When people think of the medieval or early modern period, often it conjures images of the witch trials across the western world. These people are considered a superstitious bunch, deeply religious, and very suspicious of magic. Whilst there is of course substance to some of these ideas (and I have already discussed one case of an alleged royal witch), medieval people at royal courts did enjoy the suspended disbelief of magicians in the same way that we do today. Part of the reason magic at court was a dangerous thing to practice was that there was a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable magic, magic that bordered on accepted science, and magic there to entertain.
Medieval people were not living in constant crippling fear of magic, and magic often featured heavily in chivalric romances – the booming popularity of Arthurian romances that continues even today demonstrates this. As such, the blurring of ‘magic’ and science often featured at European courts as something to entertain crowds. Whilst we think of machines as more modern inventions, there were some astonishing ‘machines’ created to astonish the court that grew out from performance magic.
Automatons originated in Ancient Greece where they were used for many things from toys to religious ceremonies to science. Rhodes was apparently a centre for mechanical engineering, with one poet remarking “The animated figures stand/ Adorning every public street/ And seem to breathe in stone, or/ move their marble feet.” It was from this culture that the idea of creating machines (often to look like animals or even people) that seemed to move all by themselves continued through to the medieval period.
An automaton designed by Hero of Alexandria (c. 10 AD – c. 70 AD), showing Hercules slaying a dragon (the dragon only spewed water, not fire, however!)
In Emperor Theophilos’ palace at Constantinople in 949, an ambassador describes the automatons decorating the place:
“lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue,” “a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species” and “the emperor’s throne” itself, which “was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air.”
Leonardo Da Vinci, famous for many things, wrote extensively about automatons, and his personal notebooks are littered with ideas for mechanical creations. One of his designs included an armoured German Knight which was to be powered by an external mechanical crank and used cables and pulleys to sit, stand, turn its head, cross its arms and even lift up its metal visor. Evidence suggests that Da Vinci may have actually built a prototype in 1495 while working under the patronage of the Duke of Milan, and in 2002 a NASA roboticist attempted to create a version of Da Vinci’s knight; it proved fully functional, showing the genius of his invention.
The life-sized recreation of Da Vinci’s invention.
The following century, another ‘robotic’ man was created, this time for Philip II of Spain. The story goes that Phillip II’s son and heir suffered a head injury, and Philip vowed to God that he would deliver a miracle if his son was spared. When the Prince recovered, Phillip II commissioned a clockmaker and inventor named Juanelo Turriano to build a lifelike recreation of beloved Franciscan friar Saint Diego. Completed sometime in the 1560s, the monk was 15 inches tall and was powered by a wound spring. Three small wheels were concealed beneath the monk’s robe and iron levers move the wheels. Artificial feet stepped up and down to imitate walking, and the friar’s eyes, lips and head all moved in lifelike gestures. The monk could walk in a square pattern mouthing prayers, nodding its head, beat its chest with its right arm and kiss a rosary and cross with its left. The 450-year-old device is amazingly still operational today, and is held at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The Franciscan monk. If you want to see footage of the monk in full automaton action, there is a video on Youtube here (though I take no responsibility for any nightmares incurred as a result of watching it)
Some automatons had more of a practical purpose (though with entertainment still at the heart). In the early 13th century, Ismail al-Jazari, an Islamic polymath, wrote The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices where he described 100 mechanical devices. One such device was the “peacock fountain” which was a complex hand washing device. Pulling a plug on the peacock’s tail released water out of the beak and as the dirty water from the basin filled the hollow base a float rose and activated a switch which made a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water was used, a second float at a higher level tripped and caused the appearance of a second servant figure with a towel. It sounds pretty impressive! When you think of the automatic taps and hand-driers we have in public bathrooms today, Al-Jazari’s invention sounds just as impressive, if not more so!
The design for the Peacock fountain from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.
These automatons were not always solely for courtly entertainment, however. The day before his official coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1377, Richard II of England was ‘crowned’ by a golden mechanical angel – made by the goldsmiths’ guild – during his coronation pageant in Cheapside. This was not only a show of devotion and loyalty from the goldsmiths, but it would have wowed the crowds, particularly those who weren’t part of the court who probably hadn’t seen such a creation before. It certainly would have emphasised the mysticism behind the crown, and the religious connection between the King and Heaven.
One of the most famous collections of medieval automatons was at Hesdin, a chateau in Artois, near the current border between France and the Netherlands. Robert II, Count of Artois, commissioned automata to be built in the 1290s, and when he died in 1302 his daughter, Mahaut, became Countess of Artois and inherited his lands, including the automatons at Hesdin. There were a variety of machines that littered the gardens of Hesdin. There was an artificial lake with a bridge over it, which was adorned with six groups of monkey marionettes. There were mechanized fountains and a bellows-operated organ. The bridge of the pavilion in the park had a moving mechanized boar’s head placed on the wall. When Mahaut took over from her father, she continued his legacy, not only maintaining the automatons but extending them. She paid for the upkeep of the mechanical fountains, repairing the mechanical birds that spouted water, which were made from wood but gilded with gold. In 1315, a mechanically gesticulating king was added to the fountain amongst the birds, probably moving with hydraulics.
Another of Al-Jazari creations, a band that played music that would float on a lake at parties.
Automatons featured heavily in Chivalric romances, where the blurred line with magic is evoked. Whilst ordinary people knew that automatons were machines created by men, even if they didn’t know how they worked, it is easy to see how it inspired thoughts of magical creations. Often in medieval romances there were mechanical creatures brought to life by magic, clearly inspired by automatons seen at court. In a thirteenth century version of Lancelot of the Lake, Lancelot fights two copper knights at an enchanted castle. Many romances also included appearances of metal-like birds singing in trees, brought to life by magic, again drawing inspiration from scenes such as that at Emperor Theophilos’ palace.
Lancelot fighting the metal knights, Lancelot do lac, France, ca. 1470. Paris, BnF, MS. Fr. 112.
So whilst we may think of robots and machines as a very recent thing in human history, in fact they have been around for a lot longer. The most spectacular creations were in the East, where science and mathematics were more advanced, and the best automatons in Western courts were usually gifts from Eastern rulers. It is certainly easy to see how they evoked ideas of magic and found their way into the popular imagination through magical chivalric romances.
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Further Reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automaton