The Middle Ages, the Church, and the Press
Part Three in a series of articles about Copyright in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence
Hello again! If you are new to The Owner’s Guide to the Future, welcome. In this series of articles, we will consider how copyright evolved, and how it might continue to evolve in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence.
The first two articles examined why we have copyright laws and why the government attempts to strike a balance between the rights of owners and the public interest. The next four articles will consider the history, sometimes violent, that created the conditions to introduce the first copyright law. After that we will turn our attention to the modern era, and the current crop of issues presented by artificial intelligence. There will be a total of approximately ten articles in this series. If you find this information useful, please let me know! Thanks, RT
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How the rigid social order in the Middle Ages was annihilated by the printing press.
Modern copyright was born in 1710. In order to understand why such a legal mechanism became urgently necessary, it’s illuminating to revisit the time before any such notion existed. Today we are going back to a time when the world was lit only by fire, a time when books were so scarce and so expensive that the act of making a copy was sufficiently difficult that no copyright laws were necessary.
We will be visiting a society where free expression of novel ideas was not normal.
The pros and cons of free speech have been the subject of debate since the time of the classical Athenian scholars in the 5th or 6th century BC. For this essay, we intend to focus on the transition from the late Middle Ages to the Modern Era.
Free speech wasn’t a thing in 1400.
Today we tend to take free expression for granted, which is why we may need to exert a bit of effort to conjure up a vision of what life was like then. Let’s go there!
For nearly one thousand years after the fall of Rome, European monarchs and religious leaders had an uneasy relationship with free speech and the expression of novel ideas, particularly ideas that questioned authority and raised doubts.
In those days, the ruling class prized stability.
Dear reader, before you pass judgement, let’s take a walk in medieval shoes.
Back in the day, social stability was desirable
After centuries of chaos, looting, burning, slaughter, and the waves of devastation that occurred during the barbarian raids that dismantled the Roman Empire, change was no longer on the agenda. Stability was.
Medieval society was calibrated to preserve the status quo that today we refer to as feudalism (though that term was not used at the time). Feudalism was constructed from interlocking obligations of loyalty, duty, nobility, and fidelity that were sealed by the exclusive right to exploit physical property in the form of land grants. This social structure was reinforced by elaborate social codes, class hierarchy, orthodox belief systems, and artistic norms.
Three key takeaways about feudalism:
Property rights were granted by a ruler (and they could be taken away).
The grant came with an obligation to serve the ruler.
Feudalism was optimized for stasis and stability, not dynamism and change.
These points will be important later in this report when we consider how monarchs later began to grant exclusive rights to authors. Hang onto these three points. Now let’s resume our our story.
New ideas and critical inquiry were unwelcome in feudal society, because a new ideas can be the enemy of stability and stasis.
Change is… bad?
Today, we generally consider change a good thing. But 700 years ago, change = chaos. Any portent of great change was handled with utmost caution because it might upset the pecking order. That’s why new ideas often encountered resistance, censorship, and repression in the Middle Ages.
You already know why ideas were seen as a threat to order. More information leads to more insight, which in turn generates more innovation, more change and new information. This process tends to accelerate because every novel insight leads to further insights. Once it begins, the cycle can overwhelm inflexible mechanisms for control and stability.
We have experienced this firsthand. Everyone alive today has lived through decades of accelerating change ever since the World Wide Web made it trivially easy to post and share content with the world. Think about social media’s impact on society, civic order, politics, public discourse and what we used to know as consensus reality.
Social media may be disruptive, but generally today, change is considered good because it tends to create new economic opportunity. Today’s socio-political values are more fluid than those of the past. They differ dramatically from the values that governed medieval society.
To understand just how explosive an uncontrollable burst of original ideas can be, let’s begin by conjuring up an image of the bucolic and unchanging way of life during the Middle Ages around 1400.
The stability of European society depended upon a rigid social code whereby every member of society understood their fixed place in the hierarchy. Pope, Emperor, king, prince, duke, bishop, knight, priest, knave, peasant, serf. This ranking was instilled in children from birth. It was reinforced in every social interaction. Class divisions were permanent and unchanging.
If you weren’t born into nobility, chances are good that your existence was tied to the land you were born on. You’d spend your entire lifetime working that parcel.
