Robert Grosseteste

(2020 words)

Robert, known as ‘Grosseteste' (= ‘great head'), bishop of Lincoln (1235-1253), was one of the foremost thinkers of the English middle ages and a prominent statesman. A polymath, his achievement in any of the inter-related intellectual spheres he contributed to would have ensured his place in history. Grosseteste's writings encompass speculative and pastoral theology, biblical commentary, philosophy, translations from Greek, scientific works and poetry.

Little is known about Grosseteste's life before he became a bishop. Sometime around 1168 he was born into a poor family that lived in Stowe in Suffolk and he had a sister, Ivette, who became a nun. Towards the end of the century his name appears as a witness on charters and legal documents connected with the diocese of Hereford. In 1225, while a deacon, he was preferred to the church of Abbotsley in Huntingdonshire by Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln. In 1229 Bishop Hugh appointed him Archdeacon of Leicester and gave him a prebend at Lincoln Cathedral. Around this time Grosseteste was invited to became the teacher of the Franciscans at Oxford, an association which he valued for the rest of his life (McEvoy 2000: 19-21; 29).

Before this Grosseteste must have received a considerable education; he had pursued the course for Master of Arts, a necessary preliminary for the study of Theology. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence to show where Grosseteste had studied or where he taught before he went to work for the Franciscans. On balance it appears that, like many of his contemporaries, he studied Arts at Paris (perhaps during the papal interdict on England of 1208-13). After this he appears to have returned home to pursue theology at Oxford, a university that was still in its early and uncertain years. Here, he was eventually appointed ‘Master of the Schools' and was the first to function in a role which would become chancellor of the university (McEvoy 2000: 22-9; for a different view see Southern 1992).

In 1235 Grosseteste was appointed Bishop of Lincoln, then the largest diocese in England and the one which had Oxford in its jurisdiction. Despite the demands of his intellectual interests and the necessity of participating in national politics, Grosseteste found the time to expend considerable energies on the spiritual welfare of his charges. Having participated at a general Church Council at Lyons in 1245, he demonstrated his concern for the English Church as a whole when he returned to Lyons in 1250 to protest before Pope Innocent IV about the poor pastoral state of England. Despite his vigorous denunciation of ecclesiastical abuses, Grosseteste was ignored. While powerless to reform the whole country, he was able to effect change in his own diocese, a commitment which showed itself in 1253 when he stoutly rejected the appointment of an absentee, one of the pope's nephews, to the sinecure of a canonry at Lincoln. Later that year he died.

Outlining the contents of the broad spectrum of Grosseteste's work requires a book-length study (McEvoy 1982, 2000; Robert Grosseteste 1912; Southern 1992). Before focusing on some of his work which is of particular interest to literary scholars it is, however, worth trying to capture some of his range by mentioning some of the many topics he wrote on.

In the realm of the natural sciences Grosseteste devoted works to comets, weather, planetary motion, optics, the calendar and rainbows. His De luce (‘On Light') became a footnote in Modernism when it appeared in Ezra Pound's Canto LV (Cheadle 1989: 121). As a theologian, he wrote on free-will, truth and the knowledge of God. He produced scriptural exegeses on the first hundred psalms, the ten commandments, St Paul's letter to the Galatians and the account of creation in Genesis (Robert Grosseteste 1996, is one of his few works translated into modern English). In addition, he left a collection of Dicta or ‘sayings' (short meditations on various theological subjects) which were very popular throughout the Middle Ages.

Grosseteste taught himself Greek at a time when it was not studied in the universities. He may also have known some Hebrew. This allowed him to read the bible in its original languages and to produce influential Latin translations of, and commentaries on, some of the works of Aristotle (including The Ethics, The Physics and The Posterior Analytics). Commentaries on Aristotle, who was considered a supremely valuable but often difficult writer, became staples of the Oxford curriculum (Evans 2005: 55-6). Grosseteste also translated and commented on the works Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Much less well-known today than Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius exercised a good deal of authority during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as it was believed that he was the Dionysius mentioned in the bible in Acts 17:34. As such, his writing – frequently mediated by Grosseteste's commentaries – influenced Western spirituality, biblical exegesis and literary interpretation (De Lubac 1998-2000: 2:194-6; Minnis and Scott 2003: 165-98; Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite 1987: 25-46).

