Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Impressions and Experiences

One of the main challenges for all who study the highly variegated output produced by Robert Grosseteste over the course of his lifetime is how, if at all, his works within highly disparate disciplines may be harmonized into a coherent whole. This challenge was embodied in practice from April 3rd through 6th, when scholars from a wide range of disciplines descended on Pembroke College, Oxford, for the conference ‘Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Robert Grosseteste and his Legacy’. In order to make this an occasion for mutually fruitful exchange across – rather than merely within – the boundaries segmenting academia, Continue reading

Grosseteste and the History of Philosophy


The British Society for the History of Philosophy is holding its annual conference in Durham this week, from Thursday April 12th to Saturday April 14th. The overall theme for the conference is ‘Habit in the History of Philosophy’, and this theme will be approached from different approaches covering more than two millennia of philosophical thought. Representatives of The Ordered Universe Project will make sure that the Grossetestian flag is properly flown through two papers in a session organised Bishop_Robert_Grosseteste,_1896_(3x4crop)by Durham Centre for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (DCAMP). Continue reading

Science, Wonder, and Imagination: an Update

IMG_2383 Excitement is building as months of planning, hard work, and preparations are about to come to fruition. The programme for the upcoming conference Science, Wonder, and Imagination – Robert Grosseteste and His Legacy is now very close to being finalized. The conference, organised by The Ordered Universe Project in association with the International Grosseteste Society, will take place at Pembroke College, Oxford, on April 3rd to 6th, and we are very excited about the range of topics covered by our line-up of speakers. The works of Robert Grosseteste will form points of departure for scholars from a great variety of disciplines, including philosophy, theology, cutting-edge science as well as history of science, education studies, and broader historical disciplines; but also for explorations of the aesthetic inspirations to which Grosseteste’s works can give rise. Judging from the titles and abstracts, speakers are eager and willing to look beyond their own disciplines and communicate across disciplinary boundaries, and we are very much looking forward to the discussions and conversations that such a wide variety of approaches can engender.


The conference programme has been constructed around the pillars of four keynote papers, to be delivered by

Professor Simon Oliver, Van Mildert Professor of Divinity, Durham University and Residentiary Canon of Durham Cathedral;

Professor Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Professor of English and Medieval Studies and Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto;

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE, Professor of Physics and Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Surrey;

and Professor John Milbank, Professor in Religion, Politics, and Ethics, University of Nottingham.

We are very grateful to our keynote speakers for accepting our invitation, and we look forward to having our horizons broadened by their unique perspectives.

The Ordered Universe teams at Oxford and Durham have worked very hard to make this conference possible, and we are deeply grateful for their labours. Watch this space for more updates and reports!

Ordered Universe go to Swansea

Giles Gasper

In the midst of a flurry of Ordered Universe activity in November, our Peripatetic Principal Investigator Giles Gasper will be joined by Oxford PhD-student Joshua Harvey for a seminar at Swansea University on Thursday November 23. They will present some of the research to be published in the first Ordered Universe volume with Oxford University Press, and give a class for MA students of History at Swansea University. The event is sponsored by The Swansea University History Department Research Seminar series and Swansea University Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Research (MEMO), and organised by Dr. Charles Rozier.

Joshua Harvey profile
Joshua Harvey

Giles and Joshua will present two treatises, those On the Liberal Arts and On the Generation of Sounds, which form the backbone of the forthcoming volume with OUP. The earliest of Grosseteste writings, they show his developing knowledge of Aristotelian and Arabic science and, in the case of On the Generation of Sounds, a scientific interpretation with implications for modern theory of perception. While Giles, as leading editor and significant contributor to the volume, will situate the texts in their intellectual and historical context, Joshua will use his own cutting-edge research experiments into the phenomena studied by Grosseteste as a basis for exploring the scientific implications of Grosseteste’s written work.

Gross poster-page-001

Honorary doctorate for Ordered Universe Principal Investigator Dr. Giles Gasper

We are delighted to announce that Dr. Giles Gasper, Principal Investigator of the Ordered Universe Project, has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln for his services to medieval studies in general and for his work on the Ordered Universe Project in particular. The degree will be awarded at a ceremony in Lincoln on July 19th.

19944645_10159090409160464_1539655173337008316_oThose of us who have the privilege to work closely with Dr. Gasper in the Ordered Universe Project, and get to observe and benefit from his scholarship, leadership, and friendship on a regular basis, will know how richly deserved such recognition is. We are very happy to offer out heartfelt congratulations.

Georgetown on my mind (and heart)

Throughout his career, Robert Grosseteste emphasised the unity of the human person, the impossibility of separating mind from heart except conceptually. Our capacities to see the truth of things as they are, our aspectus, and for loving things for what they are, which Robert called our affectus, must both be developed and perfected, Robert said; and the one cannot be developed in isolation from the other. This fundamental strand of Robert’s thinking was recently the theme of a conference organised under the august auspices of Georgetown University by Neil Lewis, a member of the Ordered Universe core team, and Sandra Strachan-Vieira. The participants comprised a good mix of Ordered Universe stalwarts and new acquaintances (for most of us), ranging from grad students to established professors, and the papers offered detailed analyses of Grosseteste’s thought as well as studies of comparable sources written both before and after Grosseteste’s time.

