Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World [NOOK Book]

Overview

A compulsively readable account of the most mysterious manuscript in the world, one that has stumped the world?s greatest scholars and codebreakers.

The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious tome discovered in 1912 by the English book dealer Wilfrid Michael Voynich, has puzzled scholars for a century. A small six inches by nine inches, but over two hundred pages long, with odd illustrations of plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women, it is ...
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Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World

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Overview

A compulsively readable account of the most mysterious manuscript in the world, one that has stumped the world’s greatest scholars and codebreakers.

The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious tome discovered in 1912 by the English book dealer Wilfrid Michael Voynich, has puzzled scholars for a century. A small six inches by nine inches, but over two hundred pages long, with odd illustrations of plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women, it is written in so indecipherable a language and contains so complicated a code that mathematicians, book collectors, linguists, and historians alike have yet to solve the mysteries contained within. However, in The Friar and the Cipher, the acclaimed bibliophiles and historians Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone describe, in fascinating detail, the theory that Roger Bacon, the noted thirteenth-century, pre-Copernican astronomer, was its author and that the perplexing alphabet was written in his hand. Along the way, they explain the many proposed solutions that scholars have put forth and the myriad attempts at labeling the manuscript's content, from Latin or Greek shorthand to Arabic numerals to ancient Ukrainian to a recipe for the elixir of life to good old-fashioned gibberish. As we journey across centuries, languages, and countries, we meet a cast of impassioned characters and case-crackers, including, of course, Bacon, whose own personal scientific contributions, Voynich author or not, were literally and figuratively astronomical.

The Friar and the Cipher is a wonderfully entertaining and historically wide-ranging book that is one part The Code Book, one part Possession, and one part The Da Vinci Code and will appeal to bibliophiles and laypeople alike.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Goldstones, bibliophiles and authors of Out of the Flames and other books, offer a witty biography of controversial 13th-century Dominican friar Roger Bacon, whose Opus Majus "presented a way of thinking, of approaching science, that is virtually unsurpassed in the thousand years since its creation." According to the Goldstones, by challenging the accepted view of the Bible as the source of literal truth, it opened a schism between religion and science. The Church's response, recounted here, was filled with political intrigue, heroes and villains, and enough twists and turns to keep readers immersed. But this book's highlight is the story of a mysterious book discovered in 1912 and named for its owner, Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript has a coded text enhanced by hundreds of illustrations depicting exotic plants, astronomical phenomena and strange "strings of tiny naked women cavorting in a variety of fountains, waterfalls, and pools." Various experts have attributed the manuscript to Bacon-but as it has kept its secrets from some of the world's greatest cryptanalysts, including some in the CIA and England's MI-8, as well as the largest supercomputers in the world, the attribution remains speculative. But these efforts make a compelling story for readers of the history of science and of code breaking. B&w illus. Agent, Jed Mattes. (On sale Feb. 15) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1912, Wilfred Voynich, an English bookseller, discovered a 13th-century manuscript that contained hundreds of illustrations and a text completely in cipher. Since then, the Voynich Manuscript has been the focus for many scholars, cryptologists, and lovers of mysteries, especially after it was discovered that its probable author was Roger Bacon, the medieval writer, scientist, and mystic. The Goldstones, experts on the rare-book trade as well as writers of detective novels, bring a wealth of experience to this comprehensive study. As it unfolds, they cover Plato and Aristotle, the rise of scholasticism, the universities of Paris and Oxford, English history, theological thought, European diplomacy and warfare, and 20th-century breakers of secret codes. The battle between scholasticism and the scientific method is detailed, with Roger Bacon presented as the pioneer who helped the latter triumph. The secrets of the manuscript remain unsolved. Lacking footnotes (though there is a good bibliography) and written in an easy-to-read style, this book addresses lay readers, for whom the complex story will come alive. For most public library and undergraduate collections.-Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology Lib., CUNY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 readabout 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)Agent: Fred Morris/Jed Mattes
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385515153
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/15/2005
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 679,265
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone are a husband-and-wife writing team and authors of Out of the Flames, a Booksense 76 Selection. They have also written three books on their book-collecting pursuits: Used and Rare, Slightly Chipped, and Warmly Inscribed.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Turmoil and Opportunity:
Roger Bacon's England

