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<nettime> Medieval Hackers

[Am forwarding this for all ye commonists & hackers of the olde school.  
I'm very enthusiastic about punctum books lately as we have been 
publishing our new Thought|Crimes imprint with them. 
-- --  Here's a review of their recently 
released "Medieval Hackers" book...
   pj ]

The Medieval Review 15.08.29

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

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 

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.

Copyright (c) 2015 John C. Ford

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