Medieval Hackers

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  • Book: Kennedy, Kathleen E. Medieval Hackers. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2015. pp. 168. $19.00 (paperback) free (ebook). ISBN: 978-0692352465


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Source: The Medieval Review 15.08.29 [1]

Reviewed by John C. Ford, Champollion University:

The basic premise of Kathleen E. Kennedy's intriguing volume Medieval Hackers is that modern computer hackers are essentially the inheritors of the medieval copyist and translators who sought to freely disseminate information from original sources through their "derivative texts," which often also abridged, expanded, or altered information in their exemplars. More specifically, hackers can be identified with those late medieval transmitters of information who came into conflict with authorities when, starting especially in the mid-sixteenth-century, efforts were increasingly made to control, limit, or prohibit the free diffusion and distribution of certain text types, despite the fact that such unfettered free license had hitherto had been an accepted and integral part of European intellectual culture. While Kennedy begins by acknowledging in the very first sentence that "hackers are the last thing most people would associate with the Middle Ages" (1), she nonetheless manages to make a compelling argument for this bold parallel, developing the image of the "medieval hacker," which she herself acknowledges as an "anachronistic title." (4) The analogy ultimately succeeds, however, mostly thanks to her well-considered assessment backed up by convincing comparisons and persuasive references that demonstrate serious reflection and thorough academic rigorousness. She furthermore demonstrates expertise in the culture of both medieval textual transmission and modern information technology, as well as a host of other academic domains on which she relies to form and support her hypotheses.

In her first chapter "Medieval Hackers?" she admits that the anachronism she presents is unexpected, later clarifying that "in a manuscript culture [such as that of the Middle Ages], texts were part of an information commons. The concept of 'the hacker' did not exist, in effect, because everyone was one." (20) She then clearly defines her terms, objectives, and methodology, explaining the criteria she uses to reach her conclusions and the material on which it is based. She identifies what she calls the "information commons," roughly equivalent to today's "public domain," though her term encompasses the free use of material in pre-copyright days. Her book therefore makes a suitable companion to both historian Adrian Johns' Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates and Harvard's renown cyber-rights activist Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Kennedy references both works, and while her book also "trace[s] intellectual property norms" (2) on the one hand, and uses it to "inform our the current battle over access to information" (27) on the other, it goes somewhat further than its predecessors in examining freedom and limits on the information commons from a period before printing. It also has the advantage of giving the point of view of a medievalist--looking forward from the past rather than backwards from the present--in elucidating the developments in a series of "cultural strata," a term she borrows from the emerging field of media archaeology, a theory which she describes in succinct detail and one whose loaned terminology from geology she exploits as expertly as any philologist adapting technical jargon from genetics.

She makes particularly convincing points in comparing modern hackers to the better studied mid-fifteenth-century "hacks" in noting that when the crown and powerful printing groups in England first endeavored to control printing and translating (ultimately resulting in our understanding of copyright protection of intellectual property), those involved in such endeavors claimed that the limits imposed by secular and ecclesiastical authorities violated "medieval norms of commonness, openness and freedom of information." (2) She points out that these are the very same norms frequently claimed by modern hackers whenever access and use of previously unregulated electronic information becomes legally limited today. Indeed, her parallels of modern hackers and medieval translators gains credibility when she points out that they not only made the same claims, but shared many of the same attributes: well-enough educated to understand the technical language of the sources they copy or translate; motivated more by enthusiasm and/or a desire for peer recognition rather than money; both groups seek to access, modify and disseminate information in texts (medieval translators) or code (modern hackers). And ultimately, both groups have been sanctioned and punished judicially for contravening laws that prohibited them from doing what had previously been tolerated.

