An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 31, 2016

Kennedy and Truitt: Medieval Hackers and Medieval Robots

Kathleen E. Kennedy, Medieval Hackers.  New York: Punctum Books, 2015.
E. R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Reviewed by Robin Wharton (

The editors of Medievally Speaking originally referred these books to my attention for individual reviews. As I looked over both volumes, and thought about why the editors matched me with them, I realized a double review addressing the combined relevance of these two books within contemporary media and science and technology studies, as well as medieval and medievalism studies might be more useful—and ultimately more persuasive. As a medievalist who now works primarily in multimodal composition, media studies, and the digital humanities, I see these books as responding to a desperate need for more temporal and cultural breadth in these and related fields. In Medieval Hackers Kathleen Kennedy “considers how the medieval norms of commonness, openness, and freedom of information are still present in our textual culture in the culture of computer hackers” (2). E.R. Truitt, in Medieval Robots, “excavat[es] the complex history of medieval automata,” in order to “begin to understand the interdependence of science, technology, and the imagination in medieval culture and between medieval culture and modernity” (1). Together, these two scholars demonstrate the value of examining current technological issues within a historical context that begins before the eighteenth-century and includes histories of the global East and South.

Medieval Hackers and the Value of Greater Temporal Perspective
Kennedy's Medieval Hackers will be of interest to anyone in medieval studies (or media studies for that matter) who has ever been frustrated by scholarship in which eighteenth- or nineteenth-century practices of reading and cultural production are taken as normative—the starting point from which contemporary practice has “diverged,” or the paradigm that digital modes are “disrupting.” Kennedy carefully guides readers on a tour through two medieval communities of English textual production—one making statutes, and the other bibles—in order to “establish[] the information commons as a deep stratum of our present culture” (30). She builds a persuasive case for viewing the proprietary regulation of information—whether it takes the form of censorship or intellectual property—as the exception rather than the rule in late-medieval England. As Kennedy describes it, over the course of the sixteenth century, “various cultural forces worked together to gate this vigorous textual culture and change it radically” (27). As a result, where, “to control access to texts and textual manipulation was revolutionary” in the Middle Ages, “[t]oday it is normative, and instead, arguing for open access to texts and the right to manipulate them is considered revolutionary (or simply criminal)” (27).

The general historical movement that Kennedy describes—from openness to a closed proprietary system governed by copyright—has been traced before, notably in L. Ray Patterson's 1968 Copyright in Historical Perspective. Further, Kennedy draws the idea of an information commons from the work of legal scholars such as Carol Rose and Mark Rose, who have argued that enclosure of the intellectual commons mirrored that of the physical commons in the transition to modernity. She contributes to existing histories of intellectual property law and fair use or open source activism in two significant ways. First, she overwrites and calls into question the technological determinism that often shapes histories of copyright law, in which intellectual property regulation inevitably results from the invention of the printing press. As she notes in “Homo Hacker? An Epilogue”:

The printing press was a tool of this change, but not an agent of it. If hackers had not already pre-existed to take advantage of the press, a revolution could not have occurred. In geologic terms, we might think of the printing press as one chemical element that had the potential to be acted on in a range of ways, to produce different reactions. I think the revolution was not one of print, but of information technology more broadly construed. (140)

Kennedy's narrative reveals how technology, in this case the printing press, emerges from our desires for texts and our ideas about how texts should be used and what they should be doing in the world. The medieval hacktivism that Kennedy describes in some cases pre-dates the technology that facilitated it. She posits hacking not as a relationship to technology but rather as a relationship to the legal, ideological, and textual building blocks of one's culture. She offers a view of history in which technologies as well as texts are open to interpretation.