ROGER BACON WAS BORN IN SOMERSET, in southwest England, about one hundred miles west of London. There are no surviving records of his birth—the evidence for the date comes from Bacon himself. In a work known to have been written in 1268 he said: "I have labored much in sciences and languages, and I have up to now devoted forty years to them." What he apparently meant by this was that he had started what today would be the equivalent of an undergraduate arts course in 1228. Since the average thirteenth-century boy started college at about fourteen, this puts the year of his birth at 1214. He lived to be eighty, so his lifetime spanned nearly the whole of the thirteenth century.
Bacon came from a family of wealthy minor nobles. His father held no title and was probably a product of the new and burgeoning merchant class, men who worked their way into higher society by accumulating cash, which was then used to purchase land and a manor house. The most successful of these could buy castles and conduct themselves as genuine nobility, knighting their sons, but Bacon's family did not seem to fall into this category. He had at least one older brother, to whom he refers in his writings, but neither was ever granted a title by the king.

Bacon remained throughout his life a product of the England of his childhood, an England in the midst of great change and rife with civil unrest that would soon erupt into full-scale war. The year after Bacon was born, the hapless King John was forced to sign Magna Carta and thus introduce the first glimmer of representative government into Europe. It was the very weakness of John and, later, his son Henry that created a vacuum into which political, social, educational, and, most significantly, scientific innovation rushed in. The most basic assumptions were challenged, the most fundamental truths rejected. So unfortunate was John as a ruler that he did not need to be known as John I, as no other king in the ensuing eight hundred years of English history was ever given the same name.

John was the fourth son of the tall, intense, mercurial Henry II, under whose lusty hand the kingdom had grown to encompass not only England but most of France—Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Touraine, Toulouse, and, with his marriage to the vivacious, wily Eleanor, the Aquitaine on the Atlantic coast. The official kingdom of France, on the other hand, was limited to Paris and its environs.

Henry's two eldest sons, Henry and Richard (called Lionheart for his military prowess) were also tall and physically imposing. John was short and unattractive. Richard still referred to John as a child when he was well into his twenties. There was a third older brother, Geoffrey, who was much cleverer than John, although this in itself was not particularly noteworthy.

With all those older sons, Henry assumed that John was never going to see the English throne, so when the boy was nineteen, he tried to get him a kingdom of his own by sending him off to conquer Ireland. John left with lots of friends, three hundred mercenaries, several barrels of silver pennies with which to pay them, and the promise of a fancy gold crown fitted out with peacock feathers when he won. In no time at all, John and his friends had spent all of the pennies on themselves, causing the mercenaries to desert. He so alienated the Irish nobility that, in a place known for internecine warfare, John managed to get all the aristocrats in Ireland to band together and agree to reject him. Richard, by contrast, had subdued the powerful rebellious barons of southern France by the age of fifteen.

Richard eventually became king (Henry and Geoffrey died young) but left almost immediately on crusade, where he was captured and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor. As everyone who has ever seen The Adventures of Robin Hood knows, during his absence, John attempted to usurp the English throne by treachery. (In truth, it was Eleanor, not Errol Flynn, who stopped him.) When John heard that his older brother had been freed and was on his way home, he turned tail and headed for France. John was so insignificant in Richard's mind that Richard forgave him and let him come home.

Just a short time later, however, Richard died while staking out a minor castle for siege. He had disdained armor while parading around the periphery and was shot in the neck with an arrow. The boy whom his father had nicknamed "Lackland" for want of a realm was crowned King John of England at Westminster Abbey on May 25, 1199. Within five years of becoming king, he had lost most of his father's French possessions to the French king, Philip Augustus, earning him a new nickname, "Softsword," among his own nobility.

