How (theoretical) physics was born in Hereford…

A wonderful day at Hereford today exploring the life and times of Robert Grosseteste, particularly the years he spent in the city, and his thought on natural phenomena, with excellent questions and involvement from the audience. Brian Tanner, Giles Gasper (from Durham), and David Thomson (now a Herefordian), presented the workshop, which formed part of the Hereford Cathedral Life and Learning programme. In the elegant surroundings of College Hall we showed our Medieval Cosmos film as an introduction to the rather different ways in which the universe was conceived in the ancient and medieval periods. Then a talk on how the Ordered Universe works to open up and investigate the many different aspects of Grosseteste’s thought that we do, how the project has involved, the balances between disciplines and individual perspectives within  the team, and all of this at the service of understanding better Grosseteste’s treatises. At this point we shifted gear, holding a collaborative reading of On the Liberal Arts, the treatise that sets Grosseteste’s thought on its way, showcases his familiarity with Aristotle, Islamicate authors such as Abu Ma’shar, and alchemical texts. It is a work with strong connections to Hereford: the city of the liberal arts, as expressed by Simon du Fresne, an older contemporary of Grosseteste, and member of the Cathedral Chapter. After cake and coffee (much needed!), Brian led a dynamic and exciting series of demonstrations of Grosseteste’s scientific thinking, from focusing of rays in urine flasks (we used a decanter filled with water), to refraction, and the passage of light rays in translucent liquids. Finally, Giles went through the evidence for Grosseteste’s connections with Hereford, from his appointment to bishop William de Vere’s household in c.1195 to his later work, seemingly for Hugh Foliot, as Archdeacon of Shropshire and then bishops of Hereford himself.

Questions were regular and challenging throughout the day, and the collaborative reading of On the Liberal Arts especially fruitful. We have read through these texts many many times, and yet, there are always passages that strike you afresh or that you haven’t fully or really remembered. The slower pace of a group reading allows the whole of the treatise to emerge more gradually, and different connections and structures appear. So, this was an excellent occasion, and David, Brian, and Giles, were very grateful for the attention the workshop participants applied. Brian and Giles were very warmly hosted; the good offices of Canon Chris Pullin, Cathedral Chancellor, and Dr Rosemary Firmin from the library, and all who helped with the organisation and refreshments were very much appreciated.

After the workshops we took the opportunity to walk about the City and Cathedral, and to ponder the Hereford that Grosseteste would have known. The effigies for William de Vere, and his next successors as bishop of Hereford, Giles de Braose, and Hugh Mapenor, were moving. Grosseteste would known them all.

And of course he would known his version of the Cathedral, not yet with its shrine to Thomas Cantilupe, but by the 1190s firmly established in its high medieval form. A memorable occasion, a terrific workshop, and a perhaps the most appropriate place in the country (or world) to read through Grosseteste’s On the Liberal Arts. Brian and Giles departed north, but we hope very much that Chris and David will be able to develop and nurture the interest in Grosseteste shown at the workshop; he was, after all, as much a son of Hereford as of Lincoln.

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