The 12th Century Library Thief Who Anticipated Today’s Hackers

The 12th Century Library Thief Who Anticipated Today’s Hackers

In October 2023, digital pirates stole one of the most important research libraries in the world. The hacking group Rhysida severed access to the British Library in a ransomware attack, hijacking nearly a half million files in the process. The collection items remained nestled safe in their book boxes in climate-controlled storage. But a library is so much more than its books. The many things that make a library a library—the catalogues that make items findable and organized and retrievable, the registries of readers and staff, the data upon data upon data—was subject to this theft. It is only slowly being rebuilt, months after the attack.

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The theft is extremely troubling and has attracted significant global attention, because the British Library is an essential public good, for both casual users and the researchers from across the world who rely on it as a resource for learning. As the British Library recovers from this heinous attack on global knowledge and public services, its reliance on digital systems seems precarious.

But library stealing has been a business for centuries, though it has changed significantly with the times. Often, these thefts lead to changes in how we safeguard collections. Take Richard the Lionheart’s 12th century theft of the French crown’s archives, which reminds us that the institutions we know today are deeply rooted in historical struggles for control over archives and libraries.

Richard the Lionheart (Richard I) was the king of England at the end of the 12th century. He was also a famous library thief. At the time, books and documents were extremely important, especially for aristocrats, whose landholdings and other financial arrangements were recorded in charters and other administrative texts.

This may surprise those who imagine the Middle Ages as a time when writing and knowledge were not privileged—but the myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” isn’t at all true. Literary works like romances were read aloud in courts to entertain aristocrats, religious books served as important devotional tools, and administrative books and documents attested to the complex structures of ownership, entitlement, and status that put people like Richard in power.

Read More: Why It’s Time to Shed Some Light on History’s ‘Dark Ages’

Richard, a son of the famed queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, assumed the throne during an era when the map of Europe was constantly being redrawn as individual rulers vied for control over various regions. Christian rulers allied themselves to crusade in the Middle East, in what today we might consider an early form of religious and colonial aggression, but closer to home, infighting was constantly breaking out among Western Europeans. In fact, Richard was on his way home after a long crusade when he was captured and imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria.

After paying a ransom so he could finally return to England in 1194, he found out that his brother, John, had tried to steal his throne with the help of Phillip II of France, with whom he himself had previous been allied. Richard was not pleased, and vicious fighting ensued. (If the names sound familiar, these events were the historical backdrop for the famous story of Robin Hood.)

Early in the war, when Richard and Phillip II’s forces clashed at the Battle of Fréteval, Phillip II brought his royal archives with him, as Markus Friedrich describes in The Birth of the Archive. Transporting an entire archive during wartime may sound like a strange choice. But books and documents were housed in moveable chests and cupboards so they could be whisked away in the event of siege or fire, making it possible for monarchs in Western Europe to take their parchments with them on military campaigns. This was also practical for everyday business: at the time, Western European royal courts were rarely fixed in one location, and instead often moved throughout their realm conducting monarchial business. Wherever the king went, his archive did too.

The practice of keeping archives moveable also made Phillip’s documents easier to steal. When Phillip lost the battle, Richard absconded with the French archive and transported the French crown’s documents to the Tower of London.

The war continued afterward, but for the French archive, nothing would ever be the same. Phillip had to start his collection again from scratch. Wary of it falling prey to the same fate, he put an end to the practice of taking the French crown’s documents to war and established the Trésor des chartes, the Treasury of Charters, which soon came to be housed in the cathedral Sainte Chapelle. From then on, the archive stayed put in Paris, where it eventually became the foundational collection for today’s French medieval collections at the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Read More: King Charles’ Ancestors Owned Slaves, New Documents Reveal. Here’s Everything We Know

People have always been stealing libraries, because books and documents have always played a central role in systems of power. And even in the modern era, library thefts have taken place right under our noses. In today’s war zones, records and rare books are often looted along with artifacts, art, and other items of cultural heritage. Sometimes they are sold to private collectors. Other times they are simply destroyed. Colonial archives, meanwhile, often represent another, subtler kind of theft. Records pertaining to one nation can find themselves stuck in the archives of their colonizers for ostensibly bureaucratic reasons. Whether in the form of 19th century British colonialism or Richard I’s crusading, imperialism and administrative processes like archiving often intersect.

The British Library ransomware attack invites us to remember that our most beloved textual collections are not, and never have been, above the fray of politics, power structures, and capitalism.

One silver lining: library theft also leads to changes in archival practices, as these institutions attempt to stay nimble to the times. The ransomware attack has shown us that our digital texts and digital infrastructure are as frail as paper, papyrus, or parchment, as scholars like Matthew Kirshenbaum have argued. As the British Library recovers, new hacking preventions will be coded and new security measures will be put in place, just as Richard I’s abduction of the French archive led to a new practice of fixed-location archiving for the French crown. Surely, though, someone someday will try to get around those protections too. As long as knowledge is power, libraries will always be vulnerable to theft.

Katherine Churchill is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia, where she studies medieval literature and the development of archives in medieval England and France.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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