Losing to the French turned out to be just the preliminary. In 1205, John, by virtue of an extremely dubious royal edict, found himself taking on the great Pope Innocent III. It was not really a fair fight.

Innocent III was one of the seminal figures in the history of the Church. Born into an ancient aristocratic Roman family, he proved a brilliant student in both law and theology. He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the curia and was elevated to the Throne of St. Peter while still in his thirties. Innocent inherited an institution in disarray. In the century preceding his reign, the papacy had sunk to an object of ridicule, ignored by secular monarchs. One of his predecessors had been compelled to ride backward on an ass through the countryside, and another had been obliged to flee Rome disguised as a pilgrim. By a combination of force of personality and the threat of withholding sacraments, Innocent almost single-handedly turned Rome from the political nonentity that it had become into a potent pseudostate, the most important political power in Europe. "By me kings reign and princes decree justice," he observed.

In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. In Henry II's time, the English bishops would "elect" a new archbishop, although this was in fact a royal appointee. (As usual, Henry had taken custom one step further—he had not only assumed the right to elect his own man, Thomas ˆ Becket, as archbishop, but had assumed the right to have him killed as well when Becket disagreed with him.) John naturally expected to have the same privilege as his father, but he bungled the election and Innocent claimed the right of appointment for himself. He chose the highly qualified Stephen Langton, who was at the time teaching at the University of Paris.

John was outraged at this attempt to usurp his authority and refused to let the new appointee enter the country. So began a war of wills between king and pope. Innocent placed England under interdict, which meant that English priests were forbidden to perform any of the sacraments. Suddenly, no one in England could get married, buried, or baptized. John retaliated by seizing the property of those priests who obeyed Innocent's order. To get it back, they had to swear loyalty to the crown and pay a hefty fee. They even had to pay to get their "housekeepers" (read, mistresses) back. Innocent countered by excommunicating John. The English high clergy packed up and headed to France, and by 1212 there was only one bishop left in all of England.

Still John refused to yield, so Innocent sent a message to Philip Augustus, the king of France. If Rome deposed John, the excommunicate, would Philip Augustus like to take over in his place? Philip Augustus did, in fact, want to take over England. Langton, who still had not gained entry to the country of which he was nominally the archbishop, was given letters from Innocent announcing that John had been deposed in favor of Philip Augustus. The French massed an army at the Channel.

John gave up. Langton was accepted as archbishop of Canterbury, and all of the English priests who had fled during the interdict and excommunication were restored to their property and compensated for their damages.

Philip Augustus, however, had not given up. He had not recalled his army, which was still sitting across the Channel, waiting for the order to invade. John, needing a powerful ally, turned to Innocent. To save himself, John proposed what to many in England was the unthinkable—he offered England and Ireland as fiefs of the Church, which also required that he pay a sizable monetary tribute to Rome.

France attacked anyway and was repulsed when John's subjects, to his and probably their astonishment, rallied to his aid. John, overestimating his position and their loyalty, immediately launched a counterinvasion to reclaim his father's lost territories. His armies were routed.

The English barons had had enough. A group of them took over London and forced John to put his seal to Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," originally just a remedy for a list of baronial grievances. The key provision, however, which insisted that John obtain approval on matters of state by a board of directors composed of twenty-five of his most rebellious barons, became, albeit unintentionally, a forerunner of English representative government.

John signed under duress, but he immediately sent messengers to Innocent. Innocent, who was not the type of man to encourage the spreading of power, particularly to twenty-five men who might not do what he said, wrote a strong letter threatening to excommunicate any baron who went against the king and declaring Magna Carta "null and void of all validity forever."

