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Clarke’s third law, coined in 1973, expresses the difficulty that people of any era have in reconciling the bounds of current knowledge with our experiences in a world full of marvels. In a fascinating investigation of role of automata in the culture of the medieval Latin west, E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) traces the story of automata from their early appearance in the Latin west as gifts of foreign courts, to the literary manifestations of these objects, to the eventual creation of elaborate mechanical automata in the middle of the thirteenth century. Along the way, this history examines the nature of marvels, the constitution of natural knowledge, the text-based transformation of Latin intellectual culture, definitions of life and death, the spectacle of court, and the mechanics of the universe (8, 9). The cast of characters, both fictional and factual, embraces writers, travelers, and natural philosophers ranging from Liudprand of Cremona (c. 920 972), Pope Sylvester II (c. 946 1003) and Fr. William of Rubruck (c. 1220 1293), to Sir John Mandeville, witness of marvels mechanical and divine, and a Charlemagne whose stay in Constantinople brings him face to face with a pagan rulers powers of astral science that test the potentials of Charlemagne’s piety.
Our conversation about Truitt’s comprehensively researched and highly readable book ranges over C-3PO’s medieval forebears in the alabaster chamber, the religious rehabilitation of disembodied talking heads, the role of clocks and clockwork in the discourse shift from natural philosophy to mechanical engineering, and the political significance of lewd mechanical monkeys covered in rotting badger pelts.
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