Chapter 2, "Hacking Bread Laws," illustrates the openness of the information commons in parliamentary statutes. Unlike literature--such as Lydgate, Chaucer, or Piers Plowman--all of which she uses as illustrations of continuous literary creation and revision, "the text of laws had to be carefully and correctly stated whenever it was used. ... To establish that precise wording, the only official copy of the statutes was the Statute Roll, kept at the Exchequer." (31) Furthermore, while such legislation was intended to be public, it was largely inaccessible because it was written in Latin or law French. She specifically cites the Assize of Bread (ca. 1265), regulating the cost of bread throughout England for centuries. As such, the statute needed to be accessible, and was therefore not only translated into English, but adapted to suit local norms and the needs of individual usage. Often its information was summarized, provided in easy-to-use charts rather than written out, and frequently illustrated with pictorial representation of weights or loaves. While these cribs only represented instead of replacing the Statute Roll copy--against which they were supposedly checked--they gained functional authority as the (wholly fictional) "Statute of Winchester." Like modern code breakers, medieval translators had to have access to the original information and know how to use and interpret it. Their summarized and visual representations, often in easily consultable portable almanacs (which Kennedy cautiously likens to smartphones with visual legends), are the result.

Kennedy rationally states that her reason for selecting statute law as a basis of study in chapter 2 was because it was "as controlled as the Middle Ages could manage" (31), and the Assizes in their various manifestations were the most widespread example of dissemination of a controlled text. In chapter 3 she examines the closure of another information commons with the 1409 Arundel Constitutions, essentially establishing the Church's proprietary rights over biblical texts by forbidding translations made under "[one's] owne authoritie" (68), and furthermore prohibiting their reading. While it seems that this attempt to prevent translation was a direct reaction to the popularity of the Wycliffite Bible, such translations had been "at the heart of English literary culture" (57) for at least a century, including popular translations by the likes of Maidstone, Brampton, Lydgate, John Shirley and Richard Rolle.

Of particular interest is Rolle's translation of Psalms, which technically remained legal as it predated the Wycliffite Bible and any subsequent translations. While Rolle himself appears ambivalent about the reuse of translations, it seems that a new interest in "fixed texts" was coming into being at the turn of the fourteenth century, as the preface of one copy of his English Psalter bears witness. The prefacer clearly intends Rolle's translation to be a definitive English version of the psalms translated from Jerome's Vulgate, much as Jerome's translation from Greek and Hebrew became the definitive Latin version. The prefacer is particularly concerned that no expansions be made, though there is no mention of abbreviation, and there is a desire for very careful copying.

Perhaps of more significance is the General Prologue to the banned Wycliffite Bible, which Kennedy identifies as "the earliest recorded statement of hacker values." (72) Responding to the furor surrounding the translation, the prologue's author explains that the Bible had traditionally been part of the information commons, that it should remain open and free, and that the ecclesiastical authorities' attempt to limit access was counter to tradition. Kennedy notes that these are common hacker assertions, and like theirs, came about only when an open information commons is threatened with closure. Interestingly, the prologue's author also gives a resume of the methodology employed in compiling this Bible; although popularly attributed to Wyclif, it was actually compiled by a disparate group of his followers--arguably ecumenical in outlook--intent on realizing his aims of making a vernacular translation for the use of all. It seems that there were initial early versions (EV), before culminating in a final Late Version (LV), which was intended to be widely circulated as a final product. Kennedy likens this to an open source project, with many participants working out kinks in "beta versions" before achieving a final version intended to "go viral," which, essentially, the Wycliffite Bible did. She also points out that, in a typical hacker custom, the protesting author, a project participant, identifies himself by a pseudonym, "Simple Creature," to maintain safe anonymity. While some of the individual comparisons seem anecdotal, taken together they build a powerful argument.

Chapter 5 examines subsequent biblical translations, notably those of Tyndale and George Joye. Kennedy distills a complicated history into a fascinating story that reads easily. Contrary to the collaborative "open-source" projects typical of the age, Tyndale was peculiar not only in working alone, and despite initial (apparently disingenuous) appeals for corrections in his translation of the New Testament, Tyndale was infuriated when Joye later "corrupted" it in his revision for a Dutch publisher, claiming that he alone should have the right to revised it. Kennedy notes this as the first claim of intellectual property for a textual translation, though it took a few centuries before the idea became fixed in law. Luther seems to have been of the same mind, requesting correction of his translations, but condemning printers of his unrevised incomplete works of "piracy," especially when they attribute to him what he had not intended to release. Kennedy notes, however, that while Luther directed his ire towards greedy printers, Tyndale actually castigates fellow translators, an odd stance if his intentions truly were free and open access to the Bible as information commons. In subsequent prologues and publications, Joye and Tyndale squabbled in what Kennedy convincingly asserts was a hacker "flame war," each one accusing the other of misfeasance in a number of particulars that still amount to breaches of hacker etiquette. Regardless of his wishes, Tyndale's initially banned Bible became the basis of the Coverdale Bible; both together were then used to produce the Matthew Bible--the first government authorized English version--which was subsequently the basis of the official Great Bible, produced under the direction of Coverdale. While such practice was well within the established tradition of scriptural treatment in the information commons, Kennedy argues that with the cooperation of hackers and government in the production of this final official version "the period of treating the text of the Bible as common, open and free came to an end." (115)

