Special Topics Lecture 19. Techno-Mythology in Medieval Romantic Literature


Whereas in our past lecture on religious automata, we have seen talking crucifixes presented in earnest in the several examples of the age’s miracle literature, in more secular corners and alongside the development and refinement of diverse mechanical technologies has been observed the rise of a “techno-mythology”  in response to and inspired by these advances. This phenomenon mingled components ostensibly based upon observation of the possibilities of real technology in the Middle Ages with the ever-present suspicion of a demonological, astral, or otherwise magical operating agent.


Merriam Sherwood has written in her article “Magics and Mechanics in Medieval Fiction” about the fine line between Medieval fantasy and the real experience lived, mostly exclusively by those at the loftiest echelons of Church, kingdom, and empire, through encounters with inventive automata such as those surveyed in our prior lectures. Sherwood describes the age’s spirit and experience as:

a land of laughter where machines are playthings, where the march of time is marked, not by a graybeard shouldering a scythe, but by quaint puppet figures that dance away the hours, where golden birds sing and brazen lions supply a never-ending flow of wine for merry-makers, where invisible mechanisms shower the unsuspecting guest with flour or soot or water…

The profusion of various automata in medieval tales has already been recognized as a symptom of the widespread popularity of automata in Medieval Western European culture, and its analysis illustrates a perceptible psychological shift by a later age from earlier centuries’ enthusiastic mixing of mechanical with the mystical in order to animate beasts, humans, and a hypothesized spectrum of genies, demons, and angels in between. This medieval literary genre, with its scope of living or otherwise invested statues and vessels will be explored in a selection of the automata in fiction and fables from the French Medieval romances. The “techno-mythology” itself becomes symptomatic of a period of both intellectual transition as well as reflection upon the activities, pursuits, and understanding of phenomena which persisted on the fringes of possibility. Where else than fictional literature could the Western mind continue to explore the pursuit of the ancients to identify, contain, and manipulate the sidereal forces of the cosmos, natural and divine alike; where else could more perfect robot-servant or demonic-bronze knight be most easily brought to life than within the infinite arena of legend and fable? Nevertheless, however fantastically embellished these automata became in the fantasy of the writers of Medieval fancy, for their audiences, the wonders they described would have seemed all-too-possible, confirmed by even the briefest exposure to the splendid automata which characterized Europe’s most splendid courts of the age. In the centuries where the hours were struck in most European centers by mechanical jacquemart-men or marked by mechanical roosters, it was not a great leap of the imagination to insert mechanical characters into legends and other flights of the imagination.


Tales from travellers returning from the East may have struck many as science fiction, factual though they in fact were. In the tenth-century romance Floire et Blancheflor,  bronze birds that sing when the wind blows perched upon the crenellated wall of the Emir’s garden in the twelfth-century romance Floire et Blancheflor effectively document existing technology with little embellishment.  This work is thought to have been composed ca. 1150 in northern France, and its multiplicity of extant manuscripts indicates its popularity in Medieval culture. Beyond this material record, the narrative of this romance-which follows the imperiled love between a Spanish Muslim prince and a French Christian slave girl- has been identified by medievalists Paula Mae Carns and Theresa Lynn Weller in the panels of a fourteenth-century ivory casket in the Gothic style that was made in either France or Italy. The left panel of the casket treats the part of the story when Floire embarks to find and rescue his love in the Emir’s harem. Two of the four scenes are set in the Emir’s garden- a feature of the casket that invents upon the text itself, as the lovers’ meeting takes place in a tower- but no sign of the metallic birds has made it onto the simplified compositions of the panel. A comprehensive analysis of the available illustrated manuscripts remains to be accomplished, but for the moment, no depiction of these birds has been identified.