Grosseteste also translated the Letters of St Ignatius of Antioch and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The latter was a pseudepigraphical work dating from the second century BC which purported to record the final words of the twelve sons of Jacob (Charlesworth 1983: 1:775-828). This proved to be one of his most popular works, appearing in print several times after 1483 (Gieben 1969: 365-6). An English translation which appeared in 1574 ran through more than fifteen editions before 1700 when it was translated into Welsh (British Library 2007).

Grosseteste's commitment to pastoral care has already been mentioned. Apart from the practical reforms he introduced in his diocese, there is evidence for his deep-seated commitment to the care of souls in his extant sermons (manuscripts of which circulated throughout the later Middle Ages) and in his popular Templum Domini or Templum Dei (‘Temple of the Lord' or ‘Temple of God'). This work, which enjoyed Continental diffusion, survives in ninety manuscripts of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, and parts of it appear translated into English verse and prose (Robert Grosseteste 1984: 8-9). It was designed as a manual for the pastoral education of priests and, as such, must have had an influence far beyond its literate readership. Taking its cue from 1 Corinthians 3:17 (‘God's temple is holy; you are that temple'), it deals with practical aspects of the virtues, sin and the sacraments by employing extensive use of diagrams and lists.

Grosseteste left some writing in his native language, Anglo-Norman. The most important of his vernacular works is known as the Château d'amour or Castle of Love. Despite its apparently chivalric title (which may not be Grosseteste's own), the love in question is divine love and the poem is a deeply theological work dealing with the Fall and Redemption. The poem had a pastoral purpose suited to Grosseteste's role as a teacher. Its introduction explains that ‘I begin my account in French for those who have no acquaintance with learning or Latin' (Mackie 2003: 155-6). Appropriately, it was subsequently translated into Medieval English (Sajavaara 1967).

Historians of Medieval theatre know Grosseteste best for a passage from one of his letters in which he forbids ‘clerical games called miracula; and other games called “the Induction of May” or “Autumn”; and lay ale festivals' (Robert Grosseteste 1861: 317, my translation). Until recently, this was taken as a prohibition on miracle plays. Read in the light of the bishop's injunction against the Feast of Fools (which he considered blasphemously associated with the Feast of the Circumcision), and with drunkenness at ecclesiastical gatherings and buildings (Robert Grosseteste 1861: 73, 119, 61), it seems likely that Grosseteste had general lechery and venery in mind rather than theatrical performances (Clopper 1990: 882-3; 2002: 743-4). This was in keeping both with his personal interest in the spiritual welfare of his flock and condemnations of pagan ludi (‘games') by Innocent III.

After Grosseteste died he was treated as a saint, miracles were ascribed to him, and people came on pilgrimage to visit his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. However, the bishop was never officially canonised. The medieval chronicler Matthew Paris (who left us some of the most memorable, but not always the most accurate accounts of episodes from Grosseteste's life) accounted for this by emphasising the disagreements between Lincoln and the Pope over the reform of the English Church and the Pope's nephew (see above). According to Matthew, after he died, Grosseteste appeared to Innocent IV and struck the Pope with his staff. The Pope never recovered from the assault and determined that his assailant should be given no posthumous honours (Matthew Paris 1872-83: 5:471).

