Afternoon Coffee Break: Medieval Robots by E.R. Truitt

Today's blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, and inaugurates a new series on the Penn Press Log: the Afternoon Coffee Break. In each of these periodic posts, Tracy will share her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read recently.

Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.

15383This week's book:

Medieval Robots by E.R. Truitt

Why I picked it:

Medieval. Robots. Enough said.

What I discovered:

In reading this book, I was reminded of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law,” which states: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The book starts by describing how Europeans in the Middle Ages would read adventure tales or historical accounts that described fantastical things encountered in the “East”: golden fountains that poured wine from the mouths of lions, birds made of gold that sang songs, a throne that could rise of its own accord into the heavens, and even a corpse that retained the color of life by means of liquids coursing through tubes outside the body and back into its veins. Hyperbole may be the writer’s stock-in-trade, but it seems like these accounts were accepted as historical truths, especially since they confirmed a belief that westerners had about the peoples of the East, namely that they must be trafficking with dark magic, or demonic forces, to make these things happen.

Of course, once Europeans started figuring out things like irrigation, hydraulics, and pneumatic tubes, no longer were these technologies instruments of the devil, but instead evidence of scientific progress and Western superiority. Medieval nobility had a new means of demonstrating their wealth and power. Perhaps the first “early adopters,” dukes and other privileged personages could build elaborate automated attractions on their grounds, including fountains and mechanical animals, to awe and entertain their noble peers. One even staged a walking tour that included flour and water being dumped on visitors so they could prove how rich they were by having multiple changes of clothes!

Not much has changed conceptually since the Middle Ages. Whether you call it technology or magic, what really matters is who has access to it, who can wield it, and to what purpose it’s put.

Favorite bit:

In a description of the fifteenth-century’s Duke of Burgundy’s garden, Hesdin, Truitt remarks on the various skilled craftspeople required to build and maintain elaborate automata, including plumbers, metalsmiths, and tanners. I was tickled by the thought of some guy who, as part of his job of maintaining the garden’s automated attractions, had to attach the real fur of dead badgers to monkeys made of wood to make them appear more life-like.

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