Line of Duty: Reflections from Lincoln

Lines, angles, and shapes in the roof of Lincoln Cathedral

Why is the natural world saturated with constant movement, and how do we make sense of this perpetual fluctuation of material things? What principles and methods are most suited to find order and coherence in this ever-changing world? From May 13th to 16th, the Ordered Universe gathered at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln to read, analyse, and debate Robert Grosseteste’s answers to these questions in a series of texts. The scope of these texts ranges from the geometrical and optical principles of natural causality in the twinned treatises On Lines, Angles, and Shapes and On the Nature of Places, via the labyrinthine search for the unifying causal factor in bodily movement in On Bodily Movement and On Light, to the condensed metaphysics of On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies. If the principles of heavenly movement remained obscure, the clear skies allowed the rays of the sun full freedom to give leafy Lincoln a summery sparkle. The staff and amenities at Bishop Grosseteste University were as welcoming as the weather, and provided ideal surroundings for activity and movement as well as for rest.

As always, our twofold task was to beat draft translations into shape and figure out what arguments the sometimes highly obscure Latin texts were meant to establish. We were fortunate to have in our midst scholars from a range of discipline corresponding to the breadth of Grosseteste’s interests and talents. BGU did not only contribute hospitality but also scholarship, in the form of Dr Jack Cunningham and his PhD students Ros Gammie and Adam Foxon at the theology department at BGU, and Dr Gioacchino Curiello, who is a British Academy Post-Doc at the same department. Gioacchino also brought some welcome variation into our work schedule through presenting his ongoing research on Grosseteste’s translations of and commentaries on the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus of texts, and how these can be linked to his pastoral care as Bishop of Lincoln.

V1frCU+MSD6TfHlrChh0Aw_thumb_c9e2The texts we worked on this time draw heavily on geometry and optics to explain natural phenomena and natural causation. Professors Tom McLeish from York and Brian Tanner from Durham produced extremely helpful diagrams of the reasoning implicit and explicit in the texts, and Oxford Vision Scientists Professor Hannah Smithson and Dr Rebekah White brought clarity and focus to our reading by refracting Grosseteste’s opaque words through the lenses of their expertise. Professor Clive Siviour and Joshua Harvey, also of Oxford, showed how useful their training in Engineering and, in Josh’s case, Experimental Psychology, is for elucidating medieval texts with precision.

2sreRYt1TJGWO41egFjr+Q_thumb_c9e8Professor Cecilia Panti (Rome, Tor Vergata) had produced wonderful new editions of On Lines, Angles, and Shapes and On the Nature of Places, and Dr Neil Lewis’s (Georgetown) translation of On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies was based on Cecilia’s already published edition of that work. We also revisited Neil’s meticulous edition and translation of On Bodily Movement and On Light, which continues to fascinate and puzzle us. Since these texts draw heavily on other medieval works, we were delighted to welcome back Dr Nicola Polloni (Berlin) and Dr Seb Falk (HPS, Cambridge), who made essential contributions from their expertise, respectively, in medieval philosophy and medieval science. Dr Sarah Gilbert, who recently completed her PhD in History at Durham, had helped organise the workshop and added her valuable Latin skills to her administrative contributions. We were also joined by Karen Monid of The Projection Studio. Karen and Ross have used Grosseteste’s texts as inspiration for their wonderful projection shows, using the movement of light and of sound to make the most profoundly moving projection shows.  We are very much looking forward to seeing what this creative team will do next!

UTAYnaCbR5mSU014QdBASA_thumb_ca084lr5T4I6QoKpCSRUIb1RdQ_thumb_ca02Grosseteste assumed as axiomatic that a unitary effect must have a unitary cause and origin. The union of these disciplines in a unitary debate, while dependent on all participants, can be traced back to the unifying leadership of Professor Giles Gasper (Durham), who once again managed to make numerous disparate impulses and energies pull in the same direction. Giles also gave a public lecture, together with Sig Sønnesyn (Durham) and Cecilia Panti, with the title ‘Creation and the World Machine: 13th Century Science and Theology’. In this lecture, Giles framed Grosseteste’s life and work within the overarching theme of creation theology and natural science. Sig gave a case study of this from the perspective of the short treatise On the Six Differentiae, and Cecilia presented her recent edition of a text, quite possibly and plausibly authored by Grosseteste, on the importance of astronomical time-keeping for the art of medicine and healing.

