Monday, September 15, 2014

Do You Want Your Books in Paper or Parchment?

Please welcome Kim Rendfeld to my blog. Kim's latest well-researched and heart-touching historical novel is The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar. I had a small part in bringing both of Kim's novels to publication, and she has read my Seven Noble Knights and provided invaluable historical insight. Today she's talking about something we of the 21st-century often take for granted: literacy.

Hrabanus Maurus presenting his book to Pope Gregory IV (Fulda, 831-840)
(Austrian National Library)
What a book was made of seems trivial, but that choice had consequences for the spread of knowledge in entire early medieval societies.

One thing that struck me in Jessica’s Seven Noble Knights was that literacy was so widespread on the Muslim side of the border in tenth-century Spain. Even the common soldiers could read and might own a book. No so in eighth-century Francia, the setting for my novels, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. In the world of my characters, few people could read, and even fewer could write.

The reason for this difference had nothing to do with intelligence. Rather, it was the material used to produce books. Muslims used paper, which was much more affordable than the parchment favored by Christians.

Parchment came from sheepskin, and one sheepskin produced two large pages. So, a large book required a lot of sheep. This meant that to have the raw materials for a book, you needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops.

On top of that was the cost of labor. A normal size manuscript took a team of scribes two to three months to copy by hand, and then it was edited by the head of the shop. If the book had special merit, an artist would be brought in to decorate letters and paint leaves kept in reserve. After that, the book was assembled, and if expensive, bound, an innovation of the Carolingians. Really special books had gold or ivory in the binding.

So literacy – and the scientific, theological, and philosophic knowledge contained within books – was limited to the clergy and wealthy laity. In Francia, books were so precious that owners invoked dire consequences if they were damaged. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

In an age where litanies were performed to gain God’s favor in an upcoming war, these are not empty words. If you borrowed a book, you would be especially motivated to take care of it. God’s anger was terrifying enough, but you certainly wouldn’t want to offend His Mother, whom you often asked to intercede for you.

Books are a new things for the main characters in my latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Not only are Leova and her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, illiterate Saxon peasants and recent converts to Christianity; they are taken to Francia from a culture that doesn’t have a written language as we know it. They are war captives sold into slavery, and although they learn a new spoken language, Roman, they never learn the written language of Latin.

In this excerpt, we’ll meet Thomas the clerk, one of the few literate people in this novel, and find out why it’s good to be friends with a guy who can read. Here, he is reading a message from Countess Gerhilda’s brother about the death of their father.

While Gerhilda bawled, Thomas silently read a few more lines, stared at Sunwynn, and squinted at the parchment. “I apologize, my lady, this parchment has been written on more than once and is hard to read.” He looked at Sunwynn’s face then at the parchment. “It has rained almost every day.”

Her brow furrowed, Sunwynn puzzled over Thomas’s actions. His explanation of why he had hesitated did not ring true. Why had he gazed at her after he read the message? Had he read something that concerned her? She had no idea what it could be. She was unimportant. Patting Gerhilda’s hand, Sunwynn felt ashamed for her relief that Gerhilda was too distracted to notice.

The clerk continued to read about spring planting and the number of men who went to war. When he finished the letter, he rolled the parchment. “I would advise against trading today, Countess.”

“No, not today,” Gerhilda said in a monotone.

Gerhilda released Sunwynn’s hand and wrapped her arms around her large belly. Sunwynn stood, stepped past her lady, and grabbed the half full cup.

“Let me fetch you some more wine, my lady,” she said softly, “to calm you and help the baby.”

“Don’t tarry.” Gerhilda’s eyes carried a plea, not an order.

“No, no, my lady. I promise.”

Hurrying toward the wine cellar, Sunwynn wondered how she could ask Thomas about the letter. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Thomas bow to Gerhilda and leave the hearth. Instead of going directly to the tower, he rubbed his forehead and said something about needing herbs for a headache. She slowed a little as she went through the door, and soon Thomas caught up with her. Walking alongside her, he did not seem ill at all.

When they were outside, Thomas looked over his shoulder, then directed his gaze toward Sunwynn. “There was something else in that letter,” he murmured.

“What is it?”

Thomas looked over his shoulder again. Sunwynn did the same. Servants were bustling about, but no one could overhear them if they kept their voices low.

“A Saxon slave has run away,” Thomas said.


Thomas offered his arm for support. Sunwynn grasped his forearm and leaned against him. She staggered forward, almost spilling the wine.

“So he is your kin?” Thomas asked.

“My brother.” Sunwynn gulped a mouthful of wine. “He must be mad. He will die out there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I needed to know. But why did you keep this from Gerhilda?”

“I’ve known of too many masters who punish the whole family for one servant’s misdeed. No good would come from punishing you and your mother, and I am…” Thomas shook his head. “You are a good woman.”

If circumstances were different, I would ask my brother to betroth me to you. Behind her, the sound of footsteps pounding against the hardened ground shook Sunwynn from her daydream. Releasing Thomas, she turned. The merchant was running toward her, his face pale, his eyes wide.

