Dublin Symposium – Light, Motion, Bodies, and Comets

Last week Ordered Universe members gathered in Dublin, hosted by Laura Cleaver and Karl Kinsella at Trinity College and Marsh’s Library. With our usual range of disciplines represented (philosophy, history, psychology, engineering, physics, creative arts, history of art), and with colleagues from Europe and the USA, we set to work on the four treatises for collaborative reading. Two days in Trinity, at the Long Room Hub, saw the group read through the middle third of Grosseteste’s treatise On the Supercelestial Motions. This challenging treatise deals with the question how the planets move, whether by external force, their nature, and what the effects of their movements are. We also read through, for the second time, On Bodily Motion and Light. Another complex piece of writing, the treatise focuses again on how bodies move, with a more consistent parallel with animal bodies, and exploration of medical material. This treatise ends with a startling passage on light as prime form; highly reminiscent of the treatise On Light

Our third day of reading took place in the amazing surroundings of Marsh’s Library, established by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, opened to the public in 1707 (the first public library in Ireland). We were given a tour by Dr Jason McElligott, and, a little later in the day, got to see some of the manuscript and early printed treasures – in Irish and Latin. The library is currently exhibiting books and pamphlets which survive in a single copy – Sole Survivors  is well worth a visit. For the Ordered Universe team we then got stuck into the reading of On Light, which we last looked at about five years ago. It took all day (and a small section of the following day) to trace through the treatise, opening up new subtleties, re-visiting and sharpening interpretations, and pondering the chronology of Grosseteste’s treatises. Everyone, those with a lot of familiarity with the treatise and those for whom this was a first encounter, was struck again by the beauty and depth of Grosseteste’s thought. A memorable experience indeed.

Finally, and back in Trinity, we rounded off the reading of On Light, and moved to our third reading of the treatise On Comets. Probably an earlier work, in which Grosseteste explains comets essentially in astrological terms, the treatise is not without challenges. It was re-ordered in the mid-13th century, and is a treatise with no English manuscript witnesses – the only one for which this is the case. Hints, therefore as to where Grosseteste might have been at its composition; possibly in Paris. On Comets will form the first part of our third volume, together with On the Impressions of the Elements. The fourth will comprise On Bodily Motions and Light and On Light. We will have fun with these treatises!

It was an enormous privilege to be able to bring Ordered Universe to Dublin (with its long-standing reputation in science, early modern and modern, and medieval studies), and the whole project acknowledges the considerable efforts of Laura and Karl in hosting us, and also the generosity of both Trinity and Marsh’s Library in terms of facilities and space. As ever it is to the Arts and Humanities Research Council that thanks are due for the resourcing of the project. Our intense, detailed and exhilarating collaborative reading sessions are a rare and precious opportunity. Our thanks too, to the project members who lead the editing and translating: Cecilia Panti, Neil Lewis and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn. The next full symposium takes place in Lincoln, at Bishop Grosseteste University, in May next year. However, until then we’ll have plenty of other activties, news, and material to prepare!

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