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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Robert Grosseteste:   A Thirteenth-Century Churchman

 In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the English church was part of an international institution that was more powerful, better organized and intellectually more vital than ever before. Those who directed (or attempted to direct) the organization had a single goal, to implement reform. To them that slippery word meant the unification of Christian society under papal sovereignty, so that society could be sanctified and purified.

Around 1200,  reform was not merely a vague longing or a set of demands for clerical independence. It was a comprehensive program. Key church leaders and clerical intellectuals had spent a century creating that program. Christian doctrine -- in other words, what believers were expected to believe; the rights of the church hierarchy over its personnel, its property, and the laity; the legal structures that enforced these rights: By 1170 or so, all of these things had been clarified and defined.

Even more than the papal court, it was the schools of Paris and Bologna and elsewhere that established the broad principles and the detailed rules that would govern the church and all its members. When you think about the twelfth-century renaissance and the revival of learning, you must think of it as an ideological movement with practical aims, not as pure scholarship untouched by power politics. In the words of Richard Southern, the schools were the parliaments that laid down the rules for Latin Christendom. They were also the places where executives were trained to enforce those rules.

After 1170 or so, most of the work of definition was done. Doctrine had been developed, as had a system of church courts focussed on the pope. Then the church elite moved on to their next task: making church doctrines and church institutions a central part of every believer's life. The aim was to impose on society a single set of religious rules -- rules that standardized ritual practices, the rules of marriage, and the right use of economic and political power.

In the early 13th century the Dominican and Franciscan orders, which were directly dependent on the papacy, would also throw themselves into the fray as itinerant but highly trained preachers, confessors, and inquisitors.

We've talked a lot this term about the growth and systemization of royal power over local communities through the wonders of bureaucracy. What we must understand is that at exactly the same time, those  local communities were living through another revolution planned and managed by the papal bureaucracy.  The heart of the papal revolution was really the shaping of religious life on the local level, and subjecting it to central control. Measured by this standard, it was remarkably successful. During the thirteenth century, much of what we think of as Catholicism, medieval and modern, was invented. Church rituals, laws and beliefs all over western Europe were brought to a high degree of uniformity and stability, for the very first time.

This lecture will focus on one member of the clergy of that period:   Robert Grosseteste, whose name might be translated as Bob Bighead.   Richard Southern, one of the twentieth century's most learned scholars of medieval Christendom, wrote a book-length study of Grosseteste in which he argued that Grosseteste thanks to his many writings and other documentation, is the most knowable individual of 13th c. England.

I am going to take advantage of Southern's work to give you some feeling for this clerical movement and the people who took part in it by looking this one man.

Warning:   in some ways Grosseteste is quite atypical of the Englishmen of his time:  for instance, he was the best practicing scientist of the 13th century.  He is not even typical of the higher clergy.

Robert Grosseteste was born in 1170 in Suffolk. His parents were poor, perhaps even peasants.

It was extremely rare for a real peasant to rise to any prominent position in the church. Grosseteste, genius as he proved to be, might never have amounted to anything but for a lucky break. He came to the attention of a rich and charitable merchant, who paid for Grosseteste to get a good basic education in a Lincoln school. He may afterwards have gone to Cambridge for a few years. Cambridge was not yet a university, but it had some reputation for scholarship.

About 1189 -- the year Richard Lionheart became king -- Grosseteste had to leave school and look for a job, or in more medieval language, a patron. If he could make himself useful to some important person, lay or clerical, he might eventually hope for a benefice, a paid position in some church that would be his for life.  Such ecclesiastical positions were the closest things to the modern job with a yearly salary that the Middle Ages had.   Often they financed a person's "real work"; that is how royal civil servants were supported.

Grosseteste's first patron was Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, but he got no preferment from him, so about 1195 he found a position in the household of bishop William de Vere of Hereford.  In 1198 the bishop died, and Grosseteste lost the man who might have been his ticket to promotion.

There was no place for Robert in the next bishop's household, and he had to be content with a lesser post.  For the next twenty years he worked in Shropshire for one of the archdeacons of the diocese. It was only when his superior was made bishop of Hereford in 1219 that Grosseteste's career got back on track.

During those twenty years of humdrum employment, Grosseteste became deeply interested in natural science. One of the most interesting things about Grosseteste is that he was able to stay abreast of scientific progress while in Shropshire, which has never been a great intellectual center.

