Roger Bacon and the Brazen Head
Created | Updated Mar 5, 2009
Now, like Friar Bacon's brazen head, I've spoken,
'Time is', 'Time was', 'Time's past'.
- Don Juan (I. 217) Lord Byron,
The Brazen Head may be familiar to readers as a pub name. One well-known Brazen Head is reputed to be the oldest pub in Dublin, and it figures in James Joyce's Ulysses. However, there is a story behind this name, connected with the historic figure of Roger Bacon.
Roger Bacon was an English Franciscan monk in the 13th Century. He was a pioneer of the scientific method, and published a number of scholarly works. He was often in trouble with the Church authorities because of his unorthodox attitudes. Also, because he was known to carry out experiments and scientific investigations, he was seen as a sinister figure in popular legend. A number of stories of magic and alchemy were attached to his name after his death.
The Legend of the Brazen Head
This was probably originally an Arabic folk tale, but the speaking head was a powerful image, attached in the popular imagination to a number of scholars, including Albertus Magnus, the Dominican saint. In the story, whose best-known version is in the 1594 play by Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Roger Bacon made a head of brass. It had the power to speak, and was expected to become an oracle, truthfully answering questions about the future. However, left in the care of Bacon's assistant while the Friar slept, it spoke only three times, first saying 'Time is', then, after a long interval, 'Time was' and finally 'Time is past'. After this, it fell to the floor, broke, and never spoke again. In the story, these words appear to mean that the dull apprentice has let his master's chance of consulting the oracle slip by, but they are sometimes taken as an enigmatic comment on the meaning of time. These mysterious words turn up in many unexpected places, from Byron's Don Juan (quoted above), to inscriptions on sundials.