Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art


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 Robots recovers the forgotten history of fantastical, aspirational, and terrifying machines that 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.


Golden birds and beasts, musical fountains, and robotic servants astound and terrify guests. Brass horsemen, gilded buglers, and papier-mache 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 far more than delightful curiosities. Automata stood at the intersection of natural knowledge (including magic) and technology, and they embodied many themes central to medieval learned culture. Indeed, automata were troubling links between art and nature. They illuminated and interrogated paired ideas about life and death, nature and manufacture, foreign and familiar. They performed a multitude of social and cultural functions: entertainment, instruction, prophecy, proxy, discipline, and surveillance. Automata enlivened courtly pageantry and liturgical ritual throughout the Middle Ages. They appear in historia and romanz, in travelogues and encyclopedias, in chronicles and chansons. By excavating the complex history of medieval automata, we can begin to understand the interdependence of science, technology, and the imagination in medieval culture and between medieval culture and modernity.

Medieval Robots identifies and explores the multiple kinds and functions of automata in the Latin Middle Ages, and demonstrates that these objects . . .

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