Roger Bacon

Statue of Roger Bacon See Also: John Dee , Fulcanelli
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The work of Roger Bacon (1214 to 1292 approx.) stands at the meeting point between mediaeval Europe and the beginning of the slow and painful birth of the modern, scientific age. Bacon himself seems to transcend both. As a result the multi-talented Bacon is praised as a scientist and thinker, the first champion of the scientific method, and yet he was also branded a sorcerer who had allegedly performed alchemical transmutations and he was imprisoned on more than one occasion for his views.

His ideas anticipated both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He remains an enigmatic, shadowy figure about whom much is simply not known.

Born in Ilchester in Somerset his wealthy family had supported Henry III during the war against the barons (a strategy which was to backfire on them later) and he was probably sent up to Oxford at the age of ten or twelve, as was the custom. He was a very bright student and was taught by the most eminent men of the day. At about this time he joined the Franciscan order. However, during his life he evoked so much displeasure in the order, that on his death they nailed his books to the shelves and left them to rot. Also, he did not have a good popular image; he was said to have a talking head made of brass and to have obtained his knowledge from the devil. He was also rumoured to be a necromancer.

After Oxford he went to Paris where he was tutored by a certain Master Peter. Unlike his tutors at Oxford, this individual lived so much in the shadows that history knows virtually nothing of him. While Master Peter taught him to empirical observations of the natural world and the experimental method, he was also taught alchemy and astrology. He later returned to Oxford where his studies continued. These included astronomy and his astronomical observation tower survived well into the eighteenth century. His belief that the study of the natural world was the best way of discovering the nature of the divine, brought him into conflict with both religious and secular authority for the rest of his life.

His studies at this time, throughout the 1250s, included optics, mathematics, astronomy, botany, zoology, chemistry and of course alchemy. He is credited with having invented a magnifying mirror for viewing events at a distance and a microscope, a tank and a pontoon bridge. His researches in mathematics led to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, nearly three hundred years after his death. On its adoption there was an adjustment of eleven days which had to be made, and this led to complaints and even riots by people who thought that they had lost eleven days of there lives.

He saw ignorance and corruption all around him. In response, he learned Hebrew, Greek and Chaldean in an attempt to correct the translations of manuscripts, the bible and the works of classical authors which he considered had been translated in incorrect and misleading ways. He also believed that if the biblical quotation “In the beginning was the Word” was to be believed in, then any work he did on language would clarify his relationship to God. This was at a time when even the translation of the Bible into English rather than keeping to the original Latin of the Vulgate was not approved of by ecclesiastical authorities, as this would lead to people interpreting the bible in their own ways instead of simply accepting the official dogma.

It is reasonable to assume from this that Bacon studied that the alchemists called “the language of the birds”. This involved the revelation of occult secrets through the use of wordplay. This approach has been used by alchemists worldwide. The seventeenth century alchemist Bhogar, for instance, was a prolific poet and compiled “the 7000”, a collection of seven thousand verses describing his enlightenment. Bhogar was a member of the Tamil Siddhars, an Indian cult who claim descent from the inhabitants of a lost continent in the Southern part of the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, a recent drilling program has shown that the Kerguelen archipelago from where they would have originated was once part of a much larger land mass which became submerged.

Bacon outraged his contemporaries by asserting that the world of classical antiquity was superior to the Christian world with all of its corruption and he also attacked leading figures including St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274), one of the most influential figures in the formation of modern Western thought. It was Aquinas who showed that reason and religious belief were not incompatible. However, both Aquinas and Bacon were roundly condemned by the church, in what were known as “the Paris Condemnations” in 1277. Both were considered to have an involvement with alchemy. The condemnations were revoked a couple of years later and in 1323 Aquinas was canonised.

Bacon’s outbursts, coupled with a popular belief that he was a necromancer, led to his trial by the Franciscan order and subsequent house arrest for ten years, although Bacon himself asserted that he withdrew from public life owing to ill-health. However, in 1263 his fortunes changed considerably when a new papal legate to England, Guido Fulcode, was appointed. He heard of Bacon through Raymond de Laon. By the time they met, Fulcode had become Pope Clement IV and he had Bacon released as soon as it was safe to do so on condition that he wrote all of his discoveries down in a book. In fact, Bacon wrote five books. The Opus Magus was the first of these and the most comprehensive; Bacon believed that all sciences were interconnected and tried to cover every aspect of knowledge in one massive tome, essentially a “Theory of Everything”. It also attacked authority and sophistry and has been hailed as a foundation work in modern science. In this work Bacon laid stress on useful knowledge, on ascertaining facts and on experimentation.

Bacon hoped that in doing this work for the Pope he would gain papal protection but the Pope died in 1269. He fell foul of the Franciscan authorities again and in 1278 under a new Pope, Gregory X, he was imprisoned for a further fourteen years, only being released, it is said, when he revealed certain alchemical secrets to the head of the Franciscan order, Raymond Gaufredi. On his release, rather than fade quietly into the background, he immediately launched another scathing attack on the religious establishment in the form of a new book, the Compendium Theologia.

Bacon’s reputation as a magician was exploited in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, (c.1590), by Robert Green, which rivalled Chaucer’s The Millar’s Tale at the time for popularity.

References and further reading:

Sean MartinAlchemy, the Philosopher's StoneWildwood House
Gilchrist, CherryAlchemy, The Great WorkThorsons
Innes, BrianThe Search For The Philosopher's Stone Orbis
Klossowski de Rola, StanislasAlchemy, The Secret ArtThames and Hudson
Redgrove, StanleyAlchemy Ancient and ModernAres

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© Ken James 2008