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Medieval Automata and Simulacra: From the Daemonic to the Hydraulic [Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, May 13–16, 2009]
full name / name of organization:
Anthony Adams, Brown University
Puppets, marionettes, golems, androids, automata, moving statues, mannequins, shadow figures—sometimes comic, sometimes creepy, these figures of fun and fright engage us with their similarity, albeit grotesque, to ourselves. Recent researches into the field of medieval automata have convincingly established the the power of these living or life-like machines as both performing objects and as metaphor. They have featured as ‘actors’, or performing objects, in legend, epic, chanson, and wonder tale; they also have served as metaphors for personal freedom or manipulation, for the presence of a human soul or its terrifying absence.
As early as Plato, the image of the puppet on a string was used to suggest that delightful appearances were only a manifestation of a secret consciousness, that there was a marked division between animated matter and the soul itself, the anima. Such musings have been at or near the center of philosophy since, coming to life in medieval Jewish tales of the golem, through Descartes’s mind–body dualism, and continuing through the fascination with galvanic bio-energy, and Romantic and Gothic notions of immanence. Conversely, writers, dramatists, filmmakers, and sculptors have wondered at the possibility of animating lifeless matter. This image has been characterized in several ways, such as the modern figures of the wicked yet childlike Pinocchio, or in the grotesque and horrifying visage of Frankenstein’s monster. Medieval figures were equally powerful portents of occult magic and ‘eastern’ wisdom, as well as technological marvels. Underneath the awesome and God-like fascination with machines and dolls coming to life lies a terror at the likelihood of it going wrong.
I am seeking papers from scholars working on some aspect of these topics for presentation at a session to be held at the 2010 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. Contributions are welcome from those working in literary history, art history, the history of technology and science, archaeology, and religious history; submissions from those working in either Western European or Byzantine traditions, as well those exploring the confluence of the two cultures, as well as those working in the tradition of medieval Arabic scientific sources, are especially welcome. Please send 500-word abstracts, your current affiliation and status, and relevant contact information to Dr Anthony Adams, anthony.adams AT utoronto.ca by September 15, 2010. Submit any queries to same address. Submissions from junior scholars and current graduate students welcome. Papers are to be no longer than 20 minutes.
Participants must also submit a Participant Information Form with their abtract, available at