Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Irish Religious Copying that Saved Civilisation

Sweden Formally Recognizes File-Sharing as a Religion
The Church of Kopimism, whose principal tenent is the right to file-share, has been formally recognized as a religious organization in Sweden...
“For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament,” it said in a statement.

This is a pretty good troll but more weirdly there is a history of religious copying in Ireland. One that we may have to thank for western civilisation.

How the Irish Saved Civilisation (on amazon for $8) ultimately argues that it was the Irish love of copying books that saved much of classical literature and combined with their spreading these copies as they set up new monasteries allowed an ember of literacy to be saved until the renaissance reignited it. During the dark ages after the Roman empire fell Irish monasteries with their book copying scriptoriums were one of the few bastions of literacy left in Europe.

This book is full of good anecdotes. For example that for her near contemporaries St Brigid's most famous miracle was performing an abortion.
"Brigid makes the fetus of a nun (whose womb had "through youthful desire of pleasure, .. swelled with child") magically disappear ("without the coming of birth, and without pain")"

I think the book places too much emphasis on St. Patrick and how he converted the Irish to Christianity. I always got the impression St Patrick was sort of a Arthur Guinness character. Used after his death by a giant corporation to try and sell their product to the locals. They both even have a celebration day. The Beer Nut has a great post "Interlude" that goes into the political machinations that went into the creation of the St. Patrick story.
It was a turf war: plain and simple. The independents had all been swallowed by the Big Three who were now each using the political influence they'd garnered along the way to try and crush the other two. The prize was total national dominance of the market, and a hefty slice of the action abroad where the product had been zealously pitched to a receptive customer base, building up a lucrative following among locals and ex-pats alike.

The thrust of the books argument about how the copying Irish rescued the western cannon comes from Columcille. He had a major brain erection for copying any books he came across.

On one occasion when he was at the monastery of Moville he came across Finian's book of the Psalms. Colum Cille decided to copy it secretly. He did, and when he was brought before King Diarmait who was to decide who was the rightful owner of it, Diarmait made his famous decision: “To every cow its calf and to every book its copy”. This might be regarded as the first copyright case in history! Later fighting broke out about the decision. After a battle for it Colum Cille got it back and it has since been known as the 'Cathach' or Battle Book. Colum Cille went into exile as penance and landed in the island of Iona in 563 and there he established his famous monastery

From here "he made one hundred fifty monks the cutoff number for the Iona community, and after they exceeded that, twelve and one monks would set off to establish another foundation in a new setting". These new monasteries would take copies of books with them and produce new analysis and in doing so spread literacy back into Europe. For example "More than half of all our biblical commentaries between 650 ad 850 were written by Irishmen".

I think its fascinating that Colum Cille's 150 monastery size number from the sixth century is the same as Dunbar's number. "Dunbar's number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. ... No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150". Colum Cille was obeying modern social network theory in his monastery rules.

Ultimately I think the dark ages are a rorschach test, we know so little about them that the flimsy evidence can be used to argue any point you want to make. For example 'How the Irish saved civilization? By blogging it.' is a blogpost that argues the point that what the book proves is that blogging and such intellectual mashups are what preserved the culture.

While on the subject of dark ages Irish Monasteries "The secret of Kells" is a great film on this era

How the Irish Saved Civilisation is an interesting quick read. I was not convinced that literacy and the classics would not have survived the dark ages without Ireland. But I do think the lesson that we should copy and distribute our really important information around if we want it to be preserved when the barbarians break through the gates is an important one. It is easy to laugh at the Swedish Kopimism party but remember that an Irish monk who was willing to ignore the courts, go to war, murder and got banished from his country to copy things may have saved civilisation.

*The Taoiseach mentions the effect of these monks in his speeches 'In the sixth century our monks 'colonised the minds of Europe', rescuing the continent from the Dark Ages.' but he doesn't mention they were banished partly due to copyright restrictions.


The Beer Nut said...

That conclusion dovetails quite neatly with what Mr Doctorow said recently: don't expect your multipurpose copying device to be available forever.

It's bad enough having media formats and data codes that risk obsolesence if not migrated. Creeping DRM is surely going to multiply such problems.

red dave said...

Great point Nut. I am the music Sony DRMed in the noughties is now unplayable. But Sony may have put malicious rootkits on peoples computers but at least there was not a battle and a banishment. That is some progress over the last 1500 years.