"Trei poete, sages dotors, qui mout sorent di nigromance": Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French Literature
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"Trei poëte, sages dotors, qui mout sorent di nigromance":
Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French Literature

A war hero, after being injured in battle, is taken to recuperate in an enormous chamber of unparalleled splendor. Made of alabaster, adorned with precious gems and stones, peopled with noble representatives of an aristocratic court, the chamber also boasts some of the most wondrous marvels ever seen by man. There are four pillars, one in each corner of the room, arranged by "three poets, learned teachers, who were well-versed in the knowledge of necromancy [Trei poëte, sages dotors, qui mout sorent di nigromance] . . . so that on each there was a figure of great beauty, cast in metal. The two most beautiful were in the form of maidens; the other two, of youths, no man had looked upon more beautiful."1

The war hero is Hector, and his sickroom—known as the Chambre des Beautés or Alabaster Chamber—and the four metal people are found in Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie (c. 1165). One of the maidens holds up a mirror to the inhabitants of the chamber so that they may see a true reflection of their appearance, while the second maiden, an acrobat, performs gymnastics and conjures up other automata. One of the youths plays music and replaces the flowers in the chamber twice a day. The second youth, in addition to carrying a censer filled with aromatic gums and spices that ease pain and cure [End Page 167] disease, secretly conveys to the people in the chamber ways in which their manner is or is not suitable to a courtly society.2

What is more remarkable than the presence of these metal people in this romance is the fact that automata in human form were found frequently in the pages of twelfth-century French romances—copper knights and damsels, golden archers, children, and guardians of tombs. The early twelfth-century chanson de geste Le voyage de Charlemagne contains a description of the emperor of Constantinople's palace, upon which two golden children blow ivory horns and laugh in a lifelike manner when the wind blows.3 In Le roman d'Eneas, written around 1160, a metal archer ensures that the sanctity of Camille's mausoleum remains inviolate.4 Another mid-twelfth-century romance, Le conte de Floire et Blancheflor, mentions the speaking, moving statues of the eponymous lovers erected on Blancheflor's mock tomb.5 The Roman d'Alexandre, completed around 1180, features two golden youths, made by augury (par augure) and enchantment (enchantement),6 armed with maces, guarding a drawbridge. In addition, two copper boys, armed with shields and pikes and made by enchantment (enchant) guard the tomb of the emir of Babylon.7 The First Continuation of Chrétien's Perceval, completed in the first decade of the thirteenth century, has two figures guarding the tent of Alardin, an "Eastern" potentate, who can discern knight from churl and maiden from nonvirgin, and then bar the entrances of the latter to the tent.8 Furthermore, in the early [End Page 168] thirteenth-century prose cycle Lancelot do lac the hero must defeat two copper knights, and must obtain from a copper damsel the keys of the enchantment over the fortress Doloreuse Garde.9

Nor are metal people to be found only in the pages of literature. William of Malmesbury, in his twelfth-century Latin account of the kings of England, told the story of Gerbert of Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II (999–1003), and his discovery of an underground treasure hoard from antiquity. Gaining access to the catacombs by using the "familiar arts of necromancy," Gerbert and his servant found a golden palace in which "golden knights seemed to be diverting themselves with golden dice, a king and queen of precious metal reclining, with their dishes in front of them and their servants attending them; plates of great weight and price, in which craftsmanship surpassed nature [ubi naturam vincebat opus]."10 When Gerbert's servant tried to steal a knife, "all the figures leapt to their feet with a roar and the boy shot his arrow into the...