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When we observe the tendency which has been shown by the generality of mankind in all ages and countries, to estimate the capabilities of the human mind by the limited powers which have been allotted to themselves, we cannot be surprized that they should endeavour to reduce the master-spirits of Genius and Philosophy to their own level, by attributing their superior acquirements to the influence of demoniacal agency. Such has ever been the solution which the vulgar have given to the apparently mysterious power which superior intellect possessed over them, while the few whose better knowledge should have led them to check so delusive and dangerous an opinion were too often induced by feelings of envy, if not openly to encourage, at least tacitly to sanction it. Among the many who have been thus treated, none have been so more unjustly than Roger Bacon, who in the three first chapters of his epistle on the Power of Art and Nature, expressly declares against magic, unlawful books, characters and spells, but is in the following tale transformed from the greatest philosopher of his age into a beneficent and powerful conjuror.
The history of Fryer Bacon as related in these pages, was probably written towards the close of the sixteenth century, and is we may suppose a collection of the various traditions respecting him which were current among all classes of the community when the narrative was compiled. Many of the incidents contained in it are widely diffused in other shapes, and the name of our hero has doubtless often been connected with them merely from their being mutual subjects of popular fable: but the Brazen Head and the wonderful Perspective Glass, which he is reported to have made, seem deserving of particular notice, though any credit which may be given to him for his exertions in constructing such a head, "by the which hee would have walled England round with brass," he will I fear have to share with so many who are said to have possessed similar skill in the construction of magical images that it will be considerably diminished. Virgil is reported to have constructed certain images called Salvacio Romse, which are fully described in that extraordinary production the Lyfe of Virgilius. Robert Greathead or Grosthead, commonly called Robert of Lincoln, is reported by Gower to have constructed a brazen head which could speak, and is coupled with our author by Butler, who speaks of " Old Hodge Bacon and Bob Groetead."
William of Malmsbury mentions a similar one constructed by Pope Sylvester the Second, and Yepes affirms that Henry de Villeine made such a one at Madrid, which was afterwards broken to pieces by order of John the Second, King of Castile, and upon numerous authorities, the same thing has been as* serted of Albertus Magnus.* And here let me extract what Sir Thomas Browne says upon this subject in his Vulgar Errors. Book 7. Cap. 17.
Every ear is filled with the story of Friar Bacon, that made a Brazen Head to speak these words Time is, which though they want not the like relation, is surely too literally received, and was but a mystical fable concerning the philosopher's great work, wherein he eminently laboured; implying no more by the copper head than the vessel where it was wrought; and by the words it spake, than the opportunity to be watched about the tempus ortus, or birth of the mystical child, or philosophical king of Lullius, the rising of the terra foliata of Arnoldus; when the earth, sufficiently impregnated with the water, ascendeth white and splendent; which not observed the work is irrecoverably lost, according to that of
* Stow mentions a head of earth made at Oxford by the art of necromancy, in the reign of Edward the Second, that at a time appointed spake these words, Caput decidetur, the head shall be cutoff: Caput elevaUtur, the head shall be lift up: Pedes elevabuntur supra caput, the feet shall be lifted above the head.
Petrus Bonus " Ibi est opens perfectio, aut annihilatio, quoniam ipse die oriantur elementa simplicia, depurata, quae egont statin) compositione, antequam volent ab igne." Now letting slip this critical opportunity, he missed the intended treasure: which had he obtained, he might have made out the tradition of making a brazen wall about England, that is, the most powerful defence or strongest fortification which gold could have effected.
The fable of his wonderful perspective glass evidently derives its origin from his well-known skill in optics, to the improvement of which science he greatly contributed. The Camera Obscura and Burning Glass, both of which are obviously alluded to in the Romance, are mentioned in his Opus Magus, and the supposition which has arisen from a passage in that work, that he was the Inventor of the Telescope, derives additional confirmation from the evidence thus afforded by tradition.
His stratagem to save the lives of three brethren is borrowed from the Gesta Romanorum, and is the 45th Story, fol. 38, of the edition printed at Paris, by Jehan Petit, 8vo. 1506, while Miles conjuring for meat, resembles in its incidents Che dfrrira of 13trUwft, a tale supposed to be written by Dunbar, who died about 1525, which is printed in Pinkerton's Scotch Poems, vol. i. p. 65. The contention between Bacon, Bungay and Vandermast, though productive of many wonderful feats of art, will h.ardly bare com
parison in that respect with the following contest, recorded in Roscoe's Germ. Nov. vol. i p. 266. When Charles 4th celebrated his nuptials with the Bavarian Princess Sophia, the bri'le's father brought a waggon load of magicians with him to enliven the City of Prague. Two of the chief artists were selected by the court to contend with each other in diablerie, when the great Bohemian Sorcerer Zytho, after a desperate trial of skill, seized the Bavarian master Gouin, and opening his jaws from ear to ear, eat him up from top to toe, hide and all, until he came to his shoes. Not liking the flavour of these he spit them out, declaring they must first be cleaned. Next he restored his rival to life with the same facility as he had eaten him.
"The honorable History Of Frier Bacon And Frierbongay, as it was plaied by her Majesties servants. Made by Robert Greene, Maisterof Arts. London, printed for Edward White, and are to be sold at his shop, at the little north dore of Poules at the signe of the Gun, 1594," 4to. is a play similar in its incidents to the present narrative upon which it is probably founded, as it was the custom with the Dramatists of that day to adopt some popular tale as the foundation of their work. There were also editions of this play printed in 1599, 1630 and 1655. As might be expected' from its popularity, there are several editions of the present tale, which differ very slightly from each other.