Tuesday, September 06, 2005

What I'm Reading II

The Friar and the Cipher. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

Actually, this should be entitled What I Just Finished Reading. Melisande bought this for me for my birthday in May, so it took a while to get through.

My friends will be familiar (perhaps tiresomely so) with my fascination with illuminated manuscripts, the rare book trade and codes. This book covers all three. It concerns the famous Voynich Manuscript and whether or not it was written by or associated with Roger Bacon, the 13th century scholar known as Dr. Mirabilis. In the early part of the 20th century, Wilfrid Voynich, a colorful rare book dealer, obtained a mysterious handwritten volume with many illustrations of plants, flowers and human figures, together with a text that was in completely impenetrable code.

Amazingly, no one in the past century has managed to figure out any of the code. The illustrations of plants turn out to be fanciful, and the human figures seem vaguely erotic, vaguely gynecological or medical. There may be two hands and two codes involved, and some scholars believe that it isn’t a code at all, but instead an artificial language. Some of the most talented code-breakers of the last century, including the legendary William Friedman, were unable to make any progress at all. The possibility that the whole thing is a hoax or completely fanciful has been considered, but most cryptographers believe that the mysterious figures represent coherent writing of some kind. They just don’t have the key to decipher it. (Some still think it is nonsense, but it looks like a hell of a lot of trouble to go to for nonsense to me.)

Roger Bacon may or may not be involved, and that’s where I found this book to be a bit of a let down. The authors wander from Voynich, a very interesting character I’ve read about before, to Bacon and a very long exposition on scholarly inquiry and Aristotle in the 13th century, then on to Dr. John Dee and the Elizabethan period, Francis Bacon and the 17th century, and finally to the code-breaking efforts of the last century.

They can’t be blamed for the fact that no one has figured out the contents and purpose of the book, of course, but one could wish for a slightly more coherent text strategy (plot’s the wrong word, I think). Bacon may or may not have an association with the book, it appears, but the long stretch on Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and inter-church politics in the Middle Ages felt like either a digression or padding to bring the book up to a desired length. More stress on the early 17th century, when the book really seems to have originated, might have been a better choice, I think.

I enjoyed it, however, and would recommend it mildly.

On related topics, I recommend Rare People and Rare Books by E. Millicent Sowerby, with a good account of Voynich, the book dealer. And I'm going to go try out other books on the Voynich Manuscript.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...