No Ghost in the Machine: Talking Heads in Sylva

At the end of Century II of Sylva Sylvarum, Bacon mentions the possibility of making a talking puppet by studying the principles that allow for the production of sound in animate and inanimate bodies:

[S]o that if a man, for curiosity or strangeness sake, would make a puppet or other dead body to pronounce a word, let him consider, on the one part, the motion of the instrument of voice; and on the other part, the like sounds made in inanimate bodies; and what conformity there is that causeth the similitude of sounds; and by that he may minister light to that effect. (SS:199)

Talking heads – of natural or artificial provenience – had been an object of fascination starting with the late Middle Ages and would continue to be one up to the eighteenth century (nineteenth, if we integrate them into the larger tradition of the “learned man’s android” as detailed by Sarah Higley [1]).  Yet the source of their fascination changed dramatically during this period, following a larger trend of naturalizing the preternatural and integrating it into “scientific” explanatory paradigms.[2]

On the natural front, Aristotle had declared severed talking heads an impossibility, on account of the fact that the lungs and windpipe were needed to produce sound (On the Parts of Animals, III:10). Despite this pronouncement, severed talking heads continued their career as a literary and hagiographical motif. Virgil and Ovid depicted the head of Orpheus, still calling out to Eurydice as it floated off to the sea. The heads of Christian saints were sometimes said to keep talking even after they were cut off (St. Edmund the Martyr in Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Santi Eadmundi a good example of this).

On the artificial front, brazen talking heads came to be regarded, in the late Middle Ages, as a symbol of dangerous knowledge. There was little insight into how they were produced, besides the fact that learned men studied the stars for favorable conjunctions to make them. Brazen heads were not to be trusted: legends had them telling the truth in a cryptic manner, so that those who relied on their advice were often led to their death. Among those who were said to have produced or owned a brazen talking head were Virgil (probably because he was a source for the legend of Orpheus), Pope Sylvester II (who was said to have died because he relied on the advice of said instrument), Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus (whose creation was sometimes said to have been destroyed by Thomas Aquinas) and Roger Bacon.[3]

The cover Greene's play, showing Friar Bacon's brazen head

The cover of Greene’s play, showing Friar Bacon’s brazen head

Roger Bacon probably became the most famous of the group, as his example was later used in a popular Elizabethan play of Robert Greene’s, The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (~1594). In Greene’s play, the brazen head shatters, after it utters only a cryptic pronouncement (“Time is. Time was. Time is past.”), and Bacon eventually renounces his magic. In this example, as in earlier others, the source of the brazen head’s powers was demonic. But there is something else worth noting in this play, and that is the skepticism displayed by the Oxford doctors towards Bacon’s discovery, which reflects a wider change in attitude during the period. As one of them says:

Have I not pass’d as far in state of schools,
And read of many secrets ? Yet to think
That heads of brass can utter any voice,
Or more, to tell of deep philosophy,
This is a fable Æsop had forgot.

The possibility that someone had ever built a real, autonomous talking head by consulting the stars was challenged by Della Porta, while at the same time an alternative explanation was given: it was possible that the talking head relied on long pipes conveying the sound of someone’s voice from a distance (Natural Magick, XIX:1). The same disparaging of the initial claim, followed by an explanation based on sound being carried through pipes is to be found in Campanella’s Magia e Grazia. (This explanation also happens to nicely parallel an episode from Chapter LVII of Don Quixote, where, steeped as he is in medieval romances, Don Quixote is deceived by a talking head relying not on supernatural powers, but on a system of pipes with a sharp-witted student at the end of them. The man owning the head claims that it was built by “one of the greatest magicians and wizards the world ever saw” who “observed the points of the compass, (…) traced figures, (…) studied the stars, (…) watched favourable moments, and at length brought it to the perfection we shall see to–morrow.”)

While Bacon, like Della Porta, offers a naturalistic basis for building a talking head, his project is far more ambitious, because it deals with imitating and not merely conveying the human voice, by deciphering what makes it possible in the first place.

Sources/Further reading:

[1] Higley S.L.; (1997) The Legend of the Learned Man’s Android. In: Hahn, T. and Lupack A. (eds.), Retelling Tales. Essays in Honor of Russell Peck

[2] Daston, L., & Park, K. (2001). Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750.

[3] Mills, R; (2013) Talking Heads, or, A Tale of Two Clerics. In: Santing, C. and Baert, B. and Traninger, A., (eds.) Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

Distillations: what kind of phenomena?

One way to look at the phenomena described by Bacon in the first century of Sylva is through his repeated affirmations that percolation, filtering, distillation etc. are either produced by the same invisible motion or even identical phenomena. What is the source of such affirmations?

