Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

Friar Bacon's Brazen Head

[Thirteenth century]

[FRIAR BACON was an English scientist; and science in the thirteenth century was a dangerous calling. Whatever men did not understand was looked upon as witchcraft, and the punishment for witchcraft was severe and prompt. This learned student is believed to have known how to make gunpowder and to have understood the principles of the telescope. Indeed, he was two or three centuries ahead of his times, and he was fortunate to have escaped with no worse penalty for his superior knowledge than persecution and imprisonment. The making of a brazen head with the power of speech was ascribed to several philosophers of the olden days, but the work of Friar Bacon is most famous of them all. The following story is a paraphrase of a play written by Robert Greene, the English dramatist.
The Editor. ]

IN a vast and ancient room, whose appliances denoted the abode of the scholar and philosopher, sat the learned and famous friar, Roger Bacon. Beside him, a dusty table was thickly strewn with scrolls of parchment, rich with age and erudition, while a large chest, heavily barred and bolted, was filled with other treasures in manuscript, each worth more than its weight in virgin gold.

At the farther end of the room a vast chimney, with smoky furnaces and crucibles, containing crude and half-smelted ores, and all the various properties of the alchemist, occupied one side of the apartment. In one corner, a huge iron mortar, shielded by screens of metal from contact with any spark which might fly from the furnaces, was filled with an inodorous mixture of brimstone and saltpeter, and a black dust which looked like powdered charcoal. Everywhere, on floor and table, stood such rude instruments to aid in chemistry and astronomy as the time afforded, while all about were such evidences of work and study as made the place seem as much like the workshop of the artisan as the library of the scholar.

Stretched across the upper end of the apartment, a heavy green curtain fell in broken folds over some object which it was intended to conceal. Before this curtain sat the great necromancer, of whose art all England spoke in whispered wonder, and with bated breath, "the learned Friar Bacon of Oxford."

No longer an inmate of the college from whose walls his suspected magic had caused him to be driven forth, he dwelt solitary among the surrounding rustics who feared and shunned him, and in secret wrought those mysterious works which made him dreaded among men.

He was now only a little past middle life, a man of commanding figure and noble head, which seemed heavy with the weight of knowledge it carried, and now dropped wearily upon his hands as he sat steeped in thought.

His reverie was broken by the entrance of his servant Miles, the only retainer he could keep about him, a halfwitted, faithful fellow, who clung gratefully to the hand which fed him.

"I cry you mercy, good master," said Miles hastily entering, "but I could not stay upon ceremony. A lord is without the door, asking entrance to you. It is a fellow in a scarlet coat, and wonderful fine otherwise. He declares that he is from Oxford, and will have speech with you. And although I said nobody could enter, he will come in, whether I will or no. At which I, fearing he might be the Evil One himself, took to my heels to tell thee about him."

"Let him come in," answered the friar, roused by the servant's long speech from his deep abstraction. "It is Clement, the cardinal, the Pope's legate to England. Stay, Miles, throw a cloth over the pile of manuscripts yonder. Pull out that curtain straight. Nov give me the book of the Gospels. It is enough. Show the cardinal hither."

A moment later, and the Cardinal Clement, himself the next successor to the papal throne, entered the apartment.

"Well, friar, at last we have found your secret hiding-place. It is no easy journey hither, and the road is as hard and narrow as that which leads to Paradise."

"I am sorry for the trouble your lordship took in coming, and should have been happy if it might have been spared you."

"Which means, so I take it, good friar, that you are not glad at my coming. But, believe me, I come with no evil intent, nor for anything except friendship. I know how they have treated thee at Oxford, and in good earnest I have been always sorry for it. Learning is not so plenty, that it should be put down; and from what I know of thy wonderful inventions, they are not those that the Devil teaches his followers, but always of good service to the cause of Truth and the true Church. I pray thee do not distrust my motive. I come in friendly guise, unattended as thou seest, and with no desire but to be instructed in some of thy magic discoveries, and see what they may avail to science."

"My discoveries are naught," answered the friar, still keeping up the reserved manner he had worn since the entrance of his visitor. "Thou hast heard of the magic powder which has so frighted the learned magnates of the college that they drove me outside their walls. It is but a composition of simple substances, which, without any magic art, when touched with a spark, will give forth a semblance of lightning and thunder. If thou wishest, I can, in a few minutes, show thee the secret of it."

"No, no, good friar," returned the cardinal, shrinking away a little uneasily from the mortar in the corner, which Bacon approached. "I trust thy word, and I am no fool to believe stories of any wizard's craft. But there is another matter of which I come to inquire of thee. Thou hast a huge head, they tell me, of which thou makest a familiar, that tells thee strange secrets, and foretells events that can affect the fate of nations. Tell me of this. On the faith of a priest and a gentleman, I ask but for love of science. And" (here the priest's voice sank lower) "thou hast heard that Pope Urban grows feeble. It is in all men's mouths in Rome, that the cardinal legate of England will be the next high pontiff of the Church. I trust thy honor in telling this, and tell thee also, that if Clement of Narbonne be made the Holy Father of the Church, it will be his first mission to do away with the narrow bigotry regarding science, and with his own royal hand confer honors on those who make Learning their mistress. Now do you trust my friendship, good Friar Bacon?"

