Porto Experiences Thursday 27th June: De luce, Education and the History of Science

The Lost Legacies Team
The Lost Legacies Team

Thursday and the team kept at it, moving through the rest of the De luce, through the creation of the 9 celestial spheres (they are not named by Grosseteste but presumably followed the pattern 1 First Mover, 2 Fixed Stars, 3 Saturn, 4 Jupiter, 5 Mars, 6 Sun, 7 Venus, 8 Mercury, 9 Moon) and then the four terrestrial ‘spheres’. The property of matter, especially of lux and lumen, the notion of lumen as a very particulararistotle_universe type of body, of spiritual matter (possibly derived from Avicebron [Ibn Gabriol, 1021-1057/8]), were all topics considered. So to was the question of time: the operation of light and matter is not so much a notion as an activity of substantial change, and therefore indendent of time. We addressed the question of the firmaments, the mathematical translation of the quantity and quality of density within the creation of the spheres, and below the sphere of the moon the question of species and the disobedience of matter (a notion probably derived from Avicenna [d.1037]). Grosseteste’s universe is an intriguing place, with a consistent emphasis on unity: this is an Aristotelian cosmos not Ptolomaic, there are no eccentric spheres, only perfect ones, with the strong notion of one virtue or power presiding over the movement of the first sphere transmitted down to the earth. Finally we arrived at Grosseteste’s excursus into neo-plataonic imagery and explanation for the perfection of the universe, and his astonishing attempt to make sense of a huge tradition of thinking, able, in some measure, to put a unifying theory onto the ancient philosophers with whom the whole treatise deals. A full workshop and the treatise completed; a great feeling for everyone.

The second session of the day moved, excitingly, to the second strand of the project, namely a discussion led by Per Kind and Dorothy Warren on ways in which the Grosseteste Science project might be used, and might benefit from, presentation within the school curriculum at various levels. As Per expressed it the core areas of the project are:

  • Robert Grosseteste as a person, as an individual: what made him the philosopher, scientist, theologian and political figure that he was – the importance of his historical and biographical context
  • The broader history of ideas in which the treatises and Grosseteste’s thought should be held – the intellectual nexus, of his past and future, in which the specific notions he explores should be explored.
  • Most importantly the manuscripts, texts and treatises which form the heart of the project – the edition of the scientific treatises is the central element in the project.
  • This leads then to the interpretation of the texts, and the establishment of our inter-disciplinary group, as a dynamic way to take the level of interpretation further and deeper.

Given these issues, the potential for developing aspects of the project and its values at primary, lower secondary and secondary levels (for the time being within the UK system!), were explored, with two key messages: the promotion of the deeper past of science (people from the 13th century were not less intelligent than their descendants) and that science and humanities are not intrinsically opposed, with different questions, but do not have to be portrayed as two cultures. As Dorothy outlined to us project-based learning and the adaptation of the Ordered Universe collaborative reading, with production of suitable material for teachers and class-leaders, offer very positive opportunities for taking the methodology further. We will be organising a return conference in Durham, with teachers from the North-East region, to find ways to encourage consideration of what Grosseteste and his world represent and stimulate within school-learning. I should stress we will not be suggesting 13th century science be presented as an alternative to modern science – this is rather about inter-disciplinary and critical thinking, and the importance of historical perspective.

Faith and Pietro then summed up their observations on the project, emphasising the persistence of the scientific tradition within mediterranean society, and the possibilities to present a new model for the history of science, in which the specificity of the medieval experience is grounded in a longer vision. The particular qualities of Grosseteste’s treatises in this presentation, and for interdisciplinary dialogue were stressed, as too those of his immediate predecessors such as Alfred of Sareshull, and his pupil Adam of Exeter. The role of the humanities in education and the potential significance of this project for helping this re-artciulation in a UK, European and global context.

With that, the team took a well deserved late afternoon to explore some of Porto and the surroundings, and to prepare for the Rainbow talks the following morning…

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