Tackling the information challenge

It’s difficult for us to understand the information scarcity of previous ages, even as we seem to have unlimited access to information and evidence about the past.

Between networks and nodes, we tend to forget the importance the ancients placed on reliable info. Military and cultural wars have long been fought because of suboptimal knowledge.

Two groups come to mind. The medieval monks and the first Italian banks, which also flourished in the medieval period. Both were networks of info-hungry agents, trying to tackle scarcity of knowledge. One need only look at monastic chronicles and bank records.

The abbeys of the medieval West, about which we happen to know quite a lot, tackled the information paucity by collecting whatever pieces of news they could gather from their own communities and those of other abbeys they came into contact with. They did this by compiling chronicles also known as annals, where every bit of info, newsworthy or not, was carefully preserved. Historians still struggle to understand what purpose a lot of the information preserved in those annals served. We see the memorials, but not their value. The context is often missing, but one thing is clear, information mattered to the compilers.

In an age dominated by orality, where the written record slowly began to emerge, first as a complement, then as a competitor, to oral memory as a vehicle of knowledge-basing, the medieval chronicle became a key technology. A repository of local, regional, national and civilizational information, it turned the insularity of each annal into a networked system of information sources and information gathering.

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