"My lord cardinal, I do trust you," answered Bacon, whose keen eye had closely scanned the features of the priest while he had spoken. "But it becometh us men of letters to be mistrustful. We remember that many who were not heretics have been invited into the presence of the Inquisition, and have not returned from thence. But I trust your word, and I will betray to you my mystery."

Rising hastily, the friar drew aside the green curtain which had hitherto concealed some object from the view. The cardinal turned to face it, and then stepped back, awe-struck at the sight which the withdrawing of the drapery revealed. Placed on a rude pedestal which stood several feet above the floor, stood a massive brazen head, with grand, impassive face, and an expression of such dignified grandeur, such commanding repose, that it was as if the haughty features of some Grecian god had been revealed to the awe-struck gaze of the cardinal.

As he gazed, from the deep-set but luminous eyes, true Jovine lightning seemed to issue, and a deep rumbling sound like distant thunder shook the floor on which they stood.

The legate involuntarily crossed himself, and then, looking at Bacon, who slowly dropped the curtain which concealed the head, he asked in a half-whisper,—

"Is this thy work?"

"Mine, and one other cherished brother in science, Master Bungay of Oxford," answered the monk. "This is the slow work of seven years, my lord cardinal, and, as thou mayst guess, wrought for no common purpose. This head is formed with utmost care and skill by direction which I found writ out in parchments more ancient than the Church we worship. If my work have no flaw, when all is done this head will speak, and tell me how I may encircle my England with a wall of brass, which now and hereafter will hold her invulnerable to the assaults of all enemies. Think of such a feat," said Bacon, his face glowing with enthusiasm. "Is it not worth my work to leave my name on such a monument to my country's greatness?"

"Truly, good friar," answered Clement, a little coldly, "I doubt whether it be for the good of our Mother Church, and her power over the nations which are gathered under her wings, to have one of her children so walled about. But for thy good intentions, I do not doubt them, and for thy learning I have nothing but respect. No doubt, thy brazen head, if perchance it should ever speak, will tell thee other wondrous things. Thou shalt not repent if thou lettest me have such advantage as may come of its teachings. But I confess, I should not like to see this little island so girt with brass. Suppose she might then take it into her head to defy papal authority, as, armed with such power, she might."

"You reckon impossibilities, my lord," exclaimed Bacon. "In so impious a case, the wall, which should guard England from enemies, would topple down to crush her."

"I pray thee, put such a charm as that into thy conjurations, good friar," said Clement, rising to depart. "But whatever betide, count on me as thy patron, and remember that in telling thee of my ambition, I have left my secret, in thy keeping, as thine lies in my hands. Fare thee well, my son; peace remain with thee." And with a gesture of blessing, the cardinal left the apartment.

It was night, and in Friar Bacon's study the faint gleam of one solitary rush-light made the deep shadows which lurked in every corner more apparent and more awful. The curtains which screened the head were withdrawn, and it loomed up in the dimness to a gigantic size. Bending over the table on which the little candle burned, with a manuscript spread out before him, sat Friar Bacon, his face worn and pinched as of one who suffers for want of repose and proper nourishment.

The marks upon the hourglass beside him showed that it had been turned six times since sunset, and the sands of the last hour before midnight were swiftly slipping through the glass. Ever and anon the friar took up the little timekeeper, and shook it gently, as if to hasten the passage of the slow hours, and often, amid his watching and study, his head sank lower and lower towards the table, as if tired Nature would assert her rights, and steep him in the sweet oblivion of sleep, against his own powerful will.

All at once he started up, and striking a cymbal with a little silver hammer, he waited till the summons was answered by his servant Miles, who came in sleepily rubbing his eyes, that he might be sufficiently awake to answer his master.

The friar sat earnestly regarding Miles, till he had rubbed and stretched himself awake.

"Are you ready to do me a great service, Miles?" he asked at length, when the servinplian's attention had been riveted by his own fixed gaze.

"Anything which thou canst ask, good master," returned Miles. "Except it be to go on errands to the Evil One. That I would rather excuse myself from."

"Such service as I require has no such conditions. Listen, Miles. Thou seest the head yonder?"

Miles looked cautiously over his shoulder at the awful presence, and nodded assent.

"Thou knowest that for nine and thirty nights Friar Bungay and I have watched, by day and night, waiting to hear that which soon or late its lips are sure to utter. If it should speak, and its speech be unheeded, woe betide the makers, and woe betide our hopes of encircling our fair country with a wall which will make her forever invincible. To-night I have waited for Friar Bungay, till my eyelids are heavy, and I would fain take a brief rest. But I dare not leave the head unguarded, lest in my sleep it should utter that which I must heed. Can I trust you to wait here in my sleep, and if the head gives signs of speech, to wake me suddenly, that I may follow its magical instruction? It is but for an hour or two, and then I will again resume my watch."