Uneasy truce then turned into civil war. The rebel barons responded by offering the crown of England to Philip Augustus's son Louis VIII in 1215. Louis came over with an army and secured London. He held the Channel and the east coast of England through the aid of a swashbuckling English pirate with the beguiling name of Eustace the Monk. By 1216, two-thirds of the English barons had come over to Louis. When Innocent died in July of that year, it seemed that John was finished.

And he was. Three months later, after losing all of his baggage, including his crown, in an ill-fated attempt to cross a river with his army, John consoled himself with "gluttonous consumption of peaches and new cider." He caught dysentery and died, leaving the whole mess to his nine-year-old son, Henry. By the time of Henry's coronation, held in Gloucester, the rebel barons and Louis held the north and east of England, including London, Cambridge, and York, and, thanks to Eustace the Monk, all of the coastal ports in the east except Dover.

As it turned out, however, Henry's youth was his greatest asset. The sight of this lonely boy crowned in this out-of-the-way spot without the usual pomp and ceremony made Louis appear as someone taking unfair advantage of a child. The English of the south and west rallied. Henry's regents remained loyal and, in a clever move, reissued a revised Magna Carta in Henry's name, called the Charter of Liberties, thus removing the rebel barons' original grievances (and further legitimizing limited representative government). There were defections back to the crown. A battle at Lincoln, won convincingly by the royalists, siphoned off even more of Louis's support. The decisive blow came when the royal fleet sailed windward of Eustace the Monk and, in a daring maneuver, threw powdered lime into the faces of the rebel officers, incapacitating the enemy ships. The Monk's ship was boarded and he was beheaded, and it was all over. Louis sued for peace and was paid seven thousand pounds sterling to get out of England.

Until Henry III came into his majority in 1227, the government was administered by a group of experienced barons. Every now and then, especially when money was wanted for the royal treasury, the barons would have Henry reaffirm his commitment to the Charter of Liberties, and everybody got used to the idea that the barons had a say in making government policy.

No Englishman born into this period could miss the lesson of this outcome. It was possible to assail even so fundamental a principle as the divine right of kings and get away with it. With this barrier down, nothing seemed impossible.

England, separated from the mainland of Europe, provincial, uncultured, and dismissed by the more sophisticated French and Italians, could now question and test old ideas in splendid isolation. With Magna Carta upsetting the traditional political order, the country also became the perfect breeding ground for a new brand of learning, a new approach to the natural world that would spread and eventually threaten the social structure of Europe and the foundations of Christianity.

No one better embodied the character and spirit of this particularly English movement, or would surface more as both its champion and victim, than Roger Bacon. His parents had ambitions for him, an obviously gifted adolescent. In this new political climate, a talented boy, if educated properly, might advance beyond limitations of rank, perhaps even obtain employment with the king. So when he was fourteen, his parents sent him to school.

Had he lived even a half century earlier, education would have meant scriptural study at a cathedral school or monastery. But this was 1228, and a new institution had emerged, one that was exerting a great modernizing force over the whole of medieval society. Still in its infancy, it was already drawing away the best students and teachers, the most committed, the most intelligent, the most ambitious. So Roger Bacon's parents sent him off to attend one of these new institutions of learning, called a "university."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Turmoil and opportunity : Roger Bacon's England 17
Ch. 2 Logic and mysticism : Aristotle, Plato, and Christianity 25
Ch. 3 Logic and theology : the evolution of scholasticism 39
Ch. 4 Dogma, drink, and dissent : the University of Paris 55
Ch. 5 Rebels in gray robes : Oxford 67
Ch. 6 Science goes mainstream : the rise of Albertus Magnus 78
Ch. 7 The dumb ox : Thomas Aquinas 90
Ch. 8 The miraculous doctor : Roger Bacon at Oxford 100
Ch. 9 Autocracy in the Order of St. Francis 112
Ch. 10 Theology becomes a science : the logic of Thomas of Aquinas 119
Ch. 11 The great work 132
Ch. 12 Seeing the future : the Scientia experimentalis of Roger Bacon 147
Ch. 13 Knowledge suppressed : the conservatives respond 158
Ch. 14 Enigmas and espionage : the strange journey of Dr. Dee 173
Ch. 15 Brilliant braggart : Francis Bacon 201
Ch. 16 The trail of the cipher manuscript 223
Ch. 17 The making of the most mysterious manuscript in the world 245
Ch. 18 MS 408 278
Ch. 19 The unfinished legacy of Roger Bacon 292
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE


