IN June 1914, just before the grim shadow of war fell over the world, the 700th anniversary of the birth of Roger Bacon was celebrated in Oxford. There was wide coverage of the occasion in British, American and European newspapers and periodicals. Eminent people – including a former British prime minister and a future pope – gathered from all over Europe to do homage to the memory of one of the greatest and most misunderstood figures in western history.1

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Everyone there knew the same story about Roger Bacon, even if they had never read a word that he had written. They knew that he had recently come to the attention of scholars after centuries of obscurity. They knew that he was now recognised as a precocious figure in the development of modern scientific method. They certainly all knew the pitiful story of the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar whose advanced,...

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