The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon is a tale that formed the basis for the play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, by Robert Greene. The play itself was first performed in 1594. The tale he used was much older. The original text of the comedy is in Minor Elizabethan Drama — The Pre-Shakespearean Comedies edited by Ashley Thorndike for Everyman's Library. There is no mention of the source, the date or the author of the text that Mr. Thorndike included in this volume.
The text has been mostly modernized below by S. Rhoads, while attempting to preserve a touch of the early Elizabethan style. (The original text follows, for purists and the curious.) This new version was tested on two complete strangers — the new owners of the Chinese restaurant down the road — and on her daughter during various stages of construction. The Kid liked it but her browser didn't put the page numbers in the margins like it was supposed to. The wife who is a co-owner of the Chinese restaurant gave the first decent bit of criticism, pointing out the sections where further clarity was needed. The husband said he'd wait till they made it into a TV show.
Two out of three said it was a good story and still funny. And that makes it Good Enough. Especially for a 600-year-old story.
FRIAR BACON, reading one day of the many conquests of England, began thinking to himself how he might keep it from being conquered again, and so make himself famous to all posterity. This, after great study, he found could be best done in one way; which was to make a head of brass. And if he could make this head speak, and hear it when it spoke, then he might be able to wall all England about with brass.
To this purpose he got one Friar Bungey to assist him, who was a great scholar and a magician, but not to be compared to Friar Bacon.
These two, with great study and pains, so framed a head of brass, that in the inward parts of it there was everything just like that inside a natural man's head. This being done, they were as far from perfection of the work as they were before. For they didn't know how to give those parts that they had made motion, without which it was impossible for it to speak. Many books they read, but still could not find any clue for what they sought.
At last, they decided to raise a spirit, and to learn from him that which they could not discover by their own studies. To do this they made everything ready and went one evening to a wood nearby, and after many ceremonies, they spoke the words 223 of conjuration; which the Devil obeyed straight away, and appeared to them, asking what they wanted.
"Know," said Friar Bacon, "that we have made an artificial head of brass, which we would have speak. To do this, we have raised you. And being raised, we will keep you here, unless you tell us the way and manner of how to make this head speak."
The Devil told him that he had not that power by himself.
"Beginner of lies!" said Friar Bacon, "I know that you are dissembling, and therefore tell it to us quickly, or else we will bind you here to remain during our pleasures."
At these threats the Devil consented to do it, and told them, that with a continual fume of the six hottest potions the head of brass should have motion, and in one month's space it would speak. The time of the month or day he knew not. Also he told them, that if they did not hear it before it had done speaking, all their labour should be lost.
They, being satisfied, freed the spirit to depart.
Then these two learned friars went home again, and prepared the simples, and made the fume. And with continual watching, they tended it, waiting for the time when this brazen head would speak. Thus they watched for three weeks without any rest, so that they were so weary and sleepy that they could no longer refrain from rest.
Then Friar Bacon called his man Miles, and told him that it was not unknown to him what pains Friar Bungey and himself had taken for three weeks. All that they had done only to make and to hear the Brazen-head speak, which if they did not, then had they lost all their labour, and all England would have a great loss. Therefore he entreated Miles, asking if he would watch while they slept, and call them if the head spoke.
"Fear not, good master," said Miles, "I will not sleep, but listen and watch over the head, and if it does chance to speak, I will call you. Therefore, I pray, both of you take your rests and leave me alone to watch this head."
After Friar Bacon had instructed him in this great duty a second time, Friar Bungey and he went to sleep. And Miles alone watched the brazen head.
Miles, to keep himself from sleeping, got a tambourine and pipe, and being merrily disposed, sung this song to a northern tune of:
With his own music and such songs as these he spent his time, and kept from sleeping.
Later, after making some noise of its own, the head spoke these two words, "TIME IS."
Miles, hearing it speak no more, thought his master would be angry if he woke him for that. Therefore he let them both sleep and began to mock the head in this manner:
"You brazen-faced head, has my master taken all these pains with you, and now you repay him with two words: TIME IS? Had he watched with a lawyer as long as he has watched with you, he would have given him more and better words than you have so far. If you can't speak no more than that, they shall sleep till doom's day.... TIME IS! . . . I know Time is, and that you shall hear, Goodman Brazen-face:—
"Do you tell us, copper-nose, when TIME IS?" he continued. "I hope we scholars know our times: when to drink drunk, when to kiss our hostess, when to go on her score [tab], and when to pay it, — . . . that time comes seldom."
