091: The Friar and the Cipher by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

by Gerard

091: Goldstone, Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone. The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World. New York: Doubleday, 2005. 297 pp. ISBN 0-7679-1473-2.

Because Dewey was trying to enumerate all fields of human knowledge (at the time of creation), he started with knowledge itself, then the vessels that contain the knowledge, which is most likely why general knowledge is in the 000s and books about books are in 002. For non-regular books (incunabula, manuscripts, and bibliographic oddities), he saves the 090s. Books about manuscripts fall into 091.

In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich was searching through a chest of old manuscripts owned by a late General of the Jesuit Order and happened upon an unassuming plain-bound book which, upon closer inspection, contained an unreadable text. Riddled throughout the book were many illustrations, some along the margins and others dancing in and out of the text itself. There were plants, astrological illustrations, strange symbols, and nude women dancing about the pages. The book was simultaneously captivating and inaccessible.

The writing duo of Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, in Friar and the Cipher, trace the history of the manuscript through its various owners as well as impart a rich history of both the book and the entirety of Europe from 1200 until 1700. They do a very good job of explaining the various theologies and the history of philosophy through the Dark Ages. At times, it gets bogged down in the intellectual minutiae of religiosity, but I think a lot of those details help to make it a better book. While this book is ostensibly about the manuscript itself, it does much better as a European history text.

Unfortunately, the real cryptographic analysis of the manuscript is relegated to the last 50 pages. The Goldstones trace the history of modern codebreaking and every attempt at deciphering the Voynich manuscript. They have all failed. Some think it’s a simple cipher; others go so far as to believe it is an artificial language. Altogether, though, it makes for a very interesting read.

Advertisements