Sunday, May 18, 2014

Trying to save Roger Bacon's bacon

Mackay's survey of alchemists across the ages continues in The Madness of Crowds. Over the course of twenty pages he wends his way from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. And most of the alchemists he covers have their alchemical deeds neatly covered.

His coverage of England's own Roger Bacon, though, offers a curious case.

Mackay makes no attempt to hide his contempt of alchemists. Each and every biography thus far has included some sort of reference to the alchemists being misguided or having wasted their lives. Roger Bacon's entry in Mackay's collection includes this treatment but it comes primarily through an apologist lens.

No mention is made of Bacon's famed bronze head, imbued with life and the wisdom to answer any kind of question put to it. Neither is there any reference to Bacon's idea of walling up all of England through magical means. Instead, the bulk of this particular biography is all about Mackay lauding Bacon's intelligence and his claims that superstition rose around his reputation because his peers simply couldn't comprehend the extent of his genius.

In fact, rather than Bacon's alchemical deeds, Mackay chronicles his general scientific accomplishments (like his understanding of convex and concave lenses). Mackay's Victorian English pride certainly shines through.

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