Post-classical history

Roger Bacon

AT FOLLY BRIDGE near Oxford there stood a small stone tower with a ponderous gateway, and over the gateway there was a long, dark room. It was a mysterious room, with a furnace at one end and tables covered with the retorts, alembics, and crucibles of science, with books and manuscripts in great quantity; a dusty, gloomy room, filled with the odors of acids and old leather and dead fires. But give scholars a choice: to have for study today all the royal castles of England in the thirteenth century, and the chancery offices at Westminster, including the cubicle where Henry fretted and sulked, and the chapter house at Canterbury where the frustrated monks would meet in secret midnight sessions in an effort to impose their puny wills on the Crown in the matter of new archbishops—in fact, almost all of England of that period—or that one long room, complete to the last scrap of manuscript and sooty fingerprints on cucurbit and bellows. The choice would certainly be for Folly Bridge and its tower; for there Roger Bacon lived during his years of study and experiment at Oxford, great Roger Bacon, the man of mystery of the Middle Ages, the Doctor Mirabilis, the scholar so far in advance of his time, that tragic and compelling figure.

Although this Franciscan friar has become a figure of the first historical importance, very little is known about the man. It is generally conceded, on the strength of occasional hints about himself in his writings, that he was born in 1214 or thereabouts, either atIlchester in Somerset or Bisley in Gloucestershire. It is certain he went to Oxford and became a student under the incomparable Grosseteste and the kindly Adam Marsh, absorbing gratefully the enlightened scientific theories of the one and the gentle philosophy of the other. About the year 1240 he left Oxford for Paris and remained in the French capital for ten years, teaching, studying, experimenting, his mind filled with visions of a different world and burning to correct the methods and beliefs of a complacent, wrong-headed age. It was almost certainly during his first Paris period that he joined the Franciscans, feeling, no doubt, that the work he planned required the background and secure retirement of the Minorite order.

After his ten years in Paris he was back again at Oxford, and it was during this second term, lasting from 1250 to 1257, that he occupied the tower at Folly Bridge. While the struggle between the King and his barons mounted in intensity and Oxford was a storm center of politics and war, Roger Bacon’s ideas took final form and he gained his clear conception of an orderly universe with fixed laws, the nature of which could be proven by scientific approach. It was during the turbulent fifties that this intense man in the brown habit of his order, this angry, critical man who lashed out at the stupidities of medieval thinking and did not hesitate to attack the leaders of the day, even the saintly Thomas Aquinas and the learned Alexander of Hales, began to say to the world that its absorption in the subtleties of theological dispute was wrong and that the time had come for a realistic study of life and the universe. He was the one man with feet planted solidly on the earth, the voice of reason and common sense in an age of hairsplitting. The teachers of the day were saying, “Believe that ye may understand.” Roger Bacon countered with, “Understand that ye may believe.”

He was not, however, a mere theorist in the realm of scientific thought. He knew how to apply the principles in which he believed. If he had conceived it his part to complete some of his visions of the shape of things to come, and if he had not been working with the fewest and poorest of tools, he might have brought some of his discoveries to applied use. In that case the world would have had a telescope and a microscope three hundred years before they were evolved. He knew how to make gunpowder, and undoubtedly did make it, but had no conception of it as a great new force in warfare. In a prophetic attack on the future he saw the airplane and talked of vehicles which would fly through the air, but in this case he does not seem to have had more than the vision. It was an impossibility for him to glean any hint of how a flying machine might be built or of the force which would serve to drive it through the air; too many discoveries would have to be made first as to the nature of materials.

All this, however, is beside the point. It is unimportant whether Roger Bacon actually discovered gunpowder in the age of the crossbow and arrows or conceived the principles of the telescope while the windows of the world were filled with waxed linen instead of glass. The great and all-important thing is that he contributed new light to the world, that he saw the simple and direct method by which knowledge could be won. He preached the demonstration of fact by experiment, by experiment repeated over and over again until the following of effect after cause could not be doubted. He preached that only from one truth thus established could man go on to more experiments, to more truths. In other words, this far-seeing friar, hampered by the shackles of medieval thought from which he could not entirely free himself, had grasped the principle, nevertheless, which was applied in later centuries to all scientific research and has proven the keystone of knowledge.

