French theologian and a founder of modern science and mathematics; b. Normandy, Diocese of Bayeux, c.
1320; d. Lisieux, July 11, 1382. A student of theology at Paris in 1348, he was grand master of the Collège de Navarre by 1356. In 1362 he was canon of Rouen and in 1364 dean of the cathedral. Some time before 1370 he became chaplain of King Charles V. He was consecrated bishop of Lisieux in 1378.
There are recent editions of some of his writings, but others are extant only in manuscripts and early editions. He wrote both in Latin and in French. At the request of Charles V he translated into French the Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and De caelo of Aristotle and the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics. These translations were important in the development of the French language. Oresme's theological writings include Contra astronomos judiciarios, with a French adaptation Livre de divinacions, in which he argues against astrology and the magic arts, and a Christological treatise, De communicatione idiomatum in Christo.
Oresme is best known as a scientist, mathematician, and economist. His most original scientific ideas are contained in two French works, Traité de la sphère and Livre du ciel et du monde. Against Aristotle he held, on the ground of the omnipotence of God, the possibility of many universes and the movement of man's universe in space. He questioned the Aristotelian theory that the earth is at rest while the heavens rotate about it, pointing out that motion is relative to the observer: the heavens appear to revolve around the earth, but the opposite may appear to an observer in the heavens. He was a precursor of Copernicus in holding that the appearances are explained more simply by supposing the daily motion of the earth than the motion of the heavens. Although Oresme saw no obstacle to this theory in Scripture and answered objections to it, he did not hold it as certain; in the end he accepted the traditional opinion.
Oresme's contributions to mathematics include the notion of fractional powers and rules for operating them. He prepared the way for analytical geometry by his use of graphs and algebraic functions to represent variations in the intensity and extension of qualities, such as heat and motion. Oresme's De origine, natura, jure, et mutationibus monetarum was the first scientific study of the problem of money.
Bibliography: Works. Traité de la sphère (Paris 1508); Tractatus de latitudinibus formarum (Paris 1482), an abridgement of the unedited Tractatus de figuratione potentiarum et mensurarum difformitatum; Le Livre du ciel et du monde, ed. a. d. menut and a. j. denomy, Mediaeval Studies, (Toronto–London 1938–), 3 (1941) 185–280; 4 (1942) 159–297; 5 (1943) 167–333. The De Moneta of Nicholas Oresme and English Mint Documents, tr. c. johnson (New York 1956). Quaestiones super Geometriam Euclidis, ed. h. l. busard (Leiden 1961), tr., Le Livre de Éthiques d'Aristote, ed. a. d. menut (New York 1940). Le Livre de Yconomique d'Aristote, ed. a. d. menut (Philadelphia 1957). Studies. l. f. meunier, Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages de Nicole Oresme (Paris 1857). p. m. m. duhem, Études sur Léonard de Vinci, 3 v. (Paris 1903–16; repr.1955), 3:346–405. Le Système du monde, v.7 (Paris 1956), passim. a. maier, Die Vorläufer Galileis im 14. Jahrhundert (Rome 1949), passim. a. c. crombie, Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science, 400–1650 (Cambridge, Mass. 1953). g. w. coopland, Nicole Oresme and the Astrologers: A Study of His Livre de divinacions (Liverpool 1952). m. clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison, Wis. 1959), passim.