OxNet Access Week 2021

The OxNet-Ordered Universe programme for the academic year 2020-2021 came to an end earlier this month with a fantastic Summer School run by Sarah Gilbert (a longstanding Ordered Universe team member), and Matthew Clayton (a new friend of the project and current History PhD student at Durham University). Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the Access Week Programme took place online rather than in person at Pembroke College Oxford as has been the case in most previous years, but the students worked brilliantly in the online format and thedaily live Zooms gave Sarah and Matt a chance to get to know the students and hear their thoughts on medieval and modern science.

There were 19 students in this years OxNet-Ordered Universe cohort from almost as many schools, and all of them showed the dedication, enthusiasm and attention-to-detail that we have come to expect from OxNet students. The group began the week with an introductory session to get them thinking about medieval science, followed by sessions later in the week where we read through Grosseteste’s On Comets and On the Impressions of the Elements as a group and tried to unpack the meaning of these complex scientific treatises. The group, ably prepared after their work on On the Sphere earlier in the year, got to the heart of both texts and were able to dissect the structure and purpose of the treatises and offered thoughtful suggestions about the strengths and weaknesses of Grosseteste’s approach to his questions.

The group loved On Comets and in particular how Grosseteste starts the treatise with a list of all of the comet-hypotheses that he disliked and wanted to publicly reject, which the students noted is a practice that continues even in modern scientific writing. The students were taken with Grosseteste’s curiosity and desire to ‘get to the bottom of things’ – they saw that Grosseteste had noticed that previous explanations of the phenomenon of comets did not fit the standard model of the universe as it was understood in 13th century England, and that he was trying his best to find an explanation of comets that made sense. On the Impressions of the Elements impressed the group because of Grosseteste’s exhortations to his readers to observe and to do their own testing – they loved his analogy of the bubbles rising in a shiny bronze pan of boiling water, and the action of the ‘rays’ on larger bodies of water on the surface of the earth.

Such an enjoyable and stimulating week was only possible with support from many different people. Peter Claus and Felix Slade from the main OxNet team put a superb programme together that showed what willpower and a commitment to Access can achieve even in challenging global circumstances. Ordered Universe team members and friends, Brian Tanner, Giles Gasper, Seb Falk and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn created beautiful in-depth teaching videos to provide the students with specialist asynchronous content to fit in around the rest of their Access Week activities, and Alan Fentiman (filmmaker), Jamie Parker (actor), Rachael Lloyd (opera singer), Ross Ashton and Karen Monid (artists and projection specialists), made videos describing their paths into the arts from often surprising directions.

There are two people who deserve particulr thanks for their work on the OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week this year. First, Claire Ungley (co-ordinator for the OxNet North East hub based in Sunderland, as well as being the Raising Aspirations Co-ordinator for Southmoor Academy) who has carried this year’s cohort through the whole academic cycle from the seminars, to the Easter School and then the Access Week making sure that everything ran smoothly and that the students had a trusted professional contact with them throughout the course. Claire has been with OxNet for a few years and we are always grateful for her support, her professionalism, and her knowledge of the students. The second person is Matthew Clayton (PhD candidate in History at Durham University): Matt was new to OxNet this year and started by assisting with the Easter School marking before taking on a co-teaching and marking role for the summer Access Week. Matt was prepared, friendly, and knowledgable throughout the week and the students responded to him with enthusiasm. Matt’s thoughts on the week are below:

I was a co-teacher of the OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week. I really enjoyed my time helping teach this course. The group was fantastic and engaged really well with the two texts which the course examined, Robert Grosseteste’s De Cometis and De Impressionibus Elementorum. The course itself, with its balance of asynchronous content and in person teaching, is an excellent way of introducing students not only to medieval science but to the medieval world in general. I especially enjoyed the collaborative reading sessions, which are a great way of getting students to engage deeply and thoughtfully with medieval literature. That they did so was seen in the excellent work which they produced. The short questions and essays which I read all demonstrated a high level of understanding of and critical engagement with Robert Grosseteste’s arguments in De Cometis and De Impressionibus Elementorum and the nuances of the medieval vision of the universe. What is more, many students brought in aspects of their own prior knowledge of Robert Grosseteste’s De Sphera from the Easter school. The OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week was a fantastic introduction to higher education, which encouraged students to develop and express their own ideas and arguments clearly and effectively. 

Sarah and Matt thoroughly enjoyed teaching such an impressive group of students and are delighted to have shared such an engaging and intellectually stimulating week with the group.

OxNet Seminar 6 – History

Our final seminar of the OxNet series took place last week, led by Giles Gasper. Thady Fox reflects on the session:

Professor Giles Gasper portrayed history as a story of change and thus illuminated the centrality of the narrator. Therefore, history is a study of perspective before a study of reality: two concepts proved to be distinct by Professor Hannah Smithson in our prior lecture. It is the historian’s role to drag history along this continuum, to achieve an asymptote of reality. The historian is one who analyses and interprets, finding a shared essence in various sources. The historian filters truth from fallacy.