One of the central lessons of Grosseteste’s geometrical account of natural causality is that while a single rectilinear influence from cause to effect can be effective, the effect is many times stronger when several such lines converge on the same point to concentrate their efforts. This workshop, converging on Grosseteste’s episcopal seat and final resting place, has reminded us how this is applicable, with the necessary modifications, to scholarship as well. By coming together to concentrate our efforts towards a shared goal, we were able to produce effects that none of us would have been capable of on our own. Grosseteste would not have been surprised at this, convinced as he was that nature is the best guide for art and academic pursuits.

The Geometrical Principles of Movement and Place: Lincoln Symposium

Next week, Grosseteste scholars from a wide radius will make straight lines for Lincoln and Bishop Grosseteste University, converging to concentrate our efforts on unpicking Grosseteste’s understanding of movement and change in supercelestial and sublunary bodies, and the geometric principles governing how the former influence the latter. We will read four treatises together: On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies, On Lines, Angles, and Shapes, and On the Nature of Places, all edited by Cecilia Panti, and On Bodily Movement and On Light, edited by Neil Lewis.



These treatises approach a complex set of questions from different angles: at the heart of all of them is the search for order in the universe, that is, for the principles that can make an ever-changing world intelligible. On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies draws heavily on Averroes to explain and account for the unchanging circular movement of the heavenly spheres, and how this movement can be caused by an unmoving ultimate mover. On Bodily Movement and On Light seeks a unifying factor of all bodily movement, and finds it in light. In this way, the rectilinear and changing movements of sublunary bodies can be linked to the unchanging movements of the luminous bodies of the heavens. On Lines, Angles, and Shapes provides an account of the geometric principles according to which heavenly bodies exert causal influence on the world below, while its companion treatise On the Nature of Places applies these principles to explain how the causal influence of the heavens has different effects in different places on earth. Reading these treatises together will allow us to penetrate more deeply into the ways Grosseteste understood the order that governed and connected the supercelestial and sublunary realms.

The team are deeply grateful to Cecilia and Neil for preparing new and improved editions of these texts, and to Jack Cunningham and BGU for hosting us us in a place of such a congenial nature. We are greatly looking forward to intense and fruitful days of reading, discussion, and companionship.

Public Lecture in Lincoln

OUP POster

Our next project symposium takes place in Lincoln, and we’re delighted to be back in the convivial surroundings of Bishop Grosseteste University, hosted by Jack Cunningham and the BGU Ordered Universe chapter. As part of the symposium, which features Grosseteste’s treatise On Lines and Angles, On the Nature of Places, alongside On the Supercelestial Motions and On Bodily Motion and Light, we have a public lecture on Grosseteste’s cosmology and its implications for understanding of the world. The three Continue reading

Medieval and Modern Tides – Light Up Poole Festival 2019

Last weekend, on Saturday February 23rd, Ordered Universe members Brian Tanner and Giles Gasper took part in the Light Up Poole Festival, on the UK’s south coast, in Dorset. We gave a talk to the public on the scientific works of Robert Grosseteste, in Continue reading

Looking into the Unknowable: Premodern Conundrums of Prime Matter

The Ordered Universe Project is delighted to announce that long-time friend of the project Dr Nicola Polloni will be in Durham on Tuesday 5 March 2019 to give a lecture about one of his research interests: the notion of prime matter, especially in consideration of Premodern discussions of matter-theories in philosophy and science c. 1200-1700. See below for more details.