"I will watch here as bravely as if I never knew what fear meant, good master," answered Miles. "I warrant the head will do me no harm, and I will repeat so many Ayes and Paters that not a foul fiend will venture to come near me. So good-night and to sleep. Let me but get my trusty stave, which sets without, that I may arm myself, if any one enter to do me any hurt; and in a trice I will be here to guard thy wondrous handiwork."

So saying, Miles brought in a huge bludgeon, which he carried on his shoulder in true soldierly fashion. The friar rose, and pouring a small glass of strong liquor from a flask, he handed it to Miles, saying,—"Drink that. It will keep thee from growing timorous in thy watch. Remember that on thy wakefulness rests all my hopes, and that a moment's slumber may wreck them. Goodnight and Benedicite." Thus saying, the friar, who could hardly speak from weariness, passed through the door which led into a small inner chamber, where he slept.

Miles was doubly brave from the effect of the potent liquor the friar had given him, which now seemed to course through his veins like a swift serpent of flame. He glanced defiantly at the head, which hitherto he had only regarded with profound awe. Withdrawing himself as far as possible from the mortar in which he knew his master was wont to mix the terrible powder, whose production had branded him as one in league with Satan, he sat down near the brazen image to wait for any event which would break up the tedium of his watch.

The minutes before midnight moved slowly on, and the last sands were dropping through the glass. Already, in the adjoining chamber, the heavy breathing of the friar told how quickly sleep had seized upon his weary senses.

"Sleep away, good master," said Miles approvingly. "I will take as good care of matters here as if thou wert broad awake. For my own part, I see little sense in so much watching of a head, which for aught we know was made out of an old kettle or a pair of battered helmets. As for my master, wise as he is, he must have a crack in his head-piece; else, instead of starving me and himself on bread-crusts and spring-water, he would call to his aid some of the brave spirits his art can command, and order good smoking-hot meats, and wine as good as the king uses, and have rich raiment and soft beds, instead of such poor accommodation as he keeps now. If thou canst tell him anything to better his conditions, good Master Brazen-Pate," went on Miles, looking up at the gloomy features, which in the dim light seemed to frown upon him, "do so, and I'll set thee up for an oracle."

As he spoke these last words, a low sound of thunder muttered through the room, and shook gently the pedestal on which the Head rested. A single flash of light lit up the immovable features for one brief instant, and from the lips, a voice scarcely louder than a whisper, yet distinctly audible, uttered the words,—


"Is that the beginning of your speech, old Brazen-Nose," said Miles, coolly regarding the Head as if it were the most natural thing in the world for it to speak thus. "Go on, I pray thee, and let me hear if thou intendest to say anything worth noting. I will not wake my master for so slight a matter as that thou hast just announced. 'Time is,'  forsooth! as if that would be news to any such scholar as Friar Bacon. Thou hadst best speak sense if thou wouldst have him listen to thee."

Again the thunder muttered, but louder than at first; again the lightning gleamed over the impassive features, and the voice murmured,—


"On my life," said Miles, scornfully, "to think that my master and his friend should spend seven good years in making a head which says no more wonderful thing than any fishmonger could tell us. 'Time was!'  I am but a fool, and I hope I know as much as that. Why not say something in Greek or Latin, or any of the learned tongues that Master Bacon knows as well as he knows his breviary? Or, if thou canst speak nothing but common English, tell us something more strange than this. Dost think I shall wake up my master to no better entertainment of conversation than thou hast offered him? Out upon thee for a braggart, that promisest by thy looks more than thy tongue can ever perform for thee."

While he was speaking, a sudden light lit up the Head with a brightness like that of day. The terrible features wore a frown so dreadful that the glance struck dismay to the heart of the swaggering Miles. As he stood motionless, with awful accent and in a voice of thunder, the Head cried out,—


Then came a lightning flash so vivid that the serving-man fell prone to earth, and with a fearful crash the grand Head fell, a shattered mass of fragments, without shape or semblance.

Amidst the dire noise Friar Bacon started up and rushed to his doorway. At his feet was the work of seven years a blasted ruin. Groveling among the fragments lay the wretched Miles, uttering loud screams of fear.

"Peace, fool!" commanded the friar, raising him to his feet. "Silence! and tell me how this happened. Did the Head speak?"

"Aye, sir, he spake," answered Miles, blubbering loudly. "But he said naught worth noting. Didst thou not say it would utter strange words of learning? Yet it said at first only two words."

"What words?"

"Why, at first it said, 'Time is,' and I, knowing that was no news of consequence, waited for something better before I woke thee. Again it said, 'Time was'; and then with a loud cry it said, 'Time is past,' and toppled over, giving my head many a hard bump with the fragments."

"Wretch! idiot, villain!" cried the friar, seizing the frightened man, as if he would have strangled him. "Thy foolishness has cost me the work of years, the hopes of a lifetime. No words can reveal what thy idiocy has lost me. But go, leave my sight, miserable vagabond! I could kill myself in shame for having trusted thee." And, releasing his hold of Miles, the friar sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands.

"It is the last," he murmured. "Henceforth I bid farewell to magic. From this moment I will close my study and burn my books. Hereafter only to religion will I devote myself, and dying I shall leave not even my poor name to add to my country's glory."

by Abby Sage Richardson

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