- Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom by Amanda Power
Richard Cross claims in The Medieval Christian Philosophers (New York, 2013, p. 98) that Roger Bacon’s entrance into the Franciscan order “seems, in retrospect, to have been a mistake.” If so, it was undoubtedly a “felix culpa” for Amanda Power of the University of Sheffield and readers of her Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom. Indeed, her keen interest in the Franciscan context of the Doctor Mirabilis is the driving force of her monograph, as stated in the introduction (p. 28): “I hope to present a new and independent interpretation of what it could mean to be a Franciscan at this time.” Thanks to this author, medievalists and Francis-canists alike can enjoy what will certainly be the standard historical reference work on Bacon for years to come.
In addition to the introduction, where Power crafts a superb review and critique of past and present scholarship on Bacon’s life and work, this book contains five substantial chapters and a brief, albeit thought-provoking, postscript titled “In Memoriam.” The first chapter, “A Life in Context,” provides precisely what the heading suggests: a careful cultivation of sources that includes Bacon’s education in the vibrant ecclesial-academic climate of his native England, as well as his experience in Paris, the cultural-religious center of thirteenth-century Western Christendom. Robert Grosseteste, the famed bishop of Lincoln and lector for the Oxford friars, and friar Adam Marsh were, most probably, among the most influential figures early in Bacon’s religious life. Although Power notes the difficulty in drawing interpretative conclusions given the source material (p. 50), her estimation of [End Page 625] Marsh’s impact on Bacon’s understanding of Christendom’s crisis and the enduring significance to wisdom seems more than plausible given the writings and life trajectories of both authors. The pressing need for reform through the retrieval of the age-old sapientia christiana animated Bacon’s intellectual efforts (Opus maius, Opus minus, Opus tertium, 1266–68) within the Franciscan order. Written at the request of his short-lived patron, Pope Clement IV, these wisdom texts are “… the works of enduring power and novelty upon which his reputation rests” (p. 59).
Chapter 3, “Traces on Parchment,” and chapter 4, “From the World to God,” treat two perennial Franciscan concerns: written texts and the book of the world. Although one wonders if Bacon’s habit was gray, not brown (p. 85), the “flesh” beneath the mendicant attire was formed, as Power writes, in the context of a conversio to religious life that was as unique as the individual, yet dictated by longstanding customs and established institutions. Power’s attentive examination of what she later describes as Bacon’s “inward striving after models of perfection” (p. 164) fosters a most welcome, nuanced reading of Bacon’s wisdom texts that avoids a simple treatment of well-known themes in the Opus maius. Here the author excels in revealing traces of the Doctor mirabils inscribed in the “parchment” that formed the “flesh” of his worldview. As a consequence, readers grasp Bacon’s variation on the Franciscan itinerarium, which he grounds in select sciences informed by ethical praxis and faith in the service of wisdom.
Bacon was not, however, in any hurry to leave the world; he endorsed the medical sciences in the quest for longevity and hoped to witness the transformation of Christendom in his lifetime. Chapters 4 and 5, “The Crisis of Christendom” and “Beyond Christendom,” consider Bacon’s engagement with the ecclesial-political issues of his day or, as Power writes, “… the public world of his vocation” (p. 164). Like many of his confreres, Bacon was steeped in the prevailing Joachmite milieu (p. 234) of apocalypticism and appeals for radical reform. Power artfully details his critique that included the corruption of the curial prelates, the desultory state of education, and the lax vanity of the highly touted “boys” of the...