S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen


I don't often write about what I'm writing about, since I'm too busy writing it to write it up. I do, however, have a reasonable working draft of my dissertation abstract at the moment. The title is the best working title I've found yet, but if I - or you - or anyone else - can come up with a better one, I'm happy to use it instead.

This is a work in progress. The content should give you a good idea of what the dissertation is about, but it covers so many odds and ends that I'm not always sure how to work it into a coherent abstract. There are all sorts of pieces of information which feel important to me, but which I have left out.

All feedback and questions are most welcome.

The Memory of Medieval Inventions, 1200-1600:
Windmills, Spectacles, Sandglasses, and Mechanical Clocks

Medieval and Early Modern historical, literary, and art historical sources reveal a great deal about contemporary awareness of the recentness of invention. Histories of invention show how much a historian, one interested in the subject of the antiquity of a technology, actually knew. Most Medieval histories of invention, such as those appended to categorizations of knowledge, rely ultimately on classical sources for their content and their authority, with Pliny’s Natural History a popular source. Literary material, including Froissart's L'orloge amoureuse, Christine de Pisan’s L’épître d’Othéa, Petrarch’s Trionfi, or Dante’s Divina Commedia, often includes off-handed references to the origins of objects or includes descriptions of recently invented technologies. The art historical evidence is useful in the early part of this period for its attestations to the existence of objects, particularly in the case of the sandglass, but becomes more clearly informative in the sixteenth century, when the perception of anachronism became a feature of visual representation.

I have traced the history of Medieval and Early Modern memory of invention through four case studies. On one extreme, there was no contemporary awareness of the recentness of the sandglass’ invention; on the other, an author in the late thirteenth century bears witness that the mechanical clock will be invented sometime soon, for it was a problem on which the author’s contemporaries were actively working. In the case of eyeglasses, two early fourteenth century texts note the recentness of their invention, yet there seems to be almost no knowledge of their recentness until the beginning of the seventeenth century when those two documents were rediscovered, at least, not outside of Tuscany.

Our knowledge of the consciousness of people from this time period of windmills as a recent invention is complicated by the way that histories of invention were written. Authors such as Giovanni Tortelli and Polydore Vergil were interested in the first appearance of a given technology. Since watermills, whose invention dates from the end of the Roman Empire, substantially predated the invention of windmills, a comment on the probable origin of the watermill sufficed for a discussion of all mills.

Finally, my dissertation draws on the evidence from the case studies in order to analyze Lynn White’s influential 1962 article “The Iconography of Temperantia and the Virtuousness of Technology”. His article analyzes a striking new iconographic program in mid-fifteenth century France, a program termed by Emile Mâle and Rosemond Tuve the “new iconography” of personifications of the cardinal and theological virtues. In this series of images, Temperance is shown with a mechanical clock on her head, spectacles in one hand, a bridle in her other, spurs on her feet, and standing on a windmill. White argued that the new iconography was a conscious praise of new technologies. I argue that his conclusion is unlikely, given the antiquity of the bridle, and the way in which contemporary histories of invention were exclusively interested in the first instance of a group of objects’ invention.
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