Inevitably it became common belief that this lonely man, poring over his manuscripts and making secret experiments in his dark tower room, was a practitioner of the black arts. His indiscreet talk, his hints of things to come strengthened the fancy. The verbal buffetings he administered to the self-satisfied gods of the medieval classroom made enemies for him who were only too ready to foster belief in his heresies. Stories were told that the devil, forked tail and slavering tongue complete, had been seen going in and out at Folly Bridge. It was believed that Roger Bacon had sold his soul for the secrets the Prince of Darkness could give in exchange, that he could make himself invisible, that he could transport his body through space with the speed and ease of angels, that he could see into the future. Out of these beliefs grew the legends which persisted down the ages and led in time to the not very amusing or original anecdotes about Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, out of which not very amusing or original plays and stories were concocted.

In this respect the great Franciscan was faring no worse than others who had striven to upraise the torch of reason, The heresy hunt which kept nipping at his bare heels had already involved, to quote one case only, a wise man from Scotland who preceded Bacon in his pryings into scientific truth by relatively few years. A digression seems necessary at this point to speak of Michael Scot and the curious vagaries of popular belief which turned him into a sorcerer of the blackest hue.


The manner of the death of great men and the time and the place are always known; their beginnings are almost as certainly shrouded in mystery. The arrival of children was a matter of small importance in the Middle Ages.

Michael Scot, supposedly, was born at Balwearie in Scotland, but the evidence is far from conclusive. It has been calculated that he arrived in this world about 1180 and that as a youth he went to the university at Oxford, but again there are no definite facts. The trail becomes definite only when he appeared in Germany, a slight, dark man with a luminous eye and an air which set him apart, and gained recognition at the court of Frederick II. That most courageous supporter of learning saw great possibilities in the young Scot, who had already won for himself some reputation in the mastery of the sciences. Scot remained at the court of the Emperor for a number of years and then went to Spain, where it is supposed he became immersed in the study of black magic. What is certain, however, is that he went to Spain to further his researches in mathematics and astronomy. He occupied himself while there in making a translation of the Latin Averroës, which, when completed, won him a high place in the regard of scholars.

He returned to the court of Frederick after ten years in Spain, worn out from long and arduous labors and the strain of incessant poring over manuscripts. The Emperor was glad to welcome him back and sought to find papal appointments for him in England and Ireland. A benefice was offered him in Cashel, but as it would have meant exile from all the sources of knowledge and as Scot himself was honest enough to rebel against plural appointments, he refused it. He remained at court, therefore, practicing medicine, poor, rather unhappy, as jealous as ever in his pursuit of knowledge, particularly in the three branches of science which interested him most, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

After his death he became a legend. It was believed he had blown the secrets of the East and had been a great sorcerer. The legend grew out of a popular belief that he had a gift for prophecy, that he had not only predicted the time and manner of the death of the Emperor but of his own as well. He was said to have declared that Frederick would die at gates of iron in a town named after Flora of the Romans, and it was assumed that this meant Florence. It happened, however, that the head of the Holy Roman Empire fell ill in the town of Firenzuola in Apulia. He was put to bed in a tower with his head against a masonry wall which had been built to fill in an ancient gateway. When the eyes of the sick Emperor saw that the iron staples of the gate still protruded from the wall, he knew that his time had come.

“This is the place,” he said to those about him. “The will of God be done, for here I shall die.”

He passed away soon thereafter, and the reputation of Michael Scot waxed rapidly because of this.

As to the manner of his own death, Scot had declared that a bolt from the sky would strike him on the head and kill him, and he was so convinced of his danger that he invented and made a special plate of steel to wear under his hat when he ventured out. One day he neglected to wear the steel bonnet and as he passed the bell tower of a church a stone was dislodged from the wall by the motion of the bell rope. It fell and killed Michael Scot.

