Today, I want to to tell you about Roger Bacon. I don’t know exactly when he was born. Best guess, it was somewhere between 1210 and 1220. I don’t know exactly when he died either, but one of my favourite sources, Robert Chambers, thinks it might have been on June 11th in 1292. Bacon became both a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University and a Franciscan friar. Bacon was one of the earliest people to argue that science, which was then called ‘natural philosophy’, should be taught in universities. He found that people were mostly learning from badly translated copies of works by Aristotle and Plato and were really not understanding them properly.
In 1267, he wrote an enormous book called ‘Opus Majus’, which means Great Work. It begins by outlining ‘The Four General Causes of Human Ignorance’: following a weak or unreliable authority, custom, the ignorance of others and concealing his own ignorance by pretending knowledge. In the light of this wisdom, I won’t even try to tell you about the religious and political climate he was working in, or the medieval university curriculum because I don’t really understand them. But I will tell you that his approach to the problem of ignorance: getting as close as possible to the original source and that “theories supplied by reason should be verified by sensory data, aided by instruments, and corroborated by trustworthy witnesses”, led to him being considered the father of the scientific method. So, by the nineteenth century, he was considered a genius born before his time. A sixteenth or seventeenth century philosopher who had somehow appeared three or four hundred years too early. His contemporaries hadn’t really rated his work much at all.
It’s really the bit in between people not thinking a lot of him and his being hailed as a scientific genius that I’m interested in today. There is also a legendary Roger Bacon, same man, just a different take on his life, who appeared some time in the sixteenth century. This Roger Bacon was a magician who cheated the devil, burned a French city and built a brazen head. His legend, called ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon’, was recorded by an unknown author. He gives the Friar a sidekick called Friar Bungey, an idiot servant called Miles and a sort of nemesis, a German Magician called Vandermast, who I don’t think I’m going to get round to telling you about today.
One story tells of a man who inherited a lot of money and then spent it all. When he was so poor that he thought he would starve, the Devil appeared in disguise and offered him money to buy back his lands, get him everything he needed and pay off his debts. The catch was that, when he had everything he wanted and had paid everything he owed, he would give himself over to his mysterious benefactor. When all that was done, he realised, too late, the true identity of his saviour. Friar Bacon offered to help the man escape his pact with the Devil. He offered to judge the case. The Devil showed him their contract and told the friar that the man had paid all his debts and that it was time for him to give himself up. But the Friar pointed out that the man had not paid all his debts, because he hadn’t paid the Devil back a single penny of the money that he had been lent. The Devil vanished in a fury and the man went home.
A second story tells us about a time that the King of England, I’m afraid I don’t know which king but logic suggests Henry III, was besieging a city in France, again, I don’t know which city. Friar Bacon offered his assistance but the king said, although that was very thoughtful, what he really needed were soldiers. Bacon replied that learned men could be useful too. He told the king that one day they would discover, among other things, how to build ships that could move without rowers, carriages that needed no animals to pull them and machines that could make men fly. He had the soldiers build a huge mound of earth then took the king to the top and showed him the city ‘as plainely as if hee had beene in it’, which suggests some sort of telescope. Then, he told the king to have all his soldiers ready to attack at noon the next day. Bacon then used an arrangement of glasses to set fire to the State House and other houses in the city. No one knew how the fire had started and the whole place was in uproar. That’s when the King attacked and won.
The third story I want to tell you about is the time Friar Bacon decided he could protect the whole of England from invasion by building a ‘brazen head’, (I love a brazen head, they come up quite a lot in alchemy). The head would speak and tell him how he could make a wall of brass appear that would protect out shores forever. Friar Bacon enlisted the help of his friend, Friar Bungey, who was nearly-but-not-quite as good as Bacon. Together, they built a head of brass that was exactly the same as a human head. It had all the right things inside it and everything. But it wouldn’t work. They conjured up the Devil and forced him to help them. The Devil told them that they needed “a continuall fume of the six hotest Simples”, which as far as I can make out, are herbs or something. He told them that the head would speak within a month, but he couldn’t say when. After three weeks of fuming their head and watching it day and night, Bacon and Bungey were exhausted. They left Bacon’s servant, Miles in charge to watch the head, with orders to wake them if it spoke. Miles kept himself awake by singing little songs to himself and presently the statue spoke. It said “Time is.” Miles didn’t think it was anything significant and failed to wake the pair. He carried on singing and, after about half an hour, it spoke again. It said “Time was.”. Again he thought it was nonsense, anyone with half a brain knew that time is and time was, that’s time for you. After another half hour of singing the head announced “Time is Past”. Then it fell down and exploded. That woke the two friars and they realised they had missed their chance.
The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon was, you might like to know, used as the basis of a play called ‘The Honourable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay’ in 1589. Its author was a man called Robert Greene. He was the man who attacked William Shakespeare in print early in his career and called him ‘upstart crow’.
The real Roger Bacon actually did mention the possibility of telescopes, flying machines and steamships in the last part of his Opus Majus. He also made the first mention in Western literature of gunpowder. So maybe he really did make exploding heads. I’m quite glad we’re not all trapped here, inside an enormous brass wall though.