In Europe before 1400, information moved slowly, and connections were sparse. Most people never left the town or village where they were born. Very few people could read. News was delivered by a crier, and only intermittently. Roads were terrible. Long-distance travel was rare. Most people were ignorant of events that occurred further than a day’s walk away.
This was not an environment that promoted novelty or innovation. Strangers with unconventional ideas were viewed with suspicion. Not infrequently, they were burned or hung.
That’s not to say that everyone was willing to conform to hierarchy. Peasant uprisings led by charismatic personalities occurred periodically, but they were routinely crushed. Before 1450 it was relatively easy to silence individual heretics and skeptics with death, imprisonment, or banishment. A sufficiently brutal monarch could maintain the static social hierarchy.
Let’s start here: medieval systems to govern the flow of innovation and ideas
The church preserved social order by limiting rational inquiry
To stabilize society, a static information environment was fostered by the Church. It brutalized non-believers and fiercely repressed questions posed by curious minds.
Some contemporary scholars maintain that the church of preserved stability by stifling scientific inquiry during the Middle Ages. This is not entirely accurate: it is the byproduct of subsequent scholars rewriting history. Our understanding of the medieval era has been rewritten several times, during the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and in the Modern era. During the rewriting process, the myth of the Dark Ages was invented.
The real story is more nuanced because the work of Galileo and subsequent scientists was largely based on the discoveries that occurred in late Middle Ages. It is not accurate to assert that there was no scientific progress in the Middle Ages. But it was slow and isolated.
Likewise, intellectual debates did occur in the Medieval period, but academics were obliged to conform to centuries of ecclesiastic theory. Their theories were circumscribed by orthodoxy and encumbered by the slow accumulation of scientific data. Inquiries into nature and the physical sciences were not discouraged after 1200 but the proofs had to be sufficient to dislodge long-established notions. That was a high bar, given the available scientific equipment at the time.
That’s why I think it is more accurate to characterize the Church’s attitude towards philosophical inquiry as a kind of schizoid vacillation between two poles: support for rational inquiry on one hand, and rigid orthodoxy on the other.
For example, Thomas Aquinas used reason to reconcile theology with ancient Greek philosophy, but by the end of his life, his work had been condemned by the Bishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Medieval academia was similarly conflicted. The first universities were founded in Paris and Bologna around 1200, followed by Oxford and Cambridge. By 1300 Europe had 18 universities. But even within the universities, a murderous orthodoxy reigned. The Master of Theology at the universities played the role of ecclesiastic police. 50 known cases of academically related heresy trials occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries. Some heretics, like Master Amalric of Bene, were burned at the stake; most were obliged to recant and burn their books. The works of Pierre Abelard, Aquinas, Averoes, Avicenna, William of Ockham, Nicholas of Autrecourt, and many other scholars were burned.
In his Dialogus, William of Ockham articulated a principle of free speech:
“Purely philosophical assertions which do not pertain to theology should not be solemnly condemned or forbidden by anyone, because in connection with such anyone ought to be free to say freely what pleases him.”
Yet in 1339, Ockham’s works were condemned by the faculty of arts at the University of Paris.
Clearly, there was a trend towards rational inquiry into natural science and the free expression of ideas; yet there were also powerful forces aligned against it. This tension, a kind of tug-of-war between the future and the past, may be a more constructive way to think about the intellectual landscape of the late Middle Ages. Changes were clearly coming; yet some groups did everything in their power to stop them.
How the Church controlled the flow of information
One way to control an information ecosystem is to keep it small, by restricting access to a limited number of participants.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, literacy was available mainly to the clergy who were subject to hierarchy and orthodoxy. The royalty and even the rulers at the time were often unable to read. Most people could not read or write in their native tongue: those who were literate mainly read Latin.
The Inquisition was another instrument of control. A brutal one.
A judicial process in the ecclesiastic courts of the Catholic Church that began in the 12th century, the Inquisition was intended to prevent the spread of heretical notions such as Catharism. Unrepentant non-believers were charged with witchcraft, sorcery, or Satanism; found guilty of heresy, they were often burned alive at the stake. Ten to fifteen thousand people were massacred for heresy following the Crusade against the town of Beziers in 1208.
