Roger Bacon, Itineraries, Maths, and Judah Loew

Invariably …. dissemination of the Itinerary is attributed almost solely to Roger Bacon’s interest in the text.

– Sumithra J. David, (2008) ‘Looking East and West…’, Thesis submission (Ph.D), University of St. Andrews. p.6.

I leave the city again tomorrow, so only time to offer readers a suggestion of the line of investigation I should be interested to pursue had I more time.

Judah Loew (the Maharal).

Allegedly called ‘the little Bacon’ or – since Rudolf is noted as keeping to Latin when referring to sciences – Bachone minor. The content of Loew’s undoubtedly-historical conversation with Rudolf II in 1592 is alleged to have included Kabbala, but from the content and attitudes expressed by Rabbi Loew’s remaining writings, it seems fairly unlikely a subject. Similarly, the exciting tale of his having ‘created a Golom’ to defend the Jews of Prague may come down to nothing more than a non-Jewish gossip’s gabble about a book title, Be’er ha-Golah, which contains nothing but reasoned commentary on some difficult Talmudic passages.

About the Maharal’s interest in ‘Kabbalah’ evidence is less unequivocal, and note must be taken of Panofsky’s opinion that the manuscript appeared to him to contain something of ‘Arabic’ and ‘Kabbalism’.  On the other hand, there is so little evidential support for any interest by the Maharal in Kabbalah that a more reasonable explanation of that conversation in 1592 is that it revolved around issues of astronomy and mathematics with which all members of that group acquainted with both eminent figures were concerned. Tycho Brahe and Kepler were two of the same circle, and Brahe is credited with arranging the meeting.

To quote one of the more detailed online references:

He [the Maharal] was a great scholar, whose knowledge was not confined to religious subjects, but embraced secular studies as well, particularly mathematics. He was an outstanding personality, held in the highest repute by Jews and non-Jews alike. The astronomer, Tycho Brahe, with whom he enjoyed a social relationship, is said to have arranged his audience with the emperor. … he favored scientific study which did not contradict the principles of Judaism. According to S.J. Rapaport, he did not engage in Kabbalah; G. Scholem, on the other hand, regards him as the forerunner of Hasidism in that he popularized kabbalistic ideas. His language is not kabbalistic…

By the terms “nature,” “the natural order,” “natural reality,” and the like, that run like a golden thread throughout all his writings, he refers to the regular physical order of the universe. The various phenomena are connected one with another in a logical connection of cause and effect that can be rationally explained. This order, however, has no validity for the relationship between the Creator and the universe, for two reasons: (a) God created the system of regularity in nature of His own free will; (b) there exist phenomena outside the natural order which are deviations from the fixed order, i.e., the miracles. Since it is inconceivable that God should lay down laws and abrogate them, establish an order and destroy it – he assumes that in principle the natural order is only enduring and valid in this world, while in the upper world, a different order, “the discrete,” exists. The miracle has its source in this upper world and occurs when this upper world temporarily penetrates and intrudes into this world. Hence even phenomena that at first sight appear as deviations are ab initio subject to special rules of their own.

excerpt from: ‘Judah Loew (Liwa, Loeb) ben Bezalel’, Jewish Virtual Library (published online).

I wonder how to suggest, in the brief time available now, how I’d approach the matter, especially given a widespread oral tradition in Prague that these conversations with Rudolf continued beyond the first:

According to many legends, the emperor paid him frequent visits during the night, to discuss with him both politics and science, and Rabbi Judah Loew made use of these excellent connections to the advantage of his community whenever it was threatened by attacks or oppression.

Of course, at it is also asserted that:

The Maharal of Prague must have also been a master of Kabbalah, for most of the legends concerning him speak of his knowledge of the divine creation and the hidden ways of G-d. The Maharal was credited with being a miracle worker.

I for one cannot imagine Kepler mediating a discussion about golems, if that is what is being suggested by ‘miracle worker’, but when a group of people share an interest, the interest is likely to be that which they share, so for me the bottom line is that the subjects discussed were very probably connected with how each regarded present scientific questions about natural science, astronomical learning and mathematics.

Unlike many European Jews of his time and even members of the Jesuit order in Prague some seventy years later (see below), Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague was renowned for his study of mathematics and what were called generally ‘hakhmot hissoniyyot’ or external sciences. What was worth such comment in sixteenth century Europe had been a combination of studies quite usual earlier, among Jews under Islamic rule.

