Grosseteste on Space and Place


The latest in the series of Ordered Universe symposia took place last week, between 1st and 3rd September. We gathered in Durham once more, in the hospitable surroundings of St John’s College, to examine two of Grosseteste’s treatises, and review progress on those now in the publication roster (on which more soon). The meeting was, formally, for the 17th collaborative reading symposium of the project. The experience from those meetings showed in the way that the team were able to move between texts, editions, translations and contextual material, and give each element the detailed consideration that it required. We welcomed some new participants as well: Dr Laura Cleaver from Trinity College Dublin and Ross and Karen Ashton, who put together the World Machine joined us for early thoughts towards a new show on Astronomy.

The symposium began with two discussion papers to set the collected grey matter thinking. Nader El-Bizri talked on ‘Ibn al-Haytham’s (Alhazen’s) geometrical critique of Aristotle’s definition of topos in Physics IV’, raising the issues of mathematical and physical accounts of being. Similar issues lie at the heart of debates within Grosseteste’s astronomical studies. Tom McLeish then talked through the notion of space and place from a modern physics standpoint and in terms of modern historical development. String-theory, multiple dimensions (up to 17 in quantum physics), and the fuzziness of identifying place were also very appropriate to the detailed reading of Grosseteste that ensued: with great debate on the meaning of tangent and horizon in particular, and a queue for the whiteboard!

The team embarked on its second reading of Grosseteste’s introduction to astronomy, the De sphera, and the first reading of a related treatise De sex differentiis – On the Six Differences. The latter text is a short, but dense, discussion of issues connected to Grosseteste’s reading of Aristotle’s De celo – On the Heavens, namely the definition and identification of place as related to bodies and as described mathematically. Up, down, left, right, front and back form the basis of a discussion that grapples with apparent contradictions between works by Aristotle. The treatise provoked energising conversation about how the text should be described, where it fits in Grosseteste’s canon, and how place is to be defined – with ancient authority and observation both coming into play. Our fist, and last, move was to reject the current title in Ludwig Baur’s edition: De differentiis localibus – On Local Differences. De sex differentiis has better earlier ascription, and makes better sense, with contextual information added, of the subject of the treatise.

We then turned to the De sphera, with comparative readings against the more popular text of the same name by John Sacroboso – whom Grosseteste almost certainly used as a source. This text, on second reading, was equally as beautiful as the first time in Rome – the translation by Sigbjørn Sønnesyn capturing expertly the energy, strangeness and pedagogic intention of the Latin text. Reading was made incomparably easier, especially for those not blessed with a functioning geometrical imagination, by the 3d animations created by Jack Smith. Now going into his second year of Engineering Studies, Jack worked for a summer placement with Clive Siviour and Hannah Smithson to produce an absolutely fantastic model – programmable to illustrate the various observations Grosseteste discussed in his text, and interactive to allow for different perspectives, speeds and locations for observation. It brought the text to life, and served as a reminder, once more, of the greater capacity of interdisciplinary working to interrogate these texts. We’ll have more news on this as the model develops.

Hannah and Clive presented Jack’s work to the team, Jack was unable to attend the symposium, but certainly left his mark! Laura Cleaver made an allied presentation on the illustrations that accompany the De sphera in its medieval manuscript transmission. All include the first diagram of the hemisphere, several are more lavishly illustrated. Questions of why, the reaction between written text and drawing, scribal continuity between the two media, use and layout of the manuscript were brought to the fore, encouraging consideration of the reception of Grosseteste’s thought.  To move from words and imaginary spaces, 2-dimentional and 3-dimensional drawing to full-scale animation is an interesting and engaging process: and one that medieval scholars, cognitively, would have recognised with the technological differences to the modern-day recognised.

Other sessions were spent on the final sections of the treatise on De artibus liberalibus – On the Liberal Arts and its Middle English interpretation, The Seven Liberal Arts. Here the intensive editorial work carried out by Sigbjørn, Cecilia Panti and Neil Lewis over the summer was presented to the group. Writing groups have been hard at it over the same period – with the experimental side of the treatise On the Generation of Sounds nearing completion, something with which Tom, Hannah, Clive, David Howard Brian Tanner and Joshua Harvey have been especially concerned.

The symposium was a great success. The medieval-themed dinner put on by the Court Inn (Matthew Dorman and Lord Trevor Davies) will live long in the memory, as too the public lecture and forum (on which more later). The symposium organisers are extremely grateful to Sue Hobson and her team at St John’s, Liz Pearson and her team at St Chad’s Colleges and to Dr Rachael Matthews for design and administrative support. Ordered Universe has a packed year ahead – on which we’ll keep you posted!

The image of the illustrated De sphera used above is taken from British Library Harley 3735; image from Goussoin de Metz, L’image du monde used with permission from the BN France.

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