In 807 the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, sent Charlemagne a gift the like of which had never been seen in the Christian empire: a brass water clock. It chimed the hours by dropping small metal balls into a bowl. Instead of a numbered dial, the clock displayed the time with 12 mechanical horsemen that popped out of small windows, rather like an Advent calendar. It was a thing of beauty and ingenuity, and the Frankish chronicler who recorded the gift marvelled how it had been ‘wondrously wrought by mechanical art’. But given the earliness of the date, what’s not clear is quite what he might have meant by that.
Certain technologies are so characteristic of their historical milieux that they serve as a kind of shorthand. The arresting title credit sequence to the TV series Game of Thrones (2011-) proclaims the show’s medieval setting with an assortment of clockpunk gears, waterwheels, winches and pulleys. In fact, despite the existence of working models such as Harun al-Rashid’s gift, it was another 500 years before similar contraptions started to emerge in Europe. That was at the turn of the 14th century, towards the end of the medieval period – the very era, in fact, whose political machinations reportedly inspired the plot of Game of Thrones.
When mechanical clockwork finally took off, it spread fast. In the first decades of the 14th century, it became so ubiquitous that, in 1324, the treasurer of Lincoln Cathedral offered a substantial donation to build a new clock, to address the embarrassing problem that ‘the cathedral was destitute of what other cathedrals, churches, and convents almost everywhere in the world are generally known to possess’. It’s tempting, then, to see the rise of the mechanical clock as a kind of overnight success.
But technological ages rarely have neat boundaries. Throughout the Latin Middle Ages we find references to many apparent anachronisms, many confounding examples of mechanical art. Musical fountains. Robotic servants. Mechanical beasts and artificial songbirds. Most were designed and built beyond the boundaries of Latin Christendom, in the cosmopolitan courts of Baghdad, Damascus, Constantinople and Karakorum. Such automata came to medieval Europe as gifts from foreign rulers, or were reported in texts by travellers to these faraway places.