Automata-artificial objects that are, or appear to be, self-moving-were culturally significant in medieval Europe. They appear as diplomatic gifts from distant rulers to European courts; in stories and legends and chronicles of distant lands and times; as manifestations of esoteric and sometimes forbidden knowledge; in courtly settings of great luxury; attached to monumental clockworks; as examples of technological innovation, and in the service of the Church. This research project examines the presence of automata in visual, textual, and material form in medieval Europe and, in the course of this examination, traces the interpenetration of scientific ideas, technological developments, philosophical theories, and cultural history. By examining different types of primary sources, including philosophical treatises, historical chronicles, scientific texts, archival documents, visual representations of automata, technical drawings, and literary sources, and using close analysis of textual, visual, and material sources, this study examines the developments in how automata were created from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and how these shifts relate to developments in medieval natural philosophy and technology. Additionally, a particular theme of this project is how automata, and the knowledge needed to create them, were initially believed to be from the Arabic-speaking world, and were thus viewed with mistrust, suspicion, and fear, as well as desire and wonder. Over time, however, automata were decoupled from these origins, and took on new significance.

This research will make significant intellectual contributions to several different fields. By revealing that automata were central to western medieval society, it will contribute to histories of science and technology as well as establish the importance of science and technology in medieval history. The project will also have a broader impact on scholars and scientists who work on robots, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. This project will place these scholars' interests and research on contemporary science into historical context, showing that current ideas about artificial, self-moving objects and the categories used to organize them have an intellectual, cultural, and scientific history that has been largely invisible. Lastly, this research will compellingly demonstrate that ideas often assumed to be novel developments of early modern natural philosophy are in fact rooted in medieval philosophy, scientific culture, and technological developments.

Project Report

I held a Scholar's Award from the NSF in Science and Technology Studies (specifically, the history of science and technology) from July 2010-June 2012. This grant covered my salary, fringe benefits, and indirect costs for AY '10-'11, and provided crucial funds for research for the duration of the grant period. During the entire period of the grant I presented my research findings at conferences; undertook extensive manuscript research in the US, Italy, France, and the UK; wrote two articles; and completed a monograph on the history of medieval automata. The grant enabled me to improve my skills in examining manuscripts and manuscript paintings (both of which are crucial to my monograph). The conference presentations allowed me to present my work to a diverse audience of scholars, including historians of modern and early modern science, art historians, and literary scholars. The different perspectives I encountered informed my research and have allowed me to produce a monograph that is written to appeal to a broad array of scholars, as well as general readers with an interest in the history of technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The articles I completed (one of which has already been published in the pre-eminent journal for intellectual history) forced me to master two distinct subfields: the history of medieval astronomy and medieval historiography (that is, history written by medieval writers). Both of these subfields play an important role in my monograph, informing two separate chapters. My major findings are as follows: 1) The major manuscript illumination traditions in the West for illustrating automata cohere around a group of literary texts dealing with either Arthurian legends or ancient history. This is surprising given the much wider range of texts and subjects in which medieval automata appear. Within the Arabic tradition, there are a number of manuscripts that have illustrations and plans for creating automata; the bulk of these are versions of two or three treatises that deal with automaton-making. 2) Medieval historiographers, writing in either Latin or the vernacular, seemed to use automata, along with other marvels (architectural, mechanical, magical, natural) to make specific claims about the truth and validity of their historical narratives. This finding confirms the importance of marvels in medieval culture, and more specifically, demonstrates that marvels--including things that seems fantastical or fabulous to modern readers--were crucial to historical epistemology in the medieval period. 3) Scientific ideas about the geographic specificity of certain kinds of marvels intersect with automata in surprising ways. Many literary examples of automata are connected with natural marvels, such as gemstones or animal parts. Yet most of the automata are themselves 'foreign' in some way--either gifts from distant courts to European rulers, or located in foreign places. Western Europeans viewed automata as foreign technology, and then tried to interpret it according to indigenous beliefs about the efficacy of the hidden power of natural objects. Over several centuries, automata gradually became decoupled from their foreign origins; this process accelerated after skilled artisans and inventors in the Latin West began designing and building elaborate mechanical automata, including mechanical clocks. The culmination of this grant is the 95,000 word monograph I completed on the history of medieval automata. The typescript is now out for review with a major academic press. Although it is several years away from publication and so too soon to say with any certainty what the impact of my book will be, my goals are: 1) to provide a deep historical context to a larger conversation about the history of technology, especially robots; 2) to expose the ways in which medieval ideas about the definitions of life and death, the tensions between nature and manufacture, and the ethics of copying nature are fruitful for understanding medieval culture and for understanding more recent preoccupations with the same questions.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Linda Layne
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Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr
United States
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