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Medieval Sourcebook:
Roger Bacon:
Despair over Thirteenth Century Learning


Roger Bacon: from Compendium Studii Philosophiae

[Coulton Introduction (1910)] For a brilliant popular account of Roger Bacon see J. R. Green's Short History, chap. III, sect. iv; for a far more authoritative estimate of his work, Rashdall's Universities of Europe in the Miracle Ages, vol. II pp. 522 ff.. Bacon, in Dr Rashdall's words, was "the most astonishing phenomenon of the medieval schools...unlike other medieval thinkers, orthodox or unorthodox, he saw that the study of Greek was the true key to the meaning of Aristotle, and a knowledge of the Bible in the original the true foundation for a fruitful study of theology. All the characteristic ideas of the sixteenth century are held in solution, as it were, in the writings of Roger Bacon, mixed up no doubt with much that is redolent of the age in which he lived; but, of all the anticipations of modern ways of thinking with which his worlds abound, the most remarkable is his plan of educational reform."

After twenty years of study and experiments, during which he expended on books and instruments the equivalent of nearly £40,000 modern money [=$200,000 in 1910!], Bacon joined the Franciscan Order, a step which he evidently lived to repent. His superiors forbade him to publish anything, and he would have died unknown but for the intervention of Pope Clement IV, who had heard of him before his elevation to the papacy, and who in 1266 sent a letter bidding him write down his ideas "without delay, and with all possible secrecy, without regard to any contrary precept of your Superiors or any constitution of your Order." In less than two years Bacon wrote three works extending to some 600 folio pages of print-the Opus Majus, Opus Minus, and Opus Tertium. In 1271 he followed these up with the Compendium Studii Philosophiae, from which the following extracts are taken (ed. J S. Brewer, R.S. 1859).

ROGER BACON: from Compendium Studii Philosophiae

(p 398.)

Nevertheless, seeing that we consider not these hindrances from our youth upwards, but neglect them altogether therefore we are lost with infinite error, nor can we enjoy the profit of wisdom in the church and in the three other regions whereof I have spoken above [note: i.e. the conduct of the State, the conversion of the heathen, and the repression of reprobate sinners, on p. 397] For these hindrances bring it about that men believe themselves to stand in the highest glory of wisdom, so that there was never so great an appearance of wisdom nor so busy exercise of study in so many branches and in so many parts of the world, as in the last forty years. [note: i.e. since the rise of the Franciscan and Dominican Friars, the Student-Orders as he calls them below, in contradistinction to the monks, who had already grown careless of learning]. For Doctors, and especially Doctors of Divinity, are scattered abroad in every city and town and borough, especially by means of the two Student-Orders; and this has been only for the last forty years, more or less. Yet the truth is that there has never been so great ignorance and such deep error, as I will most clearly prove later on in this present treatise, and as is already manifestly shown by facts. For more sins reign in these days than in any past age; and sin is incompatible with wisdom. Let us look upon all conditions in the world, and consider them diligently; everywhere we shall find boundless corruption, and first of all in the Head. For the Court of Rome, which once was ruled by God's wisdom, and should always be so ruled, is now debased by the constitutions of lay Emperors, made for the governance of lay-folk and contained in the code of civil law. The Holy See is torn by the deceit and fraud of unjust men. Justice perishes all peace is broken, infinite scandals are aroused. This bears its fruit in utterly perverse manners; pride reigns, covetousness burns, envy gnaws upon all, the whole [Papal] Court is defamed of lechery, and gluttony is lord of all. . .if this be so in the Head, what then is done among the members? Let us see the prelates; how they run after money, neglect the cure of souls, promote their nephews, and other carnal friends, and crafty lawyers who ruin all by their counsels; for they despise students in philosophy and theology, and hinder the two Orders, who come forward to serve the Lord without hire, from living in freedom and working for the salvation of souls. Let us consider the religious Orders: I exclude none from what I say. See how far they are fallen, one and all, from their right state; and the new Orders [of Friars] are already horribly decayed from their first dignity. The whole clergy is intent upon pride, lechery, and avarice; and wherever clerks are gathered together, as at Paris and Oxford, they scandalize the whole laity with their wars and quarrels and other vices. Princes and barons and knights oppress and rob each other, and trouble their subjects with infinite wars and exactions, wherein each strives to despoil the other even of duchies and kingdoms, as we see in these days. For it is notorious that the King of France has most unjustly despoiled the King of England of that i great territory; and Charles [of Anjou] has even now crushed, the heirs of Frederick [II] in mighty battles. Men care not what is done nor how, whether by right or wrong, if only each may have his own will; meanwhile they are slaves to gluttony if and lechery and the wickedness of other sins. The people, harassed by their princes, hate them and keep no fealty save under compulsion; moreover, corrupted by the evil examples of their betters, they oppress and circumvent and defraud one another, as we see everywhere with our own eyes; and they are utterly given over to lechery and gluttony, and are more debased than tongue can tell. Of merchants and craftsmen there is no question, since fraud and deceit and guile reign beyond all measure in all their words and deeds.

