The medieval Cloud

Back in 1994, the engineers at the American software company General Magic started using the word ‘cloud’ to describe what later came to be known as ‘cloud computing’. The cyber-skies became seriously overcast in 2000 when Amazon pushed the first cloud product, called Elastic Compute Cloud.

All of us push data up into the cloud these days, and it comes down to us in down(loaded) pours. The cloud is the computing system over our heads, following our chats, documents, images and other documents we own, share and care about.

A different kind of cloud condensed in the 14th century – it was named the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ or, in Middle English, The Clowde of Unknowyng. The Clowde is a mystical text written by an anonymous Christian monk (perhaps Augustinian, like the later Martin Luther). The text offers the reader a guide for the practice of an advanced and austere form of contemplation. Drawing the full force of the medieval mystical tradition, The Clowde invites the contemplative to lift up (upload) her heart to God in love and bracket off all other distractions until she feels in her will a naked intent unto God, Who is conceived beyond gender, ‘not sonship nor fatherhood’. Only when everything’s been denied, forgotten and silenced (this is the meaning of the Unknowing, or mystical wilful ignorance, in the title) will God’s grace come down (download) in showers on the fixed mind and the loving heart.

Medieval Clowdes used to be saved in manuscripts, but now manuscripts are saved in the Cloud.

A copy of the Clowde surviving in British Library, Harley MS 959. The title of the work (Clowde of Unknowyng) takes up the second and third lines from the top.


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