I’d like to return, for a moment, to one of my previous posts, Escape the Iron Prison. In that post, I touched briefly on the story of Columba (also known as Columcille, or Colm Cille, meaning “church dove”), 6th-century Christian missionary and book transcriber. But the breadth and length of that post made it hard to focus on any one aspect in particular, and I don’t think I gave Columba the attention he deserves. So today, we’re going to learn a little more about Columba, because he was a cool guy.
Unlike lucky folks like us who get to live in the future, Columba had to live in the past, and living in the past had a tendency to really suck. Instead of having far too many books, people in Columba’s day had far too few. The printing press wasn’t due to arrive in Europe for another 800 years or so, and that meant that if you wanted to copy a book, you had to write it all out by hand. This is not the sort of environment that produces an active file-sharing scene. But true fans will be true fans, and true fans copy and share, and Columba was a true fan of the Word of God.
According to Life of Columcille, Columba went to hang out with Finnian, his old teacher, and borrowed a book from him (specifically, a psalter). Columba thought that the psalter was just swell, and decided to make a new copy. Lacking the power to simply Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V, Columba wrote the new copy himself, and what a glorious writing it was:
On a time Columcille went to stay with Finnen of Druim Finn, and he asked of him the loan of a book, and it was given him. After the hours and the mass, he was wont to tarry behind the others in the church, there transcribing the book, unknown to Finnen. And when evening came there would be candles for him the while he copied, to wit, the five fingers of his right hand blazing like five passing bright lights, so that they lit up and enlumined the whole temple.
– From Life of Columcille, p.177
My hands do not get nearly that magical when I’m copying books. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.
Anyways, Finnian eventually decided that he wanted his book back, so he sent a young man to pick it up. The youth peeked in on Columba doing his copying, and was apparently quite amazed by it, but Columba didn’t like being peeked on, so he sent a crane to pluck out the youth’s eye. Remember, kids: respect people’s privacy… or else! Not surprisingly, this turn of events pissed Finnian off, so after healing the youth’s eye, he insisted that Columba give up the copy he had made. Columba refused and appealed to the local king to settle the matter. Diarmait heard them out and rendered the following famous judgment:
“To every cow her calf, and to every book its copy.”
Columba refused the king’s judgment, which prompted the king to send in an army, so Columba rallied his kinsmen and fought back. According to the legend, Columba even got God to intervene on his behalf, such that none of Columba’s kinsmen died in the battle, thus giving him and his folk a rather solid victory. Diarmait and Finnian went home empty-handed, and Columba kept his copy (the Catach of St. Columba is believed to be the book in question).
What a story! First, a man of God tries to make the word of God more abundant, but his teacher and mentor refuses to let him do so! He appeals to the king for justice, but the king sides with the mentor, so he appeals to God for help, and he triumphs! What a statement – that God is on the side of the copiers! And it’s worth reading Columba’s defense of his actions:
“I hold that Finnian’s book has not decreased in value because of the transcript I have made from it, and that it is not right to extinguish the divine things it contained, or to prevent me or anybody else from copying it, or reading it, or from circulating it throughout the provinces. I further maintain that if I benefited by its transcription, which I desired to be for the general good, provided no injury accrues to Finnian or his book thereby, it was quite permissible for me to copy it.”
The spirit of Kopimism is strong with this one. We need to tell this guy’s story more often.
And that’s why I’m proposing that we make Columba the patron saint of free culture and file-sharing. I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t know how the official system works for making someone a patron saint, but I think that we don’t need to wait for the Vatican to act on this one. Kopimism already has a gospel (provided here by Christian Engström); it’s time it had a patron saint as well. I nominate Columba.