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

OxNet Seminar 5 – Psychology and Perception

In our penultimate seminar, Professor Hannah Smithson took us through the fascinating process of how our eyes and brains process visual information. Thady Fox has shared his reflections below:

Seeing is believing. Our sight is held almost as a pure portrayal of reality, celebrated for truth in law and life. However, my trust in this sense, this foundational pillar of understanding, has been shaken by Professor Hannah Smithson in our lecture on perception. We explored the trichromatic retinal processing of light stimuli and the ensuing contextual adaption. Thus, we explored the translation, the transformation of reality into a new form. In approaching Robert Grosseteste’s treatises on colour, this distinction between reality and perception is vital. Seeing medieval reality through Grosseteste’s eyes is not enough; one must also process through his mind, relate context to his observations, perceive as him.  

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School 

OxNet Seminar 4 – Alchemy

This week we delved into the mystical realms of Alchemy with Walker Christian, Durham University. Here are some student reflections on the session:  

Alchemy is undoubtedly mysterious yet not indecipherable. Walker Christian depicted how, with the right foundations and perspectives, one might distil the swathes of allegory and illustration. Adopting his approach allowed me to understand the alchemist: a character far more than a recluse in search of gold. The alchemist was a scientist exploring an absurd and confusing world, experimenting and analysing. It was a philosopher embracing a redemptive role, perfecting and balancing. It was a thinker in search of an ordered universe. 

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School 

During this seminar, I learned that alchemy was the art of crafting and melting metals, and applied naturally occurring laws to speed up natural processes. The practice was mocked by figures such as Chaucer due to its controversy in many aspects including: a way to defraud the King (transmutation, the conversion of lead into gold causing economic disregard), its Christian imagery and the concept of the philosopher’s stone (which supposedly grants eternal/an extension of life). This lead to alchemy being forced underground, with recipes and processes ingeniously inscribed in metaphorical alchemical images, carefully crafted to keep them as secretive and coded as possible.  

Alchemical pictures usually depict/consist of two main opposing figures; the sun versus the moon, hot and dry properties of sulphur versus cold and wet properties of mercury, masculine versus feminine. In many images the medieval cosmos is beautifully displayed where spherical shapes are suggested, the perfect circles/orbits play a huge roll in portraying the heavens, the connection between the centre of the Earth and how everything is interlocked in some way. Alchemy wasn’t fully appreciated by many, despite it being the practice of converting and changing metals based on their properties. It was a process of transformation, creation and combination. 

Sofiyah Muzafar, Crompton House Sixth Form  

In this intriguing seminar we studied the ancient art of alchemy and its crucial place in history dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt and possibly beyond. We discussed how alchemy was in fact a great deal more than just a quest to turn base metals into gold. Instead revolving largely around transformation as a whole and how to turn an imperfect material into a perfect one. Studying the colour changes of chemical processes and how metals were formed. It was fascinating to examine the alchemical images and debate the symbolism that helped keep the secrets of alchemy hidden from those who were considered unworthy of joining its select group of scholars for hundreds of years. 

Molly Mooney, Sofiyah Muzafar, Crompton House Sixth Form  

Upon hearing the world ‘alchemy’, it is almost impossible not to conjure up images of wizards and fanatics, crazed in their attempts to turn lead to gold. However, Walker Christian’s lecture on the rich cultural history of alchemy in the Medieval and Early Modern world has completely shifted my perspective. Having never encountered the topic before, I was fascinated to learn about the interwoven elements of science, philosophy, religion and astrology, each playing a critical collaborative role in the development and communication of new ideas. These surprisingly nuanced beliefs have captured my attention, and I look forward to continuing my own personal research. 

Abbie Strain, Sir John Deane’s College 

OxNet Seminar 3 – Cosmology

Last week, Tom McLeish, York University, took our students on a tour of the cosmos, past and present. Here are their reflections:

The seminar on cosmology was very compelling, bringing to light many concepts I was unaware of and were of great interest to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this lecture, as we were shown interactive versions of the universe, comparing the medieval universe with that of the modern day. Within the reading were explorations of what a black hole is, how one is created and, importantly, what happens to matter when it enters a black hole. Aspects such as escape velocity, the event horizon and the curvature of space were discussed in the reading, all of which were new ideas to me, and are things I will research into following the lecture. Additionally, the history of how various characteristics of space were discovered was incorporated into the reading, and expanded on during the talk, with an array of different images and resources being used to illustrate how the way we look at the universe has shifted through time. Overall, the expansions on ideas within cosmology and the enthusiasm for the subject shown by Tom McLeish made this a particularly engaging and fascinating lecture.

