There are those in our beloved Society who believe that the use of computers and the Internet, however convenient, somehow contaminates our historical accuracy. Some of these naysayers, to be sure, are rogues and scoundrels of the most common sort, yet others are of noble and virtuous demeanor and are merely misguided in their thinking. In this essay I shall demonstrate to these latter Gentles, by the most courteous of means, the error of their ways, that they might come freely to the realization that I am, as always, right.
Let us begin with two basic assumptions: First, if something can be shown to have existed prior to the year 600 CE, it is certainly plausible to believe that somewhere that knowledge and art was retained throughout the Middle Ages and is therefore admissible into the Current Middle Ages. Second, as we all know, the Byzantine Empire, being at the very Centre of the World as befits its status as the premiere repository of all that is known in the World, has always been considerably more advanced in the acquisition and implementation of skills and craft learned from itinerants from lesser lands or from Our Most High Emperor's benign visits into these barbarian serfdoms (in other words, we steal with style). This second premise is so intrinsically obvious to anyone learned and noble that I shall not belabor the point herein but shall hereafter refer to it simply as the Byzantine Superiority (BS) Postulate.
I chanced one day upon a discussion of the Byzantine border guard in Cilicia province, where there was ever a threat from the Arabs of Baghdad. Since, as we all know, necessitas rationem inventrix, the commanders had created in the ninth century a series of signalling codes using torches atop hills and towers. By way of this system, the emperor Theophilus could know within an hour when the Arabs encroached on His lands. This system was inspired by the work of the third century Romans, as written by Julius Africanus: "The Romans use a system...to tell each other all kinds of things by means of fire signals." As usual, the Byzantines were the first to widely adopt and to perfect an idea from another culture, and as usual the Byzantines were widely copied by others -- including the Fatimid caliphs, who built a two-thousand mile torchlight-telegraph relay along the north coast of Africa in the tenth century.
Clearly, since a torchlight can be only "on" or "off" (non datur tertium, as the Romans used to say) and since words were thereby encoded and relayed, the Medieval civilization certainly possessed knowledge of binary digits, or bits (which are the foundation of all information on the modern Internet), and of routers (in this case, men with torches in their hands) to direct the bits to their destination. As we all know, Medieval philosophers believed that light travelled in a medium known as the Ether, so clearly their use of light to send messages proves that they communicated over an early version of Ethernet. Furthermore, an ancient Roman proverb from Ovid is written, "Fallaci nimium ne crede lucernae," or literally, "trust not too much to deceitful lamplight." Some scholars have concluded that this is evidence of early--and frustrating--experimentation with fibre optics, which relies on very precise and steady light sources and thus was not widely deployed until after the invention of the electric lamp. A few historians credit the Chinese with use of fireflies as light sources for fibre optic cable, but this is not widely accepted.
Yet merely to prove that Ethernet existed in the Middle Ages shows only that they had the technology to build a network. Did they possess all of the other trappings of this medium, such as we have come to know? The answer is emphatically "Yes!" as I shall demonstrate herein by way of example.
First there is the question of hardware: Having an Ethernet for routing bits, did they have anything to plug into it? The ancient Romans built keyboards for musical instruments and, although this technology was "lost" in about 500 CE, the Byzantines resurrected the art and it is recorded that in 757 CE the emperor Constantine Copronymous made a gift of such a keyboard, along with the trifle of a bellows-powered organ, to King Pepin of the Franks. The organ is of little concern to us, but clearly the people of the Middle Ages possessed keyboards with which they might send messages. The matter of receiving messages onto a glass screen is clearly documented as well. It should be obvious to anyone that the images they received on their monitors would not persist through the ages, any more than ours do today, yet like us they desired a way to permanently capture screen images of lasting importance and hence invented the art of stained glass, of which hundreds of specimens survive to this day. Many of the extant images thus recorded concern matters spiritual, which would suggest that their Internet discussions and news groups probably centered around religious rather than secular topics. "soc.religion.christianity.spain.inquisition" was extremely popular in its day, as were "rec.military.europe.crusades" and "soc.religion.fan.christianity.england.thomas-aquinas".
We have now established that they had both the Ethernet and the hardware to build a network and terminals, but what of the software to control it all? Fortunately, as with so many other arts and sciences practiced in the Middle Ages, we have examples of primitive software surviving from ancient Roman times. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, living in the first century BC, was moved to comment thusly on the mainframes of the day: "Mole ruit sua!" or literally "It falls down of its own bulk!" This should satisfy even a skeptic that he was forced, probably in some gladiatorial ritual, to program in COBOL. Yet this was not the most terrible of the ancient software, for Virgil comments of Rome's largest software purveyor, Minimus Flaccidus, "Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens!" which translates to "A monster horrible, misshapen, and huge!" To many scholars of ancient history, this is evidence that Windows (tm) has existed far longer than many of us would have imagined. Further substantiation of the popularity of the wares of Minimus Flaccidus is found in Horace's enraged outburst to a gathering of their customers: "O imitatores, servum pecus!" ("Oh imatitors, thou slavish herd!") The Arabic, Chinese, and Byzantine cultures refined the offerings of Minimus Flaccidus, making them much more sophisticated and reliable, until they had evolved into what we know today as the abacus. Along the way, the COBOL language was abandoned in favor of the much more comprehensible Middle English of Chaucer's day.
As with so many other Roman inventions, the science of Internet software was adopted and refined in Byzantium. Notable among the accomplishments of New Rome was the creation of the Ingens Byzantium Mentus (IBM), a seventh-century computing device of tremendous size which was constructed in the government district of Constantinople. The Latin phrase loosely translates as "huge Byzantine brain" and the device was said to have been destroyed by imperial decree after it defeated the Emperor at chess.
Now, at last, we have established beyond any reasonable question that the technology to build an Internet not only existed in period, but in fact largely predated the period of interest to the Society for Creative Anachronism. Further, we have established that by one method or another all of the finest computer and network technology of the day was reposited in or around Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire. Thus, by the BS postulate elucidated in my introduction, it has been shown that the various cultures of the Middle Ages could very well have built and used the Internet to communicate, and that the absence of any primary sources for this are simply due to the fact that they, like ourselves, constantly misplaced their diskettes and had no backups. Quod erot demonstradum.
This article, originally entitled "On a Method Whereby One May Utter Words and Pictures Most Efficaciously", was written for the April Fool's issue of The Alder Leaf, the Marche of Alderford's local newsletter, back in 1997.
It became a popular humor piece and eventually was published at the kingdom level in The Pale.
James, Peter, and Thorpe, Nick. Ancient Inventions. Ballantine Books, 1994.
Ehrlich, Eugene. Veni, vidi, vici. Harper Perennial, 1995.