IN JULY OF 1377, a 10-year-old boy rode through London’s muddy ways and arrived at the markets of Chepe (now Cheapside). He would be crowned the next day at Westminster Abbey as Richard II, King of England and of France and Lord of Ireland. Richard would preside over a period of great upheaval and brutality — its cruelties most famously remembered in Shakespeare’s play — but his reign began with a marvel. At Chepe, during a public pageant, the princeling was touched by the divine. A golden angel descended from above. Awed bystanders rubbed their eyes as the winged figure dropped a crown on the boy king’s head.
The angel was not a messenger from heaven but an earthly contraption, the earnest work of London’s Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Much like the king, the craft guild sought to enact its power in public. Members cast and shaped the angel, hitched the figure to a clever rigging of ropes and pulleys, and brought the political proceedings a requisite dose of wonder.
This sort of mechanical spectacle became increasingly common in 14th-century Europe. In 1389, an angel floated from a tower of Notre Dame in Paris to honour Queen Isabel of Bavaria before being whisked away “as if he were returning to the skies of his own accord.” Fountains dispensed milk and wine. Intricate tableaux vivants — installations of living sculpture — beguiled visitors to royal palaces and gardens. The palatial complex at Hesdin in northern France kept a menagerie of mechanical creatures, including lions, leopards, and monkeys covered in badger fur. In the gloriette of Hesdin’s main hall, bird-shaped automata tweeted alongside actual songbirds, insisting in their metallic rustle that they, too, were real.
One of the abiding charms of such automata (“self-movers”) was disillusionment: realizing that you had been duped. But automata also inspired a greater species of wonder. Then as now, these machines made people marvel at human powers and at the receding limits on human potential.
Thanks, perhaps, to science fiction, we think of the dilemmas posed by robots and artificial intelligence as conditions of modernity, unique to our times. With Siri in our pockets and voice-activated Barbies in our children’s bedrooms, life doesn’t seem so far from art. Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied AI voice in the film Her gets so tired of her dubious humanity that she and all her fellow animated algorithms give up, abandoning their human consorts to incurably human solitude.
But how modern is the quest for man-forged life? The prehistory of the robot in contemporary culture is often understood to reach only as far as 19th-century mechanization, an industrial age haunted by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other moral monsters. (At the opposite end of the world, the novelists of rapidly industrializing Meiji Japan also wrestled with the hopes and horrors of “mechanical man.”) Other scholars look to the 18th-century “golden age” of automata heralded by the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, whose mechanical “digesting duck” was so realistic it even defecated. One can even point to the humanizing spirit of the Renaissance, reading in The Tempest, for instance, the ethical muddle of dehumanized slaves, Shakespeare’s cyborgs and androids.
Or you can go farther back still, to the rich record of automata from Greco-Roman antiquity. Both Homer and Aristotle wrote about the inventor Daedalus, who was said to make statues of humans that could breathe and move. Hero of Alexandria, the third-century-BC engineer, supposedly composed a text called On Automaton-Making. The 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, found a century ago in a Mediterranean shipwreck, is thought to be the ancient world’s “analog computer.”
What about the Middle Ages, that period so often relegated by “moderns” to the dank gloom of blood and superstition? Recent scholarship has shown how automata and mechanical mirabilia were an integral part of the medieval imagination. In tracing the cultural history of automata in the West, Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines (2011) knits the medieval period into a continuum extending to the early 20th century. More limited in its scope, Scott Lightsey’s Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (2007) focuses on the courtly culture of 14th-century England, lingering in particular on how automata feature in the work of Chaucer.
Most recently, E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots surveys automata — real and imaginary — in medieval Western Europe from roughly the 10th century to the 15th century. The title misleads somewhat in its eye-catching anachronism (“robot” is very much a 20th-century word). Truitt’s interests include animated armoured knights, oracular talking heads, clepsydra water clocks, preserved corpses, and flittering golden birds. The workmanlike study presents serendipitous details about all these things, but disappoints in its lack of a clear argument to bring them together.
Relying in large part on Old French romans, Truitt shows how automata roamed the medieval Western European mind well before they came into greater use in the 14th and 15th centuries. Natural philosophers, priests, and other scholars happily mingled fact and fiction, spreading the lore of the automata around Western Europe. For those who saw the floating angel crown Richard II in Chepe, it was the sight of centuries of rumour and fantasy made flesh.