Some medieval texts read as descriptions of mechanical devices which had been recently transmitted to the Latin West through Greek and Islamic writings and objects. The historian Merriam Sherwood believes that various medieval texts’ passages on miraculous metal trees with singing mechanical birds function as reliable descriptions of works which no longer exist. from the Roman d’Escanor describes an actual automata, albeit in a somewhat confusing recounting of its features. In the story, this was a small tree which was set at the head of the bed of the fairy Esclarmonde:

It appeared to bear both flowers and fruit continuously, and on every branch were birds which seemed alive and which sang sweetly. A golden pipe was set up inside the tree, on the top of which hwas an angel holding a trumpet to its mouth. The angel was on a pivot enabling it to turn in any direction. Apparently, when the angel was in position, a pipe inside it connected with the large pipe in the tree. Presumably, also, there were similar pipes inside the birds. The blowing of the trumpet was the signal for the birds to begin to sing. The movements of the angel are not very fuly described. It is stated, however, that if the angel turned ever so little to one side all sounds ceased, which would seem to mean that this movement shut off the vent of air form the main pipe. If the angel turned back “towards” the pipe- that is, moved directly over it- the birds began to sing. If it removed the trumpet from its lips the birds stopped singing, but when it held it again to its mouth, the melody broke forth once more.

Sherwood also identifies the description in the Eneas of a hollow vine with flames underneath upon which “ten thousand” golden birds would sing and flutter when a wind blows as a sincere description of how a current of hot air was harnessed and employed in this relatively common medieval automaton. Further examples can be found in her 1947 article “Magic and Mechanics in Medieval Fiction.” Mary Flowers Braswell has followed in the foot-steps of Sherwood in her analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, positing that approximately one hundred lines of verse are original and faithful descriptions of technology which the author probably had witnessed in his capacity as the former Clerk of the King’s Works and Commissioner of Walls and Ditches, two positions which brought Chaucer into close contact with engineering machines and the “cutting-edge” technology of the day.  From the same work, new light is shed on the term “tregetour,” which finds frequent translation as “magician,” but also as “mechanical artisan,” in the specific sense of someone who works magic through technology.


Although faithful descriptions of existing mechanical technology dot the age’s literature, perhaps more characteristic of the age is the dogged suspicion that whatever wonders wrought by man were impossible without the aid of demons. A fictional caliph of Babylon’s toys and gilded tree with mechanical singing birds featured in the early thirteenth-century Aymeri de Narbonne (ca. 1205-1225), which similarly echo descriptions brought back by crusaders and ambassadors who has seen first-hand such sites as the tenth-century Palace of the Tree in Samarra and others of diverse Eastern courts.  In the tale, the emir controls nature through necromancy, and the tree itself is of cast copper and gold made by enchantment:

The wind is made to enter the flue [of the tree] by necromancy; when the wind blows the birds begin to sing… clearly and gaily.

In a similar vein of demonological magic, when Narbonne, a Muslim-controlled town in the Languedoc region, is captured in the chanson by Charlemagne, the caliph invokes the devil to blow favorable winds for his fleet to arrive and recapture it. Even when an automata’s pneumatic operation is described in its mechanical components, such as wind entering the flue, the compulsion of air itself to enter the man-made canal is still attributed to “necromancy”; in this description, we find perhaps a strong indication of how even the simple operations of natural physics which powered these early automata remained under heavy suspicion that some aspect of the process must necessitate some kind of traffic with or compulsion of a demon/spirit.  There are five extant medieval manuscripts of this work, located between the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the British Library in London.


In another demonological key, the early-thirteenth-century Old French prose Lancelot do lac (ca. 1220) features the knight defeating several metal guardians of the enchanted castle of Doloreuse Garde; inside, a metal woman holds the keys to a box in which thirty tubes, each crying with a horrible voice, are revealed to be the demons which are animating the castle’s enchantments.  Again, we witness the conflation of tell-tale mechanical features, such as pipes or tubes, and the convinced suspicion that what flowed through them must rely upon demonological savoir-faire. Several manuscript paintings have been identified as illustrations of Lancelot’s encounter with the automata. Their nudity and their brazen skin-tone differentiate these figures in their medieval illustrations from Lancelot and other human characters.


More demonic automata can be found in the early thirteenth-century prose continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, another continuation of the Grail legend. A demonically-animated and oracular copper bull in a cursed castle is guarded by copper men guarding the door with hammers. In characteristically medieval Christian fashion, these guards kill everyone in the castle except for the protagonist and thirteen people who agree to believe in God.  This conversion melts the bull, breaking the demon’s enchantment. In this literary vignette, we must recognize the very-real associations which cast-metal talismans and particularly zoomorphic sculpture had as astral images from the Islamic Middle Ages and as far back as the Himyarite Era in South Arabia; the French author has received this tradition and incorporated it into the narrative of the medieval French Grail legend.