Turmoil and Opportunity:
Roger Bacon's England



ROGER BACON WAS BORN IN SOMERSET, in southwest England, about one hundred miles west of London. There are no surviving records of his birth—the evidence for the date comes from Bacon himself. In a work known to have been written in 1268 he said: "I have labored much in sciences and languages, and I have up to now devoted forty years to them." What he apparently meant by this was that he had started what today would be the equivalent of an undergraduate arts course in 1228. Since the average thirteenth-century boy started college at about fourteen, this puts the year of his birth at 1214. He lived to be eighty, so his lifetime spanned nearly the whole of the thirteenth century.
Bacon came from a family of wealthy minor nobles. His father held no title and was probably a product of the new and burgeoning merchant class, men who worked their way into higher society by accumulating cash, which was then used to purchase land and a manor house. The most successful of these could buy castles and conduct themselves as genuine nobility, knighting their sons, but Bacon's family did not seem to fall into this category. He had at least one older brother, to whom he refers in his writings, but neither was ever granted a title by the king.

Bacon remained throughout his life a product of the England of his childhood, an England in the midst of great change and rife with civil unrest that would soon erupt into full-scale war. The year after Bacon was born, the hapless King John was forced to sign Magna Carta and thus introduce the first glimmer of representative government into Europe. It was thevery weakness of John and, later, his son Henry that created a vacuum into which political, social, educational, and, most significantly, scientific innovation rushed in. The most basic assumptions were challenged, the most fundamental truths rejected. So unfortunate was John as a ruler that he did not need to be known as John I, as no other king in the ensuing eight hundred years of English history was ever given the same name.

John was the fourth son of the tall, intense, mercurial Henry II, under whose lusty hand the kingdom had grown to encompass not only England but most of France—Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Touraine, Toulouse, and, with his marriage to the vivacious, wily Eleanor, the Aquitaine on the Atlantic coast. The official kingdom of France, on the other hand, was limited to Paris and its environs.

Henry's two eldest sons, Henry and Richard (called Lionheart for his military prowess) were also tall and physically imposing. John was short and unattractive. Richard still referred to John as a child when he was well into his twenties. There was a third older brother, Geoffrey, who was much cleverer than John, although this in itself was not particularly noteworthy.

With all those older sons, Henry assumed that John was never going to see the English throne, so when the boy was nineteen, he tried to get him a kingdom of his own by sending him off to conquer Ireland. John left with lots of friends, three hundred mercenaries, several barrels of silver pennies with which to pay them, and the promise of a fancy gold crown fitted out with peacock feathers when he won. In no time at all, John and his friends had spent all of the pennies on themselves, causing the mercenaries to desert. He so alienated the Irish nobility that, in a place known for internecine warfare, John managed to get all the aristocrats in Ireland to band together and agree to reject him. Richard, by contrast, had subdued the powerful rebellious barons of southern France by the age of fifteen.

Richard eventually became king (Henry and Geoffrey died young) but left almost immediately on crusade, where he was captured and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor. As everyone who has ever seen The Adventures of Robin Hood knows, during his absence, John attempted to usurp the English throne by treachery. (In truth, it was Eleanor, not Errol Flynn, who stopped him.) When John heard that his older brother had been freed and was on his way home, he turned tail and headed for France. John was so insignificant in Richard's mind that Richard forgave him and let him come home.

