UCL – Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste

Giles Gasper (Durham University) will be giving a talk later today to the Interdisciplinary Medieval and Renaissance Seminer at University College, London, 6.15-7.15 on ‘The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste’. Giles will be talking about the work of the Ordered Universe project, its collaborative research methods, and larger questions concerning the whole corpus of scientific works produced by Grosseteste c. 1195-c.1230. Many thanks to Jack Ford for the invitation.

Grosseteste meets York Stained Glass Studies

Bishop_Robert_Grosseteste,_1896_(3x4crop)Tom McLeish was invited last week (November 1st) to hold a seminar on Grosseteste’s colour science  with the University of York’s History of Art Department’s Stained Glass Studies Group.  So here (right) is a stained-glass representation of the Bishop to start with.

Tom, an original member of the Ordered Universe project right from the very early days in Durham, has recently joined the University of York as its new Chair of Natural Philosophy.  Although based in Physics, the role has time allocated to the

Kings Manor of the University of York, the home of its Centre for Medieval Studies

University’s long-standing Centre for Medieval Studies, as well, which is now a partner of the project. The Centre is accommodated in Kings Manor, the former abbot’s house of St. Mary’s Abbey (now ruined) close to the Minster, Museum, Library and Art Gallery in the centre of the city.

The natural starting point for the Kings Manor seminar was Grosseteste’s De colore, his treatise, probably from the mid 1220s that develops his natural philosophy of light into a theory of colour.  Early in the Ordered Universe project’s life we had studies this jewel of a treatise, and found it to be structured in a highly mathematical way. It constitutes the first description of an abstract three-dimensional space for colour.Dimensions of Colour book_ These insights, together with a fresh edition and translation and interdisciplinary commentary, formed the first ‘pilot’ publication from the project, Dimensions of Colour, back in 2013. in only 400 Latin words, Grosseteste carefully identifies colour as the effect of light incorporated in a diaphanous medium, and describes three ‘axes’ along which colour can vary independently. Crucially, two of these depend on properties of light and one on the material within which the light dwells – its ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’. This is turn is related to the quantity of ‘earthiness’ (earth is the only non-translucent of the four Aristotelian elements). The final paragraph of the treatise contains an invitation to try out making colours with different lights and materials, and is one of the pieces of evidence pointing to Grossteste’s involvement in the very early stirrings of experimental tradition.

York stained glass scholar Sarah Brown, who led the scholarly work behind the recent 10-year restoration of York Minster’s Great East Window, was led to think about glass-making right away by this paragraph. Might Grosseteste have witnessed the manufacture of glass?  If so this would not have been in England, but in northern France. Does a thread from light through colour and glass constitute another line of evidence that leads to a presence for him in France in the early 13th century?

The discussion also moved onto lenses and lens making in that era, of which no doubt there will be more news on this blog at a future date…


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!

Report: A Celebration of Robert Grosseteste at Lincoln Cathedral

On the 10th October 2017 Bishop Grosseteste University held its celebration of Robert Grosseteste with its annual public lecture. This year we were delighted to invite Dr Angelo Silvestri from Cardiff University who provided an excellent lecture to an appreciative audience on, ‘From Romanesque darkness to Gothic light: the architectural and artistic role of Lincoln Cathedral in the episcopacies of Alexander of Lincoln, Hugh of Avalon and Robert Grosseteste.’

Continue reading

The Ordered Universe Project Returns to (one of) its Roots

I received an invitation last year to give a seminar that was impossible to turn down.  Every Wednesday afternoon the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University holds a proper academic seminar – 3.15 to 5pm, giving plenty of time to expound an idea as well as have it comprehensively discussed.  I had to go – for it was in this setting, regularly taking time of from the Physics department during the years I was professor there, that I first learnt about Robert Grosseteste. Continue reading

Time and Time Reckoning: Ordered Universe at Tor Vergata

As part of the Ordered Universe symposium in Rome, Cecilia Panti organised a half-day conference on Time and Time Reckoning in Medieval and Contemporary Scientific Perspectives. The occasion also marked the first event in a new collaboration between the Dipartimento di Studi Letterari, Filosofici e di Storia dell’Arte  at Tor Vergata and the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and Department of History, at Durham. Alongside the Ordered Universe team were colleagues from Tor Vergata. We were able to record some of the proceedings, and have included them here.

