Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon was a great polymath whose mind seems unfettered by the time he lived in. He was frequently accused of sorcery, and endured a period of imprisonment. His work stands at the meeting place of Mediaeval and Modern Europe, and his ideas anticipated both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; he was lauded as a scientist and thinker yet branded a wizard. Some of his inventions had to wait centuries for realisation. Bacon recognized that there were mysterious forces that appeared to be magical, such as those that moved the stars and the planets; but he argued that all knowledge that existed on Earth depended upon the power of mathematics. The friar also admitted the difficulties in discerning between the natural magic of science and the black arts. He was convinced, though, that natural magic was good and black magic was evil.

This thirteenth-century alchemist seemed to have powers of prediction when he told his contemporaries that physics, not magic, would produce huge vessels that would be able to navigate the oceans and rivers without sails or oars, cars without horses that would be able to move at tremendous speed, flying machines that would soar across the skies guided by a single man seated at centrally located controls, submarine machines that could dive to the bottom of the sea without danger to its crew, and great bridges without pillars that could span rivers. Bacon has been credited with dozens of inventions, such as the telescope, eye glasses, gunpowder—all derived through his science, rather than his magic.

Although seen as the first champion of the scientific method, he was also rumoured to have performed alchemical transmutations, and remains an enigmatic character, still steeped in mystery and legend. Like Pope Sylvester II, he was rumoured to have a talking head made of brass, and it was said that he gained his extraordinary learning from the Devil. He is supposed to have drawn up plans for flying machines and machines that enabled a man to breathe at the bottom of the ocean, and to have constructed a mirror that enabled him to see far-off events. He is also said to have invented a microscope, a tank and a pontoon bridge.When he died, his books were nailed to the shelves they sat on and left to rot, such was the conviction felt by his fellow Franciscans that he had been in league with the forces of darkness.

Bacon was born at Ilchester in Somerset around the year 1214 to a wealthy family who supported Henry III in the war against the Barons (a position that would later drive them to ruin). He was probably sent up to Oxford at the traditional age of ten or twelve, and there proved himself to be an exceptional student, being taught by the most learned men of the day, including Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and the leading mathematician of the time. Perhaps while an undergraduate, Bacon became a Franciscan. After Oxford, Bacon went to Paris, which boasted the greatest university of the day.

Bacon’s tutor at Paris, unlike Oxford, was an obscure solitary by the name of Master Peter, a shadowy figure who has escaped the history books almost completely. Whereas, in Oxford, Bacon had received the standard university education of the time, in Paris, he was instructed in Peter’s own unique style. He learnt alchemy and astrology, but was also instructed in the empirical observation of nature: Bacon was to refer to Master Peter as the ‘Lord of Experimentation’. Bacon had already been introduced to this method by Grosseteste, and would later develop the work of both his masters and, in doing so, lay the foundation for modern science. Bacon came to believe that through studying Nature, Man could come to have knowledge of the Creator. He returned to Oxford a Doctor of Divinity, and began to undertake a series of experiments.

For most of the 1250s, he seems to have been engaged in diverse works, including astronomy (his celebrated observation tower survived well into the eighteenth century), botany, chemistry, medicine, optics and mathematics. He gathered a small group of students around him – including Friar Bungay, another doctor of Divinity and supposed sorcerer – and set rumourmongers into overdrive with his stargazing and strange instruments. This period seems to have been the most settled and productive of Bacon’s career.

Bacon’s belief that the principles of mathematics and number underlined everything in the world led to his discovery that the calendar was in need of reform; his suggestions were finally accepted in 1582 when the Gregorian system, as it was known, was finally adopted. It also led to his creating one of the earliest maps of the world. (Now rumoured to be in the Vatican library.) But this was not all. Bacon saw abuse and ignorance everywhere, and railed against fellow scholars (including Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus).

Heretically, he judged the world of Classical Antiquity to be morally superior to that of the Christians, and called for greater stringency in universities. He himself learned Hebrew, Chaldean and Greek in an attempt to try to get both the Bible and the Classical authors translated properly. Corrupt texts, he reasoned, would lead to corrupt students. He also believed that great secrets were contained in words: if, as the Fourth Gospel asserts,‘In the Beginning was the Word’, then a greater knowledge of linguistics would lead to a greater knowledge of God. Bacon must therefore have studied what alchemists have called the Language of the Birds, the derivation of occult secrets through the use of etymology and wordplay.

Bacon’s outbursts, which would continue unabated into old age, together with the popular perception that he was a necromancer, led to his summons to a Franciscan kangaroo court in 1257. It is said that he was placed under house arrest for ten years, although he himself claimed that he withdrew from Oxford life for some years due to ill health. Perhaps Bacon realised that he was sailing close to the wind, and should lie low until either his reputation improved, or a powerful patron should appear. In 1263, that is precisely what happened. The newly appointed Papal legate to England, Guido Fulcode, heard of Bacon through an intermediary, one Raymond de Laon. The monk of Oxford, Fulcode learned, was possessed of wonderful secrets, and the legate determined to correspond with him.

By the time the two made contact, Fulcode had become Pope Clement IV and, once he deemed it safe to do so, had Bacon released in 1267 on the condition that he wrote all his discoveries down into one book. Bacon did not write one book for the Pope. He was to write four. The Opus Majus was the first of these, and it is his masterpiece. In it, he followed the fashion of the time for trying to encapsulate all human knowledge in one book. It is a vast compendium surveying the sciences as they stood in 1267, and as they stood according to Bacon, who believed that all branches of science were connected; in effect, it is a mediaeval quest for a ‘Theory of Everything’. (Another, later alchemist, Sir Isaac Newton, also dreamed of such a theory.) Bacon hoped that in producing the Opus Majus, he could persuade the Pope into both offering him protection from his persecutors, and into introducing reforms in both Church and Society.

The plan was scuppered in 1269 with Clement’s death. Back in Oxford and reunited with his students, Bacon produced three more works, the Opus Minus, the Opus Tertium and a treatise whose title has been lost, for the new Pope, Gregory X, before falling foul of the Franciscan hierarchies again. Bacon’s supporters tried to save him, but in 1278 he was imprisoned for fourteen years. It is said that he was only released when he revealed certain alchemical secrets to the head of the Franciscans, Raymond Gaufredi. If his opponents had hoped that jail and old age would have mellowed Bacon, they were to hope in vain. Upon his release, Bacon immediately set to work on another book, the Compendium Theologiae, an attack on what he saw as the theological errors of the time.

(Source : Alchemy & Alchemists by Sean Martin; Encyclopedia of Unusual & Unexplained Things)
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Roger Bacon Roger Bacon Reviewed by Tripzibit on 16:35 Rating: 5


  1. This story so reminds me of the Joan of Arks in the world. SO many women years ago that were more opinionated and righteous were deemed as witches simply because they were different. I am so glad that I live in more civilized days.
    Thank you for sharing this is a good reminder of how lucky we are.


  2. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please see: Theory of Super Relativity at Super Relativity Einstein was right!

  3. (Dorothy L) Yes, Joan of Ark is one of a great story. I think peoples in dark ages was very paranoid with witchcraft

    (mmfiore) Thank you for your information

  4. Heard it is very tough in those days to even tell that they invented something, as the very first thing they'll face is humiliation.

  5. (SEDONA) Yes, we should be thankful that we live in more civilized time


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