Sunday, June 08, 2008

14th-century robots


In a book review by Aleks Pluskowski of Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2007), sent me free by the TMR service , I read the following:


Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels is a remarkable and unique work on a neglected aspect of late-medieval society. Lightsey reveals a world of artificers and technologists, of complex clockwork devices and colourful automata: a
world where supernatural, fantastic and exotic mirabilia were pulled from the imaginary realms of romance, and--literally--brought to life for the entertainment and exultation of war-fatigued courts.Since surviving examples of these machines are incredibly rare, Lightsey draws on literary and documentary sources, complemented bya range of artistic representations.



...His first case study of automata draws on the prologue to Piers Ploughman, which describes a mechanical angel that crowns Richard II during his public coronation in London. Here, Lightsey situates this marvel within a newly established culture of aristocratic visual display; a growing tendency towards luxurious ceremonial which would come to define the Ricardian court. Indeed, this clockwork coronation is seen as nothing less than formative for Richard's own attitude to the calculated display of
majesty.

I looked at a modern version of PP and I must admit that I can't see how the reader is supposed to know that it is a mechanical angel. I'll follow it up.

However, I have no doubt that this robotic messenger was possible, because as an undergraduate I read Huizinga's classic early-20th-century book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, where he talks about a lot of clockwork figures used in princely ceremonies. Yet I
must admit that despite my early exposure to this fact, I've never integrated "mechanical men" into my visualization of the Middle Ages. I suspect that few of my readers have thought about Richard II as King of the Robots (a kind of dressier Dr. Doom?).

For years I've teased friends who think that the 14th century is the bee's knees of medieval history by saying, half-seriously, that the 14th century isn't the Middle Ages at all. Now I can say, "Dude, what about all those robots?"


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