Even the bodies of deceased heretics were exhumed and burned. This was not rare: it happened on repeated occasions in most parts of Europe.
The Church also kept a tight lid on new ideas by limiting production of books. Texts were copied manually by scribes, which meant that the total number of written works in circulation were few in number and very expensive. Most libraries were housed in abbeys or monasteries, where monks working in scriptoria drafted manual copies of ancient texts. The abbots determined which texts could be copied (and thereby preserved) and which texts were forbidden.
Handwritten texts were the only way to preserve knowledge and pass it from one generation to the next. This system was hardly an optimal way to archive information: it was characterized by steady entropy. Many libraries were lost to fire and flood. Many transcription errors were introduced by human hand. Information decayed.
To summarize: Written knowledge was scarce, fragile, and expensive in the Middle Ages. The dissemination of new knowledge was strictly controlled.
In other words, the time was ripe for technological disruption.
Step two: an invention that accelerated the process of innovation.
The printing press expanded the information sphere in every place where it was legal.
Personal anecdote: During the past ten years, I have interviewed more than 100 technologists for my research and my podcast. I ask each subject to tell me about the single invention made the greatest impact on humanity. Nearly half of the respondents say, “the printing press.” No other answer comes close.
Why? Why do so many people believe that the printing press played such a vital role in human history? In the rest of this article and the next, I will attempt to describe the scope of print’s transformative impact on society, and the violent consequences. It’s a big topic
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the printing press century literally changed everything. By the mid-15th century, it caused Europe’s stable information ecosystem to unravel.
Where did it begin? In Asia. A system of moveable type was initially invented in China and Korea, but political turmoil in those kingdoms limited the diffusion of these inventions. Also, the sheer number of characters in Asian languages meant that the printing press did not speed up the process of producing a book. It added expense but brought no great benefit. There is no evidence that those inventions were transmitted to Europe.
Johannes Gutenberg’s innovation appears to have occurred independently when a European grape press for winemaking was converted to handle blocks of text arranged in rows.
Gutenberg was a goldsmith and metallurgist before turning his attention to printing. He and his contemporaries devised a combination of technological advances that, together, made printing at least four times more efficient than handwritten copies.
These included: new kinds of oil-based inks that did not rust or clog up the typeface; new alloys of lead, tin and antimony that could withstand the pressure of repeated printing without bending or breaking; and new mechanisms and processes for casting and setting type in neat rows.
They also developed a new workflow whereby each worker in the print shop specialized in a particular function, such as melting and casting type, or setting the type in rows, or handling the press itself. In this way, the division of labor required for mechanical printing was an early forerunner of the assembly line that is emblematic of the modern factory.
These innovations led to new interactions, previously unlikely, which in turn fostered further social change.
Jeremiah Dittmar writes:
The printing press made it cheaper to transmit ideas over distance, but it also fostered important face-to-face interactions. The printer’s workshop brought scholars, merchants, craftsmen, and mechanics together for the first time in a commercial environment, eroding a pre-existing “town and gown” divide.
In Europe in 1448, conditions were ripe for sweeping social transformation. In the following sections, we will see how, by enabling a geometric increase in the flow of new information, the printing press ignited a conflagration that consumed European society for more than a century. The Enlightenment was forged in this fire. What emerged on the other side was the Modern Era.
Let’s get into it!
Step Three: A sudden proliferation of ideas
First came the flood. Mechanical reproduction dramatically cut the cost of manufacturing and also reduced the time to publication; this led to a surge of new books about timely ideas, which accelerated the diffusion of new information throughout Europe, and spurred a rapid increase in literacy.
From 1450 to 1500, the number of printing centers in Europe expanded to 200 cities.
Expanding sea trade contributed to the rapid dissemination of ideas: ship captains arriving in a port would purchase multiple copies of new books; these were re-sold when they reached the next port, where the books would be translated and reproduced by local printers.
The sum of human knowledge available to be transmitted accurately to the next generation began to increase more rapidly than it had for ten centuries.
The number of books increased exponentially. Before the invention of printing, the books in Europe could be counted in the thousands. By 1500, after 50 years of printing, there were more than 9 million books.
