Robert Grosseteste's New Scientific Method

Dan Graves, MSL

Robert Grosseteste's New Scientific Method

His clergymen must preach and teach the creed, the ten commandments and the Lord's Prayer in English. The Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste was determined about that.

When underlings protested that Latin was the proper language for the Bible, Robert answered that the people did not understand Latin. If they could not understand what was being taught to them, how would their souls be saved?

Since becoming bishop in 1235, Robert had introduced many reforms and carried them out with vigor. Instruction in English was just one of them. At that time it was common for clergymen to draw incomes off several different church positions, even if they did not do justice to any one of them. Robert renounced all of his livings but one and insisted that others must do the same. He threw out churchmen who had bought their jobs and made it clear that no man would be given a church job under him unless his moral life was in good order. To make sure that his instructions were carried out, he made surprise visits to the clergymen under him.

How some of them complained! But Robert had an answer. "Remember," he said, "We are all going to have to face God's judgment."

He explained his actions in writing. "As soon as I became bishop, I considered myself to be the overseer and pastor of souls; and lest the blood of the sheep should be required at my hand at the strict judgment, I visited the sheep committed to my charge."

The proper conduct of a churchman was to save souls, he taught. A true priest visits the sick, and prisoners, feeds the hungry, preaches, and teaches. A spiritual leader had no business holding government office. He shouldn't spend so much time on philosophy and science that he neglected to reach the lost and perform his duties.

Science and philosophy were big temptations to Robert. He was good at them. In fact, he is the first man in history known to have written down the complete steps for making a proper scientific experiment. He even founded a school at Oxford to do such experiments and made his own attempts to try to explain the rainbow. He took an important step when he applied mathematics to the study of optics. One of his most famous pupils was Roger Bacon.

In addition to philosophy and the theory of science, Robert was fascinated with Arabic, astronomy, calendar reform, canon and civil law, comets, the Greek language, household management, infinity theory, Jewish law, mathematics, medicine, space, theology, vacuum, and weather prediction. But souls came first. That is why he loved the Franciscans: they chose poverty in their zeal to spread the gospel. Little wonder that the early reformer John Wycliffe admired and quoted Robert.

Robert died on this day, October 9, 1253. It was a long time before the world could see just how far ahead of his time this great thinker was. He was hundreds of years ahead on calendar reform, almost three hundred years ahead of the reformation, four hundred years ahead of the scientific revolution and four hundred years ahead of the wave theory of light.


  1. Callus, D. A. Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop; Essays in commemoration of the seventh centenary of his death. London: Oxford Univ, 1955.
  2. Crombie, A. C. Grosseteste and Medieval Science. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953.
  3. "Grosseteste, Robert." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  4. "Grosseteste, Robert." Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Editor Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
  5. Graves, Daniel. Scientists of Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1996.

Last updated June, 2007.

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