Friday, 16 March 2012

No Dark Ages: 13th-Century Bishop Discovered What Colour Is

Bishop Robert Grosseteste. Image courtesy of William Morris,

Joel Kontinen

Skeptics will tell us that the Middle Ages were exceptionally dark, at least in the intellectual and scientific realm. However, historians would disagree as many great inventions were made during that period.

Recently, an article in New Scientist suggests that a 13th-century English bishop might have come up with a ”a working theory of colour centuries before the birth of modern science.” The bishop, Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1175 –1253), is characterised as “a pre-Renaissance Renaissance man.”

In the New Scientist article Michael Brooks says that Grosseteste’s view of what colour is resembles the modern view of colour. Grosseteste knew that

colours do not exist by themselves, but are a property of the interactions of light and matter: ‘Colour is light incorporated in a diaphanous medium,’ as he puts it. Second, colours are made by sliding along three scales: from clara to obscura; from multa to pauca; and from purum to impurum. Whiteness, he adds, is an extreme produced by the combination of clara, multa and purum. This description is very similar to the way we regard colour today. ‘At the conceptual level Grosseteste's writings show a very strong resonance with modern views of colour,’ says Hannah Smithson, a perceptional psychologist at the University of Oxford and a member of the Ordered Universe team.”

The Dark Ages were not so dark after all. Far from being anti-science, medieval churchmen could actually promote science. They could do so because they believed that a rational Creator had created a rational creation that could be studied.


Brooks, Michael. 2012. Medieval modern master: Colour decoded before its time. New Scientist 2855, 52-53.