Amy Wilkinson, Byron Sixth Form

From nothingness, the medieval cosmos expanded in our minds, driven by the forceful passion of Professor Tom McLeish. Sphere after sphere crystallised until the universe of Robert Grosseteste was complete. This universe was one ruled by logic, by mathematics and therefore one that held similarities to the current model. Yet Grosseteste still wove Christianity and ancient principles into the fabric of his universe. Thus, Grosseteste formed an acceptable pivot to tilt the medieval world towards the modern; he stirred the stagnant thought of the era and cultured the germ of science for future generations.

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

This seminar discussed cosmology in the medieval period, and we took a trip through the universe both as it was believed to be over eight hundred years ago and as we know it today. We discussed the common misconception that the earth was believed to be flat in the medieval period and how in fact most people were aware the earth was a sphere. Also, we looked at how contemporaries mapped the solar system with circles and dealt with any breaks from the pattern, such as the retrograde of Mars. It was fascinating to look at the universe from a different perspective and compare it with the cosmos I am familiar with.

Molly Mooney, Compton House Sixth Form

OxNet Seminar 2 – Cultural Transmission

Our second seminar was led by Dr Ana Dias, and discussed the notion of cultural transmission in the medieval world. Below are some of our students’ thoughts on the session:

The seminar focused on how the social, cultural and religious fabric of the Iberian Peninsula of Europe changed significantly in the early medieval period due to the Muslim conquest of Iberia, starting in 711 AD leading to the power shift and religious conversion in Iberia, especially of the southern region of what is now Spain, with a stronghold in areas such as Toledo and Granada.  One of the most interesting elements was that, through the acculturation of the Berber society in Iberia, there became external, oppositional influences in the artwork of both the Muslims and the Christians – the Muslims began to incorporate human figures into their art, like the ceramic bottle with the musicians found in Córdoba and the Christians began to use the Muslim style of dress in their artworks – which many of the Christians adopted when the Muslims arrived and took power of the region.  

I found this seminar especially interesting as I have a strong connection to southern Spain and have visited many of the remaining Muslim castles and forts and found that getting the back story and history of the Muslim influence on Spain in the early Medieval period allowed me to gain more context in which to view these historical sites 

Lucy Graham, Oldham Sixth Form College

The seminar was intriguing in how a widely-known Christian country like Spain had a rich history with Islam. This form of a symbiotic relationship between Christians and Muslims highlighted a conquest of development that was not fueled by war yet by peace treaties. Therefore, this was showing an alternate angle of human collaboration, despite being masked in Iberian literature.

Jan Murillo, Holy Cross College

Dr Ana Dias painted a vibrant Islamic Iberia, a fertile culture, resulting from the blending of two rich histories I previously thought immiscible. Al-Andalus was a society of assimilation, of relative unity. Mutual progression, whether scientific or artistic, flowed from this principle. Academia flourished and dispersed but the Church saw a threat. Martyrdom followed, destabilising the major city of Cordoba. The Church approached almost as a political entity, escalating, enraging and thus dividing the society. Dr Ana Dias illustrated the entanglement of unity and division in history: one in which Robert Grosseteste, a scholar and bishop, would later be caught.

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

We discussed the rise of the Muslims as a religion as well as their political domination in various aspects of the world, specifically looking at the cultural transmission of Islam through early medieval Spain, formerly referred to as Iberia. Christian texts that we looked at tended to refer to the aftermath of the Muslim conquest as abhorrent, portraying Muslims as infidels. However archeological evidence and material sources shed light on a different reality, which suggests that the relations between Muslims and Christians were much more symbiotic. We understand that the Muslim conquest was not as dramatic as it was depicted to be and that these Christian texts were curated to glorify Christian kings. One of the documents that allow us to understand the dynamic between Christians and Muslims stems from the pact of Umer which enabled freedom for others to practice monotheistic religions under the Islamic state. The treaty of Tudmir also allowed others in their land to practice their own religions in exchange for tax, goods, and appropriate behavior. These people were referred to as ‘Dhimmi’, otherwise known as a protected person.