I must now ask my readers to indulge me for a moment, and credit my perception that the content of MS Beinecke 408 relates to the east-west trade and so forth. Given that indulgence, a great deal of relevant information may be granted as contained in Thomas F. Glick’s study, ‘Sharing Science’, the second chapter of Joseph V. Montville (ed), History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean (2011). I cannot too highly recommend the volume.

It being clear that the Maharal is everywhere described as a highly educated mathematician, we may also make more of Barsch’s description of those persons who left the manuscript with him, and again of the curiously-unknown ‘traveller’ said to have received 600 ducats when the manuscript reached Prague, and these things too may relate to the slightly vague reference to the manuscript which Kinner includes in a letter written to Kircher more than a lifetime (70+ years) after that meeting in 1592.

Kinner first laments that the Order has lost its eminent mathematicians of the older generation, and that it presently cares not at all for the mathematical curriculum. This leads to a brief mention of the manuscript, by way of alluding to Marci, a digression described by Kinner as a “change of subject”. Thereafter, Kinner returns to the topic of mathematical study and implies that the Order’s current neglect of mathematics is accompanied by a certain level of repression. (The following summary and extract has been gained from Philip Neal’s translation of the letter).

… (loss of scholars whose works in mathematics had been a glory to the Order …Father Schott… Marcus [Marci].. and Georgius Behn. Marci was actually not yet dead but, as Kinner puts it, “fallen into the second infancy of old age”)…

We shall soon reach the point that to win a professorial chair and the title of mathematician it will be more than sufficient to be able to explain arithmetical figures to the youth, to measure four paving stones with a rope or a square, to inscribe a sundial on a wall, to explain the circles of the square from Sacroboscus and such like basic things. There is a deep silence, not to say ban, on Euclid and Appollonius* in this university so that we are now not even supposed to know the names let alone the thing. I do not think there has been a mathematical disputation here since Fr Stansel lectured on his Dioptrus Geodesicus before he left us.

*presumably Apollonius of Perga.

Kinner then returns to ‘mathematics’ and from his comment it is clear that astronomical geometry and its algebra – parabolas and so on – form a large part of his apprehension of the term..

The range of such wider studies among Jews of Islam in the earlier centuries included ‘mathematics’ of that sort, but taught to the level and in context of practical applications, with certain forms of practice which might easily and fairly lead to convenient forms of cipher and encoding. More on that, a little further below.

It is a style which I consider perfectly suited to any hypothesis about the manuscript which – as I pointed out first in 2008 – I find in MS Beinecke 408, a range of allusion which is not appropriate to the interests of the sedentary scholar. It is far more appropriate to propose it as a work employed regularly by some profession such as that of a travelling merchant, factor, receiver, Sandalani, order-maker  or inventorist a fonduq /’thesaurus’, or even for the pilot of some ship as those maintained  by certain medieval merchants together, and about whose practices the Cairo geniza documents proved so informative.

To say that our manuscript is a hand-book is no longer treated (six years later) as wild speculation, but there still persists a view that Rudolf cared to acquire it for his library at awful expense.  From our remaining evidence, we should say that Rudolf was hardly interested in manuscripts as objets de vertu and that his purchases tended to be the latest printed about ‘modern science’.

That a notoriously slow-to-pay monarch was would purchase for six hundred ducats a manuscript unprepossessing and evidently unreadable as MS Beinecke 408 beggars belief, if not hope.  But what he did give travellers sums of that sort for was to fetch items he wanted, or to support their journey as representatives of the religious or political authorities of Europe. Whether 600 ducats would cover the whole of the journey represented by the map on folio 86v I do not know; I’m fairly sure that it would have allowed a traveller to reach England, Lyons or Egypt and return, at least – but in such a case, the money would normally be provided on the outbound trip, not delivered on receipt.

Egypt is certainly a reasonable centre from which a traveller might bring such information as what we see in MS Beinecke 408 – or at least its imagery.  This would be so in the seventeenth century, when we know Rudolf’s jeweller, goldsmith and architect supplied him with Egyptian goods and relics.  However, it was also so in Bacon’s time, and the impression which Barsch gained was certainly of the traveller who went east in search of better knowledge and remedies than those provided in plague riven Europe during his time. The internal evidence of the manuscript suggests to me that some of the sources would not be found closer than southern India, and more likely to have it all one would have had to travel to the Spice islands where (incidentally) I believe the first folio opens.

Barsch never nominates a century during which he thinks the alleged journey was undertaken – whether in his own lifetime or centuries earlier (say in Bacon’s time), but to me his views seem to be expressed with the air of one relating information from a trusted source he will not openly disclose.  And we never hear that he recanted, despite Kircher’s poor manners and written negative comment to a mutual acquaintance about the ‘little book’.

