Seeing the World Through Medieval Eyes

Posted February 26th, 2009 at 1:25 pm.

Elly Truitt

Elly Truitt, an assistant professor of history at Bryn Mawr College, has been studying medieval history since her undergraduate years at Wellesley College. “To me, it feels like second nature to slip into the 12th century or 14th century, recognizing that my 21st-century assumptions may seem equally peculiar.”

But it wasn’t until she had finished a master’s degree program in medieval history at Cambridge University, England, that Truitt discovered her true research interest: medieval technology and the occult sciences. This realization has led not only to a career specialty in medieval history, science, and medicine, but also to a book, currently in progress, on automata in the medieval West.

This interest was sparked when Truitt, who had just decided not to pursue a doctorate in medieval history, was helping her former undergraduate adviser conduct research in preparation for a lecture on art and science in the Middle Ages. “She thought automata would be a good hook for her audience,” Truitt recalls. “It was fascinating. I said to her, ‘This would be a good book project for you.’ She said, ‘No; it would be a good book project for you.’ ”

Thus inspired, Truitt pursued a Ph.D. in the history of science—a field she had largely been unaware of—at Harvard University.

Elaborate Clocks and Talking Heads

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, 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.”

Compassionate Scholarship

Away from her office, Truitt is a fan of science fiction, especially books and movies involving “robots, cyborgs, and androids in modernity and post-modernity.” In her research, she tries to transcend modern notions of progress. “I try to teach my students to be compassionate and to withhold judgments about the medieval period, and especially medieval science,” she says. “That can be very challenging. You have to step back and recognize that there’s an entirely different way of looking at the world, and an entirely different way of framing questions.” For example, Truitt says, magic, today discredited as superstition, “had a totally different framework, and a highly rational one.”

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, artisans, 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.

Disturbing Texts

“Looking at manuscripts is probably one of the best things about being a medievalist,” says Truitt, who has traveled across the United States and Europe to review primary sources. “I look at a lot of incredibly beautiful manuscripts, which is intensely pleasurable. I also look at scraps of paper, such as household accounts, which is also exciting, but in a different way.”

But some of these texts are disturbing, Truitt notes. “At first, I used to get very angry about the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, the Orientalism—the incredible bigotry and violence and hatred. But that’s the world they were living in, and our own is not as far removed as we might like to believe.” For those wanting to follow in her footsteps, Truitt advises persistence. “It can be really exciting, and kind of difficult,” she says, “to explain to the general public that science isn’t just this shiny new thing that started with the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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