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The Friar and the Cipher – Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone **

The subtitle Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World should be a bit of a giveaway here. There isn’t going to be a satisfying conclusion to this book because it’s about an unsolved mystery. In fact, the text is largely concerned with two subjects – the 13th century proto-scientist Roger Bacon, and the Voynich manuscript, a strange enciphered text that has been ascribed to Bacon on flimsy evidence, though most scholars now believe it to be several hundred years too modern for Bacon. The manuscript has never been deciphered – many “translations” have been hopelessly based on anagrams that could mean anything – and it may well never be, or even be capable of meaningful translation.

So the manuscript itself – by appearance a mixture of a bizarre herbal that contains some plants that may be of New World origin with strange astrological images – isn’t exactly news. Neither, frankly, are the chapters that the Goldstones dedicate to Bacon and the man often considered one of the manuscript’s first owners, the Elizabethan Bacon fan, John Dee. There is a much better book on Bacon in Brian Clegg’s The First Scientist (not even referenced by the Goldstones) and Dee gets a far better treatment in Benjamin Wooley’s The Queen’s Conjuror (which at least is in their bibliography).

In the coverage of Bacon’s life and work there are a number of small but telling flaws that suggest rather rapid research from limited sources. Statements made as fact about Bacon’s history (his birthdate, for instance, which could as easily be 1220 as the 1214 given in the book, or the timing of his journey to Paris, which is largely speculative) have no documentary basis. Bacon’s medieval science is totally misunderstood when his term “species” is interpreted as forces – light, for example, was considered by Bacon to be an example of species, which surely even the Goldstones wouldn’t think of as a force?

Similarly there are some worrying errors when they finally get onto manuscript and its encipherment (only about the last fifth of the book). They comment “In some ways there has been no real progress at all. From Roger Bacon’s time… [onwards] any code or cipher fashioned by human ingenuity was susceptible to decipherment by the same means… no matter how brilliant the mind that fashioned a code, an equally brilliant mind might break it.” This isn’t misinterpretation, it’s plain wrong. As they should have picked up from their reading of Simon Singh’s The Code Book, for nearly 100 years now there has been a totally unbreakable form of cipher – the one time pad. It’s a pain to use, but it isn’t just difficult to break, it is absolutely (no matter how clever you are) impossible to break. Period.

The Voynich manuscript is still a fascinating subject, and the book’s quick coverage of the attempts to decipher it are interesting if frustrating, because the authors seem determined to keep it as a medieval mystery when it almost certainly isn’t. But this just isn’t the right book for the subject.

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Review by Martin O'Brien


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