Don't you hate it when a book description isn't completely accurate? While I wouldn't necessarily say that is true in the case of Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone's The Friar and the Cipher, it does come very close. Ostensibly the book is about the Voynich Manuscript, a document that has never been deciphered and which many believe was written by the noted thinker Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. Controversy about this manuscript and its possible authorship abounds, with many people believing there is no way that Roger Bacon could have written it, or that it must be a hoax. It appears to be in some sort of code (hence, the "Cipher" of the title) with strange illustrations in the margins. And yes, the book does discuss the great debate about this, detailing the many attempts to decode it and the many theories about who might have written it. Was it all a hoax committed by a friend of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's trusted advisor, back in the late sixteenth century?
Of course, the problem is that this debate begins on page 223 of the edition I have. The book runs just over 300 pages, which presents kind of a problem. The rest of the book is a history of Western thought and the constant struggle between science and religion in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church was all-powerful. It gives a very detailed history of Roger Bacon, supposedly to give background to the debate on the manuscript. It also details his philosophical adversaries, as well as demonstrating how Europe came out of the Dark Ages due to the rediscovery of some of Aristotle's works. In fact, the book goes all the way back to Aristotle himself, and his differences with Plato.
All of this is fascinating stuff, and if you're in the mood for a discourse on logical thought and its struggles to get through religious dogma, then this book is definitely for you. I know I enjoyed it immensely. I just wish it had been better advertised as such. It covered a lot of ground that I was slightly familiar with, yet for which I had no real details. Everybody knows that the Dark Ages were when European progress basically stopped. What might not be as well known is how Europe came out of these dark times. The Saracen empire was stretching into Spain at this point, and many of its scholars were well aware of Aristotle and his ideas of Logic. In fact, many of these scholars faced their own persecution from conservative Imams and other Moslem leaders, as the Goldstones show us in this book. As Europeans began to push back against this invasion, parts of Spain were recaptured, and these Moslem studies of Aristotle began to spread over Europe.
The Gladstones effectively relate this history in a concise yet detailed format. I never felt like they were glossing over anything, and I found these sections extremely valuable. If you have studied Western philosophy or the history of the Dark Ages, then this may not be new to you, but I found it intriguing. The authors give a short history of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of the Church and how opposed to each other they were. They share the story of Francis of Assissi and how the Franciscans were formed, as well as the Dominicans and their noted scholar, Thomas Aquinas, and they discuss the university system as it existed in Europe at the time. Then they begin to delve deeply into Roger Bacon's biography. That is when the focus of the book begins to shift. However, it doesn't move that far at first. They use the differences between Thomas' thought and Bacon's to highlight the differences between those using Aristotle's logic and those using Church dogma, and it is very enlightening.
The Goldstones move on to John Dee and Francis Bacon, discussing how Roger Bacon was almost an obsession with Dee, and how Francis Bacon was basically Roger's intellectual heir (though they were not related). This section is necessary because Dee supposedly obtained the Voynich manuscript and sold it to King Rudolph II of Bohemia. A short history of the Thirty Years War with the many conquests of Prague and other Bohemian cities accounts for the varied appearances of the manuscript.
Finally, we get to the manuscript itself and where it may have gone (as it disappears from history periodically). Unfortunately, this is where the book begins to drag. We are given fairly detailed passages on cryptology (the science of code-breaking) as many twentieth-century cryptologists try to decode the manuscript. I found I was much more interested in the discussions on Western thought than I was in the decoding of the manuscript, especially after remembering that nobody has ever solved the riddle. Some of these stories are interesting, but I found my interest flagging as I read about what happened to these various people.
Which brings me to the ultimate problem with this book and how it was marketed (and even titled). The Friar and the Cipher is a wonderful book on Western philosophy. However, there is nothing really new in the book when it comes to the manuscript. It takes no sides in the controversy, only saying that it seems likely that Bacon did write it. The authors raise questions but do not really provide anything new to readers with any knowledge of the subject. The book seems to be a way to gather a bunch of different sources into one volume, sort of a "this is where we're at" kind of thing.
It also is almost a love letter to Roger Bacon. The Goldstones ferociously defend him against critics who claim he wasn't what his fans make him out to be. He has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, and the Goldstones bring it all up and knock it down. Who is right and who is wrong is not for me to judge as this is my first exposure to Bacon. However, one positive aspect of this defense is that they do acknowledge that the criticism could be right but that it is misplaced. Bacon may not have been the leading light his fans make him out to be, but his methods made him special, regardless of the ideas themselves. And perhaps that could be a defense of the book as well. The Friar and the Cipher may not be as special as it could be regarding the Voynich manuscript, but the method of getting there is extremely well done.