‘To Loose the Bonds of Arcturus’: Ordered Universe in Montreal

On the 28th September, Giles will give a public lecture to the McGill Medievalists, supported by the Mellon Foundation. The subject will be the place of Astronomy in twelfth century schemes for Liberal Arts. Grosseteste’s De artibus liberalibus features strongly; the lecture will explore what Grosseteste sets as his task in the treatise and contextualise some of its more particular and idiosyncratic elements. Alchemy, Medicine, the impact of the various translation enterprises in Castile and Aragon, and comparison to Grosseteste’s contemporaries and predecessors, will all take their place. The lecture has been organised by Faith Wallis, a founding member of the Ordered Universe project, and Alice Sharp, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at McGill, and

The De artibus liberalibus, as James McEvoy put it ‘breathes the air of the twelfth century’. Grosseteste would later eschew some of the discussion of, or at least the enthusiasm with which he approached, subjects such as alchemy. In Dictum 2 he derides those who use the other arts, without realising that their ultimate purpose and fulfilment lies in pastoral care and theology:

One man rushes into medicine: he’ll cure the sick; he’ll even, with a bit of luck, raise the dead; he’ll get a name for working miracles; at the very least he’ll get rich. For like reasons another resorts to alchemy: he’ll turn lead to gold; he’ll purify and clarify these terrestrial, dark, impure bodies with his ablutions and sublimations; he’ll even undertake to draw you qualities out of the heavenly bodies.

With the De artibus liberalibus we follow Grosseteste in a rather different mode, with different sources, and different questions to explore. His first treatise, written in his 20s, nevertheless raises issues, such as the unity of creation, which he would never stop thinking about and trying to express. Details of the lecture are below – please circulate, and come if you can!


2 thoughts on “‘To Loose the Bonds of Arcturus’: Ordered Universe in Montreal

  1. But why the title a quotation from (a rather singular translation of) Job ch 38? You can’t leave that uncommented upon!

  2. It’s from a lovely passage at the end of Petrus Alfonsi’s “Letter to the Peripatetics’ (Tolan, ‘Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers’, p. 180).

    ‘Hence it is proven by experimental argument, and we can affirm a true thing, that the sun, the moon, and the other planets exercises their powers in earthly things and many things affected by them. Since, as we said, these plants operate on the four elements, and these elements indeed are in all composed things, it is clear that the planets operate on these earthly things. And since they operate universally on all earthly things it is necessary that they operate on particular ways on individual things. All parts are contained in the whole and all species in the genus. It has been shown by the same experimental argument that from the point where the sun is in the Pleiades until it comes under Arcturus all earthly things flourish and grow. And from Arcturus until it comes back to the Pleiades all things are constricted and enclosed in themselves. Hence we find that Job said “Can you bind the sweet influences of Pleaisades, or loose the bonds of Arcturus’.’

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