In 1912, a bookseller rummages through trunks full of illuminated medieval manuscripts in a remote Italian castle converted to a Jesuit school. A small volume, not much bigger than a paperback, catches his eye. The bookseller a Lithuanian immigrant whose past is shaded by run-ins with revolutionaries, anarchists and spies realizes that the book is clearly older than the rest. It is also full of unusual drawings and is written in cipher.

The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World is the story of that code and the effort to decipher it. It is also the story of Roger Bacon, known as "Doctor Mirabilis" the miraculous doctor by his contemporaries, and of his bitterest rival, Thomas Aquinas. Bacon was the embodiment of science; he transcended Aristotle and the Greek philosophers and formulated what we know today as the scientific method. He knew the earth was spherical 200 years before Columbus; wrote of gunpowder, flying machines and horseless carriages; theorized a limit to the speed of light and is widely credited with inventing eyeglasses.

Bacon and Aquinas were intellectual giants on opposite sides of the religious divide, with Aquinas on the winning side. Bacon, a devout Catholic, spent the latter part of his life virtually imprisoned because of his beliefs, but continued to write, theorize and, it is believed, to put his thoughts down in such a way that he could not be condemned if the writing was found.

A cadre of military code-breakers, scholars and dreamers are still attempting to make sense of the 700-year-old scribblings. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone have written a somewhat dry, but fascinating and detail-filled book with enough twists and turns to fill three novels.

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