E. R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Buy it from the publisher or Amazon.com. The author maintains a companion website: medievalrobots.org. If you like this sort of thing, you might see also “Machines in the Garden” by Jessica Riskin (who edited another of my favorite books related to automata, Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life) in Republic of Letters Vol. 1, No. 2 (which contains also an article by Mary Campbell, “Artificial Men: Alchemy, Transubstantiation, and the Homonculus”).
I recently finished reading Medieval Robots (hereafter abbrev. MR) as part of my research for the Robomancy project, and I quite enjoyed it. In addition to it turning me on to a number of automata I had not prior knowledge of, I was often struck by similarities between Truitt’s accounts of automata and the ideas they implied or evoked in their times, now hundreds of years past, and how people think about and characterize robots and their makers, today (or within the last century, which is when robots per se emerged). I will share some of these and also my related musings on magic and technology, as I enumerate many of the book’s themes as I understood them.
Physically, the cloth-bound hardback is finely manufactured and typeset, with several plates near the middle depicting color illustrations. The introduction and six subsequent chapters last for 153 of 296 total pages, and the extensive notes and bibliography make up about a third of the total page count (good news for me; I like reading source material). The editing is as solid as one should expect from an academic publication, and the author’s discourse is as eloquent as it is delightful. From the book’s introduction and back of the jacket:
MR follows the evolution of automata and their cultural contexts in the Middle Ages (mostly 12th to 15th centuries). It is a valuable sequel to John Cohen’s Human Robots in Myth and Science (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1967), which devotes but one chapter to medieval automata (a third of which is devoted to Ramon Lull‘s Ars Magna, which Truitt does not mention in her book and rightly so, I suppose, because while the Ars Magna may be related to computation, it is not properly an automaton, though it might make the basis for an interesting artificial intelligence or expert system).1
Chapter 1 (“Rare Devices: Geography and Technology”) shows how mechanical gifts from foreign courts to medieval Christians, and the literary automata documented in epic poems, travelogues, romances, etc., were associated with the exoticism and paganism of foreign lands and peoples (especially of the East), their manufacture often attributed to sorcerers and people using cumpas (“the branch of astral science that enables accurate predictions of the lunar cycle and eclipses, as well as the establishment of the liturgical calendar” — p. 12; cf., possibly, “compass,” though Truitt’s notes associate it with “computus”). Examples include the rotating palace of Byzantine Emperor Hugo in Le Voyage de Charlemagne,2 the Throne of Solomon at the Byzantine court in Constantinople,3 and a fountain of the Great Khan, described in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:
These stories reminded me of contemporary differences between how robots are perceived and received in the United States vs. Japan and China (a different East), and especially of Mark Meadows’ We, Robot, which documents his travels through Tokyo to learn what a robot is.5 While we may not see the makers of today’s robots as sorcerers (counterexamples to follow), there might persist some exoticism in how we think about what others think about robots.
Chapter 2 (“Between Art and Nature: Natura artifex, Neoplatonism, and Literary Automata”) explores the personification of Nature as an artisan acting “as an intermediary between the world of ideal forms and the world of matter” (p. 40; cf. the Demiurge). In addition to introducing connections between automata and (moving) images (cf. Boehn’s Puppets and Automata6), which is something I am exploring in conjunction with image magic, in my Robomancy work, this chapter presents a wonderful etymology lesson for those who, like myself, are interested in connections between art, magic, and technology. E.g., the word tregester “can, like its English counterpart ‘cast’, mean either the casting of objects in metal or the casting of spells, lots, dice, and enchantments” (p. 51).7
Such ambiguities and double meanings hint at deeper issues about the nature of artificiality, and the artifice that is nature, especially Nature personified or idealized by the artifactory that is the human mind. Nothing we make is ever based on “true” nature but on our observations of nature (verily, our own eyes deceive us even as we, sometimes rightfully, distrust what we have not seen with our own eyes), which change as we learn new things that we embody in new technologies, which in turn allow us to learn newer things. The imitation, simulation, or emulation of nature8 has continually led to technological advancements, yet imitation can also be a “trick” (deception) when it causes us to infer (often unconsciously) something that is not actually the case (i.e., the simulacrum does not correspond isomorphically to what it mimics). The Star Tours ride does not really go anywhere (cf. Baudrillard’s hyperreality), the Matrix is not the real world, and affective robots do not really have feelings.
Something I often return to in my own work is the difference between simulation and expression.9 While art may be evaluated on how well it imitates or represents something in the world (i.e., its quality of being simulacrum), it can alternatively be evaluated on how it expresses the artist’s inner state (intention, emotion, etc.).10 Does a robot factory worker merely simulate a human factory worker (certainly not, as robots are often employed because they surpass human labor in some respects), or do both express forms of idealized labor? When is a statue merely a figure or image of a deity, and when is it genuinely an avatar of the god, her heavenly expression on earth, a corporeal focus or locus of divine knowledge and power? When is idolatry of the imago/eikon/eidolon of Luna (e.g.) beneficial devotion embodied, and when is it like concentrating on the finger pointing away to the moon?