A rain-drenched Georgetown may have failed to offer its visitors its finest aspect, but we did not let that affect us; the welcoming surroundings and gracious and generous hosts more than made up for the weather. Brett Smith set the tone for the conference as a whole with his clear and clarifying presentation of the role of aspectus and affectus, the perception of truth and the love of the good, in central works by Grosseteste. Giles Gasper then added depth and breadth to this fundamental picture by showing with great nuance and eloquence how the same dichotomy played an equally central role in the monastic theology of Anselm of Cantebury. Yours truly added to the monastic backdrop by trying to bring out the richness of the same conceptual scheme in the writings of Isaac of Stella.

After the main focus of the conference and the background for the conceptual scheme had been presented, a series of papers ensued that subtly brought out the intricacies and precision of philosophical language and argument both in Grosseteste and his contemporaries. Nicola Poloni showed with great skill the development in Grosseteste’s metaphysics of matter and causation, and Neil Lewis situated Grosseteste’s views on aspectus and affectus within its contemporary context by demonstrating and explaining how these concepts were used by Richard Rufus and Richard Fishacre. Tim Farrant then showed how these concepts allowed Alexander Neckam to connect his natural and zoological studies to a fundamental moral preoccupation animating his works. Kathy Bader brought this part of the conference to a close with a fascinating run-through of the astronomers of the Severn Valley in the early twelfth century, and in particular how the translations of Arabic astronomical texts into Latin influenced and enriched the study of the stars and the computation of time. The day was brought to a close with a public lecture on Grosseteste, the Ordered Universe project, and how the artistic collaborations to which this project has given rise. The lecture was given jointly by Giles Gasper and Tom Mcleish, two of the three Principal Investigators of the project, and Ross Ashton, a projection artist who together with sound artist Karen Monid has created wonderful displays of light and sound partly inspired by Grosseteste’s writings.

While the papers of the first day in the main focused on philosophical and theological concerns, the second day continued with a stronger emphasis on the scientific study of nature. It started Nader El-Bizri’s deeply engrossing account of Alhazen’s theory of human perception, emphasising the deep connection between vision of truth and embodied experience in a way that offers an illuminating parallel to Grosseteste’s view. Tom McLeish then used the pairing of aspectus and affectus to discuss the creative processes undergirding modern scientific research, providing a fascinating and engaging glimpse of how human beings do science. Hannah Smithson then presented her dizzyingly complex and penetrating analysis of Grosseteste’s theory of colour vision, using her experience from cutting-edge psychology of perception to bring out the complexities and sophistication of Grosseteste’s thinking. Joshua Harvey gave an equally inspiring account of Grosseteste’s thinking on sound perception, using the technology of Schlieren imaging to visualise Grosseteste’s account and show its intellectual power and its limitations. Luke Fidler then rounded off the presentation of papers with a glorious discussion of the aspectus/affectus pairing in material culture and the visual arts, and in particular the apperception of sculpture in the high middle ages.

The final afternoon of the conference was devoted to a group reading of Grosseteste’s treatise on the generation of sounds. We were deeply privileged to number among the participants not only Ordered Universe core member Cecilia Panti, but also Joe Goering and Frank Mantello into the group. Our discussions of the text greatly deepened our understanding both of its philological and its philosophical and scientific aspects; and it was impossible to remain unaffected by the presence of no less than four of the world authorities on Grosseteste’s writings in Panti, Lewis, Goering and Mantello. It was a fitting and profoundly inspiring end to a wonderful conference.

We are deeply grateful to Neil and Sandra for their hard work in making this conference a great experience for all participants. And there is an argument to be made that the combination of scholarship and companionship that a successful conference brings confirms Grosseteste’s central point about the interdependence of aspectus and affectus. The challenges of the mind are more easily tackled in the company of good colleagues and friends; in the end we left seeing things more clearly because we all put our heart in it.

Symposium on Space and Place


It is finally time for the next symposium in the Ordered Universe Symposium Series, this time on the topic of space and place in Grosseteste’s astronomical thought. This symposium takes place in Durham, in a friendly and welcoming space provided by St John’s College. The proceedings will focus on a second reading of Grosseteste’s long treatise on the spherical universe, and a first acquaintance with his much shorter treatment of the ways in which differences of place and location may be described with precision. Continue reading

Ordered Universe goes west


Macrobian map
A Macrobian map of the inhabitable world (source:

Robert Grosseteste, following the most authoritative texts at his disposal, was convinced that the only land mass of the earth that was actually inhabitable was the part we would now say is bounded by the Atlantic on the west side, and by the Saharan desert to the south. Some representatives of the Ordered Universe group are about to put that view to the test, boldly boarding transatlantic flights to seek out parts of the world not even mentioned by Macrobius, Ovid, and Ptolemy. Continue reading

Astronomy Domine: The Ordered Universe set the controls for the heart of Rome

The spheres as imagined by Goussin de Metz in the later 13th century

Just as celestial bodies, according to medieval astronomy, would be brought to convergence by the motion of the firmament, so many members of the Ordered Universe project will converge in Rome in the first full week of April, drawn there by the gravitational pull of our workshop schedule. The focus this time will be on Grosseteste’s astronomical models and the mathematical tools at his disposal to calculate and measure celestial motions. Continue reading

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! Continue reading