Before Print or Copyright, Authors Had To Guard Their Own Works

Worried their writings might be stolen and their reputations damaged, premodern authors turned to self-commentary to defend against intellectual property theft

Before Print or Copyright, Authors Had To Guard Their Own Works
An engraved illustration of Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great. (Getty)

“The concept of intellectual property — the idea that an idea can be owned — is a child of the European Enlightenment.” So declares Carla Hesse, a professor of history at UC Berkeley who researches and writes — conveniently — about the Enlightenment. Before then, as Hesse explains in the Spring 2002 issue of Dædalus, the mouthpiece of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, ancient people saw ideas not as their own creative darlings, but as gifts from the muses or as hand-me-downs from older texts. “The poet spoke the words of the gods, not his own creations,” says Hesse. In turn, 18th-century intellectual property hinged on a new idea: the author as a single, creative genius. “Diderot,” writes Hesse, “along with Young, Lessing, and Fichte, viewed ideas as subjective, originating in the individual mind and thus constituting the most inviolable form of private property.”

Nor have Hesse’s views been challenged much over the last 20 years, at least not among students of the West. In September 2022, Andrea Wulf’s book “Magnificent Rebels” traced the notion of “the Self” back to 19th-century German thinkers like Hölderlin and Schleiermacher. When did people become so self-centered? When did they start wanting freedom? When did they demand the right to choose their own lives? “It all began in a quiet university town in Germany in the 1790s,” says Wulf, wide-eyed with amazement. Before then, maybe people were just a little more cheerful about being tyrannized by the crown, the pulpit and the sword. Or maybe, Wulf seems to say with a wry smile and barely disguised hauteur, they just didn’t know any better.

On the topic of “the Self,” when it first became an abstract idea depends on who you ask. Too many observers think it began during whatever period they happen to study. Renaissance scholars think it was Dante; Enlightenment experts think it was Descartes; Romanticism scholars say it was Goethe. But what if people have always thought they were unique? And what if they’ve always talked about themselves as if they were?

In the days before print or copyright, information was fluid and hard to control. In such a shifting world, consumers as well as producers, whether enterprising scribes or booksellers, could cash in on someone else’s ideas. This fact gave rise to countermeasures like self-commentary — an author’s explanation of his or her own works — or self-editing as a way to defend intellectual property. Whether Buddhists and Daoists competing for followers in seventh-century China, the Wild West-like “writerly” culture of ninth-century Baghdad, or the unique way the 12th-century French thinker Peter Abelard referred to himself to resist his rivals, all raise questions of what a book is, who owns it and who the author — the basis of the word “authority” — really is.

“Well, as for my works being passed off by people under their own name, you know the reason yourself,” writes the second-century Greek surgeon and philosopher Galen in the preface to “About My Own Books.” “It’s that those works were given without inscription to friends or pupils, since they’d been written in no way for distribution, but simply at the request of those who wanted a written record of lectures they’d heard.” A few years before he died circa 216, Galen penned “About My Own Books” to clarify which titles were his, and to blast those texts spreading falsely under his name. Also, a fire had broken out in the year 192 at the Temple of Peace, known too as the Forum of Vespasian after the Roman emperor who built it, which destroyed many of Galen’s books and other effects. The damage was so bad that Galen rewrote at least two works that had been eaten by the blaze.

“About My Own Books” had two sister titles, “About the Order of My Own Books” and “About My Own Opinions.” All three were meant to control Galen’s own corpus. “Even of the commentaries that I wrote,” he says, “some were given by me to friends, while others, which had been stolen and distributed by servants, I later received back from other people … None of these commentaries were written for distribution.” Galen wasn’t the first to try protecting his own written legacy, but he’s a standout case of someone who did. And maybe he already knew how good his ideas were: They went on to dominate Europe and the Middle East up to the 18th century, when a Galenic diagnosis of melancholia — an excess of “black bile,” or what psychiatrists now call depression — was still current. No wonder Galen tried to bulletproof his own intellectual goods.

But he surely wasn’t the last to do so, as shown by the history of medieval China. There, Buddhists in the seventh century accused their Daoist rivals of copying, counterfeiting and otherwise filching Buddhist holy texts. The Buddhist monk Daoshi (道世, died 683) — not to be confused with daoshi (道士), the general title for a priest in Daoism — wrote a whole chapter on “Falsely Transmitting Heretic Teachings” in his Buddhist encyclopedia “Fayuan Zhulin” (“A Forest of Gems in the Garden of the Dharma”).

