Did Roger Bacon (c. 1214–92) compose a mysterious manuscript featuring drawings of plants that don’t exist, some with naked women inside and symbols never satisfactorily explained by some very dedicated and imaginative cryptanalysts? Who knows?
Beginning with their subtitle, the Goldstones (Slightly Chipped, 1999, etc.) can’t resist the superlative whenever they offer an adjective or adverb. Lots of most’s and -est endings here: for example, “William and Elizabeth Friedman . . . generally considered the greatest cryptanalysts who ever lived.” It’s most annoying, particularly since the fascinating story does not need any additional hype from inflected modifiers. The so-called Voynich Manuscript, now housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, has defied translation for centuries, despite the efforts of the celebrated and the merely curious. The authors have several purposes: to burnish Bacon’s tarnished reputation (at the end they call him one of science’s “most significant and irreplaceable figures”), to describe this truly bizarre 200-plus-page manuscript, to chart its provenance and to outline its social and religious contexts. The latter goal, unfortunately, receives the most attention, as the Goldstones (Will and Ariel Durant Lite) take us through the histories of philosophy, religion and science. It seems that every person they mention merits a biographical detour in the narrative, to such an extent that readers may forget their original destination. Still, it’s interesting to follow the struggles of the early Christian church with the inconveniences of scientific reasoning and discovery. (Repression was the church’s default response.) And it’s illuminating to read about Roger Bacon (often confused with the later Francis), who did indeed try to reconcile reason and experimentation with revelation and faith. He emerges here as a subject worthy of a much more lengthy and comprehensive treatment. Compelling, too, are the Goldstones’ accounts of myriad but unfruitful attempts by some very bright people to break the code.
Many scrambled historical eggs conceal the Bacon. (32 b&w illustrations)