The Stolen Poem of St. Moling: Literary Ownership in Medieval Ireland

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It’s a truism of copyright scholarship that the modern concept of the author didn’t exist until the modern era. The medieval and Renaissance author was a vehicle for the text, but the modern author is the creator of the text. And in the eighteenth century, the Romantic movement transformed authorship into self-expression. This individualization of authorship enabled the creation of copyright. While the printing press made commercial publishing possible, the modern concept of the author created “literary property.” But is the truism entirely true? The concept of the author has certainly changed over time, and taken different forms in different places at different times. But is the modern concept of the author truly unique to the modern era, or does it merely reflect a particular literary economy? In other words, did our concept of the author create our literary economy, or did our literary economy shape our concept of the author? Surely, the answer is a bit of both. But a medieval Irish legend at least suggests that the modern concept of the author is only a particular expression of an economic phenomenon. This article uses an episode from the B—rama, a twelfth-century Irish legend written in Leinster, to reflect on the concept of literary ownership in medieval Ireland. Saint Moling composed a praise-poem for the High King of Tara, in order to convince him to lift the b—rama or cattle-tax levied on Leinster. Moling’s reciter Tollchenn stole ahead and presented the poem to the king as his own, and when Moling arrived, the king accused him of plagiarizing the poem. Moling ordered Tollchenn to recite the poem again, but he could not, proving that Moling was the author. While the story has no basis in historical fact, it reflects the concept of literary ownership at the time it was written. The currency of the poet was novel poems, which they composed and recited for kings. Accordingly, poets needed to be able to claim ownership of the poems they composed, in order to claim the value of those poems. By contrast, other genres of literary works were often unattributed or attributed to historical figures, presumably because they lacked economic value as literary works. This suggests that the attribution and the concept of literary ownership were a function of economic interests.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationForgotten Intellectual Property
Subtitle of host publicationCreativity, Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property
EditorsShubha Ghosh
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781788978712
StatePublished - Oct 23 2020


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