The Digital Middle Ages


Kathleen E. Kennedy, Department of English, Penn State Brandywine, Media, PA, USA

Today, Anonymous, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other hacker organizations value commonness, openness, and freedom.

Decades ago, the architects of modern computing- the designers of our hardware, our software, the Internet itself- valued commonness, openness and freedom.

In the Middle Ages, medieval translators also valued commonness, openness, and freedom.

Because the rhetoric of commonness, openness, and freedom undergirds our entire digital world as well as the medieval textual culture that preceded our own, one might argue that any of us who write anywhere online, from blogs to Twitter, are performing medievalism. Thanks to its medievalism the Internet may be a sort of digital Society for Creative Anachronism. When we write online using computers and the (still relatively neutral) Internet, we perform medievalism because we benefit from and perpetuate those values, whether we do so knowingly or not.

Computers, the Internet, and medieval manuscript culture function today and functioned in the past thanks to a profound commonness. On a screen you are reading active pixels that reproduce a copy of my text, saved as a copy on a server, that is derived from a copy on my own computer’s hard drive. Thanks to their instantaneous multiplication, electronic copies proliferate even more promiscuously than manuscript copies. In digital culture like manuscript culture, copies are common. Copies are one of the ways in which texts function. Unlike digital copies, medieval texts both proliferated and changed with every copy. When medieval authorities tried to curb textual multiplication they failed spectacularly, and in those instances translators in particular defended copying as a common action. Today, when we make digital copying difficult (through DRM for example) we are actually making it harder for our machines to function. Our digital machines are so medieval that forced modernity harms them.

Medieval translators tell readers that they strive for openness in their translations, but today open computing is increasingly limited. Usually translating from learned languages into less learned vernaculars, medieval translators used a vocabulary of lightness to describe their goals. They labored, they tell us, to “open” common texts in order to make them more easily available to wider audiences. These translations should make texts “light” that were previously “dark” to non-learned readers. At a mechanical level, computers must translate code perfectly for it to function. Bugs, “dark” code, can snarl a program quickly, and it may not function at all. On a larger scale, however, our computing worlds are not as open today as they used to be. “Open source software” like Firefox might be popular, but it is an exception that proves the rule. Any of us can access the code that makes up this open source program. The same is not true of Microsoft Word or iOS. These programs are “closed” through a range of digital locks that prevents users from accessing the code that makes these programs function. We can’t see it. We can’t change it. We can’t improve it. We can’t copy it. Even the enormously influential medieval theologian Jean Gerson couldn’t control the copying of his works this closely. Never before in the history of humanity has so much text been closed behind copyright, patent, and DRM walls.

Whether he wanted them to or not, Gerson’s texts circulated freely, all over Europe: he got a lot of “shares.” We might say that any medieval literary work with a lot of shares, such as Piers Plowman, resulted in the complex textual stemma studied by scholars today. Medieval texts in general circulated freely, checked only by linguistic or skill barriers. Translators like those who worked on the Wycliffite Bible, legal translators like John Rastell, and even literary figures such as Chaucer and Lydgate spoke directly about their efforts to remove these limitations. Thanks to the commonness of medieval texts, works moved freely in their original forms, and due to their openness, they also traveled freely in forms wildly different than their originals. Given the copying at the center of computing culture, digital copies also tend to circulate freely, unless they are checked by limiting software. Nevertheless, the free circulation of digital texts continues to be a norm, if not the norm. Social media makes sharing any text as fast as the click of a button. The notion of “shares” as a noun describing a number highlights how freely texts can still circulate, and at speeds not imaginable in the Middle Ages.

In the end, all of us netizens are a little medieval, and medievalist internauts might have more in common with the Electronic Frontier Foundation than we tend to think. We might “dobet” by writing as part of the public Middle Ages.

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