16.09.06, Truitt, Medieval Robots

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Joel Kaye

The Medieval Review 16.09.06

Truitt, E. R. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4697-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joel Kaye
Barnard College

Students who first come across the appearance of "robots"--or as E. R. Truitt much prefers to call them, "automata"--in medieval romances, are often quite puzzled: what are mechanical singing birds in golden trees, bronze archers guarding palaces that tilt and turn, magical fountains, and disembodied heads mouthing warnings doing in these texts? In the context of twelfth-century Europe, where they first make their appearance, what meanings do they carry and what roles do they play in the genre of medieval romance? What were readers/listeners supposed to think of the makers of these marvels, or the decidedly foreign cultures that produced them, or the rulers that possessed and displayed them? These are some of the many questions that Elly Truitt responds to in her fine book, Medieval Robots.

Truitt's introduction is particularly strong. It establishes a series of dualities, or what she calls "paired ideas," that characterized the medieval response to both the automata themselves and their essential foreignness. A partial list of these include: attraction and fear, amazement and suspicion, admiration and condemnation. To these she adds other primary oppositions: truth vs. counterfeit, skill vs. trickery, the might of foreign guile vs. Christian miracle. In addition to these pairs, Truitt sets up the unstable status of the automata themselves in that they occupy the ambiguous space between the living and the dead, the natural and the artificial, the real and the imaginary. Here, too, Truitt introduces the slippery concept of "natural magic" so often attached to automata: are they the fruit of scholarly knowledge or of demonic magic; are they produced for beneficial ends, evil purposes, or a range of effects in between? By the end of Truitt's introduction, we can appreciate the dramatic potential of the tensions embodied by automata, and we begin to understand why they might have appealed so often to the authors of these early romances.

Truitt's chapters one and two take us into several of the twelfth-century romances themselves, illustrating through their details the presence of the abstract dualities she has already outlined. As she does so, she also provides historical background on the actual production of automata both in the Hellenistic period and in more contemporary lands beyond Latin Christendom, focusing here on Byzantium and the Islamic world. In these early chapters, as well as the chapters that follow, Truitt is sometimes able to link--to excellent effect--particular descriptions of the automata she finds in the romances with well-chosen manuscript illuminations taken from these same texts. To make this possible, her book includes 36 color plates, beautifully reproduced and highly instructive.

Chapter three investigates the intersection between literature and philosophy on the subject of automata. Here she focuses on four figures, Gerbert of Aurillac, Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus, all of whom were associated with the creation of automata, due to their reputed mastery of the science of the heavens. This chapter has the potential to deepen the discussion of "natural magic" and to investigate further its ambiguous position between true science and false magic, since the three thirteenth-century figures all wrote directly on this subject. For some reason, however, Truitt spends most the chapter dealing with the ongoing reputation of Gerbert (d. 1003), leaving very little space for serious consideration of the rich philosophical positions contained in the actual writings from the thirteenth century. A closer look at these writings could have provided a great deal of pertinent information with respect to the positive and negative valences attached to automata in this period.

Chapter four investigates representations of the fluid boundary between opposing pairs (life and death, nature and manufacture, the real and the artificial) that automata present. Here Truitt begins to discuss the history of these representations, showing their shifts from the twelfth, through the thirteenth, and into the fourteenth century. In her explanation of these shifts, she focuses on the rapid development of mechanical skills and devices within Latin Christendom over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and she speculates on the effects the actual capacity to produce mechanical marvels had on both their literary representation and their status in the popular imagination. Here she notes that by the fifteenth century, "automata had moved from bookish fantasy to fact." Her chapter five continues this analysis, showing, for example, that the manuscript illuminations accompanying the descriptions of automata become much more intent on accurately reproducing the working mechanisms of the marvels they are illustrating. And here, too, befitting the shift she is following, she spends considerable time describing the working automata that wealthy rulers began to build and display to serve, in her words, as "manufactured representations of political prestige." The details she presents here, particularly of the park of the Burgundian princes at Hesdin, are fascinating.

The book's final chapter continues Truitt's exploration of mechanical advances with a focus on the development of the mechanical clock. She provides a general history of this development, beginning in the thirteenth century, with some attention given to its reflections in literature. She cites here Jean Froissart's poem, L'Horloge amoureuse, from 1368, and Nicole Oresme's precocious use of the mechanical clock as a metaphor for the workings of the heavens, from his French translation and commentary on Aristotle's De caelo, c. 1377. The chapter concludes with contemporary descriptions of actually existing European clockworks, built by artisans over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These descriptions reveal the existence of mechanisms as deserving of wonder as were the foreign and fantastical automata found in the twelfth-century romances. Throughout this chapter, Truitt invites our own wonder at the extraordinary cultural and technological developments, taking place over little more than two centuries, that made possible this transformation.

At the beginning of her introduction, Truitt writes: "By excavating the complex history of medieval automata, we can begin to understand the interdependence of science, technology, and the imagination in medieval culture." Medieval Robotsis an admirable work of history that goes a good way toward achieving this ambitious goal.

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