Historian Wins Grant for Study of Medieval Automata

Elly Truitt, Assistant Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College, has received a Scholar’s Award from the National Science Foundation to fund a year’s time doing research for and writing her new book, tentatively titled Magical Mechanisms: Automata in the Medieval West.

“Automata—artificial objects that are, or appear to be, self-moving—were culturally significant in medieval Europe,” says Truitt in describing her research subject. “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.”


Truitt’s research project examines the presence of automata in visual, textual, and material form in medieval Europe and, in the course of the examination, traces the interpenetration of scientific ideas, technological developments, philosophical theories, and cultural history.

Magical Mechanisms: Automata in the Medieval West, builds upon research Truitt began while earning her Ph.D. in the history of science at Harvard University.


Truitt arranges medieval automata into three broad categories: historical automata (objects assumed to have actually existed, based on the historical record—such as a water clock given to Charlemagne by the caliph of Baghdad—or plans for objects that were designed but never built); textual automata (fantastic imaginary objects that appear in a magical context in literature); and a much smaller category, surviving objects (the earliest of which is a mechanical rooster from Strasbourg, in Northeastern France, dating to 1350).

There were also “weird legendary artifacts,” such as prophetic talking heads that were animated by demons or the alignment of the stars, Truitt says.

Many of these objects entered into the European consciousness via contact with the East. “Diplomatic gifts, or things that travelers saw or heard of, later showed up in changed or more elaborate form in the literature,” Truitt says. “People were grappling with the East as a place with much more advanced technology and scientific knowledge. This was seen as exciting, but intellectually and morally disturbing.” Over time, she says, the objects “become decoupled from their ‘problematic’ Eastern origins.”

The award will allow Truitt to hire at least one student research assistant and to travel to England, Scotland, France, and Italy to search manuscript collections for images and information about medieval automata. She’s also planning a trip to Los Angeles to examine manuscripts at the Getty Research Institute.


In addition to researching and writing the book, Truitt will also be working on two articles, one that is related to her next research project, on medieval courts as important centers of scientific knowledge and practice, and one that is about the changing definitions of fiction and history in the 13th century.

The NSF’s Science, Technology, and Society Program typically funds only 20 percent of the proposals it receives each year and an even smaller percentage of proposals from scholars in the humanities.

“The experiences I’ve had teaching Bryn Mawr undergraduates really helped me to prepare my grant proposal and will, I hope, help me write my book. The skills I’ve learned while teaching—namely, how to create a coherent narrative for people unfamiliar with a topic and highlight what is important and why—are fundamental to my research and writing,” Truitt said.


Truitt, who teaches a course on magic, says the distinction between science and magic is “less of a line and more of an overlap.” Both are investigations into the natural world, she notes. “The distinctions are very blurry and very permeable.”

Furthermore, Truitt says, people in the Middle Ages grappled with many of the same issues that today’s scientists are investigating: artificial intelligence, where one should draw the line between life and “not life,” and the ethical and moral questions involved in replicating nature.

In medieval times, Truitt notes, scientific and technological innovation was being conducted in a diverse array of settings—“in universities, on voyages, in courtly settings, by artisans, shipbuilders, and theologians.”

Yet, Truitt points out, other than the study of medieval medicine, which she calls “a vibrant and exciting field,” many aspects of medieval science remain unexplored. “The subfield has historically focused on Aristotelian philosophy, optics and physics,” she says. “But there is so much we don’t know about natural history,” including, for example, medieval people’s view of fossils.


Source: Bryn Mawr