Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baconthorpe, John
BACONTHORPE, BACON, or BACHO, JOHN (d. 1346), the 'Resolute Doctor,' took his name from Baconsthorpe, a small Norfolk village in the hundred of South Erpingham. According to the elaborate genealogy of the Bacon family among the British Museum manuscripts (Add. MS. 19116) he was the third son of Sir Thomas Bacon of Baconsthorpe, and grandnephew of the famous Roger Bacon. In the early years of his life he was brought up at the newly founded Carmelite monastery of Blakeney or Snitterley, not far from Walsingham, an establishment which reckoned a Sir Robert Bacon amongst its earliest patrons. In process of time John Baconthorpe removed to Oxford, where the Carmelite order had possessed its own schools since 1253. According to Pits, he remained here only long enough to complete his philosophical training, and to pass through the initiatory stages of the theological course; while, to perfect himself in this crowning branch of mediæval study, he repaired to Paris. At this university he took his degree in both civil and ecclesiastical law, and applied himself to master every field of learning. The wide range of his inquiries is proved by the titles of his works, which, besides the ordinary theological and logical topics of the age, embrace treatises on astronomy or astrology, on the pontifical canons, on generation, the movement of animals, and innumerable other subjects. At Paris he seems to have first displayed that marked adherence to the doctrines of Averroes which gained him the title of 'Princeps Averroistarum.' But M. Renan is explicit in his statement that Baconthorpe does not so much maintain all the tenets of Averroes as strive to palliate their heterodoxy. His position was that the arguments of Thomas Aquinas and others had little that was contradictory to the real sentiments of the Arab philosopher. Averroes, according to his fourteenth-century champion, only started questions from a purely intellectual point of view, as a field in which to exercise men's reasoning faculties, without committing himself to a full acceptance of the theories he discussed. At the same time M. Renan adds that Baconthorpe was careful to soften down the more dangerous of his master's doctrines.
On his return from Paris, Baconthorpe was most probably once more a resident at Oxford, and it may be to this period of his life that Wood refers when he speaks of him as a strong opponent of the mendicant orders in that university. It would be about the same time that Baconthorpe was the Oxford instructor and friend of Richard Fitzralph, afterwards archbishop of Armagh (ob. 1360). According to Bale the two friends began about the year 1321 to preach the doctrines which Wycliffe inculcated so strongly half a century later, that the priestly power should be subordinate to the kingly - a statement which well agrees with the words of Walden when writing against the Lollards on the same subject: 'The great defender of this opinion is Richard of Armagh, and he follows John "Bacon-town" (Joannem Baconis oppidi) the Carmilite.' But Baconthorpe does not seem to have remained entirely in England, as his name is said to occur in the accounts of the general meeting of the Carmelites held at Alby in 1327; and again, in the general chapter of the order at Valence (1330), he once more appears as 'John de Baconstop, provincial of England' (Biblioth. Carmel. i. 743). The appellation of ' provincial' is due to the fact that in the preceding year he had, at a meeting of the Carmelite brotherhood in London, been unanimously elected head of the order in England (1329), an office which he retained till 1333, when he was hurriedly summoned to Rome. He seems to have given some offence to the heads of his own body by assigning too much authority to the pope in the matter of annulling marriages. We are told that at Rome he was even hissed during one of his discourses; but not, Leland assures us, for any lack of argumentative power or eloquence. Fuller, however, though apparently without authority, says that it was the badness of his Latin and of his pronounciation that formed the pretext for this treatment. Baconthorpe seems soon to have seen the error of his ways, and made a recantation, proving most conclusively that the pope had no power of dispensation within the prohibited degrees. Two centuries later, we are told by Bale, James Calcus Papiensis made use of Baconthorpe's authority in his work on Henry VIII's divorce. From this time Baconthorpe's fame seems to have been established. Even after the lapse of 150 years the general of his order, Spagnuoli, could sing of him as the great glory of the Carmelites, adding that no one has ever known the mind of Averroes better than he; and that by following his footsteps a man would become a second Aristotle. The same verses represent him as demolishing the 'footprints of the cloudy Scot,' Duns Scotus, the almost contemporary pride of the Franciscans. When summoned to Rome, Baconthorpe ceased to be the English provincial, in order that he might have more leisure for preaching and the study of the Scriptures (Bale, Heliad. i. 28). It was probably on his return from Rome that Baconthorpe took part in the general chapter held at Nimes or Narbonne in 1333. The 'Bibliotheca Carmelitana, basing the statement apparently upon John Baptist de Lezana's 'Annales Sacri' (iv. 555), asserts that he was the leader of the Parisian Carmelites in their opposition to the heretical views of John XXII concerning the state of the dead; and, indeed, Baconthorpe does seem to have written two of his works, the 'De Beatorum Visione' and the 'Quod sit laus vocalis,' directly against the peculiar tenets held by this pope (Bibl. Carm. i. 748; Fabric. Bibl. Lat. 162). If Lezana is to be depended on, this incident would fit in very well with the last days of John XXII (ob. 1334), when the question was most exercising men's minds, and with Baconthorpe's return journey from Rome and Nimes. He is said to have returned to England, where he died in 1346, and was buried in the Carmelite church at London. Leland, however, assures us that he had searched for his tomb there vainly. Other accounts give Blakeney and Norwich as his place of sepulture.
