Apr 6, 2015

The marvels of Hesdin

Now that April 1 is well past, it’s probably safe to try this little diversion about something weird and wacky from the Middle Ages: the entertainment mechanisms of Hesdin Castle.

Image: Rob Zeldenrust.
[Image, left: detail of Wedding Party at the Park of Hesdin, 16th-century copy of a lost original possibly by Jan van Eyck.]

Hesdin was built by Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302). It was, sadly, demolished in the 16th century. Our fullest account of the contraptions installed in the castle and its park comes from the accounts of the dukes of Burgundy, who spent a greal deal of money on the renovation and upkeep of Hesdin. In particular, an entry from the accounts of 1432 describes in detail the mechanisms on which Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy spent 1,000 livres to renovate or install, paid out to valet-de-chambre and painter Colard le Voleur:

- statues that spout water
- distorting mirrors
- a device that, when its ring is pulled, covers the victim with soot or flour
- a machine that whacks people on the head when they walk through a doorway
- a room that creates artificial weather, including rain, lightning and thunder, and snow
- a wooden hermit that speaks
- a place where victims (probably already wet) might take shelter from the rain, but which drops them into a sack of feathers
- a bridge designed to fail and drop people into the water
- pipes that squirt water from below (specifically designed, says the account, for ‘wetting the ladies’)
- pipes that throw flour at people
- a window designed so that if the victim tries to open it, an automaton appears, sprays the victim with water, then slams the window shut
- a book of ballades on a desk rigged so that anyone who tries to read it is sprayed with either soot or water
- a mirror that invites you to look in it if you want to see what you would look like covered in flour (and if you fall for that one, you surely deserve it)
- an automaton in the gallery that orders visitors, on behalf of the duke, to leave the gallery, but those who obey are beaten by automata and those who do not are further soaked with water
- a talking mechanical owl

Also mentioned in other accounts were mechanical monkeys, a mechanical lion, and caged birds that spit water at people.

The medieval sources describe these mechanisms as engiens d’esbattement (machines of amusement) or ouvraiges ingenieux et de joyeuseté et plaisance (ingenious works of joyousness and pleasure). Apparently, getting soaked with water and covered with flour, soot, and feathers was some people’s idea of a good time, in the Middle Ages as well as today, or at least the owners of Hesdin were fond of indulging in the well-known pleasure of pulling practical jokes on others. Count Robert II of Artois had, in his time, a high reputation as a military leader; Duke Philip of Burgundy was a prominent European statesman; but one gets the feeling that they would both have enjoyed a good waterfight, or one of those wide games where you run about throwing flour bombs at people.

Giovanni Battista Aleoti, 1589. Image: Michael Lahanas.
[Image, right, from Michael Lahanas on Heron of Alexandria: ‘Reconstruction of one of many “automata” of Heron by Giovanni Battista Aleoti 1589. Hercules and the Dragon. When Hercules hits the head of the dragon the dragon shoots water on his face.’]

The great French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), in his Remède de Fortune, assumes the voice of a distressed lover finding refuge in the park of Hesdin, where he is delighted by les merveilles, les deduis, les ars, les engins, les conduis, les esbas, les estranges choses (‘the marvels, the delights, the artifices, the automata, the watercourses, the entertainments, the wondrous things’ – translation by Wimsatt and Kibler, quoted by Kolve, p. 187). Here the amusements of Hesdin are marvels in a romance landscape. Indeed, Anne van Buren has argued persuasively that they were meant to be so, that Count Robert and his successors intended them to recall and imitate the magical devices of chivalric romance.

Almost a century afterwards, the cloth merchant William Caxton visited Hesdin. Later, when he became England’s first printer, he described his visit to the gallery in the prologue to his edition of Jason; what had impressed him there was the ‘subtil engyn’ that created the artificial weather. And indeed, if one was interested in hydraulics, simple engineering, clockwork mechanisms, and the like, there must have been plenty of intriguing devices at Hesdin to enthrall the mechnically minded.

It would be easy to see Machaut as the poetic romancer and Caxton as the hard-headed engineering type, typifying two diametrically opposed views of the mechnical marvels of Hesdin. But that would be a modern dichotomy. In the Middle Ages, a ‘wonder’ (Old English wundor) or ‘marvel’ (Old French merveille) could be a miracle performed by a saint, a natural prodigy like a bird that grows on trees, or an ingenious mechanical device. Guillaume is captivated by the engineering of Hesdin; Caxton explains that the indoor weather generator at Hesdin is an explicit allusion to the magical powers of Medea (‘her connyng & science’), whose part in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece would have been depicted in the visual art of the gallery there. Technology was a product of human creativity, just as the natural world or supernatural events were products of divine creativity.
the marvels of Hesdin were a late medieval version of ‘virtual reality’

The marvels of Hesdin created an uncertain environment in which any object might be a booby-trap and any action might result in discomfiture, but the designers of Hesdin presumably slid the emotional response to their work from fear to pleasure by making the consequences merely uncomfortable rather than potentially lethal; if you opened the trick window, something popped up and shot you – but with water, not with an arrow. They probably used techniques and devices familiar from military and agricultural engineering. Fundamentally, the purpose of these devices was to bring together reality and illusion. Indeed, the marvels of Hesdin were a late medieval version of what would be called, eight centuries later, ‘virtual reality’.

Yin Liu

References and Further Reading

Anne Hagopian van Buren has done probably the most extensive research on the castle and park of Vieil-Hesdin: see her ‘Reality and Literary Romance in the Park of Hesdin,’ in Medieval Gardens, ed. Elisabeth B. MacDougall (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1986), 115-134.

Other discussions I have used include Merriam Sherwood, ‘Magic and Mechanics in Medieval Fiction,’ Studies in Philology 44 (1947): 567-592; Richard Vaughan, Philip the Good: The Apogee of Burgundy (London: Longman, 1970), 137-139; Mary Flowers Braswell, ‘The Magic of Machinery: A Context for Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale,’ Mosaic 18 (1985): 101-110; and V. A. Kolve, Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009), 185-187.


  1. Thank you for this fascinating entry. Are you aware of the important role the castle at Hesdin plays in Dorothy Dunnett's novel To Lie with Lions? It is the sixth in the House of Niccolo series. The protagonist, Nicholas de Fleury, is a master at creating machinery and toys and all manner of marvels, so Hesdin is a natural place for him to employ for his own ends. Highly recommended.

  2. Thank you very much for this tip. I have not read this novel by Dorothy Dunnett, but now it appears I should.