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Do Medieval and Renaissance Androids Presage the Posthuman?

Kevin LaGrandeur
By Kevin LaGrandeur
Purdue University Press

Posted: Oct 23, 2012

The factual and fictional literature of the Renaissance contains references to the creation of artificial humanoids-somewhat remarkable for an era that predates not only the era of cloning and robotics, but also the era of industry. These figures range from images in fictional literature of talking brass heads to discussions of the homunculus by Renaissance natural philosophers and to Jewish legends of the golem.

What all of these figures have in common is an association with medieval alchemy. The brass heads in Robert Greene’s two plays, The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and Alphonsus, Prince of Aragon have their roots in Arabic sources, and the former derives specifically from legends concerning the thirteenth-century alchemist and philosopher Roger Bacon. Also, both the homunculus and golem appear to be extreme, mystical adaptations of medieval alchemy. For example, these creations are both depicted as being conceived in an alchemical vessel-the glass retort. This article is an attempt to trace the associations between literary images of artificial humans associated with medieval alchemists and alchemy, their modified reemergence in the Renaissance, and implications such images of androids may have for the idea of a posthuman subjectivity.

The Elizabethan writer Robert Greene wrote two plays in which talking brass heads figure fairly prominently. As I have discussed elsewhere, these two robot-like heads have important symbolic value and important ancient roots (“The Talking Brass Head”). In the first play, Alphonsus, Prince of Aragon, a brass head of unknown origin, which can spit fire and utter oracular proclamations, sits in a palace where its owner can consult with it about the future. In a later play, The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, there is another talking brass head whose origin, unlike that of the first, is clear. It has been assembled by the medieval alchemist Roger Bacon with some help from enslaved daemons, who lend their services as smiths to “hammer out” the shape of the piece. The brass head, once animated, will, Bacon hopes, make him a renowned figure in both scholarly and popular circles. Like a modern computer, the automaton will enable the scholar to do his work faster and to do work that would be impossible for the unaided human. The head is to explain difficult intellectual questions, give philosophical lectures, and it will enable Bacon to build a defensive brass wall around all of England (Greene, ii, 25-30). The conceptual roots of these contraptions lie in the Middle Ages. Bacon’s presence as a central character in Greene’s play and his creation of a talking brass automaton are not accidental: By the early 1500s this Friar had become an icon for alchemy’s dangerous social effects, and had come to be seen as a wizard more than a natural philosopher.

This was due to a combination of his prodigious and advanced scientific writings — especially in the field optics, for example — his mention of wondrous mechanical automata in his writings, and his censure by the Catholic Church — a censure which has been attributed, at least in part, to the unorthodoxy of his scientific views. It has been long thought (although not without controversy) that Bacon’s opinion that mathematics and experiment were much more valuable to science than accepted textual authority was a chief source of his troubles with the Franciscan hierarchy, troubles which culminated with the declaration of his work as heretical in 1278. In fact, many of the opinions that he based on his own research, especially in optics, had no equivalent in traditional sources. Rather, he relied on brilliant but simple experiments of his own, such as using prisms and water vapor to show how rainbows are formed. He was also fascinated with mechanical marvels, and discussed them in at least one of his books, De nullitate magiae (translated as Roger Bacon’s Letter Concerning the Marvellous Power of Art and of Nature and Concerning the Nullity of Magic). In chapters 4 and 5 of that work, Bacon writes of some amazing devices that he is familiar with, including a flying machine, and chariots and ships that are able to move without the normal means of propulsion.

Bacon was not alone among medieval scientists in his mention of or fascination with the idea of producing automata. Indeed, there are at least four other medieval European natural philosophers and alchemists who are associated in popular legend with the construction of automata—especially artificial humanoids: Gerbert of Aurillac (who later became Pope Sylvester II), Albertus Magnus, William of Auvergne, and Robert Grosseteste. William of Malmesbury maintains that Gerbert built not only a mechanical clock and a church organ powered by steam, but also an intelligent, talking brass head (175). John Gower, in his Confessio Amantis, mentions Grosseteste’s struggle to create a similar device. There are also legends about Albertus Magnus’s fashioning of a complete automaton that could answer questions, and of his pupil Aquinas’s destruction of it when he, accidentally discovering it in his teacher’s laboratory, assumes it to be a demon. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that we find tales in the Renaissance about the creation of artificial, oracular heads, and that they center on medieval natural philosophers like Bacon and his contemporaries.

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IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur is a Faculty Member at the New York Institute of Technology. He specializes in the areas of technology and culture, digital culture, philosophy and literature.
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