Bacon, Roger (ca. 1220–1292)
Versatile British scientist and philosopher around whom accumulated
many legends of occult powers. He was born near
Ilchester in Somerset, England. He entered the Order of St.
Francis and studied mathematics and medicine in Oxford and
Paris. Returning to England, he devoted his attention to philosophy
and also wrote Latin, Greek, and Hebrew grammars.
Bacon was a pioneer of astronomy and, being acquainted
with the properties of lenses, may have foreshadowed the telescope.
In the mechanical sciences, Bacon envisioned boats propelled
without oars, cars that move without horses, and even
machines that fly in the air. In the field of pure chemistry,
Bacon’s name is associated with the making of gunpowder, for
even if the discovery cannot be wholly attributed to him, at least
his experiments with niter paved its way.
His study of alchemy naturally led him to a belief in the philosophers’
stone, by which gold might be purified to a degree
impossible by any other means, and also to a belief in the elixir
of life, which, along similar principles of purification, might
fortify the human body against death. Thus man could become
practically immortal, and by knowledge of the appropriate
herbs or by acquaintance with planetary influences, he could
experience the same consummation.
Ahead of his time, Bacon was looked on with considerable
suspicion, which eventually led to persecution. The brethren of
his order practically cast him out, and he was compelled to reEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Bacon, Roger
141
tire to Paris and to submit to a régime of repression. A prolific
author, he was forbidden to write, and it was not till 1266 that
Guy de Foulques, the papal legate in England—later Pope
Clement IV—heard of Bacon’s fame and invited him to break
his enforced silence. Bacon hailed the opportunity and in spite
of hardship and poverty, he finished his Opus Majus, Opus
Minus, and Opus Tertium.
Clement seemed to approve of these works, because Bacon
was allowed to return to Oxford, where he continued his scientific
studies and the composition of scientific works. He attempted
a compendium of philosophy which still exists in part,
but its subject matter displeased the ruling powers, and Bacon’s
misfortunes began afresh. His books were burned, and again
he was thrown into prison. He remained there for 14 years,
during which time he probably continued to write. About 1292
he was given his liberty, however he is believed to have died
shortly thereafter.
Of Bacon’s works, which were numerous, many still remain
in manuscript and about a dozen have been printed at various
times. Many are obscure treatises on alchemy, but the works he
wrote by invitation of Clement are the most important. The
Opus Majus is divided into six parts treating of the causes of
error, the relation between philosophy and theology, the utility
of grammar, mathematical perspective, and experimental science.
The Opus Minus, of which only part has been preserved,
was intended to be a summary of the former work. The Opus
Tertium, though written after the other two, actually serves as
an introduction to them and is in part supplementary to them.
These works, large though they be, were intended to be forerunners
of an even greater work to examine the principles of
all the sciences; however, this latter endeavor was probably little
more than begun.
Although much of Bacon’s work and many of his beliefs reflect
the outlook of his period, in his devotion to the experimental
sciences he stood far above his peers. This has led to an
accretion of legendary material around Bacon’s name, by virtue
of which he has been regarded as a great magician. In the sixteenth
century, when the study of magic was pursued with increased
zeal, Friar Bacon became the subject of a popular book,
entitled The History of Friar Bacon, and the subject of an oftenperformed
play by Robert Greene, one of the dramatists of the
age. The greater part of his history of Friar Bacon is evidently
the invention of the writer, who lived in the time of Queen Elizabeth.
He adapted some of the older traditions and fleshed out
the narrative with fables taken from books of the time, including
stories about two other legendary occult conjurers, Friars
Bungay and Vandermast. The recital is further enlivened with
the pranks of Bacon’s servant, Miles.
Sources
Bacon, Roger. The Mirror of Alchemy. Los Angeles Press of
the Pegacycle Lady, 1975.
———. The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon. 2 vols. Philadelphia
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928.
———. Roger Bacon’s Philosophy of Nature A Critical Edition.
Oxford Clarendon Press, 1983.
Bridges, John Henry. The Life and Work of Roger Bacon. 1914.
Reprint, Merrick, N.Y. Richwood, 1976.
Easton, Stewart C. Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal
Science. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1970.
Little, A. G. Roger Bacon Essays. Oxford Clarendon Press,
1914.

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