Everyone knows about the Rood of Boxley, don’t they? Apparently it was news to Melvyn Bragg, discussing the history of automata on Radio 4 with his guests on In Our Time, one of whom was science historian Simon Schaffer:
Schaffer: Medieval Christianity was full of automata … to such an extent that these would have been familiar devices to a great proportion of the population. There are an enormous number of examples of automata in Christian stories told and written down in the middle ages. So it was extremely common to imagine that statues of Christ – crucifixes – or statues of the Virgin Mary – could move … And secondly this was also a real experience in churches and monasteries. By far the most famous example of this in Europe, really, in this period was at Boxley [talks about how the image would move to approve or not approve pilgrims' offerings]… So it’s really important to know that medieval Christianity hinges, if you’ll pardon the expression, on the mechanisation of worship through automata.
Bragg: And it was deception?
Schaffer: It was absolutely deception, so I believe.
Bragg: Inside these Virgins were nuns with pulleys?
Schaffer: True … And you would use containers of liquid … with fish in them, and as the fish moved, droplets would appear and course down the faces of these statues …
The motif of the active image was certainly very common in medieval piety. In The Dream of the Moving Statue (1992) Kenneth Gross describes ‘images that are able to nod or smile, embrace a worshipper or turn away in embarrassment, trick and convert infidels, scare away demons, terrorise thieves and iconoclasts, slap sinful nuns; there are images of the Virgin that can manage to save a falling painter, steal a young man’s wedding ring and seduce him into entering a monastery, even wipe the sweat from the brow of a jongleur who performs in praise of Mary; there are images with enough self-consciousness to instruct the carver who works on them, sufficient resourcefulness to find their way home after being stolen, lost or hidden.’ Lots of stories, yes, but these legends assume that the image could be a locus or vehicle of divine or saintly presence. This is not the same as simply moving in predetermined patterns and gestures, which is what the actual automata people might encounter in churches did, and which people knew they did.
Everyone knew that the Virgen de los Reyes of Seville, perhaps the earliest Christian automaton of which we have evidence, was a mechanical marvel; the attendants of the Baron Leo von Rozmital who saw in Salisbury cathedral in 1466 amazing automata of the Holy Family and the Three Kings, and of Christ rising from the tomb, wondered at them but were in no doubt what they were. The skill of the makers was itself a divine gift, in the same way that a Christian undergoing an operation today might think of the surgeon’s ability to heal as an aspect of God’s work without bringing in any suggestion of special celestial agency.
The Rood of Boxley, a popular object of pilgrimage in the 15th and early 16th centuries (though declining through that time) was a large wooden crucifix visited by a wide range of people of all social classes. Early in 1538 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner, Jeffray Chambers, turned up at Boxley Abbey in Kent to assess it for dissolution, and dismantled the Rood. It was then that he found inside it the mechanism – ‘engines, old wires, and old rotten stocks’ – that had enabled its eyes to shift and its lower lip to move up and down. The monks claimed they knew nothing about the works. The figure was taken to Maidstone and exposed in the marketplace, and then to London where a sort of ritual of execration was held outside St Paul’s cathedral. The Bishop of Rochester, John Hilsey, in whose diocese Boxley was, preached a sermon in which he denounced the fraudulent miracle of the moving statue; a puppeteer wiggled the wires and made its eyes roll to the derision of the crowd. The idol was then smashed. In every subsequent account of the event, the abilities of the Rood of Boxley grew more astounding. Forty years later, writers such as the Kentish historian William Lambarde and the controversialist John Foxe described how it could swivel its hands, weep, foam at the mouth, nod and bend, all for the purpose of approving the monetary offerings made in front of it, or demanding more. A monk would sit inside it, working it by ‘a hundred wires’, said Foxe. By then it had acquired a little friend, a statue of St Rumwald, the Northamptonshire child-saint, another automaton who acted as bouncer for the Rood, testing pilgrims for virtue before admission (if you could lift up this tiny image, controlled by an unseen monk, you were let in, and that too depended on the value of your offering rather than the condition of your soul). The Rood of Boxley became notorious, the most egregious example of Popish trickery in the armoury of the monastic fraudsters.
But none of this is there in the early accounts, nor is the Rood of Boxley one of a vast class of pious impostures. The old Protestant writers, and Professor Schaffer in our own day, imply that it was the epitome of such frauds, but can never point to a single other, because all the contemporary literature makes clear that, as we’ve pointed out, people knew exactly what these things were. The Rood wasn’t ‘the most famous example in Europe’: no one outside England ever referred to it until it was destroyed, and the only person who can be shown actually to have done so was a single German merchant known to a couple of English Protestant letter-writers. As that doughty Catholic convert and writer Revd TE Bridgett pointed out in Blunders and Forgeries as long ago as 1890, when Jeffray Chambers arrived to inspect Boxley Abbey in 1538 he certainly expected to find and remove an idolatrous image, but not one that moved. The discovery of its mechanism was a surprise to him, and what he found, to judge by his own description, was something that clearly hadn’t been in use for years. He never charged the existing monks with having exploited it. William Lambarde’s sensational and at some points obscene account of the Rood, comparing it to Priapus – how like the Reformers to be so naughty! – quotes the monks’ own published account of how the Rood came to Boxley, which itself made clear that it was a mechanical object cunningly made by a carpenter. There was no attempt to claim it as being anything else, or to cover up its nature. Neither commissioner Chambers nor any other of the contemporary Reformers mentions St Rumwald, although one account of the wrecking of the Rood does include Bishop Latimer carrying out of St Paul’s Cathedral an image of a saint which might have been Rumwald, ‘which the country people had said eight oxen could not move’ – you can imagine how that could have been built into the story.
Finally, not even Fr Bridgett points out something interesting about the words of Bishop Hilsey at the destruction of the Rood. Chronicler Henry Wriothesley, who was probably there, describes how the bishop – a good King’s man put in at Rochester to replace the executed John Fisher – pointed out the Rood and its mechanisms, ‘the vices [joints] and engines used in old time’, to deceive the people. In old time? Not in 1538, then? Also, when the Rood was exposed and worked at Maidstone, the reports averred that the onlookers’ first response was to laugh. This is not what people do who think that they themselves have been shown to be dupes, but that other people have been – their poor, ignorant ancestors, before the light of Reform shone on Catholic England. The Protestant story is already retrospective at the moment it is created: it imagines foolish credulity in people its believers have never met.
What happened is surely this: some time in the 14th or 15th century, the monks of Boxley acquire a rather simple automaton of Christ on the Cross, possibly by some quite sharp business practice. The circumstances of its arrival are garbled until the story becomes miraculous, and that encourages pilgrims; its mechanism is possibly never used again from the day it gets there. In 1538 Jeffray Chambers discovers its works and, knowing all about the wickedness of monks, deduces it was used as a money-making racket. Everyone at the time accepts this. Gradually the story accretes other elements and becomes the great exemplar of Catholic deceit, repeated and repeated. But it’s based on nothing. The evidence is that nobody ever tried to persuade anyone the Rood of Boxley moved by divine agency, rather than by human ingenuity, if at all; nobody at the time of its destruction had ever seen it move, or knew anyone who had.
Furthermore, nobody who knows anything about medieval piety would accept that it ‘hinged’ on the presence of automata, rather than on going to Mass, for instance. And as for fish inside statues making them cry – a weeping Madonna sounds more likely (the evening repeat of In Our Time cut that out, and I'm not surprised).
Unless you can prove me wrong!