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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art by E. R. Truitt
  • Jonathan Sawday
E. R. Truitt. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. x + 255, 36 ill.

Spot is a 160-lb, four-legged robot, designed (so its makers, Boston Dynamics, claim) “for indoor and outdoor operation . . . electrically powered and hydraulically actuated, Spot has a sensor head that helps it navigate and negotiate rough terrain.” A video of Spot marching through a corporate of ce, gamboling up and down hill, cantering across a parking lot, and most memorably, being kicked by a technician in order to demonstrate the structure’s seemingly miraculous power of self-recuperation as it scrambles to remain upright, has generated thirteen million views on YouTube. Viewer comments in response to watching the uncanny mechanism being put through its paces are illuminating: “eerie . . . creepy . . . terrifying . . . cute . . . trippy.” Boston Dynamics, the manufacturers of Spot and its various [End Page 286] electromechanical cousins (including “Cheetah,” “BigDog,” and “Sand-Flea”), is a wholly owned subsidiary of Google, and has worked in tandem with the U.S. armed forces, the Sony Corporation, and DARPA—the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency—to create (according to the company’s website) “the most advanced robots on earth.”

Spot does not feature in E. V. Truitt’s intriguing Medieval Robots, but, if one wants to understand something of the lengthy intellectual and imaginative antecedents of Spot, which stretch back at least to the mythical Homeric “robots” created by the god Hephaestus in the Iliad or to the designs of the Alexandrian engineers of remote antiquity (Ktesibios, Hero of Alexandria), Truitt’s carefully researched book would be a good a place to start. But Spot, or rather, human responses to Spot, perhaps also illustrates a major dif culty in thinking about automata (whether in the past or the present), which Truitt’s careful scholarship does not entirely overcome.

Divided into six chapters and an introduction, with a lavish set of color illustrations, Medieval Robots contributes to an increasingly densely populated eld that straddles both academic and more popular readerships, and that include works by (inter alia) Adelhid Voskuhl, Kevin LaGrandeur, Wendy Beth Hyman, Minsoo Kang, Gaby Wood, Tom Standage, and (full disclosure) the present reviewer. Perhaps under the pressure of our own cybernetic technologies, we have become increasingly fascinated by the history of the automaton. Truitt’s book is organized (in the author’s words) both “chronologically and thematically” as it traces the history of pre-Renaissance automata from their rst appearance in Greek and Arabic texts, their migration to the Latin West, their re nement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as products of Natura Artifax (“Nature as Artisan”), to their emergence as the ctional automata (oracular statues, speaking heads), powered by sorcery and magic, attributed to gures such as Gerbert of Aurillac, Roger Bacon, Robert Grossteste, or Albertus Magnus (8). In succeeding chapters, Truitt contemplates the function of automata to “guard or memorialize the dead” between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, before introducing us to the appearance of “mechanical marvels” in the princely European courts of the fourteenth and fteenth centuries (11, 37). She ends by turning to the eld of clockwork technology whose most famous manifestation was the magni cent Strasbourg Cathedral Clock, frequently described and discussed by the adherents of the “mechanical philosophy” in the seventeenth century (155).

Truitt’s canvas is a broad one, in both spatial and chronological terms. Stylishly written, she navigates the complex history of automata with real skill, moving deftly between (for example) Baghdad and Byzantium, the Mongol Court of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, or texts such [End Page 287] as Lydgate’s Troy Book and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The chapter dealing with the appearance of automata as textual objects in the Franco-phone world of Romans, chansons, and historiae in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is particularly thoughtful, and displays Truitt’s considerable reading, as well as her ability to digest both primary and secondary sources to produce a coherent and compelling narrative. As Truitt amply demonstrates, automata were deigned not to perform...


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