For over twenty years, the Micrologus and Micrologus' Library series have published sterling scholarship on medieval scientific culture, broadly construed. Published by the Societá Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino (SISMEL)-Edizioni del Galluzzo, based in Florence, volumes tend to be focused around a theme, such as the moral authority of nature in late medieval Latin thought, the corpse, or the concept of measurement. Roger Bacon's Communia Naturalium: A 13th Century Philosopher's Workshop, edited by Paola Bernardini and Anna Rodolfi fits neatly into the Micrologus mold: a series of superb essays, by an established group of scholars, on a subject related to science in the Latin Middle Ages.
This volume represents the findings of a two-year interdisciplinary working group at SISMEL on just one text of Roger Bacon: Communia Naturalium. The approach of extreme close reading yields significant rewards, especially when dealing with a text as rich, nuanced, and influential as Communia Naturalium. First among these is the intimacy it affords. As Chiara Crisciani and Michela Pereira write in the introductory essay, "during this work a clear perception emerged that we had set foot in the intellectual laboratory of the philosopher, as if we could see him building his own conceptual tools, in a close dialogue and often in opposition to the more classical and philosophical auctoritates and to the magistri of his time" (4-5). They agree with scholars who place the composition of Communia Naturalium alongside Bacon's Opus maius, Opus minus, and Opus tertium, written at the best of Pope Clement IV in 1267. They argue that Communia Naturalium runs parallel to those reform-minded and polemical opera, and constitutes Bacon's attempt to articulate natural doctrines that revised, but did not overturn, Aristotelian natural philosophy. "He wanted to explore the possibility of formulating specific and detailed natural doctrines, following a systematic order that does not undermine the Aristotelian one, but reshapes it according to Bacon's new needs, and develops into a constant debate, often but not always controversial, with the auctores of Scholastic natural philosophy" (9). Bacon carries this out in his discussion of generation, matter and form, monsters, and cosmology, and in his elaborations on his concepts of species and perspectiva.
Crisciani and Pereira explore in detail the extent to which Bacon draws his earlier and contemporary work in Communia Naturalium. Because Bacon is writing Communia Naturalium as part of a larger project of systematic reform of natural philosophy, he sometimes lightly glosses topics that he has treated in greater detail elsewhere, or corrects, comments upon, refines, and finesses his earlier work. Characterizing Communia Naturalium as "the philosopher's laboratory files" (12), they emphasize the sense of getting to know a particular mind. Moreover, because Bacon revisits, repurposes, explicates, or elides particular ideas or topics in the service of his larger systematic vision to integrate metaphysics and natural philosophy, Crisciani and Pereira identify how Bacon himself viewed his definitive work as always to come, in progress, or both.
The intense focus on Bacon's Communia Naturalium in this volume allows for a holistic and thorough investigation and appreciation of the text. However, the attenuated close-reading that forms the methodological bedrock of this volume is also the source of this volume's weakness. Some Micrologus volumes are suitable for undergraduates, or for doctoral students in fields beyond medieval science and philosophy. Not this one. Citations from Bacon's texts are in Latin, and are untranslated. The essays in Roger Bacon's Communia Naturalium: A 13th Century Philosopher's Workshop assume significant familiarity with Roger Bacon, his oeuvre, especially his three mature opera, and the detailed contours of Scholastic natural philosophy in the thirteenth century. Given the interest in Bacon in other disciplines within medieval studies--especially literary studies and religious history--it is a shame that this volume may be forbidding to the non-specialist.
Yet there is a wealth of scholarship in this short book. It includes helpful tables, collating instances of self-quotation and reference in Communia Naturalium, and superb images of conceptual diagrams found in a manuscript of Communia Naturalium in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. Roberto Lambertini and the late Romana Martorelli Vico lay out the manuscript tradition of Communia Naturalium, an issue of critical importance, as Communia Naturalium exists in its entirety in only one manuscript, and in fragments elsewhere. The authors posit that the extant manuscripts represent different stages of Bacon's thought, reinforcing Crisciani and Pereira's point about the recursive nature of Bacon's mature works. Crisciani also contributes an essay on the problem of universal and particular in Communia Naturalium. She deftly demonstrates that Bacon, drawing upon his work on the multiplication of species, frames his argument to affirm the importance of experience. He does this in an attempt to emphasize the validity of his theory of scientia experimentalis, generally taken to mean a new way of understanding and using natural principles. Rodolfi's essay on the ontological status of matter dovetails nicely with Crisciani's essay on Bacon's realism, and Pereira highlights the importance of Arabic texts and alchemical texts on the development of Bacon's doctrine of matter. Cecilia Panti also refers to the impact of Arabic philosophy on Bacon's thinking in her essay on mathematical proofs against indivisibility in Communia Naturalium, and both Paola Bernardini and Jeremiah Hackett place elements of Communia Naturalium into their larger contemporary theological contexts.
Bacon is one of those influential figures of the Latin Middle Ages whose work exists largely still in manuscript, unedited, and untranslated. The editors and contributors to Roger Bacon's Communia Naturalium: A 13th Century Philosopher's Workshop together have demonstrated the rich subtlety of Bacon's intellectual project. They have helped to fill a previously blank space in our understanding of Roger Bacon's work and thought, and by extension, in the field of medieval intellectual history.