Khadija Mohamed, Loreto Sixth Form College

OxNet Seminar 1 – Physics

We’ve kicked off this year’s OxNet Ordered Universe seminar series with a session on Physics run by Emeritus Professor Brian Tanner, Durham University. Some of our students have shared their reflections on the topic:

“Professor Tanner’s seminar was on the subject of physics in the medieval period. Beforehand we were given information to read through about lenses, with information on the lens equation, how light is refracted and bent as it passes through different types of lenses and how the focal length affects where an image will be displayed. In the Middle Ages, ideas about refraction mainly came from the old teachings of Ptolemy and Grosseteste, and we discussed how water affects rays of light. Of interest in the seminar was of how Ptolemy and Grosseteste may have constructed experiments scientifically accepted in today’s world, which before the seminar I was led to believe were first conducted by Galileo. Another intriguing idea was of the matter of the first practical uses of lenses. To display objects in clarity, a lenses were a solution to the deterioration of eyesight. The invention of spectacles cannot be exactly pin pointed but is likely from 13th century Italy. In addition, another practical use of lenses was to see the stars, or at first to enlarge a view in the distance. The invention of the telescope seems to be from a Dutch man but, there was evidence of other telescope-like instruments having been invented before, for example the Elizabethan telescope.

All in all, I found learning of the ideas of physics from the Middle Ages fascinating. At first, I was led to believe the Middle Ages were shrouded in darkness for science and that no advancements were made in respective fields. But I find now that such fascinating people, like Grosseteste, still imagined and contemplated the laws of nature and that humans’ innate curiosity continued through this interesting period. Perhaps what is more intriguing is how we can use the ideas of the work of Grosseteste and many alike to explain phenomenon today or perhaps to see the world from a different perspective and approach questions in science in a different forgotten light.”

Oliver Hennessey, Oldham Sixth Form College

“Professor Tanner took us along the chronology of optics, a chronology in which one might lose sight of Robert Grosseteste; his theory of refraction is easily eclipsed by that of the older Ibn-Sahl. However, a focus on his approach proves far more fruitful. Grosseteste approached optics as a scientist. As emphasised by Professor Tanner, Grosseteste did not see a capricious world; he believed in an ordered universe, unified by laws he sought via experimentation and observation. His observations he explained with mathematics as illustrated by his reliance upon geometry. This resulted in a deeper, broader exploration of natural phenomena. Grosseteste is remarkable for his profound thinking: a blend of rigorous logic and channelled creativity.”
Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

“Professor Tanner discussed the approach that scientists from the middle ages took to solve some of the major physics problems at the time. Many of these problems involved optics, using Euclid’s work on reflection and Grosseteste’s findings on refraction. The seminar also introduced issues that the physicists of the middle ages had to contend with due to their lack of technology and complete understanding of physics as we see it today. This was explained through the interesting topic of Witelo’s forged data on the ratios of refraction in water and air.  It was valuable to have the thought processes of the early physicists explained to me as it allows for the exploration of their beliefs, both religious and scientific. This will be very important as it provides context to the scientific and religious knowledge around Grosseteste’s time.”
Robert Doherty, Ashton Sixth Form College

“I found Professor Tanner’s Physics seminar very interesting, and helpful in gaining an extended understanding of the things I am learning about in A level physics. It was great to look further into refraction and reflection and apply them to more unusual situations than in an exam, for example the experiment with the coin in a cup. We learned some of the history of both telescopes and glasses/spectacles, which I enjoyed as it combined physics and history, and was something I’d never previously looked into. It was fascinating to look back on multiple people creating similar things in completely different parts of the world, and the fact that their inventions were so close to what we know today, perhaps more advanced than I would have ever expected from the Early Modern period.”

Amy Wilkinson, Byron Sixth Form

Grosseteste and the English Franciscans

Later today, Giles Gasper will be talking on Robert Grosseteste and the early Franciscan community at Oxford, as part of the series on the English Franciscans, organised by Dr Lydia Schumacher and her team at the Authority and Innovation in Early Franciscan Thought (c.1220-1245) project. This is the last webinar in a fascinating series, and also features Professor Rega Wood on the ‘The Powers of the Soul and the Origins of the Formal Distinction.’ The talks are at 10am and 11am (EDT/New York)/ which is 3pm and 4pm (London time); and 4pm and 5pm (Berlin time), and will be chaired by Riccardo Saccenti, a researcher on the ERC early Franciscans project. It is still possible to book onto the event using theContinue reading “Grosseteste and the English Franciscans”

Summer School Complete


A sincere and heartfelt thank you and congratulations to all of the OxNet students who participated in the Access Week Summer School over the last week, and in the case of Ordered Universe, over the last fortnight. It was wonderful to be at the virtual programme graduation and prize-giving session, to hear about the progress of the other strands within the school, and to see and hear the enthusiasm from the students.Continue reading “Summer School Complete”

Live in Lockdown @ Durham University: Giles Gasper on Ordered Universe

This coming Thursday, 6th August, Giles will be talking about the Ordered Universe project. He will introduce Grosseteste and medieval science and the extended collaborations within the project over its now 11-year span. Inspired by the 13th-century past, the project has grown considerably since its beginnings bringing together modern scientists and medieval specialists from a whole range of universities and other centres of learning from across the globe.
Continue reading “Live in Lockdown @ Durham University: Giles Gasper on Ordered Universe”