Shifting our Sorting Systems: How Medieval Inventories Shaped the Modern World

by Cassandra Haley

Who would have ever thought that our entire Modern world could have been shaped by the decisions of some European Monks in the 13th century? The entire construct of our economy, trades,jobs and values to this day rest upon that pivotal choice made over 800 years ago, with the shift from passive inventories to actively sorting information into a hierarchy. The way we have come to divide our society into the disciplines of business, sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences really stems from that movement towards an organizational system that valued subject matter over any other characteristic.

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Hereford Chained Library

It’s absolutely fascinating to think about how our world could have developed differently had this universal hierarchy been formed any other way. Would we still value the distinctive fields for their own merits as we do today, or would our society have become much more integrated and entwined with itself, peppering some pivotal language studies into scientists for communication purposes or endowing economists on Bay Street with a little more knowledge of their job’s history?

Without the establishment of these arbitrary boundaries, emerging from a desire to simply sort books, our world today could have been very different. We do need an organizational system to survive and thrive – now more than ever, in the oversaturated and globalized world – and yet, there’s no real reason why the top of the hierarchy couldn’t have been by date, language, or any other characteristic of books.

As university students in 2017, it is shocking to come to the realization that the method in which our entire global society functions is through this methodical, black-and-white sorting of all human knowledge. We have inherited these artificial lines separating the ‘fields of knowledge’, and never think to question them. In trying to impose order on a chaotic body of information, however, societies and cultures worldwide have lost so many integral connections between their histories and works. In attempting to compartmentalize all of human history and its accomplishments, we have tried to redefine how the mind functions in its thought process and memory.

Thus, we are left with scientists unable to communicate theirnetworked-world-and-erp research to anyone outside of their peer-reviewers, economists endlessly working towards sustaining an imaginary Carbon Bubble, musicians playing to an audience completely unaware of the histories and stories in the music, and artists left only sparingly acknowledged for their invaluable contributions towards enhancing culture. The disciplines we have fabricated are now coming head to head with the reality of this system; in such a saturated world, experts in all fields are unable to share their knowledge with the greater population, and the restrictions we have inadvertently placed upon ourselves are catching up.

In order to meet this new, digital age of communicating and archiving information, as a collective humanity, we need to meet these changes head on. To stay afloat in this connected world, the disciplines created by centuries of bookkeeping need to be questioned, altered and potentially even re-designed to bolster symbiotic development between disciplines. Our history has been defined by the differences in fields, but with the globalized world (and all of its problems) becoming a fast reality, we need to re-open the dialogue between scholars, experts, students, and every member of society to flourish in our work and continue to shape humanity.

Further Reading on Medieval Libraries

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