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date: 04 February 2023

Bacon [Baco], Rogerfree

Bacon [Baco], Rogerfree

  • Mary Berry
  • , revised by Peter Loewen

Updated in this version

updated and revised

(b nr Ilchester, c1214; d Oxford, c1292). English theologian and philosopher, the most immediate successor to the science of Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh. Bacon studied in Oxford between 1228 and 1236, then in Paris. Some time between 1245 and 1256 he entered the order of friars minor. In 1247 he gave up his official teaching in Paris, returning some three years later to Oxford. His expertise appears to have concentrated in the quadrivium in general, and geometry in particular. Later critics tended to romanticize his conflict with superiors of his order, turning him into a kind of hero of experimental science and empirical observation.

In a letter dated June 22, 1266, pope Clement IV requested a copy of Bacon's philosophical writings. Bacon’s communication about the project had begun with Raymond de Laon, clerk to Guy le Gros de Foulques, Archbishop of Narbonne and Cardinal-Bishop of St. Sabina before Guy became pope Clement IV. Although the friars had been prohibited since 1260 from publishing new works without the approbation of their superiors, Bacon responded by composing a Persuasio known as the Opus majus, followed by an Opus minus and Opus tertium. In them he proposes a curricular reform of learning, which proffered a unified approach to the sciences that could inform theology and support the missions of the Roman church. He submitted his works in 1268, but Clement died in November of that year, before he had had time to study or implement Bacon’s proposals. During the next decade Bacon produced further writings on mathematics, science, and language, including Greek and Hebrew grammars and a Compendium to the study of philosophy. His opponents in Paris contrived to have him formally condemned by the General of his order Jerome of Ascoli in 1277, and he was forced to remain for over ten years in some form of compulsory retirement. He died shortly after regaining his freedom.

In the Opus majus, Bacon decries the intellectual decline of Latin Christians (Latini), noting especially their poor grasp of mathematics, which he believed unified the other sciences through the analogue of music. Combining his knowledge of Augustinian theology and Aristotelian philosophy with the commentaries of Jewish, Persian, and Arabic scientists, Bacon makes a case for the broad and persistent relevance of music among other fields of knowledge. Following Boethius, he divides music into its three customary categories, mundana, humana, and instrumentalis, but, citing Aristotle’s De caelo et mundo, he questions whether musica mundana (the ‘music of the spheres’) should be included, because it could not be perceived by the human ear. With Cassiodorus he subdivides instrumental music into percussion, strings, and wind. ‘Human’ music covers both song and speech, the latter embracing prose, metre, and rhythm.

In discussing the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic genera, Bacon asserts, on the authority of Boethius and nameless others, that the enharmonic genus is inherent in chant. He bases this assessment on the ethos of the Greek genera, which he derives from Boethius, but distorts to invoke extremes of feeling. He blames the corrupt practices of ignorant singers for having obscured the true enharmonic nature of church music, causing its lapse into ‘unashamed wantonness’ (Opus tertium, 297). In particular, he criticizes falsetto singing, and points the finger at great cathedrals and famous colleges that indulged in the curiosity and spectacle of multi-voice singing. He deplores a decline in the quality of hymn writing, attributing this to insufficient knowledge of metre and rhythm.

Bacon considers the art of music to be both audible and visible, classifying under this last heading dance and other gestures of the body. On the authority of Aristotle, al-Fārābī, Seneca, and Augustine, he also considers rhetoric an essentially musical form of art. Bacon’s notion of an all-embracing aesthetic experience – music as a synthesis of poetry, dancing, and the art of sound – can be traced back through Gundissalinus and al-Fārābī to Remigius of Auxerre. In the final pages of the Opus tertium, Bacon argues that this understanding of music is essential to those who preach, a timely subject for the mendicant orders who were then training novices for the priesthood.