One of Truitt’s main contentions echoes that of Kang and others, arguing that writers summoned automata into being to occupy a liminal space between life and death, the animate and inanimate world, thereby questioning the strict division between those categories. This is most apparent in the medieval conjuring of corpses as automata. In Le Roman de Troie (a 12th-century Old French version of the Iliad), the body of the slain Hector is made “hybrid” — part human, part chemical and machine — when “artificers” install golden tubes from his feet to his nose that infuse his body with perfume. Similar figures pepper medieval literature, either in the shape of cleverly embalmed corpses or fully metal statues designed in such a way that not only did they mimic the appearance of the deceased, but they also breathed fresh fragrances or danced in the wind.
Dichotomies we take for granted now were not so easily or clearly prised apart in the Middle Ages. In Old French, the verb “tresgeter” was used to both describe the forging of metal objects and the conjuring of enchantments. We use the verb “to cast” in modern English much the same way. The work of the artisan and the mage were not so different; indeed, that very distinction might have seemed contrived. Just as much as a broadsword or a horseshoe or a kettle, a spell was a transformation of the substances of the natural world through an act of human genius.
According to Truitt, the more powerful mystery surrounding automata lay less in how they worked (though their operation was a marvel to behold) than how they were made. The makers of these objects might rely on disciplines like “astral science, enchantment, augury, or even necromancy,” those fields of study where the liberal arts blurred into magic. The “disembodied intelligences” of demons could be harnessed in fashioning automata, as could the “natural magic” of gemstones and other physical substances, or the correspondence of the “celestial and sublunary spheres.” A 14th-century account of the 13th-century priest Albertus Magnus affords him the ability to make an oracular talking head by consulting the stars: “He made a metal statue according to the courses of the planets, and gave it such reason that it spoke.” The head answered questions and made predictions, like a medieval magic 8 ball, before it was smashed by an alarmed young monk. Albertus Magnus had to explain to the monk that he had forged the head through the power of the stars — not with demonic assistance — and that it could not be remade for another 30,000 years, when the heavens would again be in the right alignment.
Broadly speaking, the medieval Western European mind had two ways of comprehending the incomprehensible. There were miracles and there were marvels. Miracles were divine in origin, willed by God or his holy representatives. Marvels, on the other hand, were produced by the meddling of demons, or by the work of nature or man.
A large chunk of Truitt’s survey is devoted to the way Western Europeans associated marvels and automata with remote places, with various exotic “others.” And yet because her survey is so parochially limited to Western Europe, she doesn’t explore how the knowledge and folklore of automata actually travelled across cultural borders. Instead, the automata of the East and of the Islamic world are merely presented as tropes in the imagination of the West.
Marvels like automata were thought to happen in far away, un-Christian lands. In part, this belief drew on the general notion that strange things occurred more often at the edges of the earth. “For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away,” wrote the 12th-century priest Gerald of Wales, “and in these remote parts indulges herself in these shy and hidden excesses.” The apocryphal letters of Alexander the Great to Aristotle that spread from the fourth century onward into numerous languages conjured the wonders of India, Babylon, and Ethiopia. William of Auvergne, bishop of Paris in the 13th century, credited “the many experimenters […] and people who make marvelous things” for the profusion of “natural magic” to be found in India. A fanciful 14th-century travelogue recorded “richely wrought and enameled” gold peacocks and other birds that danced and sang in the grand court of the Mongol khan.
More immediate experience of automata came from Latin Christendom’s Near East: the Arab world and Greek Orthodox Byzantium. In 807, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid sent a clepsydra, or water clock, to the court of the Carolingian king Charlemagne. Local chroniclers gaped as it announced the passing of the hour with a clattering of brass balls, and as the appropriate number of horsemen appeared from tiny windows to tell the time. For people reliant on hourglasses and sundials, the clepsydra must have seemed a surreal manifestation of human knowledge and ability. The caliph’s gift was at once a diplomatic overture and a postcard from another universe.
Western European accounts also associate Byzantium with automated marvels. The 10th-century diplomat Liudprand of Cremona described the splendour and genius of the “Throne of Solomon” in Constantinople after he visited the court of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. This was a mechanical assemblage that included a bronze tree replete with squawking bronze birds, a throne that could rise into the air, and gilded lions “who beat the ground with their tails and gave a dreadful roar with open mouth and quivering tongue.” Contemporary Byzantine sources depicted the automated spectacle in rather procedural, matter-of-fact terms, with no flavour of wonder. Constantine VII’s Book of Ceremonies suggests that the throne was simply designed to awe foreigners and win their obeisance.
It won more than awe. For denizens of the world of Latin Christendom, the wondrous automata of Byzantium and Islam were symbols of exotic otherness as well as proof of the innate perfidy and devilry of those far away places. In the mid-12th-century Voyage of Charlemagne, the famous Carolingian king visits Constantinople, where he is wowed by the wealth and sophistication of his Byzantine counterpart Hugo. The palace — chock-full of musical automata — spins like a carousel, making Hugo the “Cosmocrator,” the centre of his whirling universe. Undaunted (and being a bad guest), Charlemagne enlists God’s help in flooding the wondrous Byzantine court and forcing Hugo to become his vassal. The dichotomy here is clear; whatever their natural genius and talents, the Greek Orthodox Byzantines can’t compete with the simple piety and godly virtue of the Latins.
The same obtained for the Muslim world. The crypt of the “emir of Babylon” in the French rendition of the Alexander romance is guarded by two figures made of copper: “They both held shields of gold that were heavy and gave each other great blows with their iron pikes; like two champions they faced each other […] [N]othing and no one alive could enter.” In the 13th-century legend Aymeri of Narbonne, the titular hero rescues the city of Narbonne from Muslim rule, in the process inviting the retribution of the “caliph of Babylon” (channelling the biblical past, medieval writers had a habit of imposing anachronisms like “Babylon” on the contemporary Near East). Automata fill the caliph’s court, including a gold tree home to artificial birds that sing so “clearly and gaily” that they banish “angry thoughts from the listener’s mind.” Despite the caliph’s great wealth, his clever devices, and even help from the devil, the devout Aymeri is triumphant.
When Western Europeans did actually triumph over these Eastern “others,” automata appeared again as a haunting measure of power. During one of the great desecrations of history, Western crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, the soldier Robert of Clari wandered through the ruins of the Hippodrome, the coliseum at the heart of the Byzantine capital. He marvelled at the statues there, automata of men, women, and animals that once “used to perform by enchantment […] but they do not play any longer.” Just like its contraptions, defeated Byzantium was drained of its magic.
Much of the expertise that eventually spurred the development of automata in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries came via Byzantium and the Arab world. Hesdin, for example, was built under the supervision of Robert II, Count of Artois, who had ruled over Norman holdings in Sicily. From that syncretic island, Robert brought physicians and administrators schooled in Islamic traditions of knowledge. The European understanding of the workings of automata would become gradually more detailed and pedestrian, a parsing of nuts and bolts rather than elemental and metaphysical forces.
That process of transmission from elsewhere is only thinly described. The flaw in Truitt’s approach — and indeed the approaches taken in many monographs on medieval automata by other scholars — is that there is so much more bubbling beyond the walls of her work than within.
Truitt gestures timidly at the making or imagining of automata in other places, their presence, for instance, in Sanskrit texts of the ninth and 10th centuries, or in the writing of the early 13th-century Arab inventor al-Jazari, author of The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. She could have done more. Automata served as both tropes and technology in cultures across the Old World. From epics in Western Oghuz Turkic to the lore of Jewish Eastern Europe, automata were a wide and disparate phenomenon. And yet that broader context is largely invisible in her work. It is beyond the scope of her interest to probe the contemporary flowering of automata in literature around Eurasia.
Academic history often demands a kind of parochialism that does a disservice to its material, closeting a topic in the bric-a-brac of region and language. Ring-fencing the automata of Western Europe has a deadening effect on Truitt’s study. These limits are particularly unfortunate when it comes to the study of automata in the medieval period. Their very ubiquity is an argument against traditional academic specialization. A more fulfilling exploration would indulge in the pleasure and promise in reading across borders, in letting Richard II’s angel or al-Jazari’s automated wine servant take us roaming through a truly expansive cultural history.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a forthcoming collection of short fiction from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the presenter of The Museum of Lost Objects, an upcoming series on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service on cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria.