Adelard of Bath and Roger Bacon: early English natural philosophers and scientists
Hackett, Jeremiah M.
Endeavour, Vol. 26(2) 2002
The image of Roger Bacon as a ‘modern’ experimental scientist was propagated as historical truth in 19th century scientific historiography. Twentieth century criticisms attacked this tradition, arguing that Bacon was primarily a medieval philosopher with ‘medieval’ scientific interests. However, recent scholarship has provided a more careful and critical account of Bacon’s science, and identifies his greatest achievement in terms of his successful attempt to assimilate the worlds of Greek and Islamic optics. It can be justly claimed that Roger Bacon was the first Western thinker in the middle ages to have mastered most of the Greek sources and the central Islamic source in optics. He made this scientific domain understandable for a Western Latin-reading audience. Yet, Bacon himself acknowledged Adelard of Bath, whose translations and commentary of Euclid’s Elements set the foundations for a science of optics, as the true pioneer.
In popular writing on science in the 19th century, Roger Bacon (1220–1292) was depicted as the single exception to the absence of science in the Middle Ages. He was seen as ‘an experimentalist’ before his time, a veritable ‘Philosophical Chancellor’ in Friar’s clothing. This 19th century image had a very long pre-history. Already in the 15th century the learned Oxford teacher and practitioner of medicine, John Cokkys, had made much use of Bacon’s writings on philosophy and medicine. The attribution to Bacon of countless alchemical and medical works in the later Middle Ages attests to his elevation as a hero of English medical and experimental concerns.