Early in the hi…


Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.


6 thoughts on “Early in the hi…

  1. To your credit, my friend, you are too kind.  I am not so kind.

    I have just reacquainted myself with the first part of Wilson’s five-part article for any hint of skepticism about the Motet theory at that point in its progress, but could find none.  Indeed, he had this to say: “But after I spent a few days in Scotland scrutinizing his hypothesis, I found it increasingly difficult to be a skeptic.”

    From this it is clear that Wilson, after a few days scrutiny, had no idea that the theory had already been long debunked, and neither the Mitchells nor arch Rosslyn skeptic Ian Robertson, who is conveniently “circumspect” at a later point in the narrative, bothered to bring that inconvenient point up to Wilson. Whatever degree of skepticism Wilson eventually shows as his five-part series progresses would have been far less apparent had he not had to address, as briefly as he thought he could get away with, my arguments about the degree of validity, or lack thereof, of the Motet theory.  I have no doubt that by the end of the article it had changed, along the way, into a modified work that had not been intended at its outset.

    I feel the deletion of our comments is more serious than you do, and I will address this a little later. But while we are still on Part 1 of the article, let me draw your attention to a curiosity about the chronological presentation of the first two comments, and the content of the second, which is my own.

    The first comment, according to the date, was posted three months ago, while my comment was posted nine months ago (as are the balance of the Part 1 comments).  That there has been some botched and transparent cutting and pasting going on, perhaps as a bit of damage control, will become more obvious when I tell you that the second comment you see there, today, was not the comment I originally posted. The comment you see there, today, is a comment I posted after Part 5 — provable by the following excerpt …

    “While it is commendable that Slate.com permitted comments to each of the online magazine’s five installments of the article, some of which mention these serious concerns, it is unfortunate that few of Slate’s readers are sufficiently energetic enough to read them; that the article has begun to have a global cyber-presence without them; and that even the officially published e-book version neglects, in any meaningful way, to include them.”

    Now, why would I have written THAT in my very first comment?

    I will send a screenshot of those first two comments to you, just in case things change, again, before you have a chance to check this oddity out for yourself.

    My actual first comment now appears much farther down the list, and is much briefer.  It reads as follows, and is the reason why the best course of damage control Slate could have taken would have been to pull the plug on the story before Part II was published.


    Artworks contemporary with the first half of the 19th century show that many of the cubes were missing at that time, and those that still survived from the time the chapel was built were all of the same design — therefore there was no code, musical or otherwise, intended by the 15th-century builder of the chapel.  

    Read the articles at the following two links for visual evidence.  


    Now, about the deleted comments (yours and mine) that you feel there might possibly have been a good reason for — I disagree.

    Towards the end of the comments to Part 3, it is obvious that Wilson is still casting around for a reason to believe when he says: “I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project. I’m less convinced by the Mythomorph stuff. Even if one takes the lithographs at face value, the cubes directly above the staff angel are still there. Those are the really important ones.”

    Clearly he has taken a look at the Swarbreck lithograph which shows that very many of the cubes were missing in the 1830s, and believes he sees that the three all-important cubes above the so-called “staff angel” we’re NOT missing.

    My reply, which has been deleted, read as follows …


    Take another look at the image on page 4 of my article [at the above link]. You will see that the cubes are NOT there. What you mistake as the ‘really important’ cubes directly above the staff angel are only the stems to which the cubes were once attached. Cubes have corners, but what you see do not. Cubes have carvings on them, but what you see do not. And since the cubes are technically not really square cubes, but more precisely rectangular boxes, what you see should at least be wider than they are high, but these are not.
    You have not addressed this particular paradox in your article, instead finding more importance in the fact that only a few of the cubes have fallen off and been reattached within the memory of a Roslin mason who is still alive. A fine tune of literary misdirection that a scant few of your followers will happily sing a chorus to.  
    Besides the many cubes that did not exist in 1837, however, even the all-important musical “staff” or “stave,” now arguably held by today’s angel, did not exist at that time. And I would now, even though the very last installment of your multi-part article has already taken flight around the world, like to talk about that. 
    Look again at the image on page 4 of the above-linked article, paying special attention to the space between the angel’s hands. Note that the deep shadow cast to the body side of the angel’s right hand indicates that, in 1837, there was no musical stave held between the hands of the angel. In fact, only the angel’s fingertips are touching (plucking?) the instrument below them. The “stave” that today’s angel is holding only appears in the architectural fabric of the chapel AFTER architect David Bryce finishes his 1860’s restoration of the chapel interior. 
    Therefore: No all-important three cubes prior to 1837 + no music stave prior to 1837 + no variation between the patterns of the cubes in 1837 = no musical code concealed in the cubes by the 15th-century builder of the chapel. 
    I would be happy to send you a higher-resolution image of that image if you would like to finish your article with a Part 6, or even if you would not. Let me know.


    Your own deleted comment immediately followed my own.  It was very brief, but nevertheless emphasized, in true Woody Allen / Marshall McLuhan fashion, that my comment was correct.  Thank you.

    These two comments, in my opinion, served to leave Wilson, mid-way through his five-part article, without a leg to stand on — which is why I feel they were deleted.  By deleting our comments, the hapless reader is left feeling that Wilson has finally scored a point, which was decidedly not the case.

    Slate should in no way be conducting this sort of business, and the decision to publish Wilson’s “The Rosslyn Code” as the company’s first venture into the Ebook market, minus our comments, amounts to picking its public’s pockets $1.99 at a time.

    All Best,


    PS: It is not Wilson who, as you say, feels “that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense”.  This is something that Stuart Mitchell says to Wilson near the end of his article and Ebook. Over dinner (that I hope Mitchell paid for) Mitchell says “I absolutely hate the end of the music, because it’s the only part that doesn’t make any sense”.  Nice touch …

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Wilson uses his limited (and flawed) scepticism as something of a shield, to allow him to believe in and endorse the Mitchell’s idea. I just felt I had to acknowledge what he does admit, partly out of fairness, but mainly because it actually undermines his whole presentation to make as many admissions as he does.

      You’re right about the ‘making sense’ comment, though of course it was Wilson stating that as he was the one giving the presentation at Princeton, and not Mitchell (wonder how the Mitchell’s feel about that)?

      Take care,


  2. Wilson’s book is no longer available, but neither are our comments. You win one, you lose one, I guess. The original a Slate article is still available, though, so, in the end, they win, and the reading public is once again the worse off …

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