Medieval robots? Well, close

And it’s here: the first soothsaying robotic head in human history. The year is, well, uncertain but somewhere between 990-1003. For convenience, let’s make it 991, when it features neatly in the manuscript I am currently working on for my doctoral thesis. The story goes like this. There was a famous pope who, before becoming pope, had acquired a reputation for sorcery because of his interest in liberal arts. Gerbert d’Aurillac, a Frenchman and future pope Sylvester II (999-1003), known to many as the ‘Pope of the year 1000″, had gone to Spain to study everything anyone could study in the Middle Ages. Back in France, Gerbert stupefied his contemporaries with his technical knowledge, which apparently was not all theoretical. According to some sources, he designed organs and perfected the Roman and Arab abacus, compiled astronomical tables and even designed optical instruments. In additional to plausible designs and inventions there was something that caught my eye when the reading the text of my manuscript. Let me give you the Latin and a snippet from the manuscript to match this exotic gadget:

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 12.02.53
from an early-13th century manuscript from Lincolnshire, England

“Diciturque eum capud fudisse eneum qui sciscitantem de futuris certificaret; a quo, hoc dicitur, audisse se tunc moriturum cum apud Ierusalem Missam celebravit et non prius. 

“He is also said to have fashioned a bronze head which could inform he who consulted the future, from which thing he is said to have then heard that he would die in Jerusalem but not before he had celebrated Mass there.”

I suppose the idea was that the bronze head was an automaton capable of answering questions or moving in such a way as to indicate the answer. Automatons were being used at the Byzantine court, where the emperor’s throne was caught up in a mechanical device operated from a ‘back stage’ which set in motion mechanical creatures while raising the throne and the emperor on it up in the air.

To my knowledge, no such ‘brazen’ heads have been discovered, despite their ubiquity in the medieval imagination.

(A larger account of this story is to be found in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, whence this snippet may have been drawn. GRA, II, §172)

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One thought on “Medieval robots? Well, close”

  1. This is presumably part (or one of the roots) of the tradition that would build up that Gerbert was a sorceror trained in Córdoba. what’s the context of these passages, presumably not praise? And how early is the text? If you don’t mind questions, that is…

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