When I make computational devices based on the same principles I find governing the design of classical talismans, or that function in similar manner to an oracular head, I am not merely simulating talismans or divinatory statues, rather I am expressing talismanic and divinatory magic through new media.
The computer is the most versatile machine ever crafted, being able to simulate or represent anything that can be expressed as an algorithm, and the history of computing is rife with computational models of natural phenomena, including life. William Grey Walter’s Machina speculatrix, Edward Lorenz‘s weather models (whence came the butterfly effect, Lorenz attractor, and chaos theory), John Conway’s Game of Life (a cellular automaton), Steve Grand’s Creatures, and Daniel Shiffman’s The Nature of Code, are just a few examples that come immediately to my mind. Many of these involve relatively simple functions that give rise to complex, emergent, or evolutionary forms that could not have been predicted by analyzing the functions themselves (cf. generative art). Yet, of these myriad creations, none among them is counted as a genuinely living soul. For all their makers’ ingenuity, that San Graal of artifice remains hidden (at least to exoteric science).
The idea that all artifacts are in some way flawed (vis-à-vis nature) may be echoed in Hephæstus Amphigúeis (Ἀμφιγύεις), “the Lame One.”11
MR‘s third chapter (“Talking Heads: Astral Science, Divination, and Legends of Medieval Philosophers”), tells the stories of four men rumored to have made oracular heads in accordance with astral science: Roger Bacon (Doctor Mirabilis), Gerbert of Aurillac (l.k.a. Pope Sylvester II), Robert Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus (Doctor Universalis). In these narratives we see the dynamic interplay and sometimes struggle or conflict between the quadrivium, natural philosophy and science (including magia naturalis, natural magic), the ars magica (including ceremonial magic), and the omniscience and omnipotence of God and related authority of the church. While all four men were respected and accoladed Christian philosophers, scholars, and theologians, they all acquired reputations for sorcery at one time or another, for although Christian religion has its prophets, to prophecy by the positions and movements of celestial entities, like many forms of manteis (μάντεις), including prophetic statues, was like unto or sufficiently inherited from pagan divination or other blasphemy or heresy, to be suspect if not plainly diabolical.
Two things occurred to me while reading this chapter. One is how the controversy between automata-related science and religion in the Middle Ages, reminded me of the theme of Norbert Wiener’s book, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, which was born of matters relevant to the last century, and it is still relevant today. The second is several makers of robots, from cinema: C. A. Rotwang in Metropolis (1927), Dr. Edward Morbius in Forbidden Planet (1956), and Dr. Hans Reinhardt in The Black Hole (1979). All three are sorcerous figures (cf. mad-scientist and Faustian archetypes). The electric throne that seats Rotwang’s Maschinenmensch features a large, inverted pentagram behind it. Morbius, loosely based on the Shakespearean sorcerer, Prospero, learns to use ancient Krell (alien) technology, amplifying his intelligence and giving him psychokinesis as well as the knowledge to create Robby the Robot. Morbius, a sort of futuristic necromancer (who lobotomizes and reprograms the human crew of his ship to be his robot-like servants), is assisted by the robot Maximilian, who, like many magical automata (e.g. the Golem of Prague and the enchanted objects of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), eventually deviates from its master’s plans, which include voyaging into a black hole to see what wonders lay beyond the event horizon — like the foreign lands mentioned previously as the birth places of magico-mechanical marvels.
Chapter 4 (“The Quick and the Dead: Corpses, Memorial Statues, and Autotmata”) tells the stories of the especially preserved corpses of Hector and Camille, and automata intended to represent actual persons, such as that of Ysolt in Saga af Tristram ok Ísönd (like Rotwang’s robotic simulacrum of his lost love, Hel). Here the author also discusses much about balm, balsam, and embalming.
As Truitt says, “The lifelikeness of these bodies illuminates a continuum between life and death, rather than strictly bounded definitions of life and death” (p. 97). Again, this evokes wonder about the nature of simulation and simulation of nature. In God & Golem, Inc., talking about the possibility of machines reproducing, Wiener says:
Re. operative images, see also image magic. Re. bringing statues and other images to life: an idea near to cybernetics, if not fundamental to it, is that a thing is what it does. A machine that acts “as though alive” (quasi viuum) is, in a sense, alive. What of our deities or ancestral or tutelary spirits, which we treat as though alive, e.g. by feeding them, leaving food at their shrines or altars or other sacred places of dwelling? The care-taking and treatment of the corpses described by Truitt in MR reminded me of Daniel Schulke’s “The Perfum’d Skull,” a contemporary rite for making an oracular head.13 See also Philip K. Dick: “[O]ur environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components — all of this is in fact beginning more and more to possess what the earnest psychologists fear the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive [quasi vivum], and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.”14
This fourth chapter conjures another liminal entity and fellow to the robot: the cyborg. Often depicted as “part human, part machine,” the cybernetic organism’s prosthesis or other artificial enhancement or repair shares the same issues about artificiality being inherently flawed and disfigured, or improving on nature’s design or accident, even unto the notion of perfecting nature via technology — as with alchemy, which has to do with (literally or metaphorically) transmuting base metals into gold which is incorruptible. The cyborg is a preservation of corpus, replacing living-and-so-dying flesh with metal or other synthetic material that is incorruptible (or less corruptible) and so, in a sense, im-mortal. In the film A.I., the robot boy David lives for thousands of years because he is “Mecha” and not “Orga” (but like Pinocchio, his greatest wish is to become “a real live boy,” mostly because of the social troubles he has encountered as a misfit toy hated by so many humans who value their own kind above all else, and wanting simply to have his love reciprocated by becoming one of “them,” and one with them). (Cf. the Replicants of Blade Runner, who have four-year lifespans, either as an intentional fail-safe mechanism or a limitation of genetic engineering technology.)
The cyborg can also be the self-made human, making herself in her own image and so becoming emancipated from outside forces (cf. autonomy). When asked “What is the basic philosophy of alchemy?” Jean Dubuis answered: “The absolute being is an auto-created being, and we must become in its image auto-created men.”15
Chapter 5 (“From Texts to Technology: Mechanical Marvels in Courtly and Public Pageantry”) discusses the emergence of actual automata in the courts and theatre of the later medieval period, involving advances in mechanics and engineering, and a transition from the philosophers and magicians who had created (or were believed to have created) the earlier automata, to artisans skilled in craft knowledge, and often collaboration among multiple artisans specializing in different crafts or trades. Truitt juxtaposes the designs of Villard de Honnecourt and Ismail al-Jazari, and covers the Château d’Hesdin automata in great detail.
Truitt writes, “By the late medieval period [ca. 14c and 15c — J.M.], automata existed because of artisans, not magicians or sorcerers. The register of their creation shifted from the mysteries of nature and esoteric knowledge to a more egalitarian understanding of natural forces, employed by craftsmen who created with their hands” (p. 140). But the link between automata and magic or mysticism persisted in some places. For one, Truitt mentions in the same chapter the Mystery plays staged by some English artisans and craftsmen who “were mystery-makers, using secret, carefully guarded knowledge to produce stunning effects” (pp. 138 & 139). Craft knowledge and trade secrets were sometimes protected by artisans and guilds, and guilds were religious and spiritual as well as secular and occupational. We know of several esoteric teachings and practices of fraternities that evolved from such guilds, most famously the Freemasons, but I can only speculate (and not terribly well, I admit, because secret handshaking stuff is not of much interest to me) about all the possible connections between guilds, fraternities, magical orders, and other secret societies.16
We know also of certain engineers of the late medieval period, such as Giovanni Fontana who identified as a natural magician,17 and Konrad Kyeser whose “work presents important devices and methods of military technology along with magical recipes and necromantic amulets.”18 And John Dee (1527–ca.1608), of Enochian magic fame (or notoriety), in his preface to Euclid’s Elements, after recounting a variety of automata from history, wrote:
The final chapter (“The Clockwork Universe: Keeping Sacred and Secular Time”) pertains to the development of mechanical clocks in 14c, from earlier clepsydræ, with examples of astronomical clocks such as that in Strasbourg (originally made between 1352 and 1354, now in its third iteration completed in 1843).
The automatic (“self-moving”) motion of such devices, which so precisely mimic the (apparent or real) movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, recalls the cumpas and relations between cosmology, order, prediction, divination, and divinity. The similar automatism of the clockwork animal or person suggests a homomorphism between the “sphæropoetic” and autopoetic, between the recurring cycles of astros — once identified with gods, heroes, myths, and legends — and the recurring cycles of life (cf. circularity in cybernetics). For some, these clockwork automata precipitated the clockwork universe (cf. machina mundi), l’homme machine, and philosophical mechanism (or mechanical philosophy20) and determinism of the following centuries. As Pierre-Simon Laplace (who authored Mécanique Céleste) would write in the early 19c:
For others, the celestial machines served, and continue to serve, as reminders of subtler correspondences between Macrocosm and Microcosm, or the relevance of the starry wisdom of the past, to the practical needs of the present and future. These may adhere even if it is true that astra inclinant, sed non obligant.
Notes and References
- Here is an article by Truitt about Cohen’s “Automata in Myth and Science”.
- There is an English edition and translation by Glyn S. Burgess, published by Garland in 1988, but I have not read it.
- For one description of the throne, see Moses Gaster, Chronicles of Jerahmeel, 1899, pp. 252 & 253.
- John Mandeville, The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, Kt., 1725, p. 261. The 1839 and 1866 copies that Google has are quite nice, but I remain a fan of the long ſ’s in the 1725 ed.
- “What is a robot, really? What does this word even mean? I went to Tokyo to find out. […] During my travels to Tokyo I decided that a robot is something that is part myth, part tool.” — Mark Stephen Meadows, We, Robot: Skywalker’s Hand, Blade Runners, Iron Man, Slutbots, and How Fiction Became Fact, Guilford: Lyons Press, 2011, p. 7.
- Max von Boehn, Puppets and Automata, New York: Dover, 1972. The first chapter is appropriately named, “Automata and Moveable Images.”
- A couple of old sources connect tresgeter to trasgeter or tregettyn, both meaning “to juggle” (cf. juggler, magician, le bateleur). Spencer, The Færy Queene Book 2, Oxford, 1910, p. 294. Mayhew and Skeat, A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 to 1580, Oxford, 1888, p. 236.
- Two common definitions of nature are (1) “what is free from human intervention and artifice, what comes into being and runs its course without benefit of man’s assistance or his contaminating infuence,” and (2) “a type of activity that originates within the agent, more or less spontaneously, and is not the exclusive resultant of forces opposed on the object from without” (citation to follow). “Combining the two senses, we may characterize the world of nature as what is capable of coming into existence apart from human influence and as made up of things that have within themselves internal natures or internal sources of their distinctive qualities. Nature is thus populated by plants and animals of various kinds, by chemical elements and compounds, by hosts of elementary particles, by galaxies, stars, and planets, all of which come into being and pass away and yet enjoy periods of relative stability during which they respond to, or interact with, objects around them. Some natures are animate whereas others are inanimate, yet all are knowable through observable properties and behavioral characteristics. To say of something that it is sulphur, or a geranium, or a horse, is to specify its nature; this we learn not merely from its appearance but from the way it acts and reacts in a variety of circumstances. Thus understood, there is something more enduring about natures than there is about the individuals that instantiate them. A plant may die, and when it does it ceases to be, say, a geranium, but its perishing does not entail that the nature of geranium ceases also. Other plants may continue to exist of which it is true to say ‘This is a geranium’, and thus the nature has a less transient character than the individuals of which it is predicated.” William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996, pp. 3 & 4.
- “Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restrictive a method is, the less opportunity there will be for the expression of one’s original sense of freedom! The techniques, though they play an important role in the early stage, should not be too restrictive, complex, or mechanical. If we cling to them we will become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are ‘expressing’ the technique and not ‘doing’ the technique. When someone attacks you it is not technique number one (or is it technique number two, stance two, section four?) that you are doing, but the moment you are ‘aware’ of his attack you simply move in like sound and echo without deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw something to you, you catch it. That’s all.” — Bruce Lee, “My View on Gung Fu,” in John Little (ed.), Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, Boston: Tuttle, 2001, p. 30.
- See Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. “philosophy of art”, accessed February 20, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophy-of-art/Art-as-expression. While I appreciate the philosophy and occasional praxis of artistic formalism (cf. object-oriented ontology, and Bogost’s alien phenomenology), as an occultist I am usually expressing occult ideas in art, rather than producing art for art’s sake.
- “But my son Hephæstus whom I bare was weakly among all the blessed gods and shrivelled of foot, a shame and a disgrace to me in heaven, whom I myself took in my hands and cast out so that he fell in the great sea.”—“Hymn III to Pythian Apollo,” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, London: William Heinemann, 1914, p. 347.
- Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, Cmabridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1964, pp. 30 & 31.
- Daniel A. Schulke, “The Perfum’d Skull: A Devotional Mass for Cain the Tiller,” The Cauldron 116, May 2005, pp. 27–29. An abridged version is included in The Psalter of Cain, Xoanon, 2012, pp. 50 & 51.
- Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human,” 1972. (Delivered as a speech at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in February 1972. First published in SF Commentary #31, December 1972.)
- “An Interview with Jean Dubuis,” with Mark Stavish, interviewer.
- It is uncertain how far Western esotericism reaches into Freemason history. When I have more time, I will return here to include a few resources about that.
- The connection between Fontana’s machines and magic is mentioned in Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 101. You can read a facsimile of his book, Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, here.
- The quote is from Benedek Láng, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008, p. 71. Konrad is also mentioned in Magic in the Middle Ages, ibid. You can read a facsimile of his book, Bellifortis, here.
- John Dee, The Mathematicall Præface to Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara, 1570. The translation is mine.
- There are mechanical philosophers and there are mechanical philosophers. Cf. electric monks, not to be confused with clockwork monks.
- Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, trans. by Frederick Wilson Truscott, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1902, p. 4.