There have always been people who led the way in science and thinking: Issac Newton led the way by thinking up the theory of gravity that we still use (until someone discovers that it’s all just magnets buried by aliens.) Plato and Newton both put forward pretty accurate theories about the Earth’s core, and Aristachus of Samos put forward a fairly accurate picture of the Solar System about three hundred years before the Crucifixion.
On the other hand, the world has changed: in the modern day politicians still want to screw you, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re doing it because it’s necessary, because they’re keeping you safe, or because if they don’t communism will take over. They’re less likely to say, “The universe works this way and therefore I should be in charge because… umm… God.”
In the days where that was more common there was one type of person who always eventually fell under suspicion: people who asked questions. What kinds of people tend to ask questions? Philosophers, Magicians and Scientists. That might sound like three very different groups, but for most of human history they were one and the same. The problem is that when someone in charge stands to lose out from people knowing too much, the people who know too much fall under suspicion.
Pope Sylvester II Had A Talking Brass Head That Predicted His Death
Pope Sylvester 2nd lived in the 11th Century and was a bit ahead of his time. He’d spent his younger days in Spain learning Arabic mathematics and did a lot of good scientific work: he left notes that show he correctly placed not just the equator, but the Tropic of Cancer; he introduced the Abacus back into favour in Europe AND the Armillary sphere, which gave quite a boost to sciences like navigation and Astronomy.
On the other hand, nobody likes a smart-arse. Literally the same year that he died a bishop called Nicolaus Bubnov, driven mad by rage and shame at his own slightly suggestive surname, wrote a book suggesting that Sylvester’s technical advancements had come due to black magic.
Bubnov said that Sylvester didn’t stop at Spain, instead he went to the evil Arab schools of Astrology and Black Magic, fleeing the Middle East after stealing a spell book and constructing a brass head.
Bubnov’s story said that the Brass Head could answer any questions correctly… or at least… sort of correctly. In Bubnov’s book Sylvester died because he asked the head if he would survive a pilgrimage, only to be told that he would die in Jerusalem.
Sylvester’s response was, unsurprisingly, to decide that although he was Jonesing for some fine lamb, fresh hummus and good coffee, maybe a trip to the Holy Land wasn’t a good idea (especially since the Sufis hadn’t quite discovered coffee yet, but I assume the head told him that.)
Unfortunately, the head didn’t think to tell him that he’d need to avoid anywhere that had the word ‘Jerusalem’ in the name because he died a few months later giving mass in the San Crosse in Gerusalem chapel, where the devil jumped him, tore out his eyes and gave them to demons to play with.
The Knights Templar Kept Their God In A Talking Head, So No-One Had To Pay Back Any Loans They’d Issued
Okay, not everyone accused of having a talking head was a scientist of philosopher, but all of them were inconvenient to the government.
The Knights Templar almost invented finance. They started as an order protecting pilgrims in their journey to the Holy Land, and a large part of that involved preventing the lucrative ‘robbing the pilgrims for all their travel money’ industry that had grown around the pilgrim trail.
The Templar’s solution wasn’t just to have lots of badass soldiers wearing armour, it was also to make sure the pilgrims didn’t actually have anything of any value while they were on the trail: before leaving home the pilgrim would give all their money to the Knights in his home port and get a letter in return. Along the pilgrim trail he could withdraw funds from his account by presenting the letter with his balance to any Templars he met along the way. He didn’t have any actual money on him, even if the letter got stolen, the bandits would have to successfully convince the Knights themselves that they were some European godbotherer to get any of the money.
Unfortunately, having huge pots of money they weren’t using gave the Templars the worst idea of all time: they started loaning it to people… well I say people… I mean Crusaders.
Despite everything suggested by the Season of the Witch and the end scene of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Crusaders weren’t really a class act: many of them had only gone on Crusade because they’d been disgraced in their homeland, and even the ‘good’ ones were still medieval knights, which made them the worst, most out of control super-jocks you’ve ever seen (the rules of Chivalry were virtually only invented to put a curb on their hobbies of rape and spree killing.)
These were the same sort of people who went off on the 4th Crusade, got distracted by local politics and ended up sacking and terrorising Constantinople for three days, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. These were the people who came back broke from the First Crusade (and a massive war in Norway) and demanded that all they Jewish Moneylenders in Norwich wipe out their debts. Because, you know, Jewish bankers should totally be happy that some local hardcases went off and caused a blood bath in their ancestral homeland.
When the bankers didn’t quite see it that way, the Crusaders bravely accused them of ritually sacrificing a child and sparked off a wave of ethnic cleansing across every Jewish community in the UK.
Flash forward to 1307 when the Crusades have ended in disaster, the monarchs of Europe owe huge amounts of money to the Knights Templar and suddenly there’s a massive army who have strong opinions about Church/State corruption.
Hell, if it worked once…
An Irishman named Henry Tanet told stories about the Knights Templar in London, talking about their Pagan Rituals, baby sacrifice and worship of the god Baphomet who they kept in a talking brass head.
