Review of Kathleen E. Kennedy’s Medieval Hackers

I recently had the pleasure of reading Kathleen E. Kennedy’s Medieval Hackers (Brooklyn, NY, 2014)–available in both paperback and an open access ebook through punctum books–and want to offer a brief review here. In short: I recommend this book, which should appeal to a wide audience of medievalists, early modernists, media studies specialists, as well as those interested in the long history of intellectual property and hacker culture.

Kennedy’s core claims focus on translation, on the uses of texts in an age before modern ideas of copyright and textual ownership had developed; she argues, “in a manuscript culture, texts were part of an information commons. The concept of ‘the hacker’ did not exist because everyone was one” (20). With this argument, Kennedy demonstrates the differences between medieval manuscript culture and what happened with modern print culture–highlighting disparate assumptions about information production, circulation, and ownership, as well as cultural changes that occurred alongside print culture: in the sixteenth century, “the revolution was not one of print, but of information technology broadly construed” (140). Before the onset of ideas about information property in the sixteenth century, hacker culture–with notions of “the information commons” revolving around ideals of “commonness, openness, and freedom” (17ff)–were normative, far from our modern concepts of intellectual property rights.

Kennedy does not, however, merely retell familiar stories overlaid with twenty-first-century jargon. Hers is an account of the shifting uses and abuses of media in the late medieval and early modern periods, tracing information culture from open access to controlled regulation. For this, she draws on the emerging field of media archaeology (see 4-9), intent on exploring the long history of media before the so-called “new media” of digital culture. The result is that Kennedy tells a literary history of late medieval and early modern translation practices informing the long evolution of information production, ownership, circulation, use (reuse, adaptation, etc.), control, and hacking.

The organization of the book moves both chronologically and thematically, in order to demonstrate the shifts in media, from manuscript practices in the late medieval period to the proliferation of print in the early modern period. After a chapter introducing the subjects, arguments, methodologies, and issues of hacker culture, Kennedy provides four chapters each focused on a different aspect of translation and hacking: adaptive accretions of layers in bread laws, Wycliffite biblical translations, early modern English bibles (especially Tyndale), and early modern printed laws. In all of this, Kennedy traces the shifting uses of and assumptions about media and information from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Much of this revolves around developments of notions surrounding intellectual property, government control over media, and the need for hacking as subversion rather of these currents than cultural norm.

Overall, Medieval Hackers clearly demonstrates the relevance for reading medieval and modern media together, contributing to many conversations. Furthermore, Kennedy’s implied argument calls for rethinking modern copyright laws. As she demonstrates, our contemporary concepts of intellectual property are recent developments in the long history of media. To be sure, recent conversations about open access and the significance of Creative Commons offer new directions for this subject. Indeed, Kennedy’s choice to publish with punctum books, offering an open access ebook under a CC license, engages directly with these issues, as do the implications of her project. Hackers, therefore, are not to be denigrated without considering their history; their practices should be reconsidered in light of past ideals; and, in reconsidering these issues, perhaps we will find good reasons to question our own assumptions about media, information, and cultural property rights. With these threads running through Medieval Hackers, Kennedy provides a model for thinking about and bringing together past and present in a delightful example of academic hacktivism.

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