I should emphasise, get again, that plant materials were imported from the east into Egypt or Europe as a matter of commerce, and the greater the number of applications for a plant, its parts or its extract, then the more likely that it would be among those thought worth the time, trouble and cost of transporting.  It is therefore inappropriate to suppose that while the imagery in the botanical sections may represent eastern plants, their only intended use would be medicinal. Medicinal ‘herbal’ uses were just one potential return on costs, but others proved more valuable still.

Maths and Merchants

In Ibn Qutaiba’s  Adab al qatib we have an excellent example of the mathematical range recommended for the eastern merchant/administrator working within medieval Islam. It includes knowledge of  merchants’ routes and how to distinguish one type of produce or product from the next.  Mathematics is taught in several modes, and includes far more than arithmetic. My having already proposed that the qanat system is represented within the Voynich manuscript’s  ‘astro-meteorological’ section, it was pleasant to find that Ibn Qutaiba specifically recommends the administrator/merchant have knowledge of “general engineering principles related with irrigation, the construction of water wheels and the like.”

The above cited from Glick’s paper, where there is a good, detailed discussion of mathematics and the style in which other pragmatic sciences of the “hakhmot hisonuyyot” were being taught and studied by eastern Jews.   (see in this regard, also my ‘Balsam’ posts).

Such matter is perfectly compatible with what I’ve found in MS Beinecke 408, but quite incompatible with the essentially static book-culture of Latin Europe (not to mention its absence of books with long fold-outs).Like the Voynich manuscript’s imagery, or its text’s stubborn resistance to theories of European language underlying Voynichese, the work constantly demands placement in a different, or at the very least much wider horizon.  Its appearance and behaviour, though, do seem to sit better with the earlier accounts of it given by Barsch and even by Missowsky, and certainly accord nicely with Panofsky’s opinion given in 1931 and my own more slowly reached if independently and laboriously gained than his.

Roger Bacon

As I hope the weblog posts about Bacon have shown, his ‘alchemy’ is of the simpler sort and focussed on the practical benefits of acquiring a range of skills.  The same combination of learning and practicality informs most of Bacon’s scientific writing. He was, above all, an enthusiastic student and would have been an equally enthusiastic teacher had he found intelligences enough equal to his own.

It is, I think, the same combination of learned mind and practical attitude to application which best explains why an equivalence was perceived (as we are told) between the English Franciscan scholar and the Maharal.

Discussing the older openness of the Islamic world and Jewish studies, Glick writes:

It was common enough in the Muslim world for Jews to be educated in the secular sciences at the same time as they pursued a normative Jewish religious education. (p.28)

I won’t enlarge further on Glick’s information and opinions, hoping I’ve said enough to encourage.  Just to show what relevance it promises to have for those chiefly interested in MS Beinecke 408 for its script and questions of cryptography, though:

Letters to which numerals were assigned were known as jummal letters. These were Arabic letters in the order of the Hebrew alphabet… as illustrated by al-Uqlidisi, who also notes that Greek letters can also be used, as can the Arabic words for the different numbers, and he supplies the notations for problems of multiplication and division using abdjad letters… (p.31)

Goldstein suggests that Jacob Ibn Sharah ( or Jacob Aben Sheara) is no other than Yaqub ibn Tariq, author of a set of tables based on Indian antecedents. Jacob ibn Ṭāriq (ninth century) is said to have traveled from Baghdad to Ceylon to obtain books on astronomy; Jacob Aben Sheara to have been sent to India by an Arabian or Turkish ruler (c. 925), for the same purpose.

Thomas F. Glick, ‘Sharing Science’ in Joseph V. Montville (ed.), History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean p.54 note 105.


It does not appear to me unreasonable to suppose that Bacon might have gained a florilegium of such a kind, or that one mightn’t have been produced later from books to which he had access – by grace of his King and/or by reason of his own interest in Hebrew – for in Bacon’s lifetime,England’s king had abandoned the many thousands of his subjects who were Jewish, forcing them to abandon their homes, goods, property and studies. England gained many new textual sources and libraries. Once more, these points have been mentioned earlier in this weblog – in which too I believe I first noted the relevance of a certain ‘North French Miscellany’ for Voynich studies.

To end:

The study of book-collections, especially in fourteenth-century England, has been greatly assisted by two extensive medieval texts: the Registrum Anglie and Henry of Kirkestede’s Catalogus. …. The former was established under the aegis of the Franciscans, who travelled extensively examining various library collections but chose to include only items of theological and patristic interests. The second, the Catalogus, was more inclusive..[but] … never completed.

Smithra David, op.cit., p.14


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