Because of this, the belief in his magic powers grew rapidly. The name of Michael Scot became one to cause shudders, and soon it was classed by a credulous world with the great magicians and sorcerers of the past, even with Simon Magus and Merlin. The stories and myths about him multiplied with the years. He was supposed to have written down all the dark secrets he had known and the unholy spells and incantations he had used, and men of ill will sought for this book with as much zest as honorable men searched for the Holy Grail. It is possible that he had made experiments in the realm of the occult, for all scholars of his day seem to have entertained some measure of belief in magic. In his scientific work, however, he remained realistic and free from the taint of charlatanism. As a delver into the secrets of the heavens and as a mathematician he won words of praise from the usually critical Roger Bacon, and that may be accepted as proof of his great ability as well as of the soundness of his ideas. As a doctor of medicine he seems to have been regarded as an enlightened practitioner. This, of course, was before the black mantle of the legend had been wrapped about him like the trailing sheets of a ghost.

The record of his substantial achievements in the world of science was soon lost in the wild stories which the world invented and believed of him.


During the years when his most important work was done, between 1240 and 1257, Roger Bacon spent two thousand pounds of his own money in study and in acquiring the books and equipment he needed. After that date, his resources exhausted, belonging to an order which set a watch on him and seemed ready to detect in him the signs of heresy, he proceeded with great wariness. He had a small circle of friends in whom trust could be placed and he used two young assistants who were intensely loyal. One of the assistants, a youth named John, had been a beggar in Paris and had been befriended by the great Franciscan. Bacon had trained John carefully and used him on errands of the greatest importance.

It is certain that during the years of his second visit to Paris Bacon began to set down notes on the discoveries he had made. He worked in great secrecy, being fearful of interference and, perhaps, of punishment. It is now widely believed that he went to the extent of inventing and using a Latin cipher. He had given up all hope of making any impression on the world of his own day. The mind of authority was closed against him and all he represented. Determined that his discoveries should not be lost, he had begun to look to the future, hoping that in succeeding generations there would be more tolerance.

In 1265 there was a turn of events in his favor. Guy Fulcodi had become Pope, taking the title of Clement IV. When a cardinal and the papal legate to England, Fulcodi had heard of the mysterious friar and the work he was doing and had become interested. Now his word had become law and he wrote to Bacon, asking him to send to Rome at once any material he might have written, warning him to proceed in the matter with the greatest discretion but without permitting any hostility among the heads of his own order to interfere. Bacon had not committed anything to paper in a form suitable for pontifical consideration and so he began at once, in a spirit of aroused hope and enthusiasm, to prepare a statement of his beliefs, his theories, and something of his experiments. Working secretly because the nature of the papal instructions made it dangerous to consult any of his superiors, he succeeded in the course of eighteen months in preparing the three great works on which his reputation is based, the Opus Majus, the Opus Minus, and theOpus Tertium. In these huge documents he covered the whole field of scientific and philosophical knowledge and pleaded with Clement as God’s representative on earth to give sanction to teachings along his lines. He wrote with frankness and an enthusiasm which stemmed from the hopes which the papal invitation had aroused in him. The course he was proposing was not one, however, which Clement could adopt If the Pope had committed the Church to these startlingly new principles there would have been a storm such as Christendom had never experienced before. The Church was not ready for the revolutionary methods of Bacon, nor was the world it ruled. The support of the Pope would not have sufficed to bring about the changes the Franciscan was so boldly advocating.

The three books, together with a spherical crystal lens which Bacon had made as a gift for the Pontiff, were given into the care of the trusty John, who set off with them for Rome. They were delivered, if not actually into the hands of the Pope himself, at least to officials who were close to him. Buoyed up with hope that the world might be brought after all to accept the truth of his teachings, Roger Bacon waited for word from Rome with as much patience as he could summon.

Time passed and the silence at Rome remained unbroken. The interval stretched out into a year, the ailing Clement died, and still no word of the manuscripts had been received. The unhappy friar came to the realization finally that his work had been in vain.

