Knowledge and Power: Courtly Science and Political Utility in the Work of Roger Bacon

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E. R. Truitt

Abstract

In his major works for the pope, as well as several other works from his maturity, Bacon focused on the utility of natural knowledge, both in terms of human know-how and what that know-how could produce. He looked to the courtly sciences (such as medicine, astral science, optics, and material science), which privilege application and knowledge gained through the sensorium, as sources of natural knowledge and as exemplars for the potential of natural knowledge. This essay argues that Roger Bacon’s work ought to be understood within the context of the court. Bacon’s emphasis on devices in the pursuit of knowledge and utility demonstrates the extent to which the courtly sciences (such as engineering, navigation, alchemy, and divination) were valued alongside traditional natural philosophical frameworks, and need to be understood in that context. Both the courtly sciences and Bacon’s theory of scientia experimentalis focus on materials, sensory knowledge, and knowledge of particulars in pursuit of applied ends. Bacon drew inspiration from the courtly sciences in theorizing how natural knowledge could serve ruling power. By examining Bacon’s major works on scientia experimentalis and analyzing his reliance on examples from the history of Alexander the Great, this essay demonstrates the interrelation of political power and erudite knowledge, and how they intersected through the cultivation and application of experimentum and technology. Finally, Bacon’s interest in the utility of knowledge suggests that courtly settings in this period are significant locations for the development and applications of natural knowledge.

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