After half an hour had passed, the head did speak again, two words, which were these, "TIME WAS."
Miles respected these words as little as he did the former, and would not wake them. But still he scoffed at the brazen head, that it had learned no better words when he had such a tutor as his master. And, in scorn of it, he sang this song: —
"TIME WAS!" he jeered. "I know that, brazen-face, without your telling. I know Time was, and I know what things there was when Time was. And if you speak no wiser, no master shall be wakened by me."
Thus Miles talked and sung till another half-hour was gone. Then the brazen head spoke again — these words, "TIME IS PAST." After this, it fell down and presently followed a terrible noise, with strange flashes of fire, so that Miles was half dead with fear.
At this noise the two Friars awakened and wondered to see the whole room so full of smoke. But when that vanished they could see the brazen head broken and lying on the ground. At this sight they grieved, and called Miles to learn 226 how this had come about.
Miles, half dead with fear, said that it fell down by itself, and that with the noise and fire that followed he was almost frightened out of his wits.
Friar Bacon asked him,"Did he not speak?"
"Yes," quoth Miles, "it spoke, but to no purpose. I'll have a parrot speak better in the time that you have been teaching this brazen head."
"Out on thee, villain!' said Friar Bacon; "you have undone us both! Had you but called us when it did speak, all England would have been walled round about with brass, to its glory and our eternal fame. What were the words it spoke?"
"Very few," said Miles, "and those were none of the wisest that I have heard either. First he said, 'TIME IS.'"
"Had you called us then,' said Friar Bacon, 'we would have been made forever!"
"Then," said Miles, "half an hour after, it spoke again and said, 'TIME WAS.'"
"And would you not call us then?" said Bungey.
"Alas," said Miles, "I thought he would have told me some long tale, and then I proposed to call you. Then half an hour after he cried, 'TIME IS PAST', and made such a noise that he woke you himself, I think."
At this Friar Bacon was in such a rage that he would have beaten his man, but he was restrained by Bungey; but nevertheless, for his punishment, he, with his art, struck him dumb for one whole month's space.
Thus the great work of these learned friars was overthrown, to their great grief, by this simple fellow.
"FRYER BACON, reading one day of the many conquests of England, bethought himselfe how he might keepe it hereafter from the like conquests, and so make himselfe famous hereafter to all posterities. This, after great study, hee found could be no way so well done as one; which was to make a head of brasse, and if he could make this head to speake, and heare it when it speakes, then might hee be able to wall all England about with brasse. To this purpose hee got one Fryer Bungey to assist him, who was a great scholler and a magician, but not to bee compared to Fryer Bacon: these two with great study and paines so framed a head of brasse, that in the inward parts thereof there was all things like as in a naturall man's head. This being done, they were as farre from perfection of the worke as they were before, for they knew not how to give those parts that they had made motion, without which it was impossible that it should speake: many bookes they read, but yet could not finde out any hope of what they sought, that at the last they concluded to raise a spirit, and to know of him that which they could not attaine to by their owne studies. To do this they prepared all things ready, and went one evening to a wood thereby, and after many ceremonies used, they spake the words 223 of coniuration; which the Devill straight obeyed, and appeared unto them, asking what they would? 'Know,' said Fryer Bacon, 'that wee have made an artificiall head of brasse, which we would have to speake, to the furtherance of which wee have raised thee; and being raised, wee will here keepe thee, unlesse thou tell to us the way and manner how to make this head to speake.' The Devill told him that he had not that power of himselfe. 'Beginner of lyes,' said Fryer Bacon, 'I know that thou dost dissemble, and therefore tell it us quickly, or else wee will here bind thee to remaine during our pleasures.' At these threatnings the Devill consented to doe it, and told them, that with a continuel fume of the six hotest simples it should have motion, and in one month space speak; the time of the month or day hee knew not: also hee told them, that if they heard it not before it had done speaking, all their labour should be lost. They being satisfied, licensed the spirit for to depart.