His involvement in natural science once again put Grosseteste a little out of the mainstream. In fact, most scholars were not very interested in science. They were all working at theology and canon law, figuring out the moral and legal principles that could be used to organize the ideal society. Such work did not encourage scientific habits of thought, because theology and law were built on authority, on the interpretation of past writings. Indeed, it was assumed by almost everybody that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, had already been discovered and written down by ancient writers. If one could interpret those authorities, and resolve their apparent contradictions, you could know everything without any kind of independent investigation.  And scientific "facts" (true or simply taken as true on authority) were generally put to use to make moral points.

In England, however, there was something of a practical scientific tradition that gave greater weight to observation than symbolic interpretation. It was this tradition that Grosseteste ended up working in.

Grosseteste concentrated on astronomy (which included the whole heavens, including the weather).  It included calendrical calculation and attempts to understand the future (astrology).   To us, one interest looks sensible and the other superstitious. But both encouraged people to look closely at natural phenomena, to measure them, and to keep records of them. In Grosseteste's time the astrolabe was introduced into Europe, which gave further impetus to exact observation.

Grosseteste's first known works are on the relations between the sky and the calendar, and he knew (though he was not the only one) that the Julian calendar and the sky were falling out of synch.

Later he spent a lot of time doing what we would call optical work, and used mathematics to describe the rainbow and other such phenomena. This was a methodology with great promise for the future, and in fact his optical theories were of some use in the early years of the scientific revolution.

Grosseteste was a outstanding member of the minority of thirteenth century intellectuals who were willing to trust their own observations more than authority. He was even willing to disagree with the revered Aristotle's explanations when they didn't make sense to him.

Around 1225, at the age of fifty-five, Grosseteste finally got his benefice. But he did not retire. He began to hang around the schools at Oxford, which was not far from his parish. Grosseteste quickly became a lecturer in the liberal arts, a post he was well qualified for.  At Oxford he got interested in the Queen of Sciences, theology, and was soon lecturing and writing on sacred subjects.

The willingness to be original that Grosseteste had shown in natural science appeared in his theology as well.  Most theologians, rather than reading the Bible directly, they worked on selections and commentaries of their predecessors in the hopes of producing a definitive interpretations of one small point or another. This was the method used in the best schools, the scholastic method.  Grosseteste had never had a scholastic  education, and didn't take to the scholastic method now. Rather, he plunged right into the Bible and into the early church fathers, and was determined to make them the basis of his understanding.

His determination to get back to basics led him to learn Greek (not a common accomplishment at the time) so  he could read the eastern fathers of the church in their own language. When he was bishop, he was able to finance and organize a group of scholars to create new and better translations of both secular and religious Greek works.

In his Oxford years, Grosseteste came up with an original theological conception quite appropriate for a natural scientist.  He believed that the whole universe reflected the glory of God. It was a great educational machine, meant for the instruction of humanity. For Grosseteste, Christ's incarnation was not a last-minute rescue plan devised to rescue fallen humanity. It was part of the plan from the beginning. Christ, God incarnated in man, had always been meant to be the capstone of creation.

There was a close relationship between this vision and Grosseteste's optical work. He thought the glory of creation was best seen in light, the purest, the most basic, and the first of substances.

During his time at Oxford, Grosseteste had become well known, and had collected some extra church offices. By 1230 he was quite prosperous. But all this thinking about religion had impressed him with the futility of earthly prosperity -- an idea encouraged by his association with the Franciscans at Oxford. In 1232 he resigned all his benefices but one. He had experienced a religious conversion.

Grosseteste was not permitted to spend his declining years contemplating God, nature, and the state of his soul. In 1235, he was elected bishop of Lincoln, one of the largest and most prosperous dioceses in England. In much of central England, he was responsible charge of implementing the reform program we spoke of before. You must recall that Grosseteste had not been trained for this role. He had not had the usual education that church leaders had. He'd been restricted to a provincial career, and pursued science instead of a more fashionable subject.

He ended up as a more than usually zealous  reforming bishop. Part of his zeal was philosophical.  His scientific and theological work had together convinced him of the importance of order and hierarchy.   On the important issues there was no room for compromise, and little room for debate. In a way he is reminiscent of Alfred the Great.

Grosseteste's disinclination to compromise was not bridled by the political prudence that restrained more typical bishops. Other bishops learned about politics at university. While they were being groomed for success, they learned the ways of the world, how to pursue their goals without alienating the powers that be. But Grosseteste had never been groomed for success. He had risen to the top without making the usual concessions, and thought he could continue in the same way.

