Automata of the Middle Ages

This topic is one of the interesting intersections between my medieval research and my current research into Chinese technology. Some of the earliest known automated figures are clock jacks–figures that come out and do something when a clock strikes a certain hour. On Su Sung’s astronomical clock (c. 1070 CE) ranks of figures perform various actions at different times, including playing music. Designs for similar figures exist in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, produced c. 850 CE by a trio of Iranian brothers.

the bell-striking "Jacks" at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

the bell-striking “Jacks” at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

These figures move by a series of gearworks tied to the mechanism of the clock, which might be driven by weights or by water (Su Sung). The handy thing about a water-driven mechanism is that the water can be made to do many other things, like fill or empty from a chamber resulting in slower or more complex movements, like the playing of music which often consisted of either percussion (made by the dropping of objects or lowering of an arm) or flute music, made by using water pressure to force air out of a narrowed opening creating whistles of different tones.

In England, in the 15th century, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths organized a revel to honor the king which included a statue of a golden angel who turned and raised a trumpet. I have been trying to find my notes about this celebration without success–perhaps one of the scholars out there has the specifics? Automata of various sorts appear in the literature of the time, sometimes as mechanical arbiters of justice. Apparently, they begin to appear in the mid-12th century, suggesting that the European image of automata may have been influenced by real examples seen during the crusades as a result of the Islamic interest in such devices.

Automata had a darker role as well, however, one that suggests not their “ingenious” nature as created by man, but their unnatural aspect. The 13th century friar Roger Bacon, regarded nowadays as an early chemist and precursor to today’s scientists, is said to have possessed a brazen head that could speak prophecies–and which was presumed to be of demonic origin. He was imprisoned as a heretic, but eventually freed to die in obscurity and spawn much later speculation about the true nature of his talents.

For myself, I prophesy that I shall much more to say on this topic at a later date.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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1 Response to Automata of the Middle Ages

  1. Pingback: Health Insurance, Medieval Style | E. C. Ambrose

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