Just a short time later, however, Richard died while staking out a minor castle for siege. He had disdained armor while parading around the periphery and was shot in the neck with an arrow. The boy whom his father had nicknamed "Lackland" for want of a realm was crowned King John of England at Westminster Abbey on May 25, 1199. Within five years of becoming king, he had lost most of his father's French possessions to the French king, Philip Augustus, earning him a new nickname, "Softsword," among his own nobility.

Losing to the French turned out to be just the preliminary. In 1205, John, by virtue of an extremely dubious royal edict, found himself taking on the great Pope Innocent III. It was not really a fair fight.


Innocent III was one of the seminal figures in the history of the Church. Born into an ancient aristocratic Roman family, he proved a brilliant student in both law and theology. He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the curia and was elevated to the Throne of St. Peter while still in his thirties. Innocent inherited an institution in disarray. In the century preceding his reign, the papacy had sunk to an object of ridicule, ignored by secular monarchs. One of his predecessors had been compelled to ride backward on an ass through the countryside, and another had been obliged to flee Rome disguised as a pilgrim. By a combination of force of personality and the threat of withholding sacraments, Innocent almost single-handedly turned Rome from the political nonentity that it had become into a potent pseudostate, the most important political power in Europe. "By me kings reign and princes decree justice," he observed.

In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. In Henry II's time, the English bishops would "elect" a new archbishop, although this was in fact a royal appointee. (As usual, Henry had taken custom one step further—he had not only assumed the right to elect his own man, Thomas ˆ Becket, as archbishop, but had assumed the right to have him killed as well when Becket disagreed with him.) John naturally expected to have the same privilege as his father, but he bungled the election and Innocent claimed the right of appointment for himself. He chose the highly qualified Stephen Langton, who was at the time teaching at the University of Paris.

John was outraged at this attempt to usurp his authority and refused to let the new appointee enter the country. So began a war of wills between king and pope. Innocent placed England under interdict, which meant that English priests were forbidden to perform any of the sacraments. Suddenly, no one in England could get married, buried, or baptized. John retaliated by seizing the property of those priests who obeyed Innocent's order. To get it back, they had to swear loyalty to the crown and pay a hefty fee. They even had to pay to get their "housekeepers" (read, mistresses) back. Innocent countered by excommunicating John. The English high clergy packed up and headed to France, and by 1212 there was only one bishop left in all of England.

Still John refused to yield, so Innocent sent a message to Philip Augustus, the king of France. If Rome deposed John, the excommunicate, would Philip Augustus like to take over in his place? Philip Augustus did, in fact, want to take over England. Langton, who still had not gained entry to the country of which he was nominally the archbishop, was given letters from Innocent announcing that John had been deposed in favor of Philip Augustus. The French massed an army at the Channel.

John gave up. Langton was accepted as archbishop of Canterbury, and all of the English priests who had fled during the interdict and excommunication were restored to their property and compensated for their damages.

Philip Augustus, however, had not given up. He had not recalled his army, which was still sitting across the Channel, waiting for the order to invade. John, needing a powerful ally, turned to Innocent. To save himself, John proposed what to many in England was the unthinkable—he offered England and Ireland as fiefs of the Church, which also required that he pay a sizable monetary tribute to Rome.

France attacked anyway and was repulsed when John's subjects, to his and probably their astonishment, rallied to his aid. John, overestimating his position and their loyalty, immediately launched a counterinvasion to reclaim his father's lost territories. His armies were routed.

The English barons had had enough. A group of them took over London and forced John to put his seal to Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," originally just a remedy for a list of baronial grievances. The key provision, however, which insisted that John obtain approval on matters of state by a board of directors composed of twenty-five of his most rebellious barons, became, albeit unintentionally, a forerunner of English representative government.

John signed under duress, but he immediately sent messengers to Innocent. Innocent, who was not the type of man to encourage the spreading of power, particularly to twenty-five men who might not do what he said, wrote a strong letter threatening to excommunicate any baron who went against the king and declaring Magna Carta "null and void of all validity forever."

