Final Public Oral Exam: Joseph L. Synder

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
June 4, 2021 - 1:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

A King's Treasury Could Not Compare: Making Clocks Tick in Fourteenth-Century Europe


William C. Jordan, adviser
Anthony Grafton
Jamie Reuland
Elly R. Truitt, University of Pennsylvania


Invented around 1300, mechanical clocks—that is, clocks with internal motors whose motion is regulated by escapements—spread rapidly through the medieval Latin West, especially considering the high degree of expertise and cost associated with their construction. By 1400, most major towns as well as many ecclesiastical institutions and palaces had their own clocks. Mechanical clocks are rightly viewed by historians as representing a major advance in technology and technological culture. However, to see mechanical clocks as primarily representing a change in the way medieval society kept time is to tell only a part of the story.

This dissertation seeks to place mechanical clocks into the broader intellectual culture that produced them. What meanings did medieval people attach to mechanical clocks in order to assimilate the novel technology into their existing view of the world? Framing clocks as intellectual intermediaries illuminates their discursive role. I argue that mechanical clocks were understood as representations of the process of translating ideas into physical object; as bridges between theory and practice; as means of interrogating the boundary between art and nature; as media between the microcosm and macrocosm; and as a tool for conceptualizing multiple timekeeping schemata simultaneously. Rather than considering clocks as things, this dissertation views them as a nexus between different kinds of meaning. The broader aim of the dissertation is to establish a new way of thinking about both historical and emerging technologies. By considering the meanings attached with technologies, we get a better sense of how those technologies fit into cultures.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.