Wednesday 11 March 2015

Guest Post ~ Karen Maitland

I am delighted to welcome back to the blog

Photograph by kind permission

Headline Review
12th March 2014

Talking Heads by Karen Maitland 

I’ve long been fascinated by the ancient art of alchemy which lies at the heart of my latest medieval thriller THE RAVEN’S HEAD. The raven’s head was the alchemist’s symbol of death and putrefaction. 

Alchemy was first practised in Egypt by the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC. Later famous alchemists surprisingly include Sir Walter Raleigh, the artist Van Dyke, Queen Christina of Sweden, King Charles II of England and Sir Isaac Newton. 

But in the Middle Ages, alchemy was a dangerous practice. Many of the chemical experiments they attempted went horribly wrong, leading to explosions or fires. Given that many building in towns were made of wood, neighbours got a bit twitchy if they though there was an alchemist living next door, so often attacked them, beating them up and smashing their laboratories. And if word got round that an alchemist really had succeeded in producing gold, they might well be murdered by thieves, or tortured into revealing their secrets. So alchemists carried out their work in secret, recording their experiments in elaborate codes. 

Explosion in Alchemist lab

But the real-life alchemist who inspired the character of Arthmael in my novel was the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (1214-1294). He introduced gunpowder to the west. He also predicted the invention of the microscope, planes and steamships. But it was his alchemy experiments and books that really got him into trouble with his superiors in the Church and for the last ten years of his life he was imprisoned on charges of heresy and sorcery. That didn’t stop him though, he kept writing about his great obsession – the mysterious art of alchemy that had the power to turn lead into gold or produce the elixir of eternal life. 

One of the strangest legends about him was that he created a head of brass to foretell the future. He left his apprentice, Miles, to watch over the head, warning him that he must answer at once if the head spoke. When Miles was alone, the head suddenly spoke saying, ‘Time is.’ 

But Miles didn’t understand what that meant, so he ignored it. 

After a while the head said, ‘Time was.’ But Miles just gaped at it. 

Finally the head said, ‘Time is passed’ and burst into flames, for the time to question it had passed forever. 

Brasenose College in Oxford has a 12th century door-knocker in the form of a head which for centuries the college claimed to be the brazen head Roger Bacon made. I wonder what that head will predict if it ever decides to speak again. 

Brazen Head Knocker at
Brasenose College, Oxford

©Karen Maitland

Amazon UK

My thanks to Karen Maitland for giving us such a fascinating glimpse into the ancient art of Alchemy


 Caitlin Raynor at Headline Review for her help with this guest post.

The Raven's Head


published 12th March and is available online and from  all good bookshops.


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