Baconthorpe was a man of extremely small stature, a very Zacchæus, as Pits phrases it, whose body could never have supported the weight of the huge volumes his intellect produced without being crushed to death. Fuller adds that his pen, penknife, inkhorn, one sheet of paper, and one of his works, would together have made up his height. He was also a most voluminous writer. Zedler reckons the number of his books at over 120, and Alegre de Casanate has preserved a legend that on one occasion Baconthorpe's pupils buried their master twice over while standing upright in his own works, and even then had had a large number to spare (Alegre de Cas. Paradisus Carm. dec. 294).
Besides dealing with the subjects mentioned earlier in this article, Baconthorpe wrote commentaries on the Old and New Testament, on the Apocrypha, on Aristotle's 'Ethics,' 'Metaphysics,' and ' Politics,' treatises upon Anselm's 'Cur Verbum sit homo,' and Augustine's 'City of God;' diatribes against the Jews, idolaters (by this meaning in all probability Mahometans), and magicians; and a work dealing with a topic thoroughly typical of the scholastic mind, 'Quod in coelo sit laus vocalis.' Bale, who was himself originally an East-Anglian and a Carmelite, speaks of him in the highest terms: 'I have found in his writings weightier thoughts than in those of any other author of his time.' In fact, Bale made a collection of these gems, which, however, he tells us, perished when he was in Ireland.
Nearly three centuries after his death Baconthorpe was still read in the university of Padua, where the Averroist doctrines lingered on long after they had died out in the rest of Europe. He was, according to M. Renan, the classic author of this school of thought; and also as pre-eminently the doctor of the Carmelite order, as Aquinas was of the Dominicans, or Duns Scotus of the Franciscans, Zabarelli, who was a professor at Padua only a few years before Galileo was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the same university, was an eager student of Baconthorpe, and his name reappears at the beginning of the seventeenth century in connection with the memorable name of Lucilius Julius Cæsar Vaninus. Though Baconthorpe had been dead nearly two hundred and fifty years before Vaninus's birth, yet this unfortunate philosopher claimed to have had the great Averroist for his teacher, and professed to be following the example of his master in putting no other works than those of Averroes into his pupils' hands (Renan, Averroes, 421; but compare Vaninus' own works in the references at the end of the article). With regard to the great battle-field of scholastic champions M. Hauréau sums up Baconthorpe's position in the words: 'He is a capitulating realist, who entangles himself in nominalism as little as possible.'
There are many theories advanced to account for Baconthorpe's epithet of the 'resolute doctor.' Pits seems very plausibly to imply that he owes it to the tenacity with which he maintained his Averroist principles. Others have explained it by his readiness in deciding all cases brought before him; but for this his conduct at Rome does not seem to prove him to have been remarkable. He then appears to have retracted his opinions before leaving the city.
No complete edition of Baconthorpe's writings has been published, though his works began to issue from the press several years before the close of the fifteenth century, with his 'Commentaries on the Master of the Sentences,' printed at Paris in the year 1484. Continental students have, however, been laborious interpreters of his teachings, and amongst the numerous treatises devoted to his philosophy special mention may be made of the seven bulky folios of Joseph Zagalia (Ferrara and Parma, 169()-1706), and the three smaller volumes of H. Aymers (Turin, 1667-9).[Leland, Bale, and Pits's Catalogue; Tanner; Harleian MSS. 3838, i. 27, 28, ii. 51-53; Alegre de Casanate's Paradisus Carmelitici decoris, 294-5; Zabarella's De Rebus Nuturalibus, edit. Frankfort, 1617, p. 466; St. Etienne's Biblioth Carmel. 745-53; Zagalia's Liber Prœmialis; Vaninus's Amphitheatrum, 17, and De Naturis Admirandis, 350; Vossius De Qnat. Scient. 363; Wharton's Cave, App. 27; Renan's Averroës et l'Averroïsme, 318, 420. 421; Hauréau's Philosophie Scolastique, 441-3; Fuller (Church History iii.) seems to have gone beyond his authorities; Lezana's Annales Sacri, vol. iv., apparently contains much information concerning Baconthorpe's life which is not to be found elsewhere.]