See A. G. Little, ed., Roger Bacon Essays (1914, repr. 1972); biography by F. Winthrop Woodruff (1938); studies by T. Crowley (1950) and S. C. Easton (1952, repr. 1971).
Roger Bacon, O.F.M. (c. 1214–1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin: "wonderful teacher"), was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on empiricism. He is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method inspired by the works of early Muslim scientists.
Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester in Somerset, possibly in 1214. The only source for his date of birth is his statement in the Opus Tertium, written in 1267, that "forty years have passed since I first learned the alphabet". The 1214 birth date assumes he was not being literal, and meant 40 years had passed since he matriculated at Oxford at the age of 13. If he had been literal, his birth date was more likely around 1220. In the same passage he reports that for all but two of those forty years he had always been engaged in study. His family appears to have been well-off, but, during the stormy reign of Henry III of England, their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile.
Bacon studied and later became a Master at Oxford, lecturing on Aristotle. There is no evidence he was ever awarded a doctorate — the title Doctor Mirabilis was posthumous and figurative. Sometime between 1237 and 1245, he began to lecture at the university of Paris, then the center of intellectual life in Europe. His whereabouts between 1247 and 1256 are uncertain, but about 1256 he became a Friar in the Franciscan Order. As a Franciscan Friar, Bacon no longer held a teaching post and after 1260, his activities were further restricted by a Franciscan statute forbidding Friars from publishing books or pamphlets without specific approval.
Bacon circumvented this restriction through his acquaintance with Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, who became Pope Clement IV in 1265. The new Pope issued a mandate ordering Bacon to write to him concerning the place of philosophy within theology. As a result Bacon sent the Pope his Opus Majus, which presented his views on how the philosophy of Aristotle and the new science could be incorporated into a new Theology. Besides the Opus maius Bacon also sent his Opus minus, De multiplicatione specierum, and, perhaps, other works on alchemy and astrology.
Pope Clement died in 1268, and sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was placed under house arrest by Jerome of Ascoli, the Minister-General of the Franciscan Order. Bacon's difficulties are probably related to the Condemnations of 1277, which banned the teaching of certain philosophical doctrines, including deterministic astrology. Sometime after 1278 Bacon returned to the Franciscan House at Oxford, where he continued his studies.
In the course of the twentieth century, the philosophical understanding of the role of experiment in the sciences has been substantially modified. New historical research has shown not only that medieval Christians were not generally opposed to science, but also revealed the extent and variety of medieval scientific activity. Consequently, the picture of Bacon has changed. His advocacy of scientia experimentalis has been argued to differ from modern experimental science, and many medieval sources of and influences on his scientific activity have been identified. In relation to this, one recent study summarized that: "Bacon was not a modern, out of step with his age, or a harbinger of things to come, but a brilliant, combative, and somewhat eccentric schoolman of the thirteenth century, endeavoring to take advantage of the new learning just becoming available while remaining true to traditional notions… of the importance to be attached to philosophical knowledge".
As to his assumed persecution for science, although texts indicate that Bacon was briefly confined for his doctrinal digressions, some modern accounts of his life show no evidence for any lengthy period of imprisonment and modern historians speak of his "alleged imprisonment. As the historian of science David Lindberg writes: "his imprisonment, if it occurred at all (which I doubt) probably resulted with his sympathies for the radical "poverty" wing of the Franciscans (a wholly theological matter) rather than from any scientific novelties which he may have proposed". Others do still argue that the Franciscans kept Bacon in isolated confinement for many years, and prevented from teaching his scientific views. Bacon is quoted as writing in 1267, about his time in a small cell in Paris, "…for my superiors and brothers, disciplining me with hunger, kept me under close guard and would not permit anyone to come to me, fearing that my writings would be divulged to others [rather] than to the chief pontiff and themselves," and that they treated him with "unspeakable violence" and "for ten years had been exiled from former University fame.
A recent review of the variety of visions that each age has held about Roger Bacon says contemporary scholarship still neglects one of the most important aspects of Bacon's life and thought: his commitment to the Franciscan order. "His Opus maius was a plea for reform addressed to the supreme spiritual head of the Christian faith, written against a background of apocalyptic expectation and informed by the driving concerns of the friars. It was designed to improve training for missionaries and to provide new skills to be employed in the defence of the Christian world against the enmity of non-Christians and of the Antichrist. It cannot usefully be read solely in the context of the history of science and philosophy."