It is doubtful if Clement ever laid eyes on the Opus Majus, the most important of the three volumes, in which the truth of Bacon’s great discovery was convincingly set forth. He had been a sick man when raised to the pontificate, too sick in body and weary inmind to undertake the study of this formidable manuscript. It is recorded that he sought diligently to repair his health, consulting in particular a French physician in whom Louis of France placed the greatest reliance. The physician studied the swollen feet and legs of the Pontiff and prescribed a treatment of such rigor that the suffering Clement complained he found the cure harder to bear than the disease. A year after Roger Bacon’s messenger reached Rome the sick old man yielded to his ailments. The manuscripts, in the meantime, had been allowed to rest in some dusty niche in the archives.

They had not been entirely neglected, however. Eyes, unfriendly eyes, had spied out the nature of these revolutionary documents. Perhaps Clement had instructed members of the Vatican staff to read and digest what Bacon had written, a normal form of procedure. If this were the case, he may have received reports of such a sweepingly critical nature that he decided hastily to proceed no further in the matter. However it came about, the Baconian theories had been read and emphatically censored before they were filed away.

It was fortunate for the author of them that the new incumbent of the papacy was a man of similar mind to the deceased Clement. Nothing was done to punish the daring English friar while the three great tomes, containing the secret of future world progress, were allowed to repose in complete disregard on some forgotten shelf.

This immunity could not last forever. In 1277 Jerome of Ascoli became head of the Franciscan order and, with the support of the Pope of that period, he condemned the Baconian doctrines as dangerous. The inspired Englishman was sentenced to imprisonment in a dark cell. No communication with the outside world was allowed him; no opportunity was afforded for study or work in any form. For fourteen years that great mind languished in solitary confinement.

He was close to death when a new minister-general of the Franciscan order, Raimondo Gaufredi, ordered that he be released. He emerged from his cell a bent and sick man of nearly eighty years. Long imprisonment had not, however, blunted his mighty spirit. Being allowed to return to England, he had two years of life and freedom and used them to prepare a final book, the Compendium Studii Theologiae. He died at Oxford, convinced that he had failed, that the light of the great truth he had preached would be extinguished forever. He was buried on June 11, 1292, in the Gray Friars in the university city where his greatest work had been done.


The original manuscript of the Opus Majus was found in the Vatican library in recent years by one Monsignor Pelzer. This discovery, important though it was, cannot be compared in interest with a later find. In 1912 Mr. Wilfrid Voynich, a bibliophile of New York and London, visited a castle in Italy and found there a collection of illuminated manuscripts in an ancient chest. Among them was an unadorned manuscript of very great age. He studied it carefully and decided that it dated from the latter half of the thirteenth century. The drawings illustrating the text seemed to indicate that the reading matter was given over to a discussion of methods of making various objects such as the telescope and microscope. The text was written in what obviously was a Latin cipher.

The history of the manuscript has been traced since with great ingenuity, and it has been established with what seems reasonable accuracy that it passed from the possession of a sixteenth-century Englishman, a collector of Baconian manuscripts, to the Emperor Rudolph. From the Emperor it was transferred through various hands into the care of someone in Parma; and there it had remained for a very long time in the battered old chest, dusty and almost undecipherable, regarded as of small interest by those who examined the rest of the contents.

A continuous effort has been made since to find the key to the cipher. Some progress has been made, enough perhaps to establish it as a relic of the great Franciscan’s work, but the final secret still eludes the scholars who labor over it. If the key can be found, it is considered more than probable that the story of Bacon’s experiments in applied science will be revealed and that in this personal account of his work, penned perhaps in his own hand, will be the proof that he had made not only a telescope but a microscope as well.

What other secrets are buried in this ancient manuscript? How much light may it shed on the life of this remarkable recluse? Will it bear out the belief which many hold that Roger Bacon, lost in the darkness of the Middle Ages, hampered by his lack of facilities, was one of the great intellects of all time?

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