Like the bees

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A leaf from Liber scintillarum (Book of Sparks), a florilegium or compilation of theological passages, in British Library, Royal MS 7 C IV (11th century)

Metaphors are inescapable. As humans, that’s what we do. We create new metaphors, we find new skins for old wines.

If ours is the age of the little bird tweeting on the branches of social media, then the Middle Ages were those of the bee rushing from flower to flower to collect the nectar of information.

We have come a long way from the realities of the medieval culture. Or have we? One of the most enduring achievements of the Western medieval world was the coming of age of the compilator, the one who is more concerned with the access to and organisation of information than with building from scratch. Born in the ancient world, the compilator matures and dies in the middle ages.

The medieval compilator was especially prominent among the historians, where information linked to time and space was key. The medieval compilation was a form of open-source information sharing, constrained only by geography and material availability.

Plagiarism hadn’t been discovered yet, although there had always been ancient and medieval critics who pretended that they lived in the 21st century and denounced plagiarism long before it became a cultural norm. Compiling ‘medieval-style’ was about flouting copyright laws for the good of the community. It’s no wonder that few, if any, medieval compilers ever sought fame through works derived from other works.

The medieval compilers compared the literary activity of compilation to the activity of bees who go from flower to flower to pluck nectar and produce honey. A passage from here, another from there, and the work is done, a new flavour is added, something new is in the making. For the compiler, authorship is not important, for better or for worse.

And that brings us to our little happy bird tweeting in the social media tree. The share-culture of Facebook and Twitter is a peculiar reinvention of the medieval compilation for the digital age. The modern compiler has only to hit ‘share’, and his compilation is under way.

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