The Oxford Calculators
By Mark Thakkar
Oxford Today (2007)
Introduction: Oxford has such a long intellectual history that even the episodes that made it illustrious are liable to be forgotten. One such took place in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, when a group of Oxonians developed a battery of new techniques for dealing with philosophical problems, the strikingly mathematical nature of their approach earning them the epithet of ‘calculators’.
These scholars busied themselves with quantitative analyses of qualities such as heat, colour, density and light. But their experiments were those of the imagination; practical experiments would have been of little help in any case without suitable measuring instruments. Indeed, some of the calculators’ works, although ostensibly dealing with the natural world, may best be seen as advanced exercises in logic.
They have been dubbed ‘the Merton School’, because several of them – including the most notable, Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury and Richard Swineshead – were fellows of Merton. I cannot resist observing, however, that Bradwardine and Swineshead were both originally Balliol men. Balliol’s founding statutes restricted its scholars to studies in the faculty of arts, so that those who wished to study in the higher faculties of Theology and Law were obliged to leave after taking their Ma. Merton, by contrast, was founded with the specific aim of fostering study in the faculty of Theology.
Then, as now, Oxford was a centre of academic excellence. Indeed, if Paris was the capital of scholasticism, Oxford was its second city. But the life of the mind was pursued in a manner quite unlike that of today: the best work in philosophy was produced by men who went on to enjoy high-profile careers in politics or the Church. This led the powerful patron and wealthy bibliophile Bishop Richard de Bury to complain of being ‘deprived of the bodily companionship of some of these shining lights when, justice looking down from heaven, the ecclesiastical preferments and dignities that they deserved fell to their portion’.