There is another measure of the effect of this corruption. For the faith of Christ has been revealed to the world, and certified already by saints without number.... And we have our Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the altar; everywhere and daily we make it at our will, in accordance with that His precept, "Do this in remembrance of me"; we eat and drink Him, and are turned into Him, to become Gods and Christs....Certainly if men had faith, reverence, and devotion to this sacrament as they are in duty bound, then they would not corrupt themselves with so many errors and sins and wickednesses, but would know all wisdom and wholesome truth in this life: wherefore, seeing that they here play the ass [his asininant], and many are infirm and weak and sleep (to use the Apostle's words) therefore they must needs become infirm and weak in all that region of wisdom, and sleep the sleep of death, and play the ass beyond common estimation; for this [sacrament] is at the end of the glory and goodness and comeliness of wisdom, and has more certain proofs than any other kind.... Since therefore we know but little in so noble and so plain a matter, therefore all other profitable wisdom must needs be put farther away from us than tongue may tell.

The third consideration from effects is taken by comparing our state with that of the ancient Philosophers; who, though they were without that quickening grace which makes man worthy of eternal life, and where into we enter at baptism, yet lived beyond all comparison better than we, both in all decency and in contempt of the world, with all its delights and riches and honors; as all men may read in the works of Aristotle Seneca, Tully [ie Ciciero], Avicenna, Alfarabius, Plato, Socrates, and others; and so it was that they attained to the secrets of wisdom and found out all knowledge. But we Christians have discovered nothing worthy of those philosophers, nor can we even understand their wisdom; which ignorance of ours springs from this cause, that our morals are worse than theirs. For it is impossible that wisdom should coexist with sin, but she requires perfect virtue, as I will show later on. But certain it is that, if there were so much wisdom in the world as men think, these evils would not be committed...and therefore, when we see everywhere (and especially among the clergy) such corruption of life, then their studies must needs be corrupt. Many wise men -- considering this, and pondering on God's wisdom and the learning of the saints and the truth of histories, and not only the prophecies of Holy Scripture but also such salutary predictions as those of the Sibyls and Merlin and Aquila and Festo and many other wise men --have reckoned that the times of Antichrist are at hand in these days of ours.[Note: The next greatest English friar of this age, Adam de Marisco, is even more emphatic on this subject, and more pessimistic generally, than Bacon.] Wherefore wickedness must needs be uprooted, and the Elect of God must appear; or else one most blessed Pope will first come, who shall remove all corruptions from University and Church and elsewhere, that the world may be renewed, and the fullness of the Gentiles may enter in, and the remnants of Israel be converted to the faith. . . God indeed, in His infinite goodness and long-suffering of wisdom, does not at once punish mankind, but delays His vengeance until the iniquity be fulfilled, so that it may not and should not be longer endured.... But now seeing that the measure of man's wickedness is full, it must needs be that some most virtuous Pope and most virtuous Emperor shall arise to purge the Church with the double sword of the spirit and the flesh; or else that such purgation shall take place through Antichrist; or, thirdly, through some other tribulation, as the discord of Christian princes, or the Tartars and Saracens and other kings of the East, as divers scriptures and manifold prophecies tell us. For there is no doubt whatever among wise men, but that the Church must be purged: yet whether in the first fashion, or the second, or the third, they are not agreed, nor is there any certain definition on this head.