Second, and equally important to ongoing discussions in media studies and the digital humanities, in chapter four, “Tyndale and the Joye of Piracy,” Kennedy suggests that hacking is itself neither inherently democratizing or in service of authoritarianism. She details how Tyndale and Joye fought over the customs and conventions their particular community of early modern hackers should follow when translating the bible. That rivalry to an extent provided both exigency and a rhetorical foundation for the “Act for the Advancement of True Religion” in 1543, which severely restricted biblical translation and editing. Kennedy contends, “[t]he squabble between Tyndale and Joye provides a case study of the range of pressures coming to bear on the information commons in the 1530s and 1540s” (115):

In combination, these pressures were powerful enough to lay down a cultural layer over the information commons, and restrict it to a degree never before seen. This activity was profoundly cultural, however. Without the cooperation of government and hackers, and perhaps the new practices associated with humanism, such an occurrence would never have taken place. While these events did not result in modern copyright, or even a modern notion of intellectual property, the foundations for such development were now beginning to be laid, and a new cultural stratum was developing. (115-16)

In her study of these very early examples of hacker culture, Kennedy reminds us hacker communities and open source projects do not remove power relations from the equation altogether. Rather, they substitute alternative power relations for those existing by default under the current regulatory scheme. We cannot presume these alternative power relations are better simply because they are different.
Medieval Robots and the Value of Global Scope
In Medieval Robots, E. R. Truitt examines the westernization of technical knowledge during the “missing millenium,” beginning “at the start of the ninth century, with the arrival of the first mechanical automaton in the Latin West, from Baghdad, and conclud[ing] in the middle of the fifteenth century, when mechanical knowledge in Europe allowed for the design and construction of automata within a framework of local, familiar knowledge” (2-3). Within the first chapter, “Rare Devices: Geography and Technology,” Truitt describes how in the medieval Western imagination “automata” and the technical knowledge required to create them were figured as temporally and geographically outside the boundaries of Latin Christendom:

Medieval literary texts, beginning in the twelfth century, often contain automata in a foreign setting, at the courts of Byzantine or Muslim despots, or in the distant pagan classical past. In some instances, the writers gestured toward hydraulic power as the engines of these marvels (echoing, though perhaps inadvertently, the mechanism of Harun al-Rashid's clock); however, pneumatic power, astral science, magic, and hidden human agency were also used to make automata. (27)

As Truitt explains, automata were evidence of both the philosophical learning and technical skill of the cultures that produced them. Medieval writers, however, also viewed them as products of the “more extreme natural variation (in people, animals, plants, and environments) . . . found at the edges of the world” (15) and to some extent in the time before Christianity. During the Middle Ages, as in the present, technology was power, simultaneously dangerous and desirable. In order to acquire that power, however, medieval cultures in Western Europe had to domesticate it first.

Truitt explores that process of domestication in detail in chapters two, “Between Art and Nature: Natura artifex, Neoplatonism, and Literary Automata,” three, “Talking Heads: Astral Science, Divination, and Legends of Medieval Philosophers,” and four, “The Quick and the Dead: Corpses, Memorial Statues, and Automata.” In each of these chapters, the author discusses the complex signifying power of pagan and Islamicate automata in Western literary works, in addition to describing “changes in the technological imagination from the late twelfth century to the early fifteenth century” (98). By excavating their meaning from the medieval texts, Truitt reveals how medieval authors “thought with” inherited stories of medieval robots, using them, as modern writers often do, as a point of entry for “inquiry into the definitions of life, the natural and the artificial” (3). Putting their literary thinking with automata into diachronic perspective, Truitt identifies in the Western medieval cultural imagination a “transition from magical to mechanical” through which “automata increasingly resemble real people and appear as naturalistic hybrids of natural substances and human artifice” (98).

In chapters five, “From Texts to Technology: Mechanical Marvels in Courtly and Public Pageantry,” and six, “The Clockwork Universe: Keeping Sacred and Secular Time,” Truitt considers how automata move from the page into daily life in medieval Europe. These two chapters describe how mechanical craft became the epistemological aperture through which obscure philosophy inherited from pagan and Islamicate sources could be grasped and put into the service of a Christian socio-economic agenda. Increasingly, European accounts include tales of automata produced by Western artisans, and the technical skills by which mechanical marvels can be produced become the demesne of newly powerful domestic craft guilds (138-39). Significantly, considering Kennedy's description of the medieval textual tradition discussed above, Truitt describes a similar transition from open to proprietary technological knowledge that preceded the emergence of controls on literary production:

