Book Review: Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral: Tracing Relationships between Medieval Concepts of Order and Built Form (Temple, Hendrix, & Frost, eds.)—Review by Andrew Jacob Cuff

Nicholas Temple, John Shannon Hendrix, Christian Frost, eds.  Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral: Tracing Relationships between Medieval Concepts of Order and Built Form.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014.  xiii + 219 pgs., hardback. $109.95. ISBN: 978-1-4724-1275-1.

When I was offered the chance to review this edited collection on Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) and Lincoln Cathedral, I accepted because having studied Grosseteste’s philosophy before, I was interested in exploring the cultural history surrounding the thought of the famous Oxford master and Bishop.  The subtitle referenced “medieval concepts of order and built form,” which I assumed (rather narrowly) implied an analysis of the geometry and physical science that Grosseteste utilized in the Cathedral’s architecture.  I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that thanks to the contributors’ wide array of specializations, the depth and breadth of the connections present in this volume enhanced both its appeal and its usefulness far beyond my expectations.  “Order” encapsulates studies of church hierarchy and secular politics, scientific and mathematical formulae, architectural design, ontology, cosmology, liturgy, and the patterned material substrata of the physical universe.  The study of “built form” signifies detailed examination of city planning, architectural elements, artistic specimens, and mathematical and scientific diagrams.  These two foci of the volume are seamlessly combined into one extremely informative narrative of connections between intellectual history and material culture.

The achievement of these nine scholars in illuminating the thought of Grosseteste through the lens of Lincoln Cathedral with such an interdisciplinary effort cannot be understated.  The careful work of the book’s three editors ensures that despite the diverse methodological perspectives of the contributors, the same standards of historical rigor are applied to each chapter, while maintaining surprisingly little thematic overlap between essays.  In case the reader has not previously studied Grosseteste’s early career and later episcopate, Nicholas Bennett and Jack Cunningham both provide a sufficient rendering of the historical context and biographical narrative, one focusing on ecclesiastical politics, the other on scholastic developments.  Several of the contributors closely consider the importance of the newly-translated Aristotelian and Pseudo-Dionysian texts for Grosseteste and for the Gothic aesthetic as a whole.  This leads into pertinent discussions of Grosseteste’s theories of light and vision, laid out in such works as his De Luce, De Lineis, and De Iride.i  Did Grosseteste himself develop his understanding on the function of light as the ontological fabric of corporeitas?ii  Did he do so for reasons of theological orthodoxy?  Not all the authors agree on this point, and much of the discussion comes down to the dating of the relevant texts by Grosseteste.  However, it is at least clear that sorting out Grosseteste’s understanding of natural science and cosmology is an important step toward identifying the scientific groundwork for the scholastic project of the next three centuries.  Mapping such scientific developments can bear rich fruits for historians of art and culture, as this volume attests.

However, the same interdisciplinarity which makes the book so interesting and so useful for those historically interested in Grosseteste’s scientific thought also presents certain methodological challenges.  For example, the uninitiated reader of a book entitled Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral might assume that, like Abbot Suger (1081-1151) with the Church of St. Denis, Grosseteste was actively involved with the conceptualization, design, or construction of his diocesan cathedral.  In reality, this was the opposite of true; Nicholas Bennett’s chapter was devoted to the story of Grosseteste’s enmity with the deans and canons of the Lincoln Cathedral chapter, and the six-year legal battle of bringing it back under the purview of his reforms.  So why connect Grosseteste to the architectural masterpiece?  After the old Norman building was reduced to rubble in the earthquake of 1185, did the renovation that lasted several decades find any aesthetic inspiration in Grosseteste’s scientific writings, or utilize his expertise for architectural guidance?  It would not be unheard of for a bishop to involve himself with such matters.  After all, St. Hugh of Lincoln (c. 1135-1200), one of Grosseteste’s predecessors, had personally assisted with the physical construction of the post-earthquake edifice.  Yet, the historical record makes it very unlikely that Grosseteste was welcomed into the construction process in any way.  The book’s contributors are not decided on whether his scientific writings could have influenced the building’s design.  John Shannon Hendrix, for example, sees Grosseteste’s virtus theory from De Lineis in the support network of the ceiling vaults.  However, he finds it unlikely that the influence would have been direct, given the bishop’s unpopularity with the cathedral chapter.  More likely, the connections can be attributed to the scientific zeitgeist of the first half of the thirteenth century.  The contributors, as is evident from Cecilia Panti’s balanced commentary, are very careful not to blithely accept the overeager methodology of Erwin Panofsky, who drew a direct connection between Pseudo-Dionysian theology and Abbot Suger’s architectural labors―all without a shred of documentation supporting the link.  Panti makes no such blanket assertions, but is unwilling to write off any connection between the great Oxford thinker and the great Gothic cathedral in his diocese.  After all, she argues, no documentation of this sort would exist; she believes that there would be no reason for an architect to journal about his scholarly influences.

Whether or not it is methodologically fair to speak of “Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral,” the usefulness of this volume is evidence enough that the man and the building deserve to be placed in the same Venn diagram.  I stand with the editors’ decision to do so, and I applaud the contributors for their judicious restraint in mostly drawing definite conclusions purely on the basis of solid documentation.  A couple of qualifications to this praise are worth mentioning.  For example, in an otherwise exemplary essay connecting Grosseteste’s translation of Pseudo-Dionysius with the lighting elements of Lincoln Cathedral, Nicholas Temple draws a very tenuous connection between the blue-grey color of the windows and Dionysius’ negative theology.  This is purely speculation, and it is unclear why such a window design should accord with Dionysius’ views on the divine transcendence and immanence.  The color blue is no more apophatic than any other.  Another example of such raw speculation is in Nicholas Bennnett’s chapter on the relationship between Grosseteste and the Lincoln Cathedral chapter.  He writes that Grosseteste had a “marked lack of enthusiasm” for the very idea of building adorned cathedrals because of his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and the ideal of poverty.  While this could be an intriguing connection to the mendicant archetype, it is loudly contradicted by the well-known fact that Francis was, quite possibly, the most famous devotee and re-furbisher of church buildings in the early thirteenth century.  The dream of Pope Innocent III (reg. 1198-1216), as well as Francis’ devotion to the San Damiano chapel and the vision-message of its crucifix, demonstrate that Franciscan spirituality was not anti-construction.

With these relatively minor exceptions, Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral can be called a piece of very fine scholarship and an accessible interdisciplinary engagement with a variety of ideas and sources.  Thanks to its format of well-organized subheadings, and its numerous explanatory diagrams and photographs, the reader can follow a clear path from the esoteric scientific theories of the early thirteenth century to the particular structures they produced.  The volume shows thematic  continuity as well as can be expected from a study that somehow engages topics as diverse as the phenomenology of Husserl and Derrida and the history and design of a whole separate cathedral (Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen).  None of the book’s contributors plunged too deeply into the technicalities of their subject matter; all (except Allan Doig in his chapter on Aachen) provided a bigger picture of Robert Grosseteste’s influence (or at least that of his sources) on Lincoln Cathedral.  Given the fame and proximity of the man and the building, it is only natural that there should be a volume comparing them and measuring their interaction.  It is fortunate that such a volume has been composed in such a careful and effective way.

Andrew Jacob Cuff


Andrew Jacob Cuff is a PhD student in Church History at The Catholic University in America in Washington, DC. His research focuses on Cistercians and other monastic theologians in the twelfth century.


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