S2, Ep 16: A Dazzling Mind and Magna Carta: Professor Giles Gasper (1215)

In this episode of Travels Through Time, Artemis takes us inside Durham University in a fascinating conversation with one of her tutors, Professor Giles Gasper. Together they reflect on the year 1215, and attempt to understand some of the most significant political, religious and intellectual developments of the medieval period.

Gasper is Professor of High Medieval History at Durham University, and a specialist in intellectual culture. He chose to explore this year through three, era-defining documents: Magna Carta, the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, and an astronomical treatise written by Robert Grosseteste.

Grosseteste is the most intriguing figure to emerge in this episode. A polymath and scholar whose influence on the development of scientific knowledge in the West has continued to impress modern scholars even today, although little is known about him.

Grosseteste was the first person that we know to correctly identify refraction as the phenomenon that produces a rainbow, rather than it being reflection, as Aristotle thought. The Ordered Universe Project has also been able to show how Grosseteste’s writings illustrate a nascent understanding of the theory of a multiverse, and also of the Big Bang.

Giles exploration of this lesser known figure, alongside his analysis of such famous historical events, such as the creation of Magna Carta and the meeting of the Fourth Council of the Lateran, is what makes this episode so illuminating in understanding medieval history.

Show notes:

Scene One: June 1215, the Magna Carta is drawn up and sealed (not signed!) by King John after a dispute between his nobles over the rights of the King.

Scene Two: November 1215, The Lateran Palace, Rome. 71 patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, 412 bishops, 900 abbots and priors as well as the representatives of various monarchs meet for the Fourth Council of the Lateran where, amongst many issues, the doctrine of transubstantiation is made official.

Scene Three: 1215, somewhere in England. Robert Grosseteste composes his On The Sphere, an astronomical treatise which seeks to understand the movement of the stars. 

Memento: The lost annotated copy of Abu Maʿshar’s writing on astrology which Robert Grosseteste glossed.


Presenter: Artemis Irvine

Guest: Professor Giles Gasper

Producer: Maria Nolan

Titles: Jon O.