Machines, Automata and Technical Devices in Medieval English Literature

Subproject by Martin Bleisteiner


The project investigates descriptions of machines, automata and technical devices in medieval English literary texts, focusing on objects that are attributed to human creators but which have been rendered capable – for instance by magical or mechanical means – of autonomous action up to the point of developing an artificial life of their own. Many texts, especially from the High and Late Middle Ages, display a remarkable fascination with objects of this kind, which are frequently invested with an element of exoticism – for example by ascribing to them an origin outside of (Western) Christianity. Details of the objects’ construction may be more or less important depending on the text in question, yet the relationship between apparatus and characters is always crucial: the texts stage this interplay in a rich variety of ways, for example by relating the device’s genesis and/or capabilities to the potential implications for the social and political fabric of the fictional world. Implicitly or explicitly, the texts examined thus engage with the fundamental question of how and where to draw the boundary between humans and – animate yet lifeless – machines.