When someone is ‘of Bath’, like the Wife of Bath (only real), then surely they are a ‘shoe-in’ as a Somerset Great. I’m heading back to the 12th century to review the antics of Adelard of Bath, a natural philosopher of the first order. He’s not to be confused with the confusingly named Abelard, the 12th century French theologian-thinker (shouldn’t be allowed that.)

There are certainly gaps in our knowledge about Adelard and much of what we do know is his own account, so a semi-autobiography in other words. I suppose he pulled off the medieval equivalent of writing his own Wikipedia entry! He claimed to come from Bath and after a life packed with wanderings he appears to have returned here to live and ultimately die.

Adelard wrote many original works but was also noted for his translations, specifically Greek scientific works which he managed to knock into Latin from Arabic translations. The lad’s a genius methinks. An example would be the 12th century translation of Euclid’s ‘Elements’. It’s the oldest-surviving Latin translation of what was originally a Greek tome, but methodically re-worked from an Arabic version. Thanks to Adelard it became the West’s principal geometry textbook for centuries.

We’re uncertain about the philosopher’s parents although it’s been suggested his father may have been a tenant of the Bishop of Wells, a chap named Fastred. We may not be sure, but Adelard presumably was, something he could no doubt be philosophical about. His travels began towards the end of the 11th century when he departed England for France where he studied and taught. He was in Italy by 1116, travelling on through Greece, western Asia and the Middle East. Around a decade later (1126) he’d be back in the West, intent on disseminating the knowledge he’d gained, for example, of Arab astronomy. Adelard was among the first pioneering interpreters of Arabic scientific knowledge which also included botany, zoology and meteorology, knowledge he certainly didn’t reserve for himself. He wrote about the abacus and astrolabe, an instrument for making astronomical measurements. It’s believed Adelard studied with the monks at Bath’s Benedictine monastery and he certainly became a tutor to the future Henry II, the French-born king of England who’d famously have the spat with Becket. Adelard would have had no wise words for the fiery monarch by this stage as he’d already been pushing up the daisies for maybe 20-odd years.


Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1974)

Britannica (www.britannica.com)