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The Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project

Preparing Critical Editions of Rufus' Extant Works


Life of Richard Rufus

Richard Rufus of Cornwall was an early Scholastic philosopher-theologian who taught at the Universities of Paris and Oxford between 1231 and 1255. In those years he played a vital part in the transformation of philosophy and theology in early thirteenth-century Western Europe.

Rufus and the Transformation of Western Education

When Rufus began to teach, undergraduate education focused on the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

By the time Rufus left Paris two decades later in 1253, the foundations of Western science had been laid, and Western philosophy and theology had been transformed. Aristotelian philosophy was at the core of the arts degree, and the curriculum included for the first time metaphysics, physics, chemistry, psychology, and ethics.

Richard Rufus pioneered the teaching of these works at Paris, the center of the Western intellectual world. When he began teaching in the arts faculty, lectures on the libri naturales were forbidden. No one was supposed to teach Aristotle's metaphysics or his natural philosophy (physics, psychology etc.). When Rufus left Paris for the last time, the libri naturales were required reading and all students were examined on them.

An admirable philosopher, Rufus was considered a great man in thirteenth-century Paris. At Paris Rufus gave the earliest lectures on Aristotelian physics and metaphysics of which a record survives. Though he was very famous ("famosissimus") at Paris, Rufus exercised his greatest influence in Oxford. At Oxford, his is the first surviving commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences by an Oxford bachelor of theology. John Duns Scotus cited Rufus as the ancient doctor who anticipated his views on the formal distinction. Scotus also adopted Rufus' argument for the existence of God and found in Rufus an early statement of his views on individuation.

The Origins of Scholastic Aristotelianism

The origins of Scholasticism before 1250 have been little studied because until recently it was thought that its authors were capable only of elementary paraphrases of Aristotle. But what we have recently learned about Richard Rufus, as a teacher of Aristotelian natural philosophy, shows that view to be mistaken.

Rufus applied rigorous Aristotelian methods to topics as diverse as physics and theology. He often modified or rejected Aristotle's solutions. His was an original mind and an inquisitive spirit. On reflection, the excitement of Rufus' approach is surely what we ought to have expected in order to explain the radical change which put the libri naturales at the center of the Scholastic curriculum.

The Early Modern Response to Scholasticism

The great thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Galileo and Descartes, were educated in Scholasticism and incorporated many important Scholastic concepts into their own thought. They did this in spite of the anti-Scholastic climate in which they worked. During the Renaissance, authors who owed their education to Scholastic philosophers unfairly depicted Western intellectual life in the 13th and 14th centuries as a dark age. In philosophy, Renaissance polemicists persuaded many historians that Aristotelian natural philosophy was the enemy of science. As we come to know the works of Rufus, however, we can begin to appreciate that even such distinctive contributions as Galileo's theory of projectile motion owe something to Rufus.

Rufus was the first Western medieval physicist who taught that Aristotle had not adequately explained projectile motion, since he could not account for the fact that projectiles (arrows, for example) move in opposite directions in the same medium at the same time. Accordingly, Rufus posited 'imprints' on projectiles by the projector, though in deference to Aristotle, he also allowed an impact of the projector on the medium. Antonius Menu, one of the Jesuits who most influenced Galileo's early teaching, made a similar claim: projectile motion could only be explained if the projector acted both on the medium and on the projectile.

Natural theology

In the study theology based on natural sources, too, Rufus was a founder of the Scholastic Aristotelian approach that dominated the high Middle Ages. He was, for instance, the first to criticize Anselm of Canterbury's argument for the existence of God as fallacious. Thomas Aquinas later echoed the same criticism in his lectures on Lombard's Sentences. The theistic argument Rufus proposed in its stead formed the core of the modal proof now associated with the name of Duns Scotus.

Fame, Loss, and Rediscovery

Richard Rufus joined the Franciscan Order after beginning his study of Aristotle as a secular master. His devotion to the Franciscan ideal of humility led him deliberately to seek obscurity: he cited himself in the third person or not at all.

Nevertheless, as Roger Bacon tells us, by 1300 his philosophy had become enormously influential. In the thirteenth century, Robert Grosseteste and Bonaventure consulted his theology lectures. In the fourteenth century, Rufus was cited by Duns Scotus and Roger of Nottingham. By 1400, however, in part because of Rufus' attempts to remain anonymous, most of his works were lost or misattributed. Thus, they did not become available with the advent of the printing press.

Rufus' works disappeared for over 500 years, even though his ideas influenced many great thinkers over the course of the modern era. Andrew G. Little and Franz Pelster, SJ, rediscovered them in 1926. Pelster found most of the theological works on exploratory visits to European libraries between 1925 and 1950. In his enthusiasm, Pelster sometimes based his case for attributions on inadequate evidence, so F. Henquinet and P. Raedts rightly corrected and rejected some of them. Auguste Pelzer discovered, Gedeon Gál, OFM, described, and Timothy Noone (with assistance from Leonard Boyle, OP) authenticated the first of Rufus' philosophical works to be rediscovered, his Scriptum in Metaphysicam. Most of the remaining philosophical works were discovered and authenticated by Rega Wood.

In 1996, Yale University's Divinity School and its Philosophy Department undertook jointly to sponsor an edition of Rufus' complete works under Rega Wood's direction. In 2000, the Richard Rufus Project moved to Stanford University, where it is housed in Green Library and sponsored by the Philosophy Department.

Rufus as a Franciscan

Today we know about Rufus' life only from Franciscan sources that report the date and circumstances of his entry into the order and the chronology of his lectures. About his personal life apart from the Order we know almost nothing. We infer that Rufus was born in Cornwall because Roger Bacon calls him Richard of Cornwall. We believe that he must have died after 1259, since in November 1259, Bishop Kirkham approved the will of Martin of St. Cruce, master of Sherborne hospital (near Durham, England). Martin had bequeathed Richard of Cornwall, friar minor, a manuscript of the canonical epistles and a complete habit (Wills and Inventories, London 1835, pp. 10-11).

Rufus himself, however, might have said we know more than enough. We know that his confrere Roger Bacon despised him, saying that he was popular with the foolish multitude, but not with the wise few. His Oxford superior, Adam Marsh, considered him an exemplary friar (Epistle 205) and noticed that younger friars were glad to work with him because he let them use his books (Epistle 192). Finally, we know one of Rufus' dreams, or rather his nightmare: intellectual pride. Rufus once dreamed that St. Francis himself appeared to him. In this dream Francis told Rufus that the Franciscan Order's most celebrated priestly lecturers had less merit than a humble lay contemplative brother (Eccleston, De adventu Fratrum Minorum in Angliam 11).