Books in Chains: How the Powerful Sought to Contain Knowledge from Medieval Times to Today

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Written by Ana C. Rold

With last week’s premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones, fans were treated to a fantastical evening of murder, deception, and dragons, all of which are staples to both the world of Westeros and the fantasy genre in general. But many fans may be surprised to learn that the 7th season premiere wasn’t all fiction. With Samwell Tarly’s character in particular, viewers were not only given a glance into the mundane tasks the maester-in-training must face as the lowest-ranking member in a strict knowledge-centered hierarchal structure, they were also given a rare glimpse back in time into a mysterious world of knowledge and power through the Citadel’s fascinating library of chained books. Despite the fact that an oddity such as the Citadel’s chained library may appear to fit comfortably within the fictional confines of the fantasy genre, chained books are found within our very real medieval history.

Photo by HBO

Before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and often worth as much as a farm, and were therefore kept under lock and key in book chests known as armaria or almeries, which provided access to only the most elite. Paradoxically, the idea of chaining books—which is thought to have begun in Paris in the late 13th century—was what eventually provided more access to scholars to peruse books more freely. However, this system of chained books had several drawbacks. First, the chains were often short in length and the books stacked closely together, preventing physical access to nearby books if a scholar was already reading in that physical location. Second, several books were often haphazardly chained to the same rod, making it a long and arduous process to locate any one particular book. And third, the most coveted books were still kept in secret rooms that required several keys from several men high on the knowledge hierarchy.

While the invention of the printing press eventually did away with most chained libraries and books began to circulate more freely, the hierarchal structure of knowledge still remained. Much like the hierarchy of the Order of Maesters within the Game of Thrones universe, access to knowledge in the post-Medieval world was influenced by factors such as location, social class, status, and even race, often barring the poor from accessing even the most basic of education. And while access to information in today’s world has expanded drastically, hints of a world where knowledge is a commodity afforded only to the most privileged still exist in social structures even today.

Interestingly, much like the paradoxical nature of chained books, modern knowledge gathering, via the internet and other such technology, is becoming simultaneously both more accessible and more restricted by the day. With the expanding reach of the internet and its democratization of access to information, people around the world more than ever before have access to an unlimited amount of data. At the same time, the extreme polarization and lack of fact-based reporting has created silos in which people are given immediate access to content and ideas they agree with while concurrently pushing out any outside information they may disagree with, leading to increased difficulty in creating meaningful dialogue.

This paradoxical growth in access to information raises two interesting questions: first, does “chained” information still exist in today’s world? And if so, is there any way to unchain it?

To answer the first question, one must look into practices that could potentially prevent the flow of information, such as censorship. China, for example, has recently tightened its already strict censorship laws in order to control any information officials may find harmful to the state or the economy. In fact, censorship laws are so strict that the 2017 worldwide index of press freedom ranked China 176 out of 180 countries, with only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea falling behind.

It is one thing to attempt to prevent internet users from accessing information, and it is quite another to prevent the media from freely providing information to the public. Censorship laws around the world have made it abundantly clear that severe knowledge hierarchies still exist in the modern world, and real-world consequences are happening to those who attempt to disrupt it.

China’s extreme censorship laws ultimately demonstrate a more obvious “chaining” of knowledge, both on the part of the person accessing information as well as the institution that provides such information. However, more subtle “chained libraries” exist in the West. The United States, for example, is actually ranked 43 out of the 180 countries on the worldwide index of press freedom due to a lack of laws guaranteeing journalists their right to protect their sources and other confidential work information—which often leads to journalists being detained for critical information, or more controversially, in order to prevent them from spreading unwanted news, such as reports about divisive protests. Even the recent election of President Donald Trump has demonstrated an outward show of animosity towards press in the U.S., with President Trump outwardly declaring the press an “enemy of the American people.” With media’s role not only important in gathering accurate information but also crucial to providing this information to the public as truthfully as possible, restrictions on media can also be seen as restrictions on the flow information itself.

With even the most democratic of countries attempting to restrict access to information to a certain degree, a somewhat controversial question can be raised: can the “chaining” of certain information by higher institutions—such as the government—actually create more access to universal knowledge? In the case of censorship, the answer is easy: no, restricting information does not create greater access to information. But if we look at the chaining of information in the same essence as medieval libraries did and connect knowledge to chains in order to free it from a more oppressive system—such as how books were locked in almeries in pre-medieval ages—then it becomes easier to see that perhaps we are living in the middle of a process, much like the process of how books eventually lost their chains in order to become freely circulated, in which access to information will eventually shed its chains and create a system in which knowledge is universally accessible to all.

About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier.  She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.

Photo by David Iliff. Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. CC-BY-SA 3.0