“In the Daye era,” says Daoshi, referring to the period of 605-617, “the Daoist Fu Huixiang from Wutong temple copied the ‘Nirvana Sutra’ into the ‘Chang’an Jing.’ He was soon killed, and the text did not circulate. But now the plagiarized text has reappeared as the ‘Taishang Lingbao Yuanyang Miao Jing’ [‘Wondrous Scripture of the Primordial Yang of the Numinous Treasure of the Highest Lord’].” And, in fact, the “Wondrous Scripture” survives in the Daoist canon to this day, with Buddhist names and technical terms clearly replaced by Daoist substitutes, although evidence from Daoshi’s “Forest of Gems” shows that Buddhists and, probably, many Daoists viewed the “Wondrous Scripture” as apocryphal from the outset. As Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself, had fretted years before: “After my passing, there will be followers of heretic teachings, who will steal my words and pass them off as representing their own teaching, claiming they were always theirs.”

But the Buddha — who lived a simple life and urged separation from the world — wasn’t worried about losing his income. Nor were his followers in China centuries later. This, as Leipzig University historian Friederike Assandri says, means the Buddhist-Daoist polemic differs from later European intellectual property laws, which ultimately revolved around economic rights. More at issue for the Buddhists was preserving moral insights, protecting scriptural heritage and competing for followers, although Buddhists did struggle against Daoists for imperial patronage in exchange for religious support. All of this, in Assandri’s words, meant “strong convictions of scriptural and terminological ownership” on the part of both Buddhists and Daoists.

Money and prestige were also at issue two centuries later in glorious Baghdad under the Abbasids, who churned out Arabic translations of Greek math, medicine and philosophy at the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”). They may also have learned the techniques of Hellenic self-commentary, which would explain the eagerness for the texts they chose to translate and interpret, although explaining oneself seems like a general human business. For hundreds of years, knowledge in Arabic had been mainly oral, but writing took over for the first time in ninth-century Baghdad, around the same time that paper came to the Islamic world. Books and the people who traded them surged. Dictionaries, collections, commentaries and palimpsests — reused manuscripts where the original writing is rubbed out and new words written over it — answered the call for recorded material. Libraries, bookshops and academies sprang up like mushrooms after rain. Yale University Professor Shawkat Toorawa calls all of these developments “writerly culture,” which dominated not just the elites but the entire society.

Since demand often moves to meet supply, a new kind of consumer showed up, too. “Writers began to organize literary salons and soirees,” says Toorawa. “A professional textual community appeared consisting of copyists, booksellers, and publishers.” So did enterprising stationers or “warraqin,” that is, people who sold books, paper or even whole libraries. (In ninth-century Baghdad, there was an area known as Suq al-Warraqin, the Stationers’ Market.) Often, these word-merchants sold books that hadn’t yet been copied, or posed as pupils hoping to swipe an instructor’s ideas and sell them. That is because, as Free University of Berlin Professor Beatrice Gruendler points out, a book and its words had now become two different things: “Property of intellectual content and its written form had parted ways.” Hence the ad hoc need for security measures like certificates, or “ijazahs,” that proved a pupil had studied a given text and could now teach pupils of their own.

Self-commentary was another shield against theft, aside from being a kind of writing-atop-more-writing that typified medieval Arabic bookishness. Many post-10th-century poets edited and glossed their own work. Anthologists attached forewords to collected stories or poems explaining why they’d gathered such gems at all. One of the most self-justifying writers was the 11th-century poet, freethinker and alleged heretic Abu al-Ala al-Maarri, who guarded his own legacy by fastening prefaces and commentaries onto his work. A lot of this was didactic — al-Maarri loved obscure words and phrases, and he loved explaining them even more. But he did write at least one self-gloss, “Zajr al-Nabih” (“Driving Off the Yapping Dog”), to counter charges of blasphemy. “I’ve inspected religious people who are outwardly pious but lack insight,” he says in one poem, “and found them to be thoughtless animals, without reason or light of truth.” To the critics of this line, al-Maarri protests that he only meant some religious people, not all of them, in a typically weaselly move.

Well, weaselly perhaps, but al-Maarri was waspish for sure, which seems to be a trait shared by self-explainers. Personalities who want to justify their own thoughts often also fret about their legacies. Both Galen and al-Maarri seem to be this way, as does John Tzetzes, a 12th-century Byzantine Greek scholar and teacher who spun fortune’s wheel — and lost — in the capital city of Constantinople.

The grandson of a wealthy but illiterate merchant, Tzetzes started his career as a scribe, but fell out of favor with his patron, the governor of Beroia (present-day Stara Zagora) in Thrace. To make ends meet, Tzetzes sold all his books, walked back to Constantinople and took up the job of a prep teacher for wealthy pupils entering the military or civil service. Tzetzes was a striver, hoping for titles and prestige in the capital city, but they never came. This he chalked up to his own willful shunning of the social and education system. He cut a studiously rough and roguish figure, one who supposedly tangled with bureaucrats before he settled at the monastery of Pantokrator in Corfu, where he lived and taught until his death in the 1180s.

