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Medieval Robots

Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

E. R. Truitt
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Medieval Robots
    Book Description:

    A thousand years before Isaac Asimov set down his Three Laws of Robotics, real and imagined automata appeared in European courts, liturgies, and literary texts. Medieval robots took such forms as talking statues, mechanical animals, and silent metal guardians; some served to entertain or instruct while others performed disciplinary or surveillance functions. Variously ascribed to artisanal genius, inexplicable cosmic forces, or demonic powers, these marvelous fabrications raised fundamental questions about knowledge, nature, and divine purpose in the Middle Ages.

    Medieval Robotsrecovers the forgotten history of fantastical, aspirational, and terrifying machines that especially captivated Europe in imagination and reality between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. E. R. Truitt traces the different forms of self-moving or self-sustaining manufactured objects from their earliest appearances in the Latin West through centuries of mechanical and literary invention. Chronicled in romances and song as well as histories and encyclopedias, medieval automata were powerful cultural objects that probed the limits of natural philosophy, illuminated and challenged definitions of life and death, and epitomized the transformative and threatening potential of foreign knowledge and culture. This original and wide-ranging study reveals the convergence of science, technology, and imagination in medieval culture and demonstrates the striking similarities between medieval and modern robotic and cybernetic visions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9140-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION. The Persistence of Robots: An Archaeology of Automata
    (pp. 1-11)

    Golden birds and beasts, musical fountains, and robotic servants astound and terrify guests. Brass horsemen, gilded buglers, and papier-mâché drummers mark the passage of time. Statues of departed lovers sigh, kiss, and pledge their love. Golden archers and copper knights warn against danger and safeguard borders. Mechanical monkeys, camouflaged in badger pelts, ape human behavior in the midst of a lush estate. Corpses, perfectly preserved by human art, challenge the limits of life. Brazen heads reveal the future, and a revolving palace mimics the revolution of the spheres. Medieval robots, both actual and fictional, take many forms.

    And they were...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Rare Devices: Geography and Technology
    (pp. 12-39)

    In the mid-twelfth-centurychanson de geste, Le Voyage de Charlemagne, Charlemagne and his barons travel to Constantinople, where they encounter King Hugo and the fantastic marvels at his court. These include a rotating palace and two musical automata, made of copper.¹ The interior of the palace is blue and is decorated with paintings of birds, beasts, serpents, and “every kind of creature.”² In the center of the palace a massive silver pillar forms the axis around which the entire structure revolves, “like a chariot wheel.”³ Philosophers and wise men fluent in the science of the stars had erected the palace;...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Between Art and Nature: Natura artifex, Neoplatonism, and Literary Automata
    (pp. 40-68)

    A richly dressed woman stands before a forge and, using a hammer and anvil, fashions people out of existing parts: this isNatura artifex, or Nature the artisan (Plate 4). The metaphor ofNatura artifexwas commonly used in the early and high medieval periods to convey Nature’s role in a three-tiered system of creation that included the works of God, Nature, and human beings. Broadly speaking, the meta phor turns on the idea that Nature acts as an intermediary between the world of ideal forms and the world of matter. This metaphor is grounded in late antique secular Neoplatonism...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Talking Heads: Astral Science, Divination, and Legends of Medieval Philosophers
    (pp. 69-95)

    Gervase of Tilbury, recording the marvels of Vergil in hisOtia imperialia, made it clear that they were not the work of God, but were instead due to Vergil’s skills in thequadrivium:

    We have not written this so that we might favor the sect of the Sadducees, who said that all things were dependent on God and … on fate and the accidents of fortune, for all things are ordered by God’s will alone, as it is written: “All things are in your power, and there is none that can resist your will,” etc.; but instead out of wonder...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Quick and the Dead: Corpses, Memorial Statues, and Automata
    (pp. 96-115)

    As inThe Iliad, in the mid-twelfth-century Old Frenchroman antique, Le Roman de Troie, Achilles kills Hector in combat and afterward denies Hector’s body the traditional funeral rites. Hector’s father, King Priam, negotiates with Achilles to return the body, which is then carefully embalmed, richly dressed, and paraded through Troy on a litter.¹ Three gifted artificers (engeigneor) design and build a mausoleum, “rich, and strange, and marvelous,” in the shape of a tabernacle. The structure is an elaborate version of what could be found in a medieval church: an altar supported by columns, covered with a carved canopy (baldaquin),...

  9. CHAPTER 5 From Texts to Technology: Mechanical Marvels in Courtly and Public Pageantry
    (pp. 116-140)

    Th e increasingly elaborate artifice behind Hector’s preserved corpse, from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, generally mirrors the development of increasingly complex machines during the same period in the Latin West. As we have seen, automata were known in Latin Christendom from the Carolingian period onward, and were understood for much of the medieval period as foreign objects whose creation and operation rested on an understanding of Nature that ascribed hidden abilities to natural objects, the movement of celestial bodies, and demons. Furthermore, the existing hierarchies of knowledge that privileged text-based learning over artisanal know-how insisted on the mastery...

  10. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 6 The Clockwork Universe: Keeping Sacred and Secular Time
    (pp. 141-154)

    The wheels and gears of Fortuna’s wheel in the painting fromLe Remede de Fortunerelate to developments in fine technology—especially the development of mechanical timekeepers—in the late medieval period. After the appearance of mechanical clocks at the cusp of the fourteenth century, clocks and automata were often found together. The Arabic tradition conjoined automata and water clocks as early as the ninth century, as seen on Harun al-Rashid’s gift to Charlemagne. Although the historical record testifies to water clocks in the Latin West as early as the late tenth century, there is no evidence of automata alongside...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 155-210)
    (pp. 211-240)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 241-252)
    (pp. 253-255)