Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

By E. R. Truitt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Rare Devices: Geography and Technology

In the mid-twelfth-century chanson degeste, 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; they used their knowledge and skill to make the palace mimic the circular motion of the celestial spheres. Two copper children grace the apex of the palace roof; each one holds an ivory horn to its mouth.4 These automata are so expressive “that you would have believed they were actually alive.”5 The west wind makes the palace turn like the shaft of a mill, and the statues “blew their horns and smiled at one another. You would have sworn they were alive. One blew loud, the other clear. [The music] is so lovely to hear that the listener would imagine himself in paradise, where the angels sing sweetly and gently”6 The edifice is a monumental automaton that resembles the earth and the heavens, while the musical statues represent the microcosm. Hugo the Strong, the Byzantine emperor, and the learned men of his court have made these marvels using “cumpas and lofty secrets.”7Cumpas is the branch of astral science that enables accurate predictions of the lunar cycle and eclipses, as well as the establishment of the liturgical calendar.8 The wind causes the palace to revolve and also brings a violent storm that rages outside the palace walls, “frightening and overpowering.”9 Charles and his barons are wholly unfamiliar with this kind of technology; they are taken by surprise and lose their footing once the palace begins to turn. “[Charles] sits down on the marble floor, unable to

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