The four speakers are all regular Ordered Universe participants, and began with Anne Lawrence Mathers from the University of Reading, on Spheres, Rays and Sublunary Airs. Medieval weather, its prediction, connections to what might be termed magic, and the equally strong connections to the scientific endeavours of Grosseteste were among the subjects Anne raised: all highly relevant to the earlier deliberations on climes and astronomical observation.

Neil Lewis followed, with a full and detailed account of Grosseteste’s theory of time, as expressed in the Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Moving through Augustine and Aristotle, the nuanced position that Grosseteste came to about the present, in particular, was fascinating to have unfolded before us.

After a short break the final two papers. Philipp Nothaft gave us an in-depth account of the vexed issues of precession and trepidation in astronomical terms. This was the key point at issue for Grosseteste between Ptolemy and Aristotle, to which the solution appeared to lie in Thebit. Philipp showed why these issues were so problematic in the 13th century in particular.

Our final paper took the issue of time to the modern universe, and our contemporary understanding of its origins and its future. Richard Bower opened up the latest research from his galaxy modelling project, and the work of the Durham Institute of Computational Cosmology. The models are so accurate they can hoodwink observational astronomers.

A very stimulating afternoon, which both supported the symposium readings, and introduced the research of colleagues to each other and to the staff and students at Tor Vergata. More news on the Durham-Tor Vergata activities soon, but a great event to being with!


Ordered Universe goes west


Macrobian map
A Macrobian map of the inhabitable world (source: cartographic-images.net)

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

Who was the first real physicist?

A post from Brian Tanner – one of the most common searches we encounter on the Ordered Universe blog is ‘who was the first physicist/scientist’ or variants thereof – Brian offers some options:

Perhaps it is because my son is Director of Cross-Curricula Learning at St Albans School, that on Friday March 4th, I found myself speaking to a large number of sixth-form students about the history of physics. Their response to my initial questions to them of what they understood by the scientific method and why scientific enquiry differed, for example, from the study of literature was excellent. Continue reading

Ordered Universe Symposium: The Appliance of Science: Astronomy and the Calendar

The next in the Ordered Universe Symposium series takes place in April, 5th-8th, in Rome. Co-sponsored by the Università di Roma Tor Vergata, and hosted in the University of Notre Dame du Lac, Rome Global Gateway, the symposium will focus on Grussetestes’s treatise De spheraOn the Sphere and his treatise on time-reckoning and the calendar the Compotus correctorius. The programme is embedded below, and includes details of a half-day conference at Tor Vergata, on Wednesday 6th April (with papers by Richard Bower, Anne Lawrence Mathers, Philipp Nothaft and Neil Lewis) and the Symposium Public Lecture to be delivered on Thursday 7th April at the Notre Dame Global Gateway (Via Ostilia 15) at 18.00 by Tom McLeish and Cecilia Panti. Any inquires should be directed to ordered.universe@durham.ac.uk. The symposium will include regular Ordered Universe participants and some for whom this is their first time: we look forward to three days of interdisciplinary engagement and exploration. Time, space, stars, planets, zodiac and the relationship of the earth to the cosmos, of humanity to creation, are some amongst the topics and questions which Grosseteste opens and to which he addresses his treatises.

Images courtesy of wiki commons and Giles Gasper.

Interdisciplinary Lessons

Lessons for Interdisciplinary Working from Medieval Science is a short piece reflecting on some of the interdisciplinary practice we have developed within the Ordered Universe project by Tom McLeish and Giles Gasper. We’ve drawn together some of the lessons that we have learnt, and some that we hope might be of use to others in similar contexts. Continue reading