Thus Grosseteste as bishop of Lincoln was harsh and puritanical in his efforts to clean up his diocese. Someone who had watched him closely before might have predicted this. In 1234, he had been chosen by the king as an appropriate man to force prostitutes to leave Oxford. A little earlier, while he was archdeacon of Leicester, he cooperated with Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, in expelling Jews from the earl's chief town. Ghettoizing and controlling the Jews was an integral part of the 13th c. papal program, but Grosseteste pursued them with unusual enthusiasm. He was not content to rid Leicester of Jews, but when he heard that the Countess of Winchester had welcomed the refugees to her city, he wrote her and condemned her hospitality in the harshest terms.

In his efforts to clean up his diocese, Grosseteste made great use of the usual disciplinary technique: the episcopal visitation. A visitation involved the bishop going around to see that all was well in the parishes and religious houses under his jurisdiction. He went through his diocese, district by district, accompanied by a group of Franciscan and Dominican friars. In every district the dean (the supervisor of the parish priests) was to bring the whole population so that they could confess their sins to the friars and hear them preach.

Then Grosseteste corrected public sins as best he could. He had a generous idea of his mandate. He closed Sunday markets that were being held in church yards. He fulminated against drunken parties, popular jousting, and even miracle plays, which he considered indecent mockery of sacred things. A visitation as Robert Grosseteste ran it was an energetic re-education and enforcement campaign.

Grosseteste, to his lasting discredit, wanted to introduce something very like the inquisition into England. Not that he proposed to use torture to hunt out heretics -- there were very few heretics in England; but he did want to require local juries to denounce their neighbors' sins under oath so that sinners could be disciplined. Only Henry III's jealousy of his own judicial prerogatives prevented this project from going ahead.

Grosseteste was at least consistent.   He was as critical of the clergy, even those of high rank,  as of his ecclesiastical subjects.

Late in his career as bishop -- a career that lasted 18 years, until he was eighty-three years old -- he started attacking abuses that a more politic bishop would have ignored. The abuses I refer to were the appointment of absentees to ecclesiastical benefices.

It had long since become standard practice for rulers, including the pope, to give benefices to someone who actually worked in the bureaucracy. The holder of the benefice was not expected to do the job in the parish or the cathedral; he just used part of the attached income to hire a replacement. High ranking officials often had several different benefices, each staffed by low-paid vicars. (Grosseteste had been in this position once.) The ability of rulers to divert benefice income to their own servants was what made possible the great 12th century growth of government.  There was no other convenient source of income that could be used to pay civil servants.

In attacking such absenteeism, Grosseteste was opposing the entire establishment.

Indeed, in the 1240s he found himself fighting the popes.  He made two trips to Rome to assert his right to control his own diocese, and protect it from absentees. The papal court was sympathetic in theory to his concerns. The ultimate goal of reform was the improvement of the care of souls all over the world. But in practice, Grosseteste was being impossibly pure. The pope had problems to deal with that required an assured income from the provinces. Grosseteste thus got no satisfaction.

Finally, in 1250, the elderly Englishman made an impassioned speech before the pope and his cardinals, asking them to reform themselves before it was too late.   It was a stirring plea for religious conversion, but it was not a practical program, so it went nowhere. The pope -- it was Innocent IV -- returned to his immediate concerns, and Grosseteste returned to England in despair. When he continued to block papal appointments, he was suspended from office.

On his death bed, in 1253, Grosseteste reflected that it was heresy not to denounce the crimes of the rich; by the same standard, the pope's current policies were heresy, because he allowed the church's powers and properties to be misused for worldly purposes.

Here are three points worth remembering about Robert Grosseteste.

First, his intellectual career, including experiments in physics, scholarly translations from the Greek, and original insights in theology emphasizes the intellectual vitality of Europe and England in his time. The fact that Grosseteste did good work in the provinces says much about the growing sophistication of European society as a whole.

Second, his career in all its variety reminds us how central the church was in 13th century society. It was not concerned simply with prayer. It was was deeply involved in learning, in government, in promoting and enforcing an ambitious program of social and moral reform.

Third, his frustrations with and his scathing critique of the papacy point out a problem that the church would have to face sooner or later. As it got bigger and better organized, it seemed less and less spiritual. How could the church be better than fallen world it lived in if it was trying to run that world, using many of the same tools that secular rulers used? This is not the way Grosseteste saw the problem, of course; he used authority quite ruthlessly to attack sin and sinners, and would have had it no other way. But he saw there was a problem, and spoke out. Grosseteste would eventually be a hero to those in the next century who were quite sure that the pope was Antichrist, and that the power of the Roman church in England had to be tamed.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.