Bacon withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research. The mathematicians whom he considered perfect were Peter of Maricourt and a John of London, and two were adequate: Campanus of Novara and a Master Nicholas. Peter was the author of a manuscript treatise, "De Magnete," and Campanus wrote several important works on astronomy, astrology, and the calendar. Bacon often mentioned his debt to the work of Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh, as well as to other lesser figures. He was clearly not an isolated scholar in the thirteenth century.
In the Opus Minus he criticizes his contemporaries Alexander of Hales and Albertus Magnus who, he says, had not studied the philosophy of Aristotle but only acquired their learning during their life as preachers. Albert was received at Paris as an authority equal to Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes, leading Bacon to proclaim that "never in the world [had] such monstrosity occurred before. Bacon was always an outspoken man who stated what he believed to be true and attacked those with whom he disagreed, which repeatedly caused him great trouble.
Bacon also wrote a criticism of the Julian calendar which was then still in use. He first recognized the visible spectrum in a glass of water, four centuries before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that prisms could disassemble and reassemble white light.
He was an enthusiastic proponent and practitioner of the experimental method of acquiring knowledge about the world. He planned to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia, but only fragments ever appeared. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said of him that "To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen's conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth. He saw that experience alone teaches anything…. Of all kinds of experience, the best, he thought, was interior illumination, which teaches many things about Nature which the external senses could never discover, such as the transubstantiation of bread.
Blish's view of Bacon is uncompromisingly that he was the first scientist, and he provides a postscript to the novel in which he sets forth these views. Central to his depiction of Roger Bacon is that 'He was not an inventor, an Edison or Luther Burbank, holding up a test tube with a shout of Eureka!' He was instead a theoretical scientist probing fundamental realities, and his visions of modern technology were just by-products of "…the way he normally thought - the theory of theories as tools…" Blish indicates where Bacon's writings, for example, consider Newtonian metrical frameworks for space, then reject these for something which reads remarkably like Einsteinian Relativity, and all '...breathtakingly without pause or hiccup, breezily moving without any recourse through over 800 years of physics'.
Bacon also appears as first scientist in The Black Rose, the most commercially successful book by Thomas Costain, written in 1945. The Black Rose is set in the Middle Ages. Bacon's personal presence in the narrative is brief, but includes a demonstration of gunpowder and a few sentences outlining a philosophy of science which might as easily be attributed to Francis Bacon centuries later. The novel's Roger Bacon serves to motivate Costain's protagonist, a fictional Englishman who journeys to China during the reigns of Edward I and Kublai Khan. Costain's narration includes technology such as the compass, the telescope, rockets and the manufacture of paper, all described by his young adventurer with an eye toward bringing these marvels back to Bacon for analysis. Returning to England to find Bacon gone and under house arrest, the traveller begs King Edward to intercede with the pope for the Franciscan's release, arguing that with Bacon's imprisonment a great light of the world is in danger of being put out. Costain's character also comes to argue for emancipation of the Saxon villeins (serfs), linking political with intellectual enlightenment under the fictional Bacon's influence.
Many writers of earlier times have been attracted to Roger Bacon as the epitome of a wise and subtle possessor of forbidden knowledge, similar to Faustus. A succession of legends and unverifiable stories has grown up about him, for example, that he created a brazen talking head which could answer any question. This has a central role in the play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay written by Robert Greene in about 1589.
"…and so I went to work on a brazen head that was going to tell me how to encircle England with a wall of brass, to keep out marauding Danes and other riffraff."
In his children's books, Bellairs also had characters refer to Roger Bacon when quoting esoteric knowledge.
Many references to Roger Bacon occur in the novel The Name of the Rose by Italian author and professor of semiotics, Umberto Eco. In the text the main protagonist, the fictional monk William of Baskerville, refers to Bacon as his 'master'. He also alludes to many of his discoveries, including those in optics.
Roger Bacon also surfaces in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, described as a rogue magician.
A greatly fictionalised version of Roger Bacon appears in the role-playing video game series Shadow Hearts, wherein Bacon is portrayed as an eccentric (but harmless, and well-meaning) thousand-year-old hermit living in pre-World War I Europe. Roger Bacon has also appeared in the game's sequels and predecessor, Koudelka.
Bacon also features in Staton Rabin's children's adventure Black Powder. In this time travel story, a twenty-first century youth travels back to attempt to stop the development of gunpowder in the West.
Most recently, Bacon is a character in Stephen Baxter's novel Navigator, the third volume in his Time's Tapestry quartet.