Chapter 5, "Selling the Statutes," turns again to law, where Kennedy notes that the same hacker rhetoric found in prefaces to biblical translations was included in prefaces to English translations of law codes, popular reading in the sixteenth century. She notes that the King's Printer was established in 1504 in order to have a ready publisher of official information, but that the function of this office would change. It initially permitted others translations to be printed, such as Rastell's Great Abridgement, a legal digest notable for its simple language and innovative use of alphabetization and indexing. His preface, like Joye's epilogue, states that he is speaking to learned and lewd alike, and also expounds a need for the information he publishes to be common, free and open. Decidedly unscrupulous practices, however, led to the gate being shut when certain printers began infringing on the King's Printer by rapidly publishing inferior copies of official texts, even emulating the official printer's mark and place of printing. The 1553 Law Patent gave an exclusive monopoly over legal printing to a single individual, ending the legal information commons, and the subsequent establishment of the Stationers' Company would further curtail at-will printing, eventually demanding that every printed publication be licensed. Kennedy then notes that with the stringent controls over scripture and law codes, the medieval information commons was effectively being enclosed 1540-1560. She then concludes with a thought-provoking epilogue, which not only restates her primary argument--that modern hackers and medieval hacks have the same motivation and ideals--but also that the perceived rise in intellectual piracy today may be due more the more stringent laws, some overprotective, than they are by an increase in actual or intentional infringement.

As with any scholarly endeavor, it is possible to find lacunae or oversimplifications. Kennedy never overtly notes, for example, that there was little pecuniary incentive for medieval writers of original texts; they were inspired by enthusiasm or and a desire for peer recognition as much as their copyist and translators. Presumably, had textual creation had as much financial reward as it does today, it would also have been protected like any other recognized source of revenue. Having said that, it is noteworthy that Kennedy is no hypocrite. As an obvious proponent of common, open and free access, her own work, published by punctum books, is protected only by a Creative Commons Attribution (etc.) license, which essentially makes it open access for fair use (which she does note is reasonably limited).

Furthermore, claiming that the Bible as common open and free actually came to an end with the Great Bible is debatable. Today it is one of the most openly accessible and freely translatable texts, perhaps ironically having changed its position with literary works in this respect since the period of focus of Kennedy's study. Kennedy does obliquely admit this, but if she does not dwell long on the subject it is not in order to avoid the issue, but because it is outwith her narrowly defined scope. A full explication would require a significant tangent, though it presents a point of departure for further study that could be enlightened by her work. Indeed, while medieval thinkers undoubtedly never conceived of "hackers," nor did they think of gender studies, Marxist analysis or queer theory, all of which have proven rich and productive foci of examination in medieval studies as elsewhere. Her hypothesis, therefore, should not be dismissed as unfounded or untenable, but rather praised for its enlightening originality.

So while there are places where it would be easy to poke holes, overall Kennedy makes a compelling argument that hackers are inheritors of a medieval tradition, and she does so elegantly. Each chapter is logically structure and clearly prefaced with an outline of material to be treated. The links between previous chapters and subsequent chapters are clearly explained. While the tome is extremely readable, presenting complex and problematic arguments in a simple and straightforward way, the material it covers is dense enough to merit careful re-reading with attention to the plethora of footnotes and references on which her arguments are convincingly built. It is indeed to her credit that Kennedy puts forward so concisely such controversial propositions, and it presents a sound basis for further study."