Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ye Olde Replicants

A link to a recent podcast on the RadioLab blog recently came across my desk. It's a great piece about a 16th-century Spanish automaton--a praying monk--commissioned by King Phillip II after his son and heir, Charles, suffered a traumatic brain injury and had a miraculous recovery. The "robotic padre" was a copy of a miracle-working monk native to the area where Charles was staying, and who had visited Charles in a dream. 'Cept this holy monk had been dead for 100 years. According to sculptor and historian Elizabeth King, this monk was a perfect praying machine: it never tired, never got distracted, never needed to pee. And, as Latif Nasser points out, performance--especially the performance of devotion through prayer--was central to Catholicism at this time.

There are a couple of things about this automaton that I find particularly compelling. One, the fact that this clockwork cleric is a copy of an individual. I've come across mechanical copies of (living) people in medieval texts, where they often expose or comment on distinctions between living and dead. In this case, a dead miracle-working monk, who brought the heir to the Spanish Empire back to life, is then represented by a praying machine.

The second thing is the performative aspect of the automaton. It continually demonstrates the correct way to pray--a carefully choreographed sequence of steps, gestures, turns, and words--for sinful and weak humans. Many scholars have written about the proliferation of mechanical saints in the early modern period. In the medieval period, robots or automata were instead used to model, enforce, and demonstrate proper courtly behavior--etiquette about how to behave in public in a gentle and pleasing manner. A version of Trojan history remarks on, among the wonders of Troy, a room full of golden automata that enact perfect standards of courtly behavior. Here's a 14th century manuscript painting of the golden figures doing their business--juggling, playing music, using secret hand signals, whatevs. They helped the members of Trojan courtly society make sure that they didn't have spinach in their teeth, that their wigs were on straight, that they couldn't eavesdrop or overstay their welcome, and that they could feel fully confident about their etiquette and behavior. Awesome, amirite?


Anthea said...

Wow! How fascinating. Thank you for posting this information..since I'm wondering why I didn't learn this earlier whenever I heard about the medieval period.

Jason Lahman said...

Hi Elly! I've been following your work on medieval automata for many years. This illustration is fantastic. I hope you will post more. I'm giving a lecture on automata from 800-1800 CE this Sunday at a private salon and am including this image! In the fall I'll be teaching the course "Paris: Biography of a City" at San Francisco State University and will offer a whole lecture on the automata of the Enlightenment. Hope you are well! - Jason Lahman

E. R. Truitt said...

Thanks, Jason! I hope to have a personal relationship with each of my readers; I suspect this will be possible. I'd love to hear more about your salon lecture, too.