On 27th March I caught a discussion on Melvyn Bragg's BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I studied this period when I was at university as a mature student in the mid 80s but I have hardly thought about it since. This week, with my head full of social media as usual, I saw synergies that I'd not been able to make twenty years ago.
Consider the parallels: in the Middle Ages the monasteries were major international corporations, generating wealth, education, law, and power. Everything was lodged in, or connected to, an enormous European business / social network maintained by an ecology which combined stable stewardship of institutions with travel and learning undertaken by well-read and multilingual men and women. Their common languages of Latin and Greek enabled them to share ideas and co-create with ease, and they pretty well controlled all modes of communication and dissemination since in that pre-Gutenberg era the only way to publish was via copying in monastic scriptoria. These highly-networked institutions set the standards for pretty much everything from economics to social control.
The forces which led to their dissolution are many and complex, and I direct you here for that kind of detail. What I'm interested in is what happened after their dissolution, because I suspect some if it echoes with the impact of social media on our existing corporate structures today.
For those who don't know, in 16th century England at the direction of King Henry VIII the monasteries were emptied and smashed up, and their assets seized. As a result, the market was flooded by unemployed nuns and monks looking for ways to survive in the wider world. Many disappeared from the records because they became itinerant, and many of the women, no longer nuns, sold their skills in the marriage marketplace and were listed in parish rolls under their husbands' names rather than their own. But a large number had marketable skills which they set about monetising by creating small businesses - bakeries, market gardening - or by becoming teachers, medics, midwives and so on. An entire employment sector was on the move, reskilling and in search of a market.
It seems to me there is a parallel here because although today there is not a single drive to traumatise and destroy our major institutions and companies with sledgehammers, the cement which holds them together is being increasingly eaten away by new ideas - concepts like 'free', 'co-creation', 'transliteracy' and 'structural holes'. And with them come an increasing number of people who now work outside those institutions rather than within them, some as a result of being cast out, and some who have chosen to leave.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries revived and regenerated a flagging economy which had become too dependent upon a single network, but there was a downside too. We lost the scriptoria, we lost the Europe-wide education network, and we lost a great deal of learning and experience in many fields of law and economics. We need to make sure that as the power of massive corporations and indeed even entire countries is shaken to the core by the impact of social media, we can somehow keep hold of the knowledge they have accumulated. Of course some of it will no longer have an application, but I hope that the larger proportion will lend itself to either being re-purposed, or simply archived so it is not forgotten.
(With thanks to Toby Moores for helping me think this through.)
x-posted at CreativeCoffee Club