The Brazen Head

The speaking head is a recurring motif in medieval culture – the automaton made in secret by a philosopher-priest-sorceror, and imbued with the power of prophecy.

There are fables of speaking heads from Egypt, Germany, Greece, Persia, Portugal and elsewhere, and even a Pope, Sylvester II, was alleged to have owned one. But two of the best known legends come from England. Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln between 1235-1253, was said to have made “an hed of bras…for to telle of suche thinges as befelle”, only for it to disintegrate when he looked away for half a minute. His pupil Roger Bacon was also fabled to have forged one, before unwisely retiring to rest from moral and physical exhaustion. While he slept, the thing spoke three times, to say, “Time was”, “Time is” and “Time is past”, before being broken by a demonic hammer. The tale passed into folklore; as Sir Thomas Browne noted in Pseudodoxica Epidemica (1646) – “Every ear is filled with the story of Frier Bacon, that made a brazen head to speak”.

People have always been fascinated by the ideas automata evoke, about human consciousness, social representations, and the dangers and delights of knowledge. The golden head – brooding, disembodied, enigmatic – gleams unsettlingly across centuries, symbolizing the primacy of intelligence, looking outwards as well as in, forwards as well as back. This site is similarly dedicated to perennial questions, but also difficult realities, and possible futures.

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Editor DEREK TURNER is author of the novels A Modern JourneyDisplacement, and Sea Changes, and has written for journals including the TimesDaily MailSpectatorCountry LifeEconomist, ChroniclesQuadrant, and Literary Review. He is also author, most recently, of Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire (Hurst, 2022). editor[a]

Poetry Editor DR LIAM GUILAR lives in Australia, where until recently he taught English. His most recent collection of poetry is A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman, 2019). He blogs at and his website is poetryeditor[a]

Contributing Editor STUART MILLSON is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. After more than two decades living in a Kent village, he crossed the River Severn and the Black Mountains, and now writes from west Wales.