blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part VI: Looking at the Monk Then: Some Historical Speculations

The story of Don Carlos gives us a glimpse of sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism, as well as a glimpse of the contemporary relations between religion, politics, magic, and medicine. In this period the high Catholic Church recoiled both from corruption within its own orders, and from the onslaught of the Protestant revolt. The Counter-Reformation, with the founding of the powerful new Jesuit Order, the Council of Trent, and the new Inquisition, responded with a reinvigoration of Catholic doctrine, tightening strictures against heresy, and reinscribing the authority of the sacraments. This was an age in which physical objects and inanimate things were believed by many to possess supernatural powers. The Mass itself, and the central belief in the transubstantiation of the Host, enacts the penultimate miracle of the quickening of inanimate substance. Keith Thomas, in his 1971 book Religion and the Decline of Magic, locates in the power of the Mass "the magical notion that the mere pronunciation of words in a ritual manner could effect a change in the character of material objects." [65] Literalism, metaphor, and symbol in the liturgy were zealously debated, but always with the Church attempting exclusive jurisdiction over the realm of miracles. Yet the ur-science of alchemy, winding itself through medieval Christianity, also was flourishing in the sixteenth century: Paracelsus wrote his most famous treatises on metallurgy, theosophy, anatomy, medicine, astronomy, among which the work De Natura Rerum, Of Natural Things, was completed in 1537. This text contains the controversial recipe for making a homunculus, a very different method for generating body and blood from "material objects." [66] The intermingling of alchemy and orthodox religion is magnificently laid out in Marguerite Yourcenar's historical novel The Abyss. [67] Yourcenar's central character, Zeno, a fictional portrait based on aspects of the life of Paracelsus, pursues knowledge of body and universe under the constant threat of heresy, as he moves from city to city through the Europe of the sixteenth century's second quarter. Indeed, the auto-da-fé—the public burning of heretics at the stake—is seen to be a routinely attended state event in the court life of King Philip II. When we remember that alchemy, for all its long association with forbidden knowledge, is the mother science of modern chemistry, and that Paracelsus was among the first to propose a theory of metabolism against the entrenched "four humours" view of the body, we understand something of the paradox and complexity of this transformative period in history. (And we wonder what kind of gentler treatment Don Carlos might have received from the great Swiss physician.) The alchemist moreover, sought equally a knowledge of the cosmos and an understanding of the living organism: these truths would be elementally interwoven. The astrarium and the automaton could likewise be seen as linked works in the technological sphere: the search for the Primum Mobile.

The monk shares with the alchemist's homunculus his small size, self animation, and intended role as servant. For us, he particularly shares with the homunculus his artificiality as a "man-made man" [68] capable of performing the most complex and distinctly human transactions, and perhaps possessing some superhuman abilities as well. In literature, the fabrication of the homunculus is always a forbidden act, Part Two of Faust the best known example. [69] And likewise, we have some record that automata too roused the disapproval of the Church, as when Turriano gains "the dangerous fame of a wizard."

Keith Thomas, quoted above on the magical transformation of the Host, speaks in his book about how such changes could be effected mechanically, and the following passage has a peculiar ring to it in the context of the monk [italics mine]:

For the essential difference between the prayers of a churchman and the spells of a magician was that only the latter claimed to work automatically; a prayer had no certainty of success and would not be granted if God chose not to concede it. A spell, on the other hand, need never go wrong, unless some detail of ritual observance had been omitted or a rival magician had been practising stronger counter-magic. A prayer, in other words, was a form of supplication: a spell was a mechanical means of manipulation. [. . .] In practice, however, this distinction was repeatedly blurred in the popular mind. (p 41)

But Thomas also uses the word "mechanical" in discussing the Church's assurance of the cumulative power of a repeated prayer: "Salvation itself could be attained, it seemed, by mechanical means, and the more numerous the prayers the more likely their success." One could even hire members of the clergy to repeat prayers on one's behalf (pp 41-42). The rosary, to this day, is an abacus for counting prayer repetitions. The mechanical monk, with his rosary, is thus a doubling of repetitive devices. In this light, his clockwork performance becomes a petition and re-petition to Catholic eternity, a conjunction of two systems of time-keeping.

The monk, an object which has been invisible to all these histories as they have been written, has something to tell us about each. He walks a delicate line between church, theater, magic, science. He circulates among—murmurs about—all of them. He is a synapse, transmitting a host of simultaneous signals. Here is a machine that prays. Is it a divine machine? Or, man-made, a miracle in its own right? Or again, as a votive offering, a machine made if not for God alone, then one meant to appear to be made for God alone? Certainly the same beliefs that animated the corpse of a friar with the power to heal could likewise animate a miniature man seen to be performing the authorized and orthodox gestures of devotion.



fig 22

What did a person see and believe who witnessed the monk in motion in 1560? We, who see him today in a glass case at a museum, must imagine him less securely confined and named. I think, finally, that it is the touching of the two wires—religion and magic—that might generate an unstable definition of aliveness, and spark a response of shock in a viewer to a miniature man who is moving, who is coming in your direction.

Judging the quick from the dead: all three bodies we have examined in this story are ambiguous. Unconscious Don Carlos with his suppurating head wound, hovering near death; Brother Diego's life-giving corpse, "still sweet to the nostrils;" and an automaton whose own head, x-rayed, shows us an image of the machine in the ghost. In each case, we can roughly compare a sixteenth-century with a twentieth-century definition of aliveness, discovering our own uncertainties in the balance. What is living stuff made of? All the players here are busy with ideas about the hidden matter within the corpus.

"And if the automaton hardly resembles the contemporary image of the saint, then perhaps he resembles San Diego's remains. He is, himself, now no more than a set of remains, with his cracked paint and clouded eye . . . but like the saint's, an effective set, a working set."

next section

Table of Contents | Table of Figures | Reading Clockwork Prayer

return to top