Roger Bacon: Doctor Mirabilis

J.J.N. McGurk profiles Roger Bacon; a 13-century Franciscan, with a reputation as a necromancer, who showed a remarkable combination at Oxford and in Paris of philosophic and scientific gifts.

A stern and bitter critic of his contemporaries, a stormy petrel in his Order, the Franciscans, a crank in thirteenth-century philosophic circles, a bold innovator in experimental science, brilliant teacher, theologian and scientist, Roger Bacon was all of these and more. Yet many of his writings were condemned and soon went into oblivion, so that within a century of his death the only reputation he gained was as a magician, and this endured until the seventeenth century.

Bacon was accredited with all sorts of magical achievements in the popular imagination because of his advanced thinking on the need for experimental science and its practical possibilities. Legends of his league with the devil gathered momentum by the beginning of the fourteenth century and appear as late as the sixteenth century in Robert Greene’s comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

By the end of the sixteenth century only three of his more minor works had been printed; and it may well be that one of these treatises ‘on the marvellous power of art and nature’ gave him this enduring reputation for magical powers and mechanical inventions.

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