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.
‘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.