"Then went these two learned fryers home againe, and prepared the simples ready, and made the fume, and with continuall watching attended when this brasen head would speake. Thus watched they for three weekes without any rest, so that they were so weary and sleepy that they could not any longer refraine from rest: then called Freyer Bacon his man Miles, and told him, that it was not unknown to him what paines Fryer Bungey and himselfe had taken for three weekes space, onely to make, and to heare the Brazen-head speake, which if they did not, then had they lost all their labour, and all England had a great losse thereby; therefore hee intreated Miles that he would watch whilst that they slept, and call them if the head speake. 'Feare not, good master,' said Miles, 'I will not sleepe, but harken and attend upon the head, and if it doe chance to speake, I will call you; therefore I pray take you both your rests and let mee alone for watching this head.' After Fryer Bacon had given him a great charge the second time, Fryer Bungey and he went to sleepe, and Miles, alone to watch the brasen head. Miles, to keepe him from sleeping, got a tabor and pipe, and being merry disposed, sung this song to a northren tune of
"With his owne musicke and such songs as these spent he his time, and kept from sleeping at last. After some noyse the head spake these two words, TIME IS. Miles, hearing it to speake no more, thought his master would be angry if hee waked him for that, and therefore he let them both sleepe, and began to mocke the head in this manner; 'Thou brazen-faced head, hath my master tooke all this paines about thee, and now dost thou requite him with two words, TIME IS? Had hee watched with a lawyer so long as he hath watched with thee, he would have given him more and better words then thou hast yet. If thou canst speake no wider, they shal sleepe till doomes day for me: TIME IS! I know Time is, and that you shall heare, Goodman Brazen-face: —
"'Do you tell us, copper-nose, when TIME IS? I hope we schollers know our times, when to drinke drunke, when to kisse our hostes, when to goe on her score, and when to pay it, — that time comes seldome.' After halfe an hour had passed, the head did speake againe, two words, which were these, TIME WAS. Miles respected these words as little as he did the former, and would not wake them, but still scoffed at the brazen head, that it had learned no better words, and have such a tutor as his master: and in scorne of it sung this song: —
'TIME WAS! I know that, brazen-face, without your telling, I know Time was, and I know what things there was when Time was; and if you speake no wiser, no master shall be waked for mee.' Thus Miles talked and sung till another halfe-hour was gone: then the brazen head spake again these words, TIME IS PAST; and therewith fell downe, and presently followed a terrible noyse, with strange flashes of fire, so that Miles was halfe dead with feare. At this noyse the two Fryers awaked, and wondred to see the whole roome so full of smoake; but that being vanished they might perceive the brazen head broken and lying on the ground. At this sight they grieved, and called Miles to know
how this came. Miles, halfe dead with feare, said that it fell downe of itselfe, and that with the noyse and fire that followed he was almost frighted out of his wits. Fryer Bacon asked him if hee did not speake? 'Yes," quoth Miles, 'it spake, but to no purpose: Ile have a parret speake better in that time that you have been teaching this brazen head.' 'Out on thee, villaine!' said Fryer Bacon; 'thou hast undone us both: hadst thou but called us when it did speake, all England had been walled round about with brasse, to its glory and our eternal fames. What were the wordes it spake?' 'Very few,' said Miles, 'and those were none of the wisest that I have heard neither: first he said, TIME IS.' 'Hadst thou call'd us then,' said Fryer Bacon, 'we had been made for ever.' 'Then,' said Miles, 'half-an-hour after it spake againe and said, TIME WAS.' 'And wouldst thou not call us then?" said Bungey. 'Alas,' said Miles, 'I thought he would have told me some long tale, and then I purposed to have called you: then half-an-houre after he cried, TIME IS PAST, and made such a noyse that hee hath waked you himselfe, mee thinkes.' At this Fryer Bacon was in such a rage that hee would have beaten his man, but he was restrained by Bungey: but neverthelesse, for his punishment, he with his art struck him dumbe for one whole months space. Thus the greate worke of these learned fryers was overthrown, to their great griefes, by this simple fellow."
2 i.e., fiddle.