In the pursuit of knowledge, Bacon maintains the importance of music could not be overestimated. All beauty, in his opinion, was ultimately derived from harmony and proportion, which in a final analysis was based on the science of numbers. For Bacon, music occupied the nexus between mathematics and moral philosophy. Hence, a musicus, one learned in this science, grasps the causes and reasons for the motions of voice and body, for the art of persuasion, and for the changes in human behavior. Here alone could one find the absolute certainty of truth, for ‘in sola mathematica est certitudo sine dubitatione’.


  • R. Bacon
  • Rogeri Bacon opera quaedam hactenus inedita, ed. J.S. Brewer (London, 1859/R) [incl. Opus minus, Opus tertium, and part of Compendium studii philosophiae]
  • Opus maius, ed. J.H. Bridges, i, ii (Oxford, 1897/R); iii (London, 1900/R)
  • Opera hactenus inedita, ed. R. Steele and others (London and Oxford, 1905–40)
  • Compendium studii theologiae, ed. H. Rashdall (Aberdeen, 1911/R) [incl. appx by A.G. Little: ‘De operibus Rogeri Bacon’, with full list of writings]
  • Part of the Opus tertium of Roger Bacon, ed. A.G. Little (Aberdeen, 1912/R)
  • The Opus maius of Roger Bacon, ed. and trans. R.B. Burke (Philadelphia, 1928/R)


  • J.H. Bridges: The Life and Work of Roger Bacon: an Introduction to the Opus Majus, ed. H.G. Jones (London, 1914/R)
  • A.G. Little: Roger Bacon Essays: Contributed by Various Writers on the Occasion of the Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of his Birth (Oxford, 1914)
  • L. Thorndike: ‘The True Roger Bacon, I’, The American Historical Review, 21/2 (Jan 1916), 237–57
  • L. Thorndike: ‘The True Roger Bacon, II’, The American Historical Review, 21/3 (April 1916), 468–80
  • H. Müller: ‘Zur Musikauffassung des 13. Jahrhunderts’, AMw, 4 (1922), 405–12
  • E. Hutton: The Franciscans in England, 1224–1538 (London, 1926)
  • D.E. Sharp: Franciscan Philosophy at Oxford in the Thirteenth Century (London, 1930/R)
  • A.G. Little: Franciscan Papers, Lists and Documents (Manchester, 1943)
  • L. Ellinwood: ‘Ars musica’, Speculum, 20 (1945), 290–99
  • E. de Bruyne: Etudes d’esthétique médiévale (Bruges, 1946/R)
  • S.C. Easton: Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science (Oxford, 1952)
  • E. Massa: Ruggero Bacone (Rome, 1955)
  • J. Moorman: A History of the Franciscan Order (Oxford, 1968)
  • C. Bérubé: De la philosophie a la sagesse chez Saint Bonaventure et Roger Bacon (Rome, 1976)
  • T. Adank: ‘Roger Bacons Auffassung der Musica’, AMw, 35 (1978), 33–56
  • D.C. Lindberg: Roger Bacon’s Philosophy of Nature (Oxford, 1983)
  • J. Hackett: ‘Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric in Roger Bacon’, Philosophy & Rhetoric, 20/1 (1987), 18–40
  • J. Hackett, ed.: Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays (Leiden, 1997)
  • A. Power: ‘A Mirror for Every Age: the Reputation of Roger Bacon’, English Historical Review, 121/492 (2006), 657–92
  • A. Power: ‘“In the Last Days at the End of the World”: Roger Bacon and the Reform of Christendom’, A Pilgrimage Through the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, ed. André Cirino, O.F.M. and Joseph Raischl S.F.O. (Canterbury, 2008), 101–15
  • J. Hackett: ‘The Reception of Roger Bacon in the 13th Century and in the Early Modern Period’, Lumière et vision dans les sciences et dans les arts: de l’antiquité au XVIIe siècle, ed. Michel Hochmann and Danielle Jacquart, Hautes études médiévales et modernes, 97 (Geneva, 2010), 149–62
  • P. Loewen: Music in Early Franciscan Thought (Leiden, 2013)
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