Open-source text

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A page from the 11th-century chronicle of Marianus Scotus, an Irish monk from Germany. Marianus’ Chronicle was one of the most popular open-source histories in the 12th century, having been incorporated in a large number of other English and continental chronicles. (From British Library, Cotton Nero C V, f. 3r).

Open-source is free, collaborative and wide-ranging. It engages a community not just to consume, but also to produce so that more get consumed.

Open-source describes software first developed in the 1990s, but the origins of it reach back into the medieval period. In a sense, the modern, mechanical world between Gutenberg and the computer is the only strictly non-open-source interval our world has seen.

From the first cultural artefacts to the invention of the printing press, human creation was inclined towards open-source. Rights, authorship, distribution networks were such that must products circulated in an intellectual open marketplace. Authors would occasionally press for their rights in the face of intellectual theft and plagiarism, but all in all, everyone was happy to put it out there for others to copy, use, distribute – and ultimately improve it.

The same went for texts, whom I see as the ancestors of Open-source software. And of all pre-modern texts, I single out the medieval annalistic chronicle: the year-by-year catalogue of events running from the distant past into the very present. These texts developed in the first centuries of the Middle Ages (from 500 AD on) and continued until the onset of the Renaissance. They were started by someone and updated by others, often for several generations.

Most annalistic chronicles are anonymous. To look for an author is to misunderstand them. The model which best explains them is, I think, Open-source software. One person develops the piece, but far more important is what happens to the code later on.

The hope of open-source code is twofold: to make the code more widely available than payware would; and to make it better by allowing others to develop it further in innovative ways. Medieval annalistic chronicles follow a similar logic. By constantly updating the text of the chronicle, scribes keep it relevant, extending its use. Then other chronicles can incorporate the text into their own compositions, bringing further uses to the main chronicle text. A whole constellation of texts can, therefore, emerge, which wouldn’t have been the case if the texts had been kept protected through some equivalent of copyright.

Our digital age is slowly discovering the value of open-source. Software comes first, but other areas follow. Wikihouse offers open-source blueprints for building a modular house. We still have so much to learn.

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