De colore – impressions from a first-time, non-medieval, reader

I started my reading about Grosseteste and his scientific works with ‘The Dimensions of Colour’ on the De colore. Although when reading the translation I couldn’t picture Grosseteste’s model in my head, I was baffled by its complexity and sophistication. Such an abstract account of the phenomenon of colour was certainly not what I expected from a medieval scholar and theologian, who later in his life even became bishop. Furthermore, I found that the critical edition and translation broadened my horizon not only with respect to the content of the treatise, but also concerning the challenge of establishing in the first place what the original content was. As I said, I know embarrassingly little about history and the methods involved in the discipline, and it was very interesting to see how the multitude of diverging manuscripts can be a caveat to appreciating the coherence of medieval scientific thought.

The third chapter on the intellectual context of the treatise, its terminology, its relationship with Grosseteste’s other writings, and the sources he was influenced by, helped in getting more of an understanding of what it was that Grosseteste envisaged. However, it was only through the functional analysis that I felt I grasped Grosseteste’s idea of colour. It seemed that I had found his treatise so difficult to understand because he was describing a geometric model verbally. dmrt4The modern mode of presentation, by contrast, offered a form of translation that I have found much more accessible. Going back to the text I could suddenly see how his explanations of ascending paths from blackness and descending paths from whiteness made sense, and it felt a bit like as if someone had switched on the light. Of course, as Hannah stressed in her Porto presentation on Friday 28th June, it would be anachronistic to assume that Grosseteste had in mind a cube-shaped colour space. However, translations into maths and geometry may involve elements of interpretation not so dissimilar from the interpretative aspects inherent in translations into English. For the non-medievalist reader that I am, modern scientific conceptualisation unlocked the door to medieval scientific thought, and I started to realise how the interdisciplinary approach taken can be fruitful and enriching.


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