Uneasy truce then turned into civil war. The rebel barons responded by offering the crown of England to Philip Augustus's son Louis VIII in 1215. Louis came over with an army and secured London. He held the Channel and the east coast of England through the aid of a swashbuckling English pirate with the beguiling name of Eustace the Monk. By 1216, two-thirds of the English barons had come over to Louis. When Innocent died in July of that year, it seemed that John was finished.

And he was. Three months later, after losing all of his baggage, including his crown, in an ill-fated attempt to cross a river with his army, John consoled himself with "gluttonous consumption of peaches and new cider." He caught dysentery and died, leaving the whole mess to his nine-year-old son, Henry. By the time of Henry's coronation, held in Gloucester, the rebel barons and Louis held the north and east of England, including London, Cambridge, and York, and, thanks to Eustace the Monk, all of the coastal ports in the east except Dover.

As it turned out, however, Henry's youth was his greatest asset. The sight of this lonely boy crowned in this out-of-the-way spot without the usual pomp and ceremony made Louis appear as someone taking unfair advantage of a child. The English of the south and west rallied. Henry's regents remained loyal and, in a clever move, reissued a revised Magna Carta in Henry's name, called the Charter of Liberties, thus removing the rebel barons' original grievances (and further legitimizing limited representative government). There were defections back to the crown. A battle at Lincoln, won convincingly by the royalists, siphoned off even more of Louis's support. The decisive blow came when the royal fleet sailed windward of Eustace the Monk and, in a daring maneuver, threw powdered lime into the faces of the rebel officers, incapacitating the enemy ships. The Monk's ship was boarded and he was beheaded, and it was all over. Louis sued for peace and was paid seven thousand pounds sterling to get out of England.

Until Henry III came into his majority in 1227, the government was administered by a group of experienced barons. Every now and then, especially when money was wanted for the royal treasury, the barons would have Henry reaffirm his commitment to the Charter of Liberties, and everybody got used to the idea that the barons had a say in making government policy.

No Englishman born into this period could miss the lesson of this outcome. It was possible to assail even so fundamental a principle as the divine right of kings and get away with it. With this barrier down, nothing seemed impossible.

England, separated from the mainland of Europe, provincial, uncultured, and dismissed by the more sophisticated French and Italians, could now question and test old ideas in splendid isolation. With Magna Carta upsetting the traditional political order, the country also became the perfect breeding ground for a new brand of learning, a new approach to the natural world that would spread and eventually threaten the social structure of Europe and the foundations of Christianity.

No one better embodied the character and spirit of this particularly English movement, or would surface more as both its champion and victim, than Roger Bacon. His parents had ambitions for him, an obviously gifted adolescent. In this new political climate, a talented boy, if educated properly, might advance beyond limitations of rank, perhaps even obtain employment with the king. So when he was fourteen, his parents sent him to school.

Had he lived even a half century earlier, education would have meant scriptural study at a cathedral school or monastery. But this was 1228, and a new institution had emerged, one that was exerting a great modernizing force over the whole of medieval society. Still in its infancy, it was already drawing away the best students and teachers, the most committed, the most intelligent, the most ambitious. So Roger Bacon's parents sent him off to attend one of these new institutions of learning, called a "university."
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2005

    fascinating review of clash of religion and science

    Discussion of the hurdles the men of science faced through the ages crystalizes well in this book. A chronological time line graphic would have helped. Inclusion of the manuscript pages and the extensive bibliography are pluses.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2004

    Bibliophiles Rejoice!

    Though they may be done with their series on book collecting (for now?!?), the new year will bring a new book on books from the husband & wife writing team of Nancy & Lawrence Goldstone. Last year's OUT OF THE FLAMES was an intriguing read, but this one promises to be even better, & it gives all of us bibliphiles something to look forward to the day after Valentine's Day!

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    Posted January 24, 2011

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    Posted November 25, 2010

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    Posted January 4, 2010

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    Posted March 12, 2011

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