On the liberal arts and the generation of sounds

lumiere_postcard_21-1024x682Robert Grosseteste suggested in his treatise on the liberal arts that in all areas of human endeavour it is necessary to choose carefully the hour most propitious for the undertaking one wants to carry through. Plants carry more fruit if planted when the celestial spheres are correctly aligned, and base metals are transformed into gold more easily if processed under favourable planets and stars. We no longer believe this to be true, of course, and we may even speculate about the extent to which Robert himself gave credence to such theories; nevertheless, had Robert been around at the Ordered Universe workshop organised in Durham last week, he may have inferred that the organisers had chosen a favourable hour indeed. Discussions and deliberations carried much fruit, and base drafts were transformed into golden light of understanding. A liberating experience indeed, and one which generated the right kinds of sound!

Looking back on those intensely focused but richly rewarding hours, I am struck by a certain correspondence between the workshop itself and the contents of the treatises we studied together over three and a half days. This time, the centre of focus was occupied by Grosseteste’s brief discussions on the liberal arts and on the generation of sounds, as well as a longer and more ample verse treatment of the same topics in Middle English, composed just over two hundred years after Robert died, but clearly influenced by his writings. The welcoming atmosphere at Van Mildert College, Durham and the Durham Business School, and the superb assistance of our new administrator, Dr. Rachael Matthews, created a framework highly conducive to creative and convivial discussions.

The treatise on liberal arts is a very early one, and shows how Robert’s formative years were spent in a twelfth-century environment privileging a rounded, comprehensive development of the full human being over against the more specialised education that became the norm in the thirteenth. The seven liberal arts, so called because they set human beings free from error and led them towards full and complete development, were divided into two groups: the Trivium, comprising Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, and the Quadrivium, consisting of Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. Since music was conceived of in terms of number patterns rather than, as we know it, in terms of melodies and rhythms, this may seem like a division into humanities and natural sciences. This would be misleading, however. Robert emphasises the close affinity between the human person and nature, and argues in favour of an organic view of knowledge where all parts contribute to the whole.

And this is where the workshop and its participants show their resemblance to the topics treated. Although all participants had their own specialities, there was a genuine exchange across disciplinary borders. Knowledge of grammar, that is the workings of language and its capability to express truth, was widespread and varied in the group. This was particularly necessary since the topics required knowledge of several grammar systems. We were fortunate to have no less than three specialists in medieval English literature: Bishop David Thomson, Mike Huxtable, and Margaret Healy-Varley – thus, the reception of Grosseteste’s works into the vernacular, and the echoes of other parts of the Western literary tradition were brought into light. For the Arab traditions of philosophy and theology Nader El-Bizri gave invaluable input, showing how Grosseteste and the West could benefit from centuries of intellectual exploration in the Arab-speaking areas. And of course Cecilia Panti and Neil Lewis could offer their profound insights into western philosophical traditions, particularly the Greek and Roman thinkers.

scribes 3In the high middle ages, grammar was taught more by imitation than by transfer of abstract knowledge from teacher to student, as evidenced by John of Salisbury’s liberal arts-treatise Metalogicon from 1159. The same principle was on evidence here: it was an invaluable experience for the younger and less experienced scholars to witness established scholars like Tom McLeish, John Coleman, Hannah Smithson, Jack Cunningham, and Giles Gasper give master classes in the grammar of scholarly discourse. At the same time, however, the younger participants – Rosalind Green and Curtis Rundstedler from Durham, Josh Harvey and Tim Farrant from Oxford, and Ulrike Nowak from Mannheim, contributed with their insights as well as their keen eyesight, spotting textual issues and problems hidden in the tangled mass of details.


IMG_0187Logic is as important now as it was in the middle ages, and the discussion brought out the richness of the concept. Nader, Neil and Cecilia illuminated the intricacies of Greek, Roman, and Arab logic, while the scientists demonstrated present-day incarnations of the same basic practice of thought. A striking example here is Clive Siviour’s talent for visualising complex reasoning in diagrams that convey more than a thousand Latin words.

Rhetoric, Grosseteste explained, enkindles the heart to desire what is good, and flee what is bad. This was perhaps most fully evidenced by Giles Gasper’s evocative public lecture, in which he inspired the audience to desire to learn ever more about Grosseteste while fleeing the myths concerning the primitiveness of medieval science and learning.

We were delighted to welcome to the workshop Nicholas Brown, whose grasp of the history of musicology combined with his equally impressive compositional and performative skills to create an enthralling demonstration of how Robert Grosseteste’s thought on music and the human voice could be translated into musical performance and composition. Nicholas’s presentation of his work, in the wonderful surroundings of the Norman Chapel at University College, Durham, was a memorable experience for all involved.

Robert’s thinking on arithmetic and geometry is perhaps more clearly evident in other treatises than in the ones we read this time, but what there was of such discussions was ably explained by mathematicians John Bissell, Pierre Dechant, and the other scientists, as well as through Nader’s, Neil’s, and Cecilia’s wide knowledge of such work in the middle ages. Anne Lawrence-Mathers was thankfully present to explain the baffling references to astronomy in Robert’s treatise, while Richard Bower and his team at the Institute of Computational Cosmology gave the group a tour of state-of-the-art research on the same topic. While contemporary researchers have discovered things about the universe unimagined and unimaginable for Grosseteste, the sense of wonder and amazement we felt at Richard’s explanations may help us imagine why Robert tried his best to study the movements of celestial bodies.

David Howard and Nicholas Brown brought out, each in their own way, the complexities of Robert’s thinking on the generation of sounds, and Bishop David led a fascinating exploration of the Middle English reception and elaboration of Robert’s thinking on the liberal arts. And through it all, Robert Grosseteste’s sense of purpose and cohesive reasoning kept us on track, without fragmenting into divergent and discipline-specific cliques. For Robert, the purpose of acquiring knowledge ultimately had a theological aim, and Giles and Jack added great depth to the discussions by pointing out affinities between Robert’s scientific thought and theological concerns.

IMG_4634The liberal arts, on Robert’s view, aimed primarily at uniting various disciplines of knowledge for a common end. Even if the participants at the workshop have their own unique expertise, the most inspiring part of it all was the mutual inspiration and cross-disciplinary discussions and insights. I can’t help thinking Robert himself would have been particularly proud of that.

Published by sigsonnesyn

Post doc on the Ordered Universe Project, editing and translating Robert Grosseteste's scientific treatises.

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