From ‘Indiana Jones’ to medieval robots

Historian of science Elly Truitt’s multidisciplinary investigations of the Middle Ages challenge assumptions about the period as a dark time in innovation and prompt a rethink of notions of ‘modern’ science.

Professor Elly Truitt standing on Penn's campus
In her work and her teaching, historian of science Elly Truitt challenges assumptions. “The people who lived in the Middle Ages were definitely no less intelligent than we are, and they didn’t think they were living in the middle of anything,” she says. 

In preparation for teaching a course on medieval medicine last semester, Elly Truitt, a historian of science in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, was searching for primary source documents to share with her students. One that caught her eye was a 12th-century pamphlet that described how to treat a depressed compound skull fracture.

“It’s very detailed,” says Truitt. “It covers how you peel back the scalp, how you peel back the dura matter, and so on.”

She showed it to a neurosurgeon she knows. “He was reading it and was like, ‘This is amazing. Their knowledge of anatomy was so advanced!’ And I said, ‘Yes, or—stay with me here—what if our knowledge of anatomy is not that advanced?’”

Truitt, who focuses on the Middle Ages, has a habit of challenging assumptions about both that time period and contemporary, or “modern,” science. With a background in history and interests that run the gamut from anthropology to “Star Wars”, she takes an omnivorous approach to her studies, which take up questions of how objects and ideas traveled through time and space in often unexpected and overlooked ways. In both her first book, on medieval robots, and one she has in progress, on a 13th century friar and philosopher seen as a scientific visionary, she lends a critical eye to timeworn stories of the emergence of modern science and technology.

“What I’m interested in thinking about in both of these projects, is how these historiographic narratives about the Middle Ages and scientific knowledge get created, where they come from, and what purpose they serve,” she says.

Cultural inspiration

Truitt was drawn to the Middle Ages and medieval history from an early age, crediting popular films from her childhood with helping shape the trajectory of her career.

“Like many children of my generation, I had a ‘Star Wars’ obsession,” she says. “I was really fascinated with the androids in particular; they were my favorite.”

She also relished “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” as a middle school student. “It wasn’t until I saw that movie that I realized you could have a job where you studied the Middle Ages all the time,” she recalls. “Once I knew that was a career path, I just couldn’t let it go.”

She held on to that goal through her undergraduate years at Wellesley College, where she studied English literature and medieval and Renaissance studies, and while earning a master’s in medieval history at the University of Cambridge. But she was unsure if she wanted to continue working toward a Ph.D.

It wasn’t until one of her undergraduate professors, Katharine Park, who had since moved to Harvard University, hired her as a research assistant that Truitt came upon the ideas of focusing not just on history but on the history of science.

“That was my big introduction to the history of science,” Truitt says. “Before that I thought of it as, I don’t know, Darwin or Newton—the history of scientists and scientific concepts. But working with her I found it was fascinating, the range of things you could study.”

One topic that Park had delved into previously were historical automata—mechanical devices that imitated living things. Truitt, too, had come across some examples of these curiosities in her readings of medieval French literature. Park suggested the Truitt pursue the subject more deeply. “It was the first time I could really put two longstanding preoccupations of mine”—science and medieval studies—“together.”

That research project, which inspired Truitt to complete her Ph.D. in history of science at Harvard University, also fueled her first book, “Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art,” published by Penn Press in 2015. Once she started looking, Truitt quickly realized these automata, both real and imagined, were ubiquitous across Christendom and Islamdom, from the Mongol empire to India.

To rack up examples of these devices, she logged hours scanning epic poetry, philosophical treatises, visual art, travelogues, “anything that looked remotely promising.” She turned up designs for imagined robots to be manufactured into existence, as well as those based in fantasy, “the equivalent of C-3PO and R2D2,” she says. And by digging into the context of these finds, Truitt was also able to follow the geographical movement of ideas.

“One of the things that was exciting and kept me driving forward in doing the research was tracing the steps of transmission,” she says. “To be able to piece together that a certain type of object appears in Baghdad and Samara in a time period when you know the Byzantine envoy visits the palace to see it, and then you see the same thing popping up just a bit later in the Byzantine Empire. That’s often difficult to do.”

‘Ethical’ history

Soon after finishing her doctorate, Truitt joined the history faculty at Bryn Mawr College, where for a dozen years she continued her research while teaching courses on the history of science as well as introductory history courses. “It was great to have to teach those classes,” she says. “When you have to present a narrative to undergrads that covers 750 years of history on three continents and make it comprehensible, you can’t help but learn so much.”

During the 2018-19 year, while on leave from Bryn Mawr as a Mellon New Directions Fellow, Truitt was taking Arabic and history courses at Penn full time. “It gave me a sense of the undergrads here, which was fantastic, and it was great to meet them as a fellow student.” She also found herself drawn to once again be surrounded by colleagues who focused on the history of science. And serendipitously, that same year, a position opened in the History and Sociology of Science Department.

Switching jobs in the middle of a pandemic isn’t for the faint of heart, and Truitt has yet to meet all of her departmental colleagues in person. She’s not sure she even has a key to her office. Nevertheless, she’s adapted to the virtual teaching mode as both a teacher and a student, as she’s continued to audit Arabic courses through this academic year.

“I’ve been so grateful for that because it’s given me some really valuable experience of learning in this kind of virtual environment and what the students are dealing with,” she says.

That perspective and empathy has informed her teaching. One of her courses this semester, Science and Spectacle, takes students from the Byzantine empire, and moves through time and space to end in 21st-century Las Vegas. “So we’re looking at material from history, science and technology, visual culture, African American studies, cultural studies, and anthropology as well,” she says.

In both her writing and her teaching, she often draws her audience in with a tangible or familiar object or cultural reference. She launched the Science and Spectacle course with a consideration of the throne of Solomon, while in an article on society’s recent fascination with Nordic culture, she begins with a reference to the trolls of Disney’s “Frozen.”

A recurring motif for Truitt’s work? To reconsider the familiar from a new vantage point.

“My goal for my students is that, when they study how people in the past knew what they thought they knew about the world around them, I want my students to be transported to a different time and place,” she says. “And I also want them to be able to think, ‘How do I know what I think I know about the world around me?’”

Truitt finds the Middle Ages, a time typically defined as devoid of progress on various fronts, a particularly salient way to drive these points home. She recently wrapped up a draft of her second book, on medieval English philosopher Roger Bacon, whose writings are often credited with laying out a precursor to the modern scientific method. Truitt’s own explorations, however, suggest that the way Bacon was depicted by 18th- and 19th-century scholars—as a rarity, an exception to the rule—serves to support their own self-conception as “modern” and “advanced” thinkers.

“The people who lived in the Middle Ages were definitely no less intelligent than we are, and they didn’t think they were living in the middle of anything,” says Truitt.

“There’s an opportunity for ethical practice when you study the Middle Ages. It forces you to really be humble. You have to be open to letting the sources teach you; you can’t think that you’re above the people that you’re studying,” she says. “I think that that kind of ethical engagement offers great practice for being a person in the world today.”

Elly Truitt is an associate professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts & Sciences.

Professor Elly Truitt amid greenery