Robert Grosseteste, one of the outstanding English bishops of the thirteenth century, rose to preeminence in the Church from humble beginnings to distinguish himself as a scholar in all branches of study: law, medicine, languages, sciences, and theology.
Born around 1175, the child of a poor family in Suffolk, Grosseteste was apparently educated in Lincoln, perhaps by the charity of its leading citizen, Adam of Wigford. He was briefly a member of the household of Hugh, the sainted Bishop of Lincoln, in about 1191 to 1192 and of that of William de Vere, Bishop of Hereford, from around 1195 to 1198. Little else is known of his early life. In April 1225 he received the benefice of Abbotsley, and about this date he is known to have been lecturing on theology in Oxford. At some point between 1225 and 1230 the Masters of the University elected him their chancellor. In 1229 he became archdeacon of Leicester, an office he resigned in 1231, already having given up his position as university lecturer to become the first lector to the recently established community of Franciscans outside the city walls of Oxford. These changes, and his resignation of other emoluments, may have been the result of a spiritual conversion following the visit of the Dominican Master General, Jordan of Saxony, to Oxford in 1229 and 1230. At this time Grosseteste began his close association with the work of both preaching Orders of friars, an association which became even more important after he became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235.
Until 1225, Grosseteste was mostly occupied with scientific studies. His writings during this period demonstrate a knowledge of recent translations from Arabic treatises and include an outline of general astronomy as well as brief but pregnant works on comets and rainbows, as well as his most important scientific work, a commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. From about 1225 until 1235 he produced the major part of his theological works, including the Hexaemeron, his commentaries on Galatians and the Psalms, and several of his surviving sermons. During this time he also began to learn Greek, acquiring a competence hardly paralleled by any Western scholar before his time. As bishop after 1235, his increased resources made it possible for him to plan and execute several large projects of translation from Greek into Latin, including the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and the commentaries on them, as well as the Ethics of Aristotle with commentaries. He also translated part of the works of John of Damascus and of Basil the Great. In addition to these works, he returned to his scientific studies on the problem of light, his work finding final expression in the treatise De Luce.
Besides all this scholarly work, Grosseteste showed conspicuous energy and dedication in his work as bishop, saying “I am obligated to visit the sheep committed to me with all diligence, as Scripture prescribes.” He was indefatigable in carrying out visitations of his diocese, traveling regularly to each rural deanery, calling the clergy and laity together, preaching, confirming, and dealing with doctrinal questions. “My Lord, you are doing something new and exceptional,” remarked some of the people during his first visitation. He organized preaching throughout the diocese by members of the Franciscan and the Dominican Orders, drew up regulations for both clergy and laity, and promoted political action against intrusions of royal and papal officials into parochial business, at one time refusing to accept the appointment of the Pope’s nephew to a living in his diocese. In 1250 he made a personal appeal to Pope Innocent the Fourth at Lyons, appearing in the papal court with a carefully prepared denunciation of the abuses of power in pursuit of family and personal gain by papal officials, by the curia, and by the Pope himself. While giving an account of these abuses, their causes and their development, he also made proposals for reform. His proposals were ignored, and Grosseteste was blessed to have escaped excommunication, which Innocent was said to have been persuaded with difficulty to forego. Whether he was suspended officially during his final years is not clear, but he died in October 1253 with a deep sense of failure and foreboding for the future.
Grosseteste left his books and literary remains to the Oxford Franciscans. This bequest insured their survival and growing influence in the fourteenth century, culminating in the discovery by John Wycliffe that on several points; viz., the importance of pastoral work, his sympathy with the Greek Church, and his criticism of the papal curia, he had been anticipated by Grosseteste.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
O God, our heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant Robert Grosseteste to be a bishop and pastor in your Church and to feed your flock: Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon of Bishop Robert Grosseteste is taken from an image of a window in St Paul’s Parish Church, Morton, near Gainsborough, UK. It is by the artist William Morris, after a design by Edward Burne-Jones.