A Review of John Willinsky's The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke

Review by Matthew R. Higgins

Part One

Chapter two opened Willinsky's historical account of the academic publishing industry. The book's title emphasized Saint Jerome's influence upon of the creation of an early medieval printing press. The argument that the prehistory of intellectual properties begins with Saint Jerome is further emphasized by Willinsky comparing Jerome to other scholars of this time such as Saint Augustine, Cassiodorus, and Radegund.

Willinsky has done an excellent job of articulating the significance of Saint Jerome's contributions to the creation of the concept of intellectual property, as he has traced the genealogy of this concept in such a way that it will resonate even with those who are less familiar with the antiquarian and medieval figures covered. In particular, Willinsky has provided an appropriate amount of historical context and biographical information about Saint Augustine, Cassiodorus, and Radegund to make this chapter enlightening to those who are not historians. He has also aided readers by referencing Aristotle, a name most students are familiar with to some extent by the end of their first year in undergraduate studies. Even with Aristotle, Willinsky has not taken the reader’s assumed knowledge for granted. In doing so, Willinsky has enabled prospective audiences to better appreciate his points.

Continuing through the Middle Ages, chapter three focused on Christian Latin communities. The connection between scholars’ rights and intellectual property becomes more apparent in this chapter, as Willinsky has discussed Isidore’s Etymologiasive Originum (c. 600-625), the first etymological dictionary, in the context of being another historical marker for the increased presence of ownership of ideas and original compositions. Willinksy focused on Bede, a seventh century writer, as the introductory example on how the Latin Christians taught and learned at the higher education level in the early Middle Ages. Willinsky then pointed toward Alcuin’s collaboration with Charlemagne’s success in opening educational opportunities to the public and concluded the chapter with a discussion of glossing in texts. Although Willinsky has acknowledged that the majority of education revolved around the monastery (p. 71), there appears to be an underlying acknowledgement of the discriminative nature of the Christian-centered educational system of western Europe.

The fourth chapter covered the effects that the endowed economy had on the monastery as an educational environment. Here Willinsky posited that the monasteries' vast accumulation of land led to the ability of the church to attach the concept of intellectual ownership of the discipline of education. With the noble estate granting commissions for the construction of monasteries, a learning institution became an easy way for individuals to obtain land and property with little more than one’s word that a monastery would be built. With frequent shifts between an accessible and non-accessible state that advanced education experienced in the early Middle Ages (which in reality is very limited considering the church remained largely in control of education in the West during all of this time), this chapter could have perhaps been shortened and summarized in order to be more precise given the amount of depth in previous chapters. Although Willinsky's start of the history with Saint Jerome provides interesting information, I am not entirely convinced of his effect on the present-day conceptualization of intellectual property.

The fifth chapter addressed Anselm of Canterbury’s contribution to the concept of intellectual property in the realm of theology; Anselm argued that the individual had the authority to think through and determine the validity of a work. After acknowledging corruption within the church, specifically in relation to the mass creation of monasteries, Willinsky took a sudden turn toward a discussion of underrepresentation of women in the university. This context appeared rather important to Willinsky since he devoted several pages to explaining it, though the connection to the overall focus of the text could have been more directly articulated. Acknowledging the underrepresentation of women in universities could label the concept of intellectual property as a cultural problem created by men, but this argument does not appear to have been consistently emphasized throughout the remainder of the book. Although it makes for a smooth transition into the next section, it seems forced in the context of the fifth chapter.