Nicholas Oresme

The French clergyman, scientist, economist, and translator Nicholas of Oresme (ca. 1320-1382) is best known for his treatise on money, "De moneta," and for his services to King Charles V of France.

Nicholas of Oresme was born at Allemagne in Normandy. Little is known of his early years, except that he studied theology. He attended the College of Navarre of the University of Paris in 1348 and served as master of that college from 1356 to 1361. By 1370 he had become royal chaplain to King Charles V, and he had probably been Charles's tutor during the reign of Charles's father, King John II.

Nicholas wrote on a great variety of scientific subjects, but he is best known for his economic theory, his translations of the works of Aristotle, and his opposition to astrology. Charles V, a patron of the early Renaissance in France, collected a library of several thousand volumes. He commissioned Nicholas to translate, from Latin into French, Aristotle's De caelo (On the Heavens), Ethics, Politics, and Economics. The influence of the King can also perhaps be seen in Nicholas's chief interest, economics. Under the pressure of the economic disruption caused by the Hundred Years War, Charles V reorganized royal finances into a system that was preserved until 1789. In these circumstances, Nicholas wrote his treatise De moneta (On Money) between 1355 and 1360. In it Nicholas maintained that money is the property of the community, not of the ruler, and that, therefore, the ruler has an obligation to preserve the purity of coinage and may not debase it. De moneta is not always a realistic reflection of late medieval economy, but it became very popular in the 17th century.

Astrology was a fad of Nicholas's times, and he wrote in both French and Latin against the notion that the future can be predicted from a study of the stars. For example, borrowing his title and purpose from Cicero, Nicholas wrote De divinatione (On Divination) in order to attack dream interpreters and horoscopes. In general, Nicholas argued that supposedly magical events can be explained by natural causes. To support his arguments, he studied astronomy; and although he accepted the Ptolemaic system, in which the universe was believed to revolve around the earth, he granted that terrestrial motion cannot be disproved. Nicholas encouraged the study of nature and the use of reason in examining the Christian faith, remarking that "Everything contained in the Gospels is highly reasonable."

Nicholas became bishop of Lisieux in 1377, and he died there on July 11, 1382.


Further Reading on Nicholas of Oresme

Nicholas's De Proportionibus, and Ad Pauca Respicientes, with introduction, translation, and notes by E. Grant (1966), contains a charming biographical sketch. Three works contain both biographical accounts of Nicholas's life and translations of his writings: G. W. Coopland, Nicole Oresme and the Astrologers: A Study of His "Livre de Divinacion" (1952); Charles Johnson, ed. and trans., The "De Moneta" of Nicholas Oresme (1956); and Marshall Clagett, ed., Nicole Oresme and the Medieval Geometry of Qualities and Motions (1968).