Medieval freedom of information – THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF MORTIMER
ab1630's bookmarks 2018-05-20
"“Freedom of information” and “open data” as concepts of governance have modern associations, partly because a steady progress is widely presumed from “closed” in the past to “[relatively] open” now, and partly because a lot of our associations with those terms are naturally digital, since that is our main enabling technology. If you try to take this concept back in time by, say, googling “medieval open data” like a lazy dilettante you will find a lot of people and research centres digitising medieval source material, mapping medieval landscapes or townscapes using modern mapping data and interpreted historical accounts, or doing interesting crunchy things with metadata from given record classes. The “open” in medieval open data means open to us, now. It never means open to them, then.
But you do come across something very like the phenomenon of freedom of information in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt. The “peasants”, (who I think we are still agreed were among the more prosperous members of their communities, unless some kind of Python-based revisionism has taken place in the last twenty years), were famously extremely well-versed in the notion that documents of authority were important. Tax records, manorial rolls and title deeds could record serf or free status, manor of origin, duties and dues owed to lordship, duties and dues owed to the Crown in a way that directly impacted their lives. According to M. T. Clanchy, whose work underpins the field of medieval literacy, serfs as early as the reign of Edward I were required to have their own seal for the purpose of authorising documents, so whether or not this is a literate culture by modern standards, it is certainly a bureaucratic one. The people who marched on London in the summer of 1381 selectively seized or burned documents as they went, culminating in the destruction of the archives of John of Gaunt in the Savoy Palace on the Strand...."