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Napa Lighted Art Festival – Colour, Perception, the Avant Garde and more

A second set of talks, and memories from the Napa Lighted Festival last month. Friday 18th January saw a first talk from multi-media sculptor Alexandra Carr, a frequent collaborator with the Ordered Universe, and Joshua Harvey (Psychology and Engineering Science, University of Oxford). In Beyond Colour Alexandra and Josh spoke on various Continue reading

Berkeley Talk – Sound and Perception

Ordered Universe team members Giles Gasper and Joshua Harvey delivered a talk at University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday this week (16th Jan). Organised by Dr Henrike Lange of the Departments of Art History and Italian at Berkeley, the talk focused on Robert Grosseteste’s treatise On the Generation of Sounds. An excellent example of the way in which the project used interpretative tools from a wide range of disciplines to analyse the implications of this short but beguilingly complex treatise. Continue reading

Napa Lighted Art Festival Opens Tomorrow

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The nine-day Napa Lighted Art Festival 2019 begins tomorrow, Saturday 12th January. A full programme features, amongst many installations, Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon, Birgit Zander and Daniel Bandke’s Language of Love, and Czech artists Hyperbinary’s Triton Genus, as well as Christopher Schardt’s Constellation Light Scuplture. All of this and Horizon from Ross Ashton and Karnen Monid’s Projection Studio. Ross and Karen have been setting up this week – and Horizon promises to be an Continue reading

Horizon – from the Projection Studio

Guest blog-post about the Napa Lighted Art Festival from Karen Monid:

Ross and I are thrilled to be asked to return to the Napa Lighted Festival in the USA. Our first piece there, Line, shown in 2017, was a contemporary study in the combined effect of optical illusion, sound and motion with modern architecture. This year, the festival has generously offered us one of the most historic sites in Napa to show our new work, Horizon, a co-commission between the Ordered Universe project, the Light Up Poole Festival in the UK and the Napa Lighted Art Festival in the US.

The Ordered Universe project website has information about Horizon already here. As artists, it has been a wonderful experience to create a new work that is not only inspired by Robert Grosseteste’s works, but goes even further, using his own words as the central core of the piece. Horizon places his observations, experiences and interpretations of the earth and our place in it alongside those of the ecosystem studies of the Jet Propulsion Labaratory in NASA, whose work sits at the cutting edge of 21st century technology. Horizon reveals a surprising similarity of human aim behind scientific enquiry and searching, both then and now. It shows how interpretations have developed, as we have changed our viewing positions from that of being ‘on the earth’ to moving ‘off the earth’ and looking back at ourselves on this planet.

Something new I was keen to explore in the audio for the work, something that has never been done before with the Ordered Universe project, is to focus on the context of Grosseteste’s writings, to allow them to be presented to Horizons audience as the teaching materials we believe them to have been, spoken aloud to students, learning about their place on the earth and in the universe as a whole. It has been exciting to find creatively meaningful ways to do this in Horizon, working with Professor Giles Gasper, Dr Sigbjørn Sønnesyn, and students at Durham University, in particular. Moreover, that Horizon also shows that modern science continues in this same work today shows a direct lineage from thinkers such as Grosseteste into the modern world.

One if the most exciting aspects of the project for us is that we are being given the opportunity to present the piece in Napa on the Goodman Library. The Goodman Library is a beautiful piece of Napa architectural history. It has survived several earthquakes and has recently reopened after an intense restoration program to preserve and protect its unique features. Libraries are the repositories of knowledge and so it is particularly resonant to have developed the premiere of ‘Horizon’ for this particular building. We will be discussing Horizon and our work, at the free ‘Meet the Artist’ event in Napa on January 13th. Tickets are available here.

Finally, we would like to extend our grateful thanks for the support of our collaborators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, Dr Joshua Willis and Dr Joshua Fisher. Dr Willis is the principal investigator on the OMG (Oceans Melting Greenland) mission and Dr Fisher is Science Lead on the ECOSTRESS mission, one of several space-based data gathering missions that are collectively looking at earth ecosystem changes, in collaboration with other space agencies internationally. We are delighted that Dr Joshua Fisher will also be giving a talk at Napa Lighted as part of the program of talks on offer at the Festival. Tickets are available here.