Apparently, the head could answer any question with correct, true information. Unfortunately, they obviously didn’t ask it “So… those people who owe money to us… should we be worried about them?”
The Knights Templar were arrested, tortured, convicted of Witchcraft and executed. A handful held out, like William de la More, who remained a prisoner at the Tower of London until his death. After that, the Knights Templar were no more. Well, except the ones who became the Knights of the Order of Christ in Portugal.
Roger Bacon Missed Getting Head Because He Was Asleep, Says Someone Two Hundred Years After He Died
If myth is to be believed, Roger Bacon’s life was to talking brass heads what gamers are to consoles: he was the student of Roger Grosseteste (a priest and scientist who had a talking brass head,) criticised the work of monk and scholar Albertus Magnus (who had a talking brass head) and taught in Oxford University (which, along with Cambridge, is the Apple Store of the talking brass head world.) In fact, as you read this article you might find yourself looking at everyone’s talking brass head misadventures and and wonder why none of them read the goddamn manual.
Well, the thing was… they couldn’t.Not until Roger Bacon came along and wrote it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Voynich Manuscript. It appeared in the hands of a rare book dealer in the 13th Century, around the time when Roger Bacon died, and changed hands all around Europe (and still continues doing so to this day.) Over the centuries it’s changed hands more times than the One Ring: royals gave it to monks, who gave it to mystics who lost it until it fell into the hands of book dealers and the whole process started again.
The manuscript is written in a flowing script and contains teasingly detailed illustrations of plants, diagrams and astronomical phenomena. The script has not yet been translated, although there are always people trying, and historians are pretty sure it was some sort of medieval pharmacist’s manual, linking plants and medicines with astrology. Historians also say that there’s no real link between Roger Bacon and the Voynich Manuscript, and that if we try to say otherwise they’ll stab us in the head. Pesky historians.
Thankfully for people selling Anti-Brass-Head insurance, there are still plenty of clear sighted, independent thinking cranks.
Through a mixture of cranks and outright fiction writers (as in people who were just writing works of fiction) we have a fairly clear idea that Roger Bacon wrote the Voynich Manuscript as a manual for a talking head that he could never get to work. According to the Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene, Bacon’s head was huge and made of gold, with handsome features and a nose so scary beautiful that it paralysed his assistant with a mixture of fear and weird nasophiliac lust.
In fact, Green’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay has Bacon finally going to bed after 72 hours of watching the head, waiting for it to come alive, only to have his assistant Miles be so fear-horny that he doesn’t tell his master when it starts speaking, gets tired of waiting, and self destructs.
After showing two friends how their fathers killed each other in a duel, only to have the kids then run out and do exactly the same thing, Greene’s play has Bacon turn his back on magic and lead a penitent life. Green himself, on the other hand, did exactly the opposite: being one of the best known drinkers and whoremongers of Elizabethan London, not only drinking and schtupping everything that moved, but leaving his wife and child for a gangster’s sister and then monetarising the whole thing by writing a successful series of books about it.
Not only that, but Greene had a bit of thing for talking brass heads. Not only did Bacon and Bungay have a talking brass head in it, but so did his first play, Alphonsus King of Aragon, where a talking brass head in the hands of Muslims (in fact, in the play it’s said that the brass head contains a God called Mehomet,) deceives a group of Turkish soldiers looking for news of their victory.
As to the real life of Bacon? Well… if he did build a talking brass head it wouldn’t actually be that surprising: he was a genius with ideas far ahead of his time. He championed the idea that scientists should experiment instead of just debating the words of classical authors. He made advances in Astronomy, physics and optics (extending the work of the Arab scientist Alhazen by dissecting the human eye, and examining connections between the nerves of the eye and the brain.) It’s even said that he was one of the first westerners to develop the recipe for gunpowder after seeing fireworks somewhere in the east.
And here we have the source of the brass heads: fear. This was a time when the crusades were cooling off and information was starting to exchange between the Middle East and Europe. Textbooks from Ancient Greece, not to mention the far superior science of the Arab thinkers who had preserved Classical Greek writers, came into Europe.
Granted, there were some legitimate books of magic that came over too, like the Picatrix, a book of Astrological magic, talisman, summonings and curses that Colin Wilson and friends cut up when they made their fake version of H P Lovecraft’s Necronomicon in 1978. There was an explosion of occult material, and Alchemical work in the years after manuscripts started flowing out of previously closed Holy Land. It’s even possible that some of the people accused of possessing the heads were involved in Alchemy. Albertus Magnus certainly got up to some dodgy stuff in his monastic tower, and another brass head owner was the legendary John Dee, who certainly knocked around with known Alchemist Edward Kelly.
Mostly, though, these men were victims of the fear of new knowledge, and the first emergence of ideas like banking, astronomy over astrology, and the scientific method. They were still men of their time, they still probably held with a lot of ideas that would repel the average modern person, but they were tasting of a forbidden fruit, and the resulting smoothie was heretical.