The Magus

Brian Clegg presents Roger Bacon as a great intellectual in his biography of the medieval innovator, The First Scientist. But can he live up to his title? Benjamin Woolley isn't convinced

The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon by Brian Clegg 288pp, Constable, £14.99

In the early 13th century, the philosopher Roger Bacon, then a young academic from Oxford, was in Paris. The great west front of the cathedral of Nôtre Dame was under construction. This was the height of the Gothic cathedral building boom, that remarkable medieval moment when edifices unmatched in scale and grace arose in Europe's cities, opening up "some strange region of the universe, which does not exist entirely either in the soil of the earth or in the purity of the sky", as the French Abbot Suger put it.

Bacon occupied that strange region of the universe. He was a Franciscan friar, who from his bare monastic cell contemplated the mechanics of the cosmos, imagined horseless carriages and flying machines, and enciphered the recipe for gunpowder.

Very little is known about Bacon's life, but Clegg squeezes out what he can. The year he was born is only known to the nearest decade (as early as 1210, as late as 1220; Clegg prefers the latter). He went to Oxford University around 1233, graduated six years later, then moved to the University of Paris. About a decade after that, he joined the recently founded Franciscan order. Its emphasis on poverty and learning provided, he hoped, a suitable setting to pursue his intellectual interests.

In Paris he also came under the influence of a "mysterious figure", Peter of Maricourt. Peter, Clegg suggests, opened Bacon's eyes to the importance of experiment and observation in the search for knowledge. Bacon later wrote that Peter "considered the experiments and the fortune-telling of the old witches, and their spells and those of all magicians. And so too the illusions and wiles of all conjurors; and this so that nothing may escape him which ought to be known, and that he may perceive how far to reprove all that is false and magical".

This basically became Bacon's guiding philosophy, and the inspiring idea for his Opus majus. The work, as vast in scale and intricate in detail as Nôtre Dame, came about in odd circumstances. In about 1256, Bacon found himself on the wrong side of a vicious doctrinal dispute within the Franciscan order. His punishment was to spend the next decade locked away in a convent in Paris performing menial tasks.

His exile ended when a former admirer, the lawyer Guy Le Gros de Foulques, unexpectedly became Pope Clement IV. The new pontiff wrote to Bacon in 1266 asking for a copy of Bacon's "writings and remedies for current conditions". But, due to his confinement, he had none to offer, so spent the next year setting out a "preamble" to a planned masterwork about the state of knowledge. It was this "preamble" that became known as the Opus majus.

It covered everything from astronomy to zoology, medicine to perspective. Clegg argues that Bacon was the "first scientist" because, as the Opus majus shows, he believed in the primacy of mathematics, the need to be open-minded, the importance of communication and the necessity of experimentation. There is a missing entry from that list: theory, and this is where Clegg's claim runs into serious difficulty.

Bacon's theory about how the universe works was purely medieval. When he wrote in the section of Opus majus dealing with mathematics that "many have died from not protecting themselves from the rays of the moon", it was as observational proof for his theory of the multiplication of "species" (meaning, very roughly, emissions that emanate from objects) and their effect on the human body. This theory was rooted in the natural philosophy of the Greeks and Arabs, which Clegg elsewhere dismisses as unscientific.

When he died, it was said Bacon's works were nailed to the shelves of his library and left to rot. This was the first of a succession of stories that accumulated around the man: that he could conjure a bridge out of thin air to span a river, that he made a brass head and invoked Satan to make it speak. Clegg does well to dispel such myths, and to present Bacon as the great intellectual he was. But in the process, he risks a myth of his own, that Bacon somehow managed to present Pope Clement IV with a manifesto for modern science.

Benjamin Woolley, Saturday May 17, 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003