Porto Conference Thoughts and Reflections, from a postgraduate perspective, Part One

A few months ago Giles Gasper kindly invited me to attend the FIDEM conference in Porto as part of the Grosseteste project. I gladly accepted the invitation and started to read through the material that I was sent. The Grosseteste project had interested me ever since I heard about it; the idea of collaboration between the sciences and the humanities is a fascinating idea. The sciences and the humanities had been studied together throughout history until the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century when they started to develop different patterns of social and educational evolution. By contrast a medieval scholar such as Robert Grosseteste would have studied both the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and musical theory).

John of Sacrobosco’s De Sphera

My own studies have been focused on astronomy in medieval Scandinavia and particularly Iceland. Although thirteenth century astronomers and scholars such as Johannes de Sacrobosco were known in Scandinavia, I had rarely come across references to Grosseteste and had to admit to not knowing that much about him, other than in a general sense. A few months of research later and I knew a lot more and as I travelled to Porto my mind was full with ideas about the enigma that is Robert Grosseteste.  So with Sir Richard Southern’s biography of Grosseteste in hand I travelled to Porto to meet our group of scientists, historians, social scientists and students.

Porto is a very beautiful and ancient city being founded by the Romans and sitting on the steep banks of the riverIMG_1120 Douro. We were gifted with fine weather for the week of the conference and had some free time to explore the twisted medieval alleys and baroque grand squares of Porto during the day. The evenings allowed time to speak further on our interests and ideas about the project. What now follows, are my impressions and ideas about the workshops and sessions that we had at the conference.

25-06-13 Session 1 – at the FIDEM Congress

Baur PhilosophieGiles presented the project to the conference, explained about the life of Robert Grosseteste and the scholarship dedicated to him and the background to the current project. He noted that post-Reformation scholars focused on the political aspect of Grosseteste’s life and that his scientific treatises only became important later into the nineteenth century. Scholars such as Ludwig Baur, Alastair Crombie, Richard Dales and James McEvoy commented and translated Grosseteste’s scientific works in the twentieth century. He explained that Crombie wanted a mix of historians, scientists and philosophers to work on Robert Grosseteste and that McEvoy wanted more editions of his treatises. Giles finished by emphasizing how the De luce might be read in a modern context. This was a great introduction to the week ahead and it was good to see that we were building on the ideas of earlier scholars

Tom McLeish was the second speaker and started by pointing out that we can see medieval science as an interdisciplinary methodology. As he started out his presentation he noted that scientists used power points in their presentations and that historians read papers – something which continued throughout the week! He asked how scientists might bring anything to Grosseteste studies and answered that close reading of scientific content brings new tools to bear on the text and context and generates a new series of questions. Tom made clear that the project is not projecting current ideas back onto a medieval mind, nor is it seeking to claim unwarranted precedence of discovery in the thirteenth century. The project is certainly not seeking to correct or judge thirteenth century science by modern standards. But having said this Tom explained how the De luce had impressed him with ideas about the stability of matter and that there is corporeity in galaxies.

Richard Bower was the final speaker of the session and laid out his computer modelling of the universe as described in the De luce. The universe Grosseteste described is explained in a very similar way to how a modern cosmologist would explain it (namely, from the modern side: observe the universe around us, invent a way to explain it, write it down as mathematical axioms and explore it using a super computer). Richard made it clear that Grosseteste did not foresee the Big Bang theory, or anything of the sort, but he explained that to him the Universe was created in three phases:

1) Light and Matter are conjoined at a point.
2) Light ‘lumen’ from the outer part sweeps inwards.
3) Eventually the density of matter is so great that it cannot be perfected.

Richard then described the ‘snow plough’ analogy that helped in building a mathematical model that describes the ‘shells’ of Grosseteste’s universe. The mathematical equations found in De luce helped Richard to make a computer model. Richard finished his presentation by pondering on whether Robert Grosseteste might be seen as the father of modern cosmology as he uses the same methods as cosmologists. Although the outcome will always be different as Grosseteste like all medieval minds worked on a version of the universe that was geo-centred.

I found both discussions by the scientists to be very interesting and thought provoking. It was curious to see the differences between the presentation styles between historians and scientists, although more and more historians are now using power points in their papers. I was immediately struck by the usefulness of having scientists on a project like this, as they see medieval scientific treatises in a very different way than historians. For me the difference was that while historians look into the context of the treatise and what agenda the author may have had when writing it, the scientists look at how it can work in a practical way.

Workshop No.1 25-06-13

The first workshop built around a discussion about the De luce. Important points that were discussed were on the influences to Robert Grosseteste and the De luce, notably Euclid’s Elements and Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, as well as neo-platonic sources.  The other major point in discussion here was translations and how certain terms are translated.


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