Richard Rufus Project Finds a New Home
Posted: Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Any alert observer of the fourth floor of Wells Library recently will have no¬ticed a new tenant: the Richard Rufus Project (RRP). Led by Indiana’s new Professor of Philosophy Rega Wood, RRP rescues from obscurity a great, but virtually unknown philosopher, Richard Rufus of Cornwall, who helped transform Western education and reintroduce Aristotle’s so-called libri naturales, his metaphysics and natural philosophy, to Western Europe.
Before 1225, medieval scholastics were forbidden to lecture on the libri naturales, and medieval education was restricted to the seven liberal arts—music, ge-ometry, astronomy, grammar, logic etc. After 1250, thanks in part to Richard Rufus, logic focused on Aristotle’s more advanced logical works, and exams covered most of the libri naturales.
Aristotle’s libri naturales were fundamental to the development of Western civilization because they contained a comprehensive view, new to the West, of the workings of the cosmos and prompted Western thinkers to look to natural causes to explain observed phenomena and metaphysical quandaries. This outlook provided the foundation for medieval science and paved the way for the 17th century’s scientific revolution.
“If we were all just studying arithmetic and grammar and not trying to gain a comprehensive account of the universe,” Professor Wood says, “we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Scholarly attention to the transmission and influence of the libri naturales had been, for many years, focused on the translators who brought the texts to the West. But there was still the question of who had made the libri acceptable to medieval Christian intellectual culture. With the 20th-century discovery of the first of the works of Richard Rufus, it has now become clear that the sea change in thought about Aristotle was due in large part to the work of the masters of arts who taught Aristotle’s libri naturales in the 1230’s and 1240’s at Paris. Richard Rufus is the first such teacher we know of, followed by Robert Kilwardby and Roger Bacon. Earlier scholarship neglected these 13th-century professors, since they were assumed to have offered only summaries and paraphrases, not criticism or probing questions.
Richard Rufus’s lectures on Metaphysics, Physics, and Psychology show how mistaken this account is. His lectures challenge basic Aristotelian principles, including the principles of motion and change. Therefore, if we want to learn how the Western University curriculum was shaped and what changed it, we need to know the works of Richard Rufus, works that were entirely lost between 1350 and 1950 and which are just now beginning to be published.
The importance of the project explains why the National Endowment for the Humanities has supported the project continuously for more than a decade. The Richard Rufus Project was recently the recipient of another 36-month grant, which will allow Wood to continue her work as editor of these texts and to support her staff as they create an easy-to-use and comprehensively hyperlinked online critical edition that is at the cutting edge of digital manuscript studies. The online edition contains, for instance, hover-over variants, color-coded as to urgency, with expandable footnotes and texts from the manuscripts that appear nowhere else in print.
Wood began her editing career in 1976, editing the works of William of Ockham under the tutelage of Fr. Gedeon Gál, and has continued working on critical editions for more than 30 years. One of her favorite reminders of the importance of creating meticulous critical editions is an incident that occurred in those early years: in the published version of Ockham’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, there was a misprint, an extra “not” in the first paragraph that completely obscured the meaning of everything that came after. By correcting errors and making sound editions accessible, editors provide essential support for interpretative and comparative studies; though editing is at the bottom of the scholarly food chain, without it more advanced studies are worthless.
This article appears in the fall 2011 newsletter of the Medieval Studies Program.