This appears to be a trivial fabrication on Matthew's part. However, Grosseteste is peculiar in that it was his life (or, more accurately, a particular account of his life), as well as his writing that inspired later generations. Matthew's stories about the bishop were taken up by Ranulph Higden (d. 1364) and appear in his Polychronicon, widely-known in the Middle Ages and translated into Middle English (Higden and Trevisa 1865-86: 242-3). With this general currency Grosseteste became known as fiercely anti-Papal and thereby attracted the attention of John Wyclif and the Lollards in England and Jan Huss and his followers in Bohemia. Subsequently, Grosseteste's cause was taken up by prominent English reformers such as John Bale (d. 1563) and John Fox (who recounted some of Grosseteste's life in the 1570 edition of his famous Acts and Monuments). After this Grosseteste was established as a proto-Protestant and became a staple authority for Anglican apologists (McEvoy 2003). This was the Grosseteste best known from the seventeenth century onwards. The eclipse of his writing by a distorted account of his life was only rectified by scholars in the twentieth century.


British Library, English Short Title Catalogue , accessed 13/1/08.
Charlesworth, James H. (ed.), (1983), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday & Co.).
Cheadle, Mary P. (1989), ‘The Vision of Light in Ezra Pound's The Unwobbling Pivot', Twentieth Century Literature, 35 (2), 113-30.
Clopper, Lawrence M. (1990), ‘Miracula and The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge', Speculum, 65 (4), 878-905.
--- (2002), ‘English Drama: From Ungodly Ludi to Sacred Play', in David Wallace (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 739-66.
De Lubac, Henri (1998-2000), Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. Mark Sebanc and E. M. Macierowski, 2 vols. (Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Evans, G. R. (2005), John Wyclif: Myth and Reality (Oxford: Lion Hudson).
Gieben, Servus (1969), ‘Bibliographia Universa Roberti Grosseteste ab an. 1473 ad an. 1969', Collectanea Franciscana, 39, 362-418.
Higden, Ranulph and Trevisa, John (1865-86), Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, Monachi Cestrensis; together with the English translations of John Trevisa and of an unknown writer of the fifteenth century, eds C. Babington and J. R. Lumby, 9 vols. (Rolls Series; London).
Mackie, Evelyn A. (2003), ‘Robert Grosseteste's Anglo-Norman Treatise on the Loss and Restoration of Creation, Commonly Known as Le Château d'Amour: An English Prose Translation', in Maura O'Carroll (ed.), Robert Grosseteste and the Beginnings of a British Theological Tradition (Rome: Instituto Storico dei Cappuccini), 151-79.
Matthew Paris (1872-83), Chronica majora, ed. Henry Richards Luard, 7 vols. (Rolls Series; London: Longman).
McEvoy, James (1982), The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
--- (2000), Robert Grosseteste (Great Medieval Thinkers; Oxford: Oxford University Press).
--- (2003), ‘Robertus Grossatesta Lincolniensis. An Essay in Historiography, Medieval and Modern', in Maura O'Carroll (ed.), Robert Grosseteste and the Beginnings of a British Theological Tradition (Rome: Instituto Storico dei Cappuccini), 21-102.
Minnis, A. J. and Scott, A. B. (eds.) (2003), Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c.1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition (Rev. edn., Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (1987), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press).
Robert Grosseteste (1861), Roberti Grosseteste, episcopi quondam Lincolniensis epistolae, ed. Henry Richards Luard (Rolls Series; London: Longman).
--- (1912) Die Philosophischen Werke des Robert Grosseteste, Bischofs von Lincoln [online text], ed. Ludwig Baur (Münster: Aschendorff) in The Electronic Grosseteste , accessed 14/1/08.
--- (1984), Templum Dei, edited from MS. 27 of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, eds Joseph Goering and F. A. C. Mantello (Toronto Medieval Latin Texts; Totonto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies).
--- (1996), On the Six Days of Creation. A Translation of the Hexaëmeron, trans. C. F. J. Martin (Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi; Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy).
Sajavaara, Kari (ed.), (1967), The Middle English Translations of Robert Grosseteste's Chateau d'Amour (Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki, Helsinki: Société Néophilologique).
Southern, Richard W. (1992), Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (2nd edn.; Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Flood, John. "Robert Grosseteste". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 January 2008
[, accessed 28 July 2015.]