(p. 425.)

The second principal cause of error in the present pursuit of wisdom is this: that for forty years past certain men have arisen in the universities who have created themselves masters and doctors in theology and philosophy, though they themselves have never learned anything of any account; nor will they or can they learn by reason of their position, as I will take care to show by argument, in all its length and breadth, within the compass of the following pages. And, although I grieve and pity these as much as I can, yet truth prevails over all, and therefore I will here expound at least some of those things which are done publicly and are known to all men, though few turn their hearts to regard either this or other profitable considerations, by reason of those causes of error which I here set forth, and whereby almost all men are basely blinded. These are boys who are inexperienced in the knowledge of themselves and of the world and of the learned languages, Greek and Hebrew, which (as I will prove later on) are necessary to study; they are ignorant also of all parts and sciences of the world's philosophy and of wisdom, when they so presumptuously enter upon the study of theology, which requires all human wisdom, as the saints teach and as all wise men know. For, if truth be anywhere, here is she found: here, if anywhere, is falsehood condemned, as Augustine says in his book Of Christian Doctrine. These are boys of the two Student-Orders, as Albert and Thomas [Note: i.e. Albert afterwards called Magnus, and St Thomas Aquinas. Bacon (though no doubt he goes too far here in his disparagement) anticipates the main lines of modern criticism on scholastic philosophy -- that it neglected almost altogether those physical and mathematical sciences on which all true philosophy must be based, and that even its principal sources -- the Bible and Aristotle -- were studied only in faulty translations, and often fatally misunderstood] and others, who in many cases enter those Orders at or below the age of twenty years. This is the common course, from the English sea to the furthest confines of Christendom, and more especially beyond the realm of France; so that in Aquitaine Provence, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, and everywhere, boys are promiscuously received into the Orders from their tenth to their twentieth year; boys too young to be able to know anything worth knowing, even though they were not already possessed with the aforesaid causes of human error; wherefore, at their entrance into the Orders, they know nothing that profits to theology. Many thousands become friars who cannot read their Psalter or their Donate [note: ie Latin Grammar; Donatus was the favorite grammarian of the Middle Ages.] yet, immediately after their admission, they are set to study theology. Wherefore they must of necessity fail to reap any great profit, especially seeing that they have not taken lessons from others in philosophy since their entrance; and, most of all, because they have presumed in those Orders to inquire into philosophy by themselves and without teachers, so that they are become Masters in Theology and in Philosophy before being disciples. Wherefore infinite error reigns among them, although for certain reasons this is not apparent by the Devil's instigation and by God's permission. One cause of this appearance is that the Orders have the outward show of great holiness; wherefore it is probable to the world that men in so holy a state would not presume on such things as they could not perform. Yet we see that all states are corrupted in this age, as I have discoursed in detail above....

Bacon then goes on to set forth, under a series of numbered heads, the almost universal ignorance of Greek and Hebrew among Western philosophers and theologians, the small quantity and detestable quality of the accredited translations of Aristotle, and the consequent rottenness of contemporary science at its very foundation.