A good number of experiments in Century I are taken from Della Porta, Magia naturalis. Does Bacon take over the same classification of phenomena as Della Porta? Or is there a common and accepted meaning of ‘distillation’ containing phenomena as diverse as filtering, separation due to different specific weights, differences of density, condensation, transmutation etc.?


In fact, at the end of the sixteenth century, distillation is a chemical procedure circumscribing a wide range of phenomena. There are a good number of books dealing with this subject, but here is just one example: Conrad Gesner, Thesaurus…de remediis secretis, Zurich, 1555. A best seller: it was translated into English, French, German and Italian and was often republished until 1600. This book is interesting and relevant, I think, because it belongs to one of the most important sixteenth century ‘naturalists’ , and it ‘belongs’ to the tradition of ‘natural history’. Gesner belongs to the tradition of humanist natural history, he is interested in the natural histories (animals, plants, pharmacy and medicine), he is a doctor (in Zurich) a philologist and a collector. He is also opposed to Paracelsianism.

Thesaurus was published in England a couple of times between 1570 and 1600, under different names: The newe jewell of health (translated by George Backer), London, 1676, and The practise of the new and old physicke, London 1599 (the same translation). It is mainly a book on distillation, where by distillation is understood any procedure through which one manages to separate, from a mixed body, thin, aerial or subtle components. It involves heating, vaporization and condensation but the experimental set-up, the apparatus involved or the principles at work can differ widely, according to what the experimenter wants to achieve.

Definitions of distillation

The book begins with a number of definitions of distillation drawn from ancient and modern authors (Langius, Cardano etc.) – the most general involving any separation of elements or particular virtues from a given mixed body. Distillation can be done in various experimental set up (the simplest: bain marie) and it includes filterying drying evaporation etc. Heating is essential, but boiling is not – in fact, Gesner offers a number of slow distillations where the evaporation takes place in the heat of the sun, or by the rays of light augmented through a mirror or a lens.


Theory of matter

Gesner adopts a very curious ‘mixture’ of ‘Atomism’ and Aristotelian matter theory in order to explain the principle of distillation. Here is a significant passage:

No person needeth to doubt, that all Bodies which growe and take increasement in the earth, are compounded of divers, and in a manner, infinitely small parts (which the Greeks properly name Atomes) of the Elements, and that in those rest differing and contrarie vertues: neverthelesse, under one maner of forme of all the Bodies compounded, as the like appeareth, and is confirmed in that roote of Rubarbe, so much regarded and esteemed in all places, which doth both loose the Belie, and bynde the same, yet this delivereth and openeth the obstructions of the Liver (p. 4).

Since in one single plant or substance (having one substantial form) we can find sometimes different (even opposing) qualities and virtues, the question is how can we separate such virtues and incorporate them in medicines or directly in the human organism. Gesner claims that the experimenter should pay attention to two major ‘principles’: the matter subject to distillation, and the apparatus. In this context, he offers a good number of experimental set-ups and apparatuses for various kinds of distillations, from the most simple (‘drawing waters’ of X) to the more complex (involving transmutations, spirits and immateriate virtues).


Classifications and experimental set-ups

Gesner classifies distillations according to the geometry of the experimental set-ups in ascendent and descendent distillations. Also, according to the kind of heat used, distillation can be produced by the heat of the sun (augmented through mirrors and lenses), by the heat of the fire and by the heat emanating from the putrefaction of matter.

The descending distillation can involve a very simple experimental set up, so simple that we can ‘see’ how many of Bacon’s experiments of filtering, percolation etc. can be developed from there. It begins with simply two pots with the mouths joined and buried in the ground (source: Albertus Magnus’ book on distillation). The upper pot is heated and the lower part is the receiver. There is an entire book on the ‘degrees of heate’ needed (moist heat, gentle heat, strong heat etc.). The geometry can also vary. Although the principle is the same, the stillatory can be placed in vessels of different shapes and forms, sometimes even on the top of a tower (p.16).


Common elements

There are three common elements of every distillation: the vessel (a glass bulb with a long neck, or a metallic version of the same), ‘the head’ (see figure) and the receiver. The matter to be distilled is put in the vessel, it gets evaporated and reaches the head, where a process of condensation takes place. The result has to be captured by the receiver.

Although heat is involved in all the distillations described, Gesner also mentions the possibility of distillation to be done ‘by the ice’ (28). What is also interesting is that in the second and third book Gesner is fully aware of the importance of the geometry of the experimental set-ups (for ‘catching’ various volatile components of various substances).