Tzetzes only wrote one true self-explanation: a set of remarks on his own letters, which he worried would be stolen and pawned off, since documents in the Byzantine Empire were easily mutilated and copied without license. “Some fine man took both the first draft and the clean copy,” says Tzetzes sarcastically. “He vanished the former and damaged the latter, mixing up the order.” In one spectacular case, Tzetzes says, a student of his died in the imperial palace, after which soldiers found the body and sold the student’s effects, including lecture notes by Tzetzes. To stop such tampering, and like al-Maarri before him, Tztezes employed puns and other word games to trick readers, a ruse the medieval Greeks called “amphoteroglossia,” or “doublespeak.” Whether such wordplay fooled anyone is beside the point. The mere fact that Tzetzes attempted to protect his intellectual products means he thought they were rightfully his.

Yet another man obsessed with his own legacy, if not with his own books, was the 12th-century French thinker and cleric Peter Abelard. Born to minor French nobles in 1079, Abelard showed early academic promise and started his own school in his 20s, then in 1115 became master of the cathedral school of Notre Dame, one of many training grounds for clerics founded by Pope Gregory VII in the year of Abelard’s birth. It was at Notre Dame that Abelard met and fell for Héloïse, renowned as the best-read woman in Paris. Their affair is why most people know Abelard’s name, thanks to an exchange of letters that supposedly launched the genre of “courtly love.”

But ripe fruit soon spoils. Héloïse became pregnant and moved to Abelard’s family home in Brittany, where they married in secret and Héloïse gave birth to their son, Astrolabe. Soon after, Héloïse’s uncle and guardian Fulbert sent henchmen to castrate Abelard. Wounded and ashamed, Abelard entered the monastery of Saint Denis, while Héloïse joined the convent of Argenteuil. Abelard swore he’d never teach again.

In time, he reopened his school, and he kept his rank of abbot, although in later years he was hounded for his intellectualizing “theology of reason,” as it was called in a 2009 statement by Pope Benedict XVI. In this, Abelard’s rival was Bernard of Clairvaux, co-founder of the Knights Templar, who favored “theology of the heart,” stressing faith over reason. Their case went all the way to the desk of Pope Innocent II, who ordered Abelard to silence but reversed the decision after Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny, begged the Pope for mercy.

After his mutilation and recovery but before the trial with Bernard, Abelard wrote what some consider to be a medieval autobiography: “Historia Calamitatum” (“The Story of My Troubles”). In it, Abelard lays out his affair with Héloïse, but also his self-conception. He is a supreme intellectual filled with “ingenium,” or innate genius. In fact, he invents a whole country of origin to give himself special status: He is a Palatine, “Palatinus,” evoking the Palatine hill in ancient Rome and the “paladins” of Charlemagne. “From the nature of my country or ancestry, I was lighthearted,” Abelard says, “so that by intelligence I was well suited to the discipline of learning.” No one could blame readers for thinking a cooked-up ethnicity to boost Abelard’s ego makes him seem less confident, not more. As the University of Bergen historian Sverre Bagge writes, Abelard’s self-portrait is shot through with a burning sense of shame, making him seem “overtly and extremely concerned with what other people think about him.” As already noted, this seems common among self-justifying authors.

But even knowing this, readers may still ask: Can we trust such authors? Do we believe Abelard when he trumpets his own legend? Can we go along with al-Maarri or Tzetzes when they wriggle out of trouble by playing word games? Sometimes readers have no choice, but they can still separate real identity from self-identity, tempting as it may be to confuse them. This speaks to the overall challenge of “the Self” and how it first formed as an idea. It’s easier to impeach the Carla Hesses and Andrea Wulfs of the world for thinking everything began in the eras they study than to give another plausible explanation. Too often, scholars deem a book “individualistic” based on narrow, biased measures, such as that ancient biographies tried to be universal whereas modern autobiography is only personal. The center of such ideas cannot hold.

“What do we do with the books?” asks Professor of English Jerome McGann. The question, which conveys anxiety about the fate of print books in a digital, hyperlinked age, is urgent and troubling, but not new. Socrates worried in the “Phaedrus” that written documents were the enemy of memory. Conrad Gessner, a respected Swiss scientist who died in 1565, fretted about information overload after the invention of the printing press. Early 20th-century parents agonized that listening to the radio would soften their children’s academic skills. All these misgivings relate to the control and spread of information, much like the misgivings of preprint or digital cultures. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the statistician and author of “The Black Swan,” writes that, “We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order.” The irony of a bestselling author sneering at ideas as a source of wealth and power is a delicious one indeed. But from the view of history, given that self-explanation often serves a larger strategy to guard one’s own property, he’s absolutely right.

This article is based on research conducted together with Aglae Pizzone and supported by the Independent Research Fund Denmark and Southern Denmark University (SDU).

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy