The True History of Friar Bungay

bacon and bungay

Yes, actually the true story.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case, fiction is a lot stranger than the truth.  And yet, by revealing Thomas Bungay for what he was, we can strip away a little bit of the myth that the Middle Ages were completely unlearned, unlettered and superstitious.  In the stories, Friar Bungay is a magician, capable of conjuring up illusions of a damagingly physical nature, working alongside the equally magically-minded Friar Bacon to create a brazen head as part of their plan to protect England by building a wall of brass around the country (an early form of immigration control?) to protect it from its enemies, and fighting the German magician Vandermast.  Bungay’s magical adventures can be found in Suffolk Folk Tales, but like so many legends, his does have a basis in fact.

Blomefield in his History of Norfolk says of Bungay, ‘He was a great mathematician, and so knowing in the hidden secrets of nature and skilled in uncommon experiments, that he performed such wonders by his wit and art, as exceeded the understanding of the vulgar and therefore the doctor was traduced by some as a person dealing in the black art, holding correspondence with demons and in word a conjurer, and that one had to do with the Devil.’[1]  This was written in about 1745, and was the popular idea of both Bungay and Bacon from at least the 16th and 17th centuries when The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay were published.

Thomas Bungay was almost certainly from Bungay – he is sometimes referred to as Thomas de Bungeye, Thomas of Bungay, and he may have become a Franciscan friar in Norwich.  The Franciscan order had arrived in the city in 1226, and was established by the late 13th century on a site that straddled Prince of Wales Road – unsurprisingly close to Greyfriars Road.  Nothing remains of the site now, but it has been extensively excavated. After a few years there, probably as a boy, Bungay went up to Oxford to study at the Franciscan convent, Greyfriars Hall on the Iffley Road.  It wasn’t officially a college, but the Franciscan scholars in the city would have studied there.

It would have been an exciting place to the young Bungay.  His fellow Suffolk scholar, from Stradbroke, Robert Grosseteste, had been one of the first lectors at the hall (we would say lecturer now), teaching, as you might expect, theology.  But that can’t have been all he was teaching.  Grosseteste was a scientist as well as a theologian, writing on light, astronomy, on tides, on the rainbow and on maths in natural science.  He was one of the first scholars in England to start using controlled experiments as a way of demonstrating scientific theories, and although Bungay almost certainly wasn’t there in his day, the scientific tradition continued alongside the theology and philosophy.  We can imagine the scholars making their experiments on the natural world, debating and writing in this heady atmosphere of learning.  I must confess that my idea of what these medieval colleges were like is probably a bit skewed by Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series, set in 14th century Cambridge during and mostly after the Black Death.  I do hope that there was a bit more studying and a little less murder in the real 13th century Oxford!

Bungay may have met his latter-day magician friend Roger Bacon at Oxford, but it is possible they never met at all.  Bacon probably did study with Grosseteste, but he was almost certainly gone from Oxford by the time Bungay arrived, probably around 1250.  By the time Bacon returned to Oxford in around 1278, Bungay had moved on, and was at the Other Place: Cambridge.   It’s possible they met in Paris as Blomefield says in his History of Norfolk that Bungay went from Oxford to Paris after becoming a doctor of divinity and became something of a scholarly celebrity there … if we trust Blomefield, of course. As both men were scholars and natural scientists, it does seem likely that in the small world of Franciscan scholarship in the middle ages, that they did know each other, even if they weren’t at Oxford at the same time.

Bacon is a well-known medieval scholar – though he’s often confused with Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher, statesman and scientist who also was a pioneer of empirical research in natural science.  Not to mention the 20th century painter of the same name – F Bacon’s all… Our Friar Roger Bacon was an expert on optics, argued for the reform of the Julian calendar (he was proved right, but the Gregorian calendar only came in three centuries later in 1582…), and was allegedly the first person to describe the ingredients and method for creating gunpowder in Europe.  His friend and fellow Franciscan, William Rubruck, had actually been to visit the Mongols at Karakorum and probably obtained some Chinese firecrackers while there.  The picture that starts to build is of the Franciscans in the 13th century having enquiring minds and the freedom to study, travel and experiment.

Bungay didn’t travel that far.  He went on to be a lector himself, at Oxford, and although most of his writing are lost, we know of one paper, De celo et mundo, a commentary on Aristotle’s main astronomical treatise, On the Heavens, which survives in Caius College, Cambridge.  He was also a theologian, of course.  He became the Provincial Master of the Franciscan Order in England, and in the 1280s was sent to Cambridge to be the Franciscan lector there, as part of a scheme by the Cambridge Franciscans to boost their school with able scholars from elsewhere[2].  It is said that he left Cambridge to live in the Franciscan house in Northampton, and was buried there when he died probably in the very late 13th century. It’s possible that he saw the ordination of another famous scholar – one with no whiff of sorcery – ordained at the Church of St Andrew in Northampton in 1291, John Duns Scotus.

How did Bacon and Bungay become sorcerers in the popular imagination?  Although it seems from the work and travels of Franciscans and other friars and priests that there was a certain amount of freedom of movement and thought, this is simplistic.  The Franciscan Order was busy tearing itself apart over various issues during Bacon and Bungay’s lifetime, and their scientific research often skirted close to the forbidden topic of alchemy – and even if they didn’t practice themselves, we know that Bacon at least wrote about it.  Easy to be tarred with the same brush – from alchemy, which looked, potentially to create gold and prolong life, it was a quick step to the dark arts and magic.  And stories of magic are easier to understand and more fun, more salacious than scientific philosophy. Mathematics and other ‘secret’ languages of science and philosophy (we might describe it as ‘jargon’ today) could easily be considered magic – especially when most people were illiterate.  Bacon may have even been imprisoned for his ‘novel’ ideas … but it looks like Bungay preferred a quieter life.

Next time – a tale of Bungay and Vandermast from the The Famous Historie…

Illustration from the cover of Robert Greene’s play, 1630.

[1] Mann, E Old Bungay (London: Heath Cranton), p. 229.

[2] Swanson, J ‘Thomas Bungay’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,, accessed 23 November 2014