The ancient city of Norwich has several interesting associations with western esoteric traditions. It was the retirement home of Arthur Dee (1578-1651) the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee. Arthur Dee accompanied his father in his travels and adventures across Bohemia and Poland in the 1580’s and remained a firm advocate of the esoteric tradition throughout his life.
Norwich was also the home of Arthur Dee's friend and physician, Sir Thomas Browne, author of The Garden of Cyrus, an exemplary literary formulation of the type of Neo-Pythagorean thought first developed by John Dee.
The dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene, born in Norwich in 1558 is credited as one of the first writers to make a professional living, if at times precariously, from his pen. Nowadays Robert Greene (1558-1592) is remembered as the source of one of the few known accounts of Shakespeare and for his play The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (circa 1589). Greene’s drama centres upon the activities of Friar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) a British polymath and early inductive scientist. Bacon also had a reputation as a magician, one who reputedly devised a brass head which spoke prophecies. Little is known of Bacon's contemporary, the Franciscan friar Thomas Bungay, other than he was educated at Oxford (1270-1272) and Cambridge (1282-1283) and that he wrote a commentary on Aristotle's De Caelo.
In the original legend of 1555 Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay decipher an old Arabic manuscript of instructions on how to make dead metals come alive. After much work they fasten a head upon a pedestal of marble, placing clockwork inside it, attaching wires to its tongue and eyeballs. Unable to keep awake to hear their creation speak Friar Bacon orders his servant Miles to keep watch over the metal head. Miles however fails to wake his master at the critical moment when the Brazen Head speaks, first saying TIME IS, then TIME WAS and finally, when it is too late TIME IS PAST thus thwarting all endeavours and the destruction of the speaking head itself.
According to the modern-day oracle Wikipedia, a Brazen Head (or Brass Head or Bronze Head) was a prophecy device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any given question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and could correctly answer any question asked of it . Cast in either brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and could answer freely or be restricted to simple "yes" or "no" answers.
Greene’s play may have been inspired by the success of the theme of magic in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which was also based upon a long-standing medieval legend. Marlowe’s character of Doctor Faustus and his quest remains embedded deep within the western psyche, while Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist (1610) debunks the mystical terminology of alchemy and the pecuniary goal its frequently associated with. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is also notable for being one of the very first drama's which have several plots occurring simultaneously.
Robert Greene’s drama is one of the earliest literary works featuring notable figures from the western esoteric tradition. The mercurial place of the western esoteric tradition in the intellectual history of the Medieval and Renaissance era has been explored by many writers since Greene and Marlowe's day, including the Spanish author Cervantes' picaresque prototype novel Don Quixote ( first part 1604) in which the character of Don Antonio Moreno has a brazen head created for him by an unnamed Polish pupil.
In Russian author Valery Brysov’s The Fiery Angel (1908) the Renaissance era of magus Cornelius Agrippa is revived, while in the Austrian novelist Gustav Meyrink’s The Angel of the West Window (1928) the life and times of John Dee are depicted. Magic features prominently in Mikhail Bulgakov's cult novel of satire and fantasy The Master and Margarita (1936) while British author John Cowper Powys (1872–1963) in his novel The Brazen Head (1956) imaginatively conjures up the world of 13th century Wessex and Friar Bacon. Powys’s historical-fantasy-romance anticipates Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Abyss (1968) an account of the life and times of the fictitious Zeno, a physician, philosopher, scientist and alchemist born in Bruges during the 16th century, which, in all probability, is based upon the biography of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. More recently, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) features the Sherlock Holmes-like character William of Baskerville, who may be based upon the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c.1288-1338) an early advocate of the inductive method. Eco's The Name of the Rose, like the aforementioned novels, debates upon the medieval imagination, the tension between the perceived magic of early science and the powerful censorship and prejudices of the Church, as William of Baskerville discovers when the Inquisition is called to a monastery to investigate a series of mysterious deaths.
Robert Greene's drama must have been well-known to the physician-philosopher Thomas Browne who, writing in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica displays an uncommon knowledge of the 'Great Work' of alchemy, interpreting the legend of the speaking, oracular brass head thus-
Every ear is filled with the story of Frier Bacon,that made a brazen head to speak these words, TIME IS. Which, though there want not the like relations, is surely too literally received, and was but a mystical fable concerning the Philosophers great work, wherein he eminently laboured. Implying no more by the copper head, then the vessel wherein it was wrought; and by the words it spake, then the opportunity to be watched, about the tempus ortus, or birth of the mysticall child or Philosophical King of Lullus. Bk 7: Chapter 1
Text of Greene's The Honourable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
The 1555 Legend upon which Green based his drama.