With these books came the new concepts of individual authority and the definitive text. The printing press ensured that an author’s work could be reproduced accurately, without error, in multiple copies, which bolstered the authority of the individual author, and established a higher standard of integrity for literary works.
Previously, hand-copied texts contained human transcription errors and deletions. Nothing ensured that an author’s work was reproduced accurately when it was transcribed by hand, nor was such attribution entirely reliable.
Print reshaped the reader’s preference for the authoritative text. An increasingly literate public began to associate individual authors with views and original opinions, as well as specific domains of knowledge. Authors began to specialize in response to the demands of readers.
As Werner Rolewinck wrote in 1474:
“Printing, lately invented in Mainz, is the art of arts, the science of sciences. Thanks to its rapid diffusion the world is endowed with a treasure house of wisdom and knowledge, till now hidden from view. An infinite number of works which very few students could have consulted in Paris, or Athens or in the libraries of other great university towns, are now translated into all languages and scattered abroad among all the nations of the world”.
That was just the beginning. For 150 years, the changes wrought by Guttenberg’s invention would continue to transform the political, social, religious, and linguistic landscape of Europe.
Step Four: Novel formats fostered the expression of new ideas
Many of the printed texts in the mid-1400s were religious tracts, such as missals, calendars, breviaries, works of theology and law, as well as approved Latin classics. Gutenberg used the printing press to produce several authorized, uniform versions of the Bible. This pleased the Church, which had assumed responsibility for policing the intellectual environment, fostering piety, and suppressing heretical thought.
Gutenberg himself occasionally worked for the Church, producing pamphlets about causes favored by the clergy, such as a papal proclamation for a Crusade against the Turks in retaliation for the invasion of Constantinople. He also printed indulgences, which provided a way for sinners to purchase absolution; the indulgences were the Church’s primary fundraising mechanism to support the Crusade.
But other developments did not please the Church.
Print made possible entirely literary forms which appealed to a growing number of readers outside the church. These included “true” histories, heroic romances, and satirical romances. The cheaper editions made possible by the printing press contributed to the spread of literacy, which in turn fostered demand for more literary fiction.
Literature contained secular, worldly ideas that deviated from the Church’s narrow strictures. Earthy stuff, like sex and bawdy humor, and humanistic portrayals of characters as believable individual people. Our word novel comes from the Italian novella, a collection of short stories such as Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Step Five: Information markets accelerated cultural production
Printers became publishers. They actively sought new manuscripts to feed the growing demand for books and financed their publication.
One source of fresh manuscripts arrived in Europe with the Greek exiles who were expelled from Constantinople after it fell to the Ottomans.
The majority of classical texts from ancient Greek and Roman authors did not survive in Western Europe. They were destroyed during barbarian raids. But many of these works had been preserved by the Byzantines in the East.
These texts were re-introduced to Europe by those who fled westward after Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453. The classical works expressed humanistic themes that differed substantially from the Catholic church’s ecclesiastic subject matter and spiritual fare; the Classic works fueled the flame of individualism that had been lit a century earlier during the Renaissance.
The growing number of inexpensive books in new formats that contained fresh ideas, such as the re-introduction of Greek and Roman human-centered values, led to expanding readership. As you’ve probably already surmised, this process of diffusion presaged the disintegration of the longstanding social order.
The rigid social hierarchy that had characterized Europe during the medieval period was increasingly called into question in print. The humanist values of the Renaissance began to collide against the spiritual preoccupations of the Church.
Soon after the introduction of the press, printed pamphlets exposed the rampant corruption of the clergy. Other publications questioned the infallibility of the pope, and denounced the capricious whims of monarchs. This was the beginning of a tidal wave of free thinking.
The Catholic Church struggled to respond. Accustomed to centuries of unchallenged domination of the information sphere and total control over the reproduction of handwritten texts, the clergy was flummoxed by the diffusion of mechanically printed information that circulated freely and fast, far beyond its direct control.
Orthodoxy collided with free speech. The printing press made this conflict inevitable.
In the next article in this series, available here, we will consider how the Church responded to the free flow of information. The conflict between Church and reformers quickly escalated until it became full-blown warfare that lasted nearly a century. Click through to follow the chain of events that culminated in a historic orgy of violence that devastated Europe.
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