Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln
A biographical sketch
by James Kiefer

Had the leaders of the thirteenth century heeded this preacher, many of the disasters of the following three centuries might have been avoided. Robert was a peasant lad from Suffolk, born about 1175. He distinguished himself at Oxford in law, medicine, languages, natural sciences, and theology. He became what is now called Chancellor of Oxford University.

In 1235, he was elected Bishop of Lincoln, in area the largest diocese in England. He promptly visited all the churches in the diocese and quickly removed many of the prominent clergy because they were neglectng their pastoral duties. He vigorously opposed the practice by which the Pope appointed Italians as absentee clergy for English churches (collecting salaries from said churches without ever setting foot in the country). He insisted that his priests spend their time in the service of their people, in prayer, and in study. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he spoke out boldly against ecclesiastical abuses. Back in England, he spoke against unlawful usurpations of power by the monarch, and was one of those present at the signing of the Magna Carta.

Grosseteste's scholarly writings embraced many fields of learning. He translated into Latin the Ethics of Aristotle and the theological works of John of Damascus and of the fifth-century writer known as Dionysius the Areopagite. He was skilled in poetry, music, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, optics, and physics (one of his pupils was Roger Bacon). His writings on the first chapter of Genesis include an interesting anticipation of modern cosmological ideas. (He read that the first thing created was light, and said that the universe began with pure energy exploding from a point source.) He knew Hebrew and Greek, and his Biblical studies were a notable contribution to the scholarship of the day.

Editor’s Notes

Taken from Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past. It is included on this site partly because I have trouble remembering the name “Robert Grosseteste,” and I expect this to help. Also, I think the physics of Grosseteste is particularly interesting, and I hope that James’s entry may induce others to look into his works.

Possible starting places are The Writings of Robert Grossteste, by S. Harrison Thomson, ISBN 9781107668645 ...

... and the extensive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for him.

See also the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) entry for him.

Grosseteste died in 1253. He is remembered by the Anglican Church on October 9.

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