Despite the commonplace on the Middle Ages, seeing it as a dark backward period, our ancestors were active in projects of great technological value. An example of this was the concept of robot, not seen as a human substitute to carry out work on his behalf but as means to inspire devotion amongst the believers of the time.
The first documented evidence of the “Saint Robots” dates back to the beginning of the 13th century and talks about an automation able to move independently and gesticulate by using a set of complex gears, hinges and leather buckles. The mechanisms were activated by “steam, water and stored energy in a self-winding mechanism like a clock”.
Built mainly in wood, the Spanish robot still existing with the name of “Virgen de los Reyes”, Virgin of the Kings, had a wooden painted head and arms covered with white kidskin. In his research “Robot Saints” (available on Project Muse) Christopher Swift from the New York City College of Technology, declares that the characters of Mary and baby Jeasus “could perform an infinite number of gesture and human choreographies” because their arms were able to bend and rotate just like human arms.
Below: Virgen de los Reyes, picture by Ubayrbd shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In such a context it is important to remember that faith for the medieval men was a very concrete matter, hence it is not hard to believe that even robots were part of that aspect. From the relics to the great architectural buildings, the religious figures for the medieval men were numerous, always available to be observed and touched.
Another famous holy robot, the Rood of Grace in Boxley, England, was a crucifix in which the figure of Jesus Christ had his eyes able to rotate, his head able to rotate an he was even able to assume different facial expressions.
Below: Virgen de los Reyes in the cathedral of Seville. Picture by Jebulon shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The Rood of Grace was destroyed during the Anglican schism wanted by Henry VIII and of it there is nothing left but the tales of the witnesses of the time. Curiously, the wooden sculpture of the Rood of Grace was utilised by the King’supporters to blame the Catholics as superstitious, and the crucifix was taken to London to be burnt.
If the protestants from the 16th century were seeing these robots as misleading for people because they were making them believe in miracles, Swift suggests that:
“the medieval Christians might have appreciated the sacred mobile statues not for their miraculous qualities but for their mechanical, technological and theatrical ones”
Beside creating something spectacular, it seems that the purpose of building such robots was to inspire the contemplation, just like the gigantic sculpture that are still employed today in the religious parades. If robots were means for spiritual practice we cannot think that the believers from the Middle Ages thought about them as “real” beings, animated by divine force; instead they were most likely enjoying the mechanical wonder that the artists of the time were able to come up with.
Besides mills, the inhabitants of the countryside were not very used to observe the mechanisms made by men, therefore automations of such great precision and refined technique like these ones were for them without any doubt a spectacular view.