As craft guilds became more established, they protected the transmission of their knowledge in increasingly aggressive and sophisticated ways. With regard to automata, this resulted in the uncoupling of secret knowledge from morally problematic knowledge; however, automata remained emblematic of esoteric knowledge, just of a different kind. Until the thirteenth century there is evidence of the sharing and exchange of mechanical knowledge. As guilds became more powerful in the fourteenth century, artisans began to view craft processes and inventions as separate from material objects and labor. Craft secrecy—limiting craft knowledge to guild members only—also developed in this period. (139)

In this careful account that considers Byzantine and Islamicate source material alongside literature of the Latin Christian West, Truitt demonstrates what a global perspective can add to our understanding of how knowledge is transmitted across time and geography. Truitt offers a history of technology that originates in the East and only gradually migrates Westward, in a complicated process of artistic enculturation and scientific edification.

Medieval Studies, Media Studies, Medievalism, and Interdisciplinarity
Both of these books contribute to a rich body of scholarship in medieval studies that recovers the European Middle Ages as a period of transition, one marked by intellectual curiosity and relative freedom of expression, as much as religious zealotry, bigotry, and ignorant superstition. Further, they make a persuasive argument that medieval cultural forms and ways of knowing continue to influence how we interact with technology in modernity through the persistence of those forms in our law, art, and literature, as well as the technology itself in some cases. As Kennedy observes, medievalists doing media or science and technology studies offer an alternative and useful perspective:

[M]y method reads the new against the grain of the past more thoroughly than some others because I employ [geologic analogy] as a medievalist, a twenty-first century scholar at the bottom of the trench, looking up and out at the strata, rather than down and in as do modernists practicing media archaeology. Medievalists develop nuanced pictures of the premodern world and desire to reveal connections between that world and the modern, practices that fight the romanticizing tendency in media archaeology. Medievalists grapple expertly with the difficulties (even impossibilities) inherent in attempting a warts-and-all recreation of ancient culture. (5)

Medieval Hackers and Medieval Robots are meticulously researched books, yet they remain accessible to interdisciplinary audiences. Kennedy and Truitt both provide nearly all quotations of primary source material in translation, and offer helpful discussion of different generic forms for the non-medievalist. If their scholarship lacks any of the granularity and depth of historical field that a specialist audience in medieval studies in particular might expect, that is because these two authors strike an elegant balance between grounding their work in the documentary and material record and forging connections between disciplines and sub-fields. A particular strength of Truitt's work is the integration of substantial visual as well as textual evidence drawn from the primary sources.

Even as they replace the flat Dark Ages caricature with a complex, three-dimensional diorama, however, in both cases the description of forms of the past using terms from the present ("hackers" and "robots") risks collapsing one into the other. Very early in the introduction to Medieval Robots, Truitt shifts away from “robots” to “automata” as a name for the “self-moving or self-sustaining manufactured objects” that “mimicked natural forms” (2), and captured the imagination of medieval authors and, much later, artisans. Kennedy, on the other hand, retains the “hackers” moniker throughout, in order to make a point about the continuity of the commons and its centrality to medieval and contemporary forms of cultural production. At times, while reading both books, I found myself wondering if the authors might have done better—as Caroline Walker Bynum does in Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women—to deliberately resist the flattening potential of analogy by eschewing modern terminology whenever possible, no matter how apt. For Kennedy and Truitt are doing intellectual work similar to Bynum's in that they open up the field by recovering the semiotic complexity of medieval epistemologies as a way to get beyond the limiting binaries and ideological assumptions that circumscribe our thinking about current cultural forms. Just as our modern understanding of “anorexia” fails to capture and potentially misrepresents the various ways in which medieval women related to their religious, economic, and political contexts through their bodies and food consumption, so our notions of “hacker” and “robot” fall short as descriptors of medieval phenomena.

Nonetheless, by deliberately embracing anachronism in their terminology, Kennedy and Truitt more clearly announce the immediate relevance of their projects beyond medieval studies. Further, the juxtaposition enacted in both titles between modern technology and the qualifier “medieval” insists on difference, even as it leverages analogy. I did often question whether the implicit analogy between pre-modern and postmodern “hackers” or “robots” or “automatons” was actually useful. To prompt such a reaction, however, may have been precisely what Kennedy and Truitt intended.

Robin Wharton
Georgia State University