Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c. 1294), English philosopher and man of science, was born near Ilchester in Somerset. His family appears to have been in good circumstances, but in the stormy reign of Henry III. their property was despoiled and several members of the family were driven into exile. Roger completed his studies at Oxford, though not, as current traditions assert, at Merton or at Brasenose, neither of which had then been founded. His abilities were speedily recognized by his contemporaries, and he enjoyed the friendship of such eminent men as Adam de Marisco and Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln.
Very little is known of Bacon's life at Oxford; it is said he took orders in 1233, and this is not improbable. In the following year, or perhaps later, he crossed over to France and studied at the university of Paris, then the centre of intellectual life in Europe. The two great orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, were in the vigour of youth, and had already begun to take the lead in theological discussion. Alexander of Hales was the oracle of the Franciscans, while the rival order rejoiced in Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.
The scientific training which Bacon had received, mainly from the study of the Arab writers, showed him the manifold defects in the systems reared by these doctors. Aristotle was known but in part, and that part was rendered well-nigh unintelligible through the vileness of the translations; yet not one of those professors would learn Greek. The Scriptures read, if at all, in the erroneous versions were being deserted for the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Physical science, if there was anything deserving that name, was cultivated, not by experiment in the Aristotelian way, but by arguments deduced from premises resting on authority or custom. Everywhere there was a show of knowledge concealing fundamental ignorance. Bacon, accordingly, withdrew from the scholastic routine and devoted himself to languages and experimental research. The only teacher whom he respected was a certain Petrus de Maharncuria Picardus, or of Picardy, probably identical with a certain mathematician, Petrus Peregrinus of Picardy, who is perhaps the author of a MS. treatise, De Magnete, contained in the Bibliothèque Impériale at Paris. The contrast between the obscurity of such a man and the fame enjoyed by the fluent young doctors roused Bacon's indignation.
In the Opus Minus and Opus Tertium he pours forth a violent tirade against Alexander of Hales, and another professor, not mentioned by name, but spoken of as alive, and blamed even more severely than Alexander. This anonymous writer, he says, acquired his learning by teaching others, and adopted a dogmatic tone, which has caused him to be received at Paris with applause as the equal of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Averroes.
Bacon, during his stay in Paris, acquired considerable renown. He took the degree of doctor of theology, and seems to have received the complimentary title of doctor mirabilis. In 1250 he was again at Oxford, and probably about this time entered the Franciscan order. His fame spread at Oxford, though it was mingled with suspicions of his dealings in the black arts and with some doubts of his orthodoxy. About 1257, Bonaventura, general of the order, interdicted his lectures at Oxford, and commanded him to place himself under the superintendence of the body at Paris. Here for ten years he remained under supervision, suffering great privations and strictly prohibited from writing anything for publication. But his fame had reached the ears of the papal legate in England, Guy de Foulques, who in 1265 became pope as Clement IV. In the following year he wrote to Bacon, ordering him notwithstanding any injunctions from his superiors, to write out and send to him a treatise on the sciences which he had already asked of him when papal legate. Bacon, whose previous writings had been mostly scattered tracts, capitula quaedam, took fresh courage from this command of the pope.
He set at naught the jealousy of his superiors and brother friars, and despite the want of funds, instruments, materials for copying and skilled copyists, completed in about eighteen months three large treatises, the Opus Majus, Opus Minus and Opus Tertium, which, with some other tracts, were despatched to the pope. We do not know what opinion Clement formed of them, but before his death he seems to have bestirred himself on Bacon's behalf, for in 1268 the latter was permitted to return to Oxford. Here he continued his labours in experimental science and also in the composition of complete treatises. The works sent to Clement he regarded as preliminaries, laying down principles which were afterwards to be applied to the sciences. The first part of an encyclopaedic work probably remains to us in the Compendium Studii Philosophiae (1271). In this work Bacon makes a vehement attack upon the ignorance and vices of the clergy and monks, and generally upon the insufficiency of the existing studies. In 1278 his books were condemned by Jerome de Ascoli, general of the Franciscans, afterwards Pope Nicholas IV., and he himself was thrown into prison for fourteen years. During this time, it is said, he wrote the small tract De Retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus, but this is merely a tradition.
In 1292, as appears from what is probably his latest composition, the Compendium Studii Theologiae, he was again at liberty. The exact time of his death cannot be determined; 1294 is probably as accurate a date as can be fixed upon.