Another common feature in the “techno-literature” of the Western Middle Ages is the description of a fantastic tomb of an ancient prince- in many cases Hector of Troy but not always- which features mechanical servants and eternally-burning lamps.   Benoît de Saint-Maure (d. 1173) in the Roman de Troie describes tombs featuring elaborate mechanical furnishings, as well as Hector’s alabaster Chambre de Beautés (“Chamber of Beauties”), a sick room more accurately described as a jewel box  within which were four robotic servants that serve Prince Hector of Troy: one which played every instrument and periodically scattered fragrant flowers on the floor (later cleaned up by a mechanical eagle), another female automaton, a “jongleresse,” which “performed and entertained and danced and capered and gambolled and leapt all day long on top of the pillar, so high up that it is a wonder it did not fall,” one fumigated the room with odoriferous gums with a censer of topaz, and another held up a mirror and correcting behavior.


The late-fifteenth century Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César incorporates the features described in the Roman de Troie in its integration of Hector in what is otherwise a retelling of the French Romance with a historical veneer. Here we see the automata incorporated as bedposts in the sick-room setting.


Medieval manuscripts of another twelfth-century French Romance, the Eneas (for summary see http://howlingfrog.blogspot.com/2017/01/eneas.html), describe in their narrative the tomb of the Amazon Camilla in terms reminiscent of some of the features of Hector’s sick-room in the Roman de Troie: it incorporated “a hundred marvels,” including “defensive magnets, a magic mirror that revealed the approach of enemies, a sarcophagus hermetically sealed with cement made from ground gems moistened with serpent’s blood, a cushion for Camilla’s head stuffed with Caladrius feathers, an ever-burning lamp made of asbestos, and a metal archer set to loose an arrow and extinguish the lamp should the tomb be disturbed.”  A relatable figure is the mechanical giant which stood guard over the image of Iseult in her memorial chamber Thomas of Britain’s Roman de Tristan (ca. 1173).


What was possible, from the perspective of mechanical history, mingled with the Medieval romantic sensibility. The twelfth-century Flor et Blancheflor, which has sometimes been credited to a female author for its absence of any military themes, features two automata at the tomb of Blancheflor, which lay in each others arms holding lilies and whispering to one another in perpetuity: “I love you more than aught else in the world.” In this case the automata functions as a memorial in perpetuity, acting out the great romance long past the lovers’ death (see also https://repository.brynmawr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1029&context=history_pubs).


The genre of courtly romance made stock figures of marvelous artifacts invested with motion and spirit which blur the line between fiction and reality: serving dishes that present themselves, mechanical birds, lions, chessmen, angels, and talking mechanical heads-   the Squire’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400) describes a rich array of such items.


One historian of magic in the Middle Ages observed that even explicitly fictional writings preserve certain realities of the day; if not in actual objects or events, then certainly in attitudes and values.   Mechanical devices sometimes featured as divine tests of character, such as the goblet which the Fairy King gives to Huon: the wine will vanish if the drinker is unworthy.  The motif of the Fairy King that inspired Shakespeare’s Oberon is sourced in three more or less complete manuscripts of an early thirteenth-century chanson de geste  about a knight, Huon de Bordeaux, who unwittingly kills the son of Charlemagne and is sent to complete a series of seemingly-impossible tasks.


Whether only in literature or in the proverbial “flesh” (metal, wood, clay, or otherwise), such animated or “living” statues and related pneumatic or hydraulic devices possessed a potent allure for the medieval mind in its presentation of an unknown mechanism or mystery and the allure of mechanics which promised a secret which was, in fact, knowable to a worthy intellect. In the case of several of these literary works, when demonic magic was not employed, their automata’s operation relied upon the magical properties of “exotic substances that were already part of the canon of natural wonders.”  The average person in the Middle Ages would have had to go to great trouble to acquire them; not only was he limited by the restricted access afforded to these rare materials, but also rebuffed by the esoteric, by-nature secretive knowledge tradition about their natural powers. Only “wise and learned men, well versed in magic,” to quote the twelfth-century author of the Roman de Troie, were up to the task.  When this knowledge was put into action, the operator’s potential for total power over nature, over others, and over himself was rendered visible to all by the wonders of art which were produced.


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