.[16] Bacon often mentioned his debt to the work of Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh, as well as to other lesser figures. He was clearly not an isolated scholar in the thirteenth century.[17]

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 and Albertus Magnus who, he says, had not studied the philosophy of Aristotle but only acquired their learning during their life as preachers.[18] Albert was received at Paris as an authority equal to Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes[19] and "never in the world [had] such monstrosity occurred before."[20] Bacon was always an outspoken man who stated what he believed to be true and attacked those with whom he disagreed, which repeatedly caused him great trouble.


Bacon possessed one of the most commanding intellects of his age, or perhaps of any, and, notwithstanding all the disadvantages and discouragements to which he was subjected, made many discoveries, and came near to many others. His Opus Majus contains treatments of mathematics and optics, alchemy and the manufacture of gunpowder, the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies, and anticipates later inventions such as microscopes, telescopes, spectacles, flying machines, hydraulics and steam ships. Bacon studied astrology and believed that the celestial bodies had an influence on the fate and mind of humans. The study of optics in part five of Opus Majus seems to draw on the works of the Muslim scientists, Alkindus and Alhazen, including 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. He is credited with the invention of the magnifying glass.

Bacon also wrote a criticism of the Julian calendar which was then still in use. He first recognized the visible spectrum in a glass of water, four centuries before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that prisms could disassemble and reassemble white light.

He was an enthusiastic proponent and practitioner of the experimental method of acquiring knowledge about the world. He planned to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia, but only fragments ever appeared. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said of him that "To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen's conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth. He saw that experience alone teaches anything…. Of all kinds of experience, the best, he thought, was interior illumination, which teaches many things about Nature which the external senses could never discover, such as the transubstantiation of bread."[21]

Other attributed works

Roger Bacon is considered by some to be the author of the Voynich Manuscript, because of his studies in the fields of alchemy, astrology, and languages. Bacon is also the ascribed author of the alchemical manual Speculum Alchemiae, which was translated into English as The Mirror of Alchimy in 1597.

In fiction

Probably the most comprehensive and accessible description of Roger Bacon's life and times to a modern reader is contained in the book Doctor Mirabilis, written in 1964 by the science fiction writer James Blish. This is the second book in Blish's quasi-religious trilogy After Such Knowledge, and is a complete, at times biographical recounting of Bacon's life and struggle to develop a 'Universal Science'. Though thoroughly academically researched, with a host of accurate 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 which could answer any question. This has a central role in the play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay written by Robert Greene in about 1589.

This more legendary view of Roger Bacon shows up as a major character in John Bellairs' book The Face in the Frost.[22] In particular, quoting this fictional Bacon:

"…and so I went to work on a brazen head that was going to tell me how to encircle England with a wall of brass, to keep out marauding Danes and other riffraff."

In his children's books, Bellairs also had characters refer to Roger Bacon when quoting esoteric knowledge.

Many references to Roger Bacon occur in the novel The Name of the Rose by Italian author and professor of semiotics, Umberto Eco. In the text the main protagonist, the fictional monk William of Baskerville, refers to Bacon as his 'master'. He also alludes to many of his discoveries, including those in optics.

Roger Bacon also surfaces in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, described as a rogue magician.

A greatly fictionalised version of Roger Bacon appears in the role-playing video game series Shadow Hearts, wherein Bacon is portrayed as an eccentric (but harmless, and well-meaning) thousand-year-old hermit living in pre-World War I Europe. Roger Bacon has also appeared in the game's sequels and prequel, Koudelka.

Bacon also features in Staton Rabin's children's adventure Black Powder. In this time travel story, a twenty-first century youth travels back to attempt to stop the development of gunpowder in the West.

Most recently, Bacon is a character in Stephen Baxter's novel Navigator, the third volume in his Time's Tapestry quartet.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Roger Bacon

Bacon's approach is well-characterized by two quotations from his works:

If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics."

Opus Majus, bk. 1, ch. 4

Mathematics is the gate and key of the sciences. …Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of this world."

Opus Majus

See also

  • Roger Bacon High School
  • Oxford Franciscan school
  • History of the scientific method
  • History of science in the Middle Ages
  • Witelo
  • lunar crater Baco


  1. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career, and Works," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 9–11.
  2. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career, and Works," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 13–17.
  3. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career, and Works," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 17–19.
  4. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career, and Works," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 19–20.
  5. ^ William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest Times to the Present Times, vol. 1, New York, 1859, p. 245; cited in Jeremiah Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, p. 279
  6. ^ Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, chapter 12, part 1.[1]
  7. ^ When Science & Christianity Meet, By Donald R. Shanor, David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, p. 8
  8. ^ Quotation: "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". (p. 9) In: Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge 2001.
  9. ^ David C. Lindberg, Roger Bacon and the Origins of Perspectiva in the Middle Ages: A Critical Edition and English Translation of Bacon's Perspectiva with Introduction and Notes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. lv ISBN 0-19-823992-0
  10. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon on Scientia Experimentalis," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 279–84
  11. ^ Lindberg, "Science as Handmaiden," p. 520
  12. ^ Steven J. Williams, "Roger Bacon and His Edition of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum," Speculum, 69 (1994): 57–73, see p. 71, n. 74.
  13. ^ (p. 70) Lindberg, D.C. (1995). "Medieval Science and Its Religious Context". Osiris 10: 60–79. Retrieved on 2007-07-07.
  14. ^ Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone (2006). The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World. Broadway Books. ISBN 0767914724. 
  15. ^ (p. 692) Power, A. (2006). "A Mirror for Every Age: The Reputation of Roger Bacon". The English Historical Review 121 (492): 657-692. doi:10.1093/ehr/cel102. Retrieved on 2007-07-12.
  16. ^ George Molland, "Roger Bacon's Knowledge of Mathematics," pp. 151-174 in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences.
  17. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career, and Works," in Hackett, Roger Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 11-12.
  18. ^ Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon on the Classification of the Sciences," in Hackett, Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 49, 51-2
  19. ^ Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science, New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1952, pp. 210-219
  20. ^ Richard LeMay, "Roger Bacon's Attitude toward the Latin Translations and Translators of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, in Hackett, Bacon and the Sciences, pp. 40-41
  21. ^ Charles Sanders Peirce (1877). The Fixation of Belief.
  22. ^ Bellairs, John (1986). The Face In The Frost. Ace. 0-441-22531-4. 


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition article "Roger Bacon", a publication now in the public domain.
  • This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.
  • Clegg, Brian (2003). The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon. Constable & Robinson. ISBN 0-7867-1358-5. 
  • Easton, Stewart C. Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science, New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1952.
  • Hackett, Jeremiah, ed. Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, 57, Leiden: Brill, 1997. ISBN 90-04-10015-6
  • Lindberg, David C. "Science as Handmaiden: Roger Bacon and the Patristic Tradition," Isis, 78 (1987): 518–36; reprinted in Michael H. Shank, ed., The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000. ISBN 0-226-74951-7
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Roger_Bacon". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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