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The Clockwork Clergy


With refinements in Agatan Gear Theory and the ever increasing precision of measuring tools, the late 1500s saw a widespread interest in clockwork machinery for everything from toys to basic amenities (see: the AutoSignatour, 1579). In 1567, a Spanish monk crafted a life-sized mechanical replica of himself to take his place in the monastery during mass and prayer while he was ill or travelling. It was made of wood and iron and stood about five feet tall with fully functioning eyes, mouth, and arms. It rolled about on a number of small, finely shaped brass balls, usually in a circle or a square, driven by key-wound spring that required winding every two hours. Various whistles and flutes built inside the chest were designed so that when air was pushed through by a concealed pump, the resulting whistling sounded close to a certain hymn or chant.

When the monk’s creation was discovered during a visit by a local bishop, it was claimed to be blasphemous and ordered to be destroyed. The monk defended his creation and word of it spread by rumor throughout European Christendom. A conference was called for in Florence where priests, bishops, and cardinals from every corner of the old world met to discuss the issue. In 1569 The Decree of Florence, as it came to be called, determined through study of the scripture that God did not hold a position on the use of automatons, and nowhere in the Holy Scripture did it explicitly state His Word must be spread by man alone. Many modern theorists still argue over the results of the decree and critics believe it was an effort by the Church, then battling the forces of Martin Luther and his Reformation, to not lose any potential faithful due to new draconian laws.

The Decree of Florence sent a shockwave throughout Europe that is still being felt today. Monasteries which were once spaces for silent pray and contemplation became tinkering workshops, where monks performed their holy duties during the day and labored under lantern light by night. Soon a wide new range of clockwork clergymen appeared, some specifically designed to simply chant or hymn, while other more elaborate models were soon able to recite entire passages of the scriptures through short whistles and chimes. Their popular initial use for replacing missing parishioners soon gave way to performing services like handing out communion and leading choir or prayers.

When the wealthy took notice they paid for models made in their likeness which could then stand present during prestigious or holy sermons and gatherings. Confessions became available at all hours of the day and were completely private as priests blessed automatons to take their place in the booths. Models made in the likeness of saints became the center pieces of many shrines and roads used by pilgrims to reach holy sites were clogged by slow travelling crowds of clanking, chanting contraptions led by one or two diligent monks. The machines routinely broke down and were discarded by the roadside, with many of these still being stumbled upon and dug up today by archaeologists and rural farmers. Even missionaries were soon replaced by models that could recite the rosary and further spread the Word of God, seeing use as far away as China and among native settlements in the New World. Such far flung models usually had entire passages from the testaments scrawled out  in many languages across their entire body, making them rolling, chanting totems to the scriptures.

The royal courts of France and England expressed interest in using adapted models for warfare, but early tests revealed they were unable to stand against even the simplest of militias. In an event mockingly recorded as the Massacre of Roussillon in 1592, a brigade of automatons armed with spears were sent into a village ahead of human forces to quell a minor peasant revolt and were torn apart by the crowds. Pieces of the brigade can still be found embedded in the architecture of the village, from lantern heads, to gear-run field cultivators, and even a town hall clock with literal metal arms on its face.

Today there is not a cathedral, monastery, or church in all of continental Europe without its own clockwork clergyman on display. Some still function, but their gears, chimes, and whistles have since deteriorated. Paintings and statues of saints crafted since the Decree of Florence have included depictions of the automatons with halos around their heads in recognition of the work they performed throughout the church’s darkest periods. One of the most famous automaton depictions is a renaissance painting from 1644 entitled L’Homme sans Péché, depicting a monk on his knees crying to the heavens as he holds a headless body in his arms, the corpse’s robes ripped open to reveal a mesh of glowing gears, and a smiling highwayman standing nearby with a wooden head held in his palm. Although no model was ever declared a saint, a movement to canonize one Brother AutoLeo began in the mid-19th century. Proponents say they have records of the model crying tears of holy water and a multitude of leprosy cases and other maladies healed by its touch. The Church is considering the canonization and say if it were come to pass, Brother AutoLeo would likely become the Saint of Industry and Good Progress.

(originally posted on the tumblr)


#robots #monks #althistory #clockwork #renaissance #religion

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