Wherefore all who know anything at all neglect the false translation of Aristotle, and seek such remedy as they may. This is a truth which men lost in learning will not consider; but they seek consolation for their ignorance like brute beasts. If I had power over the books of Aristotle [as at present translated], I would burn them all; for to study therein is but lost time, and a source of error and a multiplication of ignorance beyond all human power to describe. And, seeing that the labors of Aristotle are the foundation of all wisdom, therefore no man may tell how much the Latins waste now because they have accepted evil translations of the Philosopher: wherefore there is no full remedy anywhere. Whosoever will glory in Aristotle's science, he must needs learn it in its own native tongue, since false translations are everywhere, in theology as well as in philosophy. For all the translators [of the Bible] before St. Jerome erred cruelly, as he himself says over and over again....We have few profitable books of philosophy in Latin, for Aristotle wrote a hundred volumes, as we read in his life, whereof we possess only three of any importance: his Logic, his Natural History, and his Metaphysics.... But the vulgar herd of students, with their leaders, have nothing to rouse them to any worthy effort: wherefore they feebly dote over these false translations, losing everywhere their time, their labor, and their money. For outward appearance alone possesses them; nor care they what they know, but only what they may seem to know in the eyes of the senseless multitude.

So likewise numberless matters of God's wisdom are still wanting. For many books of Holy Writ are not translated; both two books of the Maccabees which I know to exist in the Greek, and many other books of many prophets, which are cited in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. Moreover, Josephus in his Antiquities is utterly false as to the course of time, without which nothing can be known of the history of the Sacred Text; wherefore he is worthless until he be reformed by a new translation, and sacred history perishes. Moreover, the Latins lack innumerable books of the Hebrew and Greek expositors, as Origen, Basil, Gregory Nazianzene, Damascenus, Dionysius, Chrysostom, and other most noble doctors, in Hebrew as well as in Greek. Therefore the Church slumbers; for in this matter she does nothing, nor has done for these seventy years past, except that the lord Robert [Grosseteste] of holy memory, Bishop of Lincoln, translated into Latin from the books of St. Dionysius, and Damascenus, and a few other consecrated teachers. We must marvel at the negligence of the Church; for there has been no supreme Pontiff since the days of Pope Damasus [A.D. 384], nor any inferior pontiff who has been solicitous for the profit of the Church through translations, save only the above-mentioned glorious Bishop.

The thirteenth cause why Latin students need the knowledge of languages is the corruption which besets our studies through the ignorance of learned languages in these days. This cause is complementary of the Latins' error and ignorance. For such books of divine and human wisdom as have been well translated and truly expounded, are now become utterly faulty by reason of the disuse of the aforesaid learned languages in Latin countries. For thus, by the examples already cited, we may set forth clearly enough by way of compendious introduction, and see in general terms, how the Bible has been corrupted. But he who would go into details would not find a single sentence wherein there is no falsehood, or at least no great uncertainty, on account of the disagreement of correctors: and this doubt falls upon every wise man, even as we name that "fear" which falls even upon a constant man. Yet there is falsehood well nigh everywhere, even though doubts be interspersed. And would not these false or dubious passages be cleared away, to the quantity of half the Bible, if we introduced some certain method of proof, as the reasonable manner of correction demands? Wherefore all theologians nowadays, whether reading or preaching, use false texts, and cannot profit, and can consequently neither understand nor teach anything of any accounts. [note: In these last two sentences two emendations have been ventured which seem required by the sense; viz. tonne for non and proficere for proferre, Bacon's complaint of the corruption of the medieval Vulgate text, exaggerated as it may seem is borne out by proved facts. The late Sub-librarian of the Vatican, Father Denifle, wrote an article on this subject, in which he said: "It offers a melancholy spectacle which would be still more darkened by a comparison of other manuscripts of the 3th century....Roger Bacon was indeed right when he exclaimed with regard to the accredited Paris text, (which followed Correctorium E, and therefore contained the interpolations and belonged to the same family of MSS. as that above quoted), 'The text is for the most part horribly corrupt in the Vulgate, that is the Parisian, Exemplar."' Archiv. F.. Litt. and Zirchengeschichte u.s.w., Band IV, S. 567.]

From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York: Macmillan, c.1910), Vol 2, 55-62 [The translation in Coulton has been considerably modernized here.]


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu