From golden trees alive with mechanical birds to automated servants forged by the gods, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) by E.R. Truitt is an enlightening monograph detailing the history of automatons between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. An Associate Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College, Truitt “explores the multiple kinds and functions of automata in the Latin Middle Ages, and demonstrates that these objects have long been used to embody complex ideas about the natural world” (1-2). This well-researched book is the first to provide comprehensive scholarship on the topic of medieval automata.
Medieval Robots is split into six chapters, each highlighting one kind of automaton, and moving both chronologically and thematically through analysis of how these automata functioned within the societies that experienced them. Among these automaton are devices that “symbolize the movement of knowledge across cultures” (9), mechanical automaton in clockwork, and more.
In the first chapter, Truitt explains how the earliest automaton in the Latin Middle Ages were gifts from foreign rulers. The wonders of such automatons were explained through the Natural belief that, geographically, more wondrous phenomena occurred at the margins of the maps rather than the center (the Latin West). Furthermore, descriptions of automata in narratives, such as Aymeri de Narbonne, acted as a means of suggesting that foreign empires had access to magical knowledge and Natural knowledge that was still unknown to the Latin West and were thereby threateningly powerful. Automata then became both something to study and understand, and inextricably associated with foreignness. As Truitt packs tons of information and examples into each chapter, I suggest tackling this book a chapter at a time.
Truitt quotes and analyzes court chronicles, travelogues, chansons, medieval romances and more, effectively evidencing the prominence of automata in the Latin Middle Ages. Her analysis suggests three main themes: the foreignness of automata and its relationship to the familiar; the liminality of automata and their habitation of spaces between good and evil, living and dead, and more; and the ways in which automata muddy the natural/artificial binary. Thus, Truitt’s work “enriche[s] and complicate[s] the chronological narrative about the evolving understanding of natural knowledge in medieval Europe” (9).
Though most of his analysis focuses on the Latin Middle Ages, she does look to modern times suggesting that these “medieval robots pose enduring questions” (153). If one were to take any of the themes which Truitt elucidates in Medieval Robots and compare them to modern representations, the similarities are striking. Modern robots still inhabit a liminal space between the living and the dead, and even more so represent the limits of human knowledge. Needless to say, watching I, Robot (2004) after reading Truitt’s book takes on a new level of depth due to a greater understanding of the history of automata.
This is a must read for anyone interested in either better understanding medieval worldviews, or the function of robots in society. The author includes a lengthy notes section, index, and bibliography for any reader looking to dive further into medieval studies. However, the reader delving into the book unfamiliar with the titles and functions of medieval texts may find this book a bit intimidating. Medieval Robots is dense with references to such texts, and having a search engine at the ready may be helpful for those unfamiliar.
Medieval Robots provides fascinating new insight on the ways that science, nature and magic were fundamentally understood in the Latin Middle Ages while showing distinct similarities to the way robots function today.