This is a guest blog post written by Dr Giles Gasper, Principal Investigator for the AHRC Science in Culture Theme Ordered Universe Project and Network. Dr Giles Gasper is Senior Lecture in the Department of History, Durham University.


The Ordered Universe project is dedicated to a fresh and original examination of medieval science, and represents a wide-ranging collaboration between medieval specialists, modern scientists, educationalists and teachers.The project is developing and using interdisciplinary readings of the scientific works of Robert Grosseteste (c.1170- 1253), a remarkable Thirteenth Century thinker and polymath, to present these texts to diverse audiences.

The primary aim of the project is to edit and translate Grosseteste’s  scientific treatises, present them from the perspective of their own intellectual history, and to analyse them functionally, using where appropriate the insights and conceptual tools of modern science. Flowing from this work is the second strand of the project, the activity of translating Grosseteste’s treatises,  into 3Dimensional representations of the natural phenomena he investigates. A third strand takes the project into a collaboration with schools to introduce Grosseteste and his world, and the scientific questions he raises within the school curriculum. The education strand emphasises both the value of inter-disciplinarity and the longer history of science.

Who was Grosseteste?

Robert GrossetesteRobert Grosseteste himself was one of the most remarkable figures of a remarkable age. He ended up as Bishop of Lincoln, 1235-1253, a noted pastoral leader, political advisor and church reformer, with a famous collection of sermons and letters. Prior to that he was Archdeacon of Leicester, within Lincoln diocese, which stretched as far south as Oxford in the Middle Ages, and the first appointed master to the Oxford Franciscans. As a theologian Grosseteste produced imaginative commentaries on Genesis and other biblical books, translations directly from Greek of theological and Aristotelian philosophy, in addition to Greek learnt Hebrew (most unusual for the period), and an allegorical poem in Anglo-Norman on salvation. It is the earlier period of his intellectual prowess, his time as a Master of Arts, which is hardly documented at all, from which his explorations of natural science emerge. Where Grosseteste’s theological and pastoral works have received modern editions, the scientific works, although recognised as significant, have not been systematically edited and analysed.

Based probably at Paris and Oxford, with earlier schooling possibly at Lincoln, and a first post in the bishop’s household at Paris, Grosseteste produced, between the early 13th century and about 1228, a series of commentaries and expositions of problems in natural science, using the recently translated texts of Aristotle, and his Arabic and Jewish commentators, all translated into Latin. Full-scale commentaries of Aristotle’s Physics and Posterior Analytics are accompanied by searching and brilliant explorations of the problems of body, matter, form, motion, place, space and time, from the cosmic to the earthly, from the body of the universe to the human body itself.

Light is a phenomenon of particular fascination to Grosseteste, for whom it represents a force in the universe able to self-replicate and extend matter, creating body, and the guiding principle therefore of all creation, from the spheres of the universe, as he would see them from a medieval perspective, to the colours we see in the world (colour is light incorporated in a diaphanous medium), to the formations of rainbows, and other physical phenomena.

Medieval and Modern Science

Grosseteste is a wonderful analyst of ancient sources, each treatise is taut and logically presented, and reveals on close reading, a wealth of ancient and medieval sources, as well as a powerful visual imagination.

The multi-dimensional nature of the thinking and image-making is a constant thread within Grosseteste’s works, and something which the modern scientists in the team have found an equally powerful point of contact. Medieval science is challenging to modern science: to encounter a mind which is imaginative, mathematically adventurous, logically rigorous, and questing for answers to questions with modern echoes, has been both invigorating and exciting.

Grosseteste’s thought is well suited for multi-disciplinary analysis: the mathematical basis is as important as the literary and linguistic, and the questions prompted by his attempts to wrestle with ancient and medieval thought have thrown up some very interesting scientific puzzles as well as historical.

The Medieval Big Bang

Robert Grossesteste Medieval Universe

A case in point is Grosseteste’s startling treatise ‘On Light  [De luce]’. This treatise  takes the question of the body and the creation of the Aristotelian spheres, as mediated through Arabic and Jewish commentary leaving the 10 spheres of the medieval universe: 9 above the moon, 1 below composed of Air, Fire, Earth and Water. Grosseteste, as a Christian writer, requires a beginning to the universe, as opposed to the Aristotelian steady state, and as a result conceives the body of the universe expanding, instantaneously from a single point of light. The spheres of the universe then form by the compression of light and matter within the universe. Quite apart from the mathematical way in which this process is described, or the historical interest of the expanding universe (the first description, and the last until Edgar Allen Poe), the physical questions of the behaviour of compressing light are intriguing, encountered in the modern-day in super-nova research.

De Colore

Translating Cultures

Historians explaining the rainbow 2

Physicists explaining rainbow

The humanities and science collaboration enables research techniques from a wide variety of disciplines to be used in combination and individually as interpretative tools. Alongside manuscript, linguistic and historical investigation of the texts, their transmission, sources, biographical and contemporary context, we have been able to model multiple medieval universes, to create 2 and 3 dimensional images as implied possibilities from Grosseteste’s description of colour and the rainbow. All of these interpretative devices are instrumental rather than illustrative. To be confronted with a diagrammatic, algebraic or visualised version of Grosseteste’s treatises is to sharpen the linguistic and historical, and to reckon with different perspectives drawn from essential core research. We conceive these pathways as a series of overlapping and reinforcing exercises in translation.

From Latin, to English, to Mathematics, to the creative translation into the classroom and public arena, the project is built upon translation rigorous, tested and revisited. Multiple acts of translation occur between disciplinary practitioners, as part of the encounter of the present and the past (from the Middle Ages to the present, and within the historiographical traditions of the subjects opened up), and between the different constituencies touched by and contributing to the project. This seems, to us, to inscribe and enact inter-disciplinarity.


Visualisation 3

VisualisationVisualisation 2








Grosseteste in the Classroom: Cool for School? The problems Grosseteste encounters offer opportunity for critical reflection on the processes of science learning, different perspectives on the history of science and carry significant implications for public understanding of scientific process and the value of the past.

Placing Grosseteste and his world at the heart of engagement with primary and secondary school science curricula (UK based) has the potential to create new opportunities for active reflection on how science should be learnt, and within a contemporary context national curriculum review. In addition the engagement with schools stresses their significance as locations for academic research to be tested and the expression of its aims and objectives to be sharpened. Engaging teachers and school pupils with both this subject-matter and the project’s own methodology throws the notions of science, scientific progress and the nature of knowledge into longer relief. The modern perception of a conflictual-only model for the relationship between science and religion, if not science and the humanities, can be challenged, therefore, in the education sector, as well as in the academy. This strand of the overall project will be implemented through development of teaching modules with schoolteachers, and action research to assess their impact.

We have been extremely fortunate to have the involvement of teachers from various schools in the region: Sarah Ward, Neil McLeod, and Chris Harris from Northumberland Church of England Academy (primary and secondary schools), Drou Easton from Lynnfield Primary School, Hartlepool, Steven Burdon from St Bede’s Catholic School and Sixth Form College, Lanchester, Dr Mark Robson from St Robert of Newminster Catholic School and Sixth Form College, and Andrew Powney from Ampleforth College.

Further information about the Ordered Universe Project and Network is available on the Project website.

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers.

Follow us on twitter @AHRCSciculture for updates from the Theme.