Colmcille and the Battle of the Book: Technology, Law and Access to Knowledge in 6th Century Ireland
By Ray Corrigan
GikII 2 Workshop on the intersections between law, technology and popular culture at University College London, September 19th, 2007, 19 September 2007, London, UK.
Many hundreds of years before the GPL was even a twinkle in Richard Stallman’s eye, an Irish monk proved to be an unlikely champion of the geeky A2K notion of access to knowledge. The short version of the story of Colmcille and the battle of the book goes something like this – One monk copied another monk’s manuscript. The second monk objected and they settled things the way they did in those days, with 3000 people getting killed in the resulting battle. The interesting thing from the A2K perspective is that there was an attempt, prior to the battle, to settle the dispute in the Irish High Court at the time; and remarkably, the arguments invoked in that hearing could have come straight out of one of the modern digital copyright disputes. Have attitudes to law and technology really changed a whole lot in 1400 years?
In Ireland in the mid-6th-century AD, power depended on connections and access to and control of information. It seems that there’s not much new under the sun.
The warrior monk, Colmcille, a powerful giant of a man, surveyed with grim satisfaction the devastating aftermath of battle, in the shadow of one of the Emerald Isle’s most distinctive mountains, the flat topped Ben Bulbin. He had been vindicated, his honour and that of the church restored. Three thousand of the enemy forces lay dead around him and their king had fled the battlefield in disgrace, with his priests and druids. (Not one to burn any bridges of a supernatural kind, King Diarmaid maintained cordial relations with both Christianity and paganism but it hadn’t helped him that day).