Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Roger Bacon

According to all the standard biographies, the Franciscan authorities imprisoned Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292) for a long period of time. For those looking for evidence of the conflict between science and religion, this was a prime example of clerical intolerance. They had no doubt that the authorities incarcerated Bacon for his dangerous scientific opinions. For other historians, it was his sympathetic view of both astrology and alchemy that doomed him to a dungeon. Today a fresh look at the surviving sources show that it is difficult to prove Bacon’s imprisonment happened at all, let alone that it was for putting forward dangerous scientific views. The origin of the story is a Chronicle of the Franciscans dating from about 1370, a full century after the alleged arrest of Bacon. This document claims that Bacon was a doctor of theology, imprisoned for unspecified ‘suspect novelties’. We know Bacon never qualified as a doctor of anything, so it is hard to give this account much credence. Furthermore, the controversy in which Bacon was allegedly involved had nothing to do with science. Rather, a sect of extreme ascetics within the Franciscans was stirring up trouble. These men, followers of the apocalyptic prophet, Joachim of Flora (1132 – 1202), were convinced that the world was about to end and that the church should, forthwith, divest itself of all property in imitation of the poverty of Christ. The riches of the medieval church are proverbial and bishops certainly had no intention of living as beggars. Franciscans had sworn to do so but as the order’s wealth and influence grew, even the friars became less inclined to survive only with a staff and begging bowl. If Bacon had been a supporter of these Spiritual Franciscans and, given the enormous piety evident in his writings, this is plausible, he could have got into a great deal of trouble. Thus, if he the story of his imprisonment is true, then it had nothing to do with science and is further evidence that Bacon’s real concern was with Christianity.

In reality, it is extremely hard to find anyone beyond Galileo who was persecuted by the Church for scientific opinions.

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