“Countess… in pain…”


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John Butt

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, like her on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to Do For the Rhinos?

There is far too little good news in the rhinoceros world. These extraordinary creatures have been on the brink for a few years now, and some now show that the poaching rate has overtaken the birth rate.

The good news is that there are easy things you can take part in to help!

The International Rhino Keeper Association's 2015 calendar is on sale now and will cost $22 until World Rhino Day (September 22). It's a huge bargain for twelve excellent rhino photos, 365 days of the year, and the knowledge that you will be helping to save the few remaining Javan rhinos.

The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos takes place October 4. Find out where the march is taking place near you and how to sign up. The postcards in this blog post have information for the one nearest me, Boston, Massachusetts.

Thelma and Louise will thank you!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Unusual Historicals: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

Alfonso X el Sabio as mediator in the F manuscript.
Today at Unusual Historicals I get to share with you the medieval phenomenon that occupied my every waking moment for three years, all told: the Cantigas de Santa Maria. I hope you can glimpse why there's so much to love about these thirteenth-century songs. Enjoy!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar by Kim Rendfeld and a Chance to Win a Copy

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family sell them into slavery instead.
In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman, attracting the lust of a cruel master, and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion — but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

* * *

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar brings Kim Rendfeld's painstaking research and sensitive psychological drama to some people we never hear about in the history books. Not only are the main characters the losers in Charlemagne's campaigns, but they also start out in a hardscrabble life and spend most of the book under horrifying conditions of servitude. As in Rendfeld’s first novel, the emotional impact of the story slowly builds to epic proportions as the plot becomes more complex, but it never dips into the realm of fantasy. The situations and characters are relentlessly real, with hard choices and terrible villains who are, if we stop and think about it, products of their time. I’m also impressed with the depictions of travel in Ashes: it’s hard and sometimes boring for the characters, but for the reader it’s never dull. This novel is a true immersion into a foreign time and place. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll be able to remember the houses, castles, markets, and bathhouses (yes, medieval people bathed regularly!) as if you had been there yourself.

The reader will sympathize with Leova and her family. The author throws tremendous obstacles at them, but they persevere and come to satisfying conclusions with family, living conditions, and even a little romance.

The Cross and the Dragon, Rendfeld's strong debut, illuminated a “dark age” for readers with a wonderful story, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar manages to surpass it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar debuted on August 28. See it here!

Advance Praise for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar
“Carolingian Europe comes alive in Kim Rendfeld’s sweeping story of family and hope, set against the Saxon Wars. Her transportive and triumphant novel immerses us in an eighth century world that feels both mystical and starkly real.”  —Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye

“A captivating historical filled with rich detail, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot that keeps the pages turning to its very satisfying end. A true delight for fans of historical fiction. I couldn’t put it down.” —Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mysteries

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is refreshingly set in a less familiar medieval period – soon after Charlemagne has conquered a portion of today’s Germany and its people. The characters are refreshing also, common folk instead of the lords and ladies who are the usual inhabitants of historical novels, and how they adjust to their new condition is fascinating. Altogether, this book was absorbing from start to finish.” —Roberta Gellis, author of The Roselynde Chronicles

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar is having a Goodreads giveaway! Enter now for your chance!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Vote for Your Favorite Rhinos!

If any of you have the 2014 International Rhino Foundation calendar, this month you'll be enjoying the above photo in the lower right corner. I took this picture of two feisty juvenile Indian rhinos in 2011. I'm so proud to have a picture in this amazing calendar, which raises funds for the only place in the world where Javan rhinos live.

Voting is on now for the 2015 calendar! Anyone may vote by going to this link. I encourage you vote for photos number 23 and 24:

23 is my photo of Thelma and Louise, the sweet young rhinos at Southwick's Zoo. Find out more about them here. If this photo gets enough votes, its title will be something like "Reflection at the Scratching Post."

24 is my husband's holiday-friendly picture of the Christmas lights zoo, part of the Winterhaven display in Tucson, Arizona. Wouldn't it make a great December?

Whichever ones are your favorite, VOTE before August 25! The calendar will be available for purchase September first and is sold at a discount before World Rhino Day (September 22). They sell out fast!

Monday, August 4, 2014

What a Rhino Feels Like

When my wonderful husband saw that a certain amazing zoo in our area was doing "rhino encounters," in which the visitor "gets up close and personal" with two beautiful, healthy, good tempered white rhinos, he did the right thing and scheduled it for us. We saved up our money, because a life-changing experience like this isn't cheap. That's okay, because half the money goes toward upkeep and half toward International Rhino Foundation programs. We weren't sure what "up close and personal" really meant, but we dared to hope that we could touch them. My husband and I have seen many YouTube videos that confirm the idea that most rhinos love to be petted and scratched, but were sure the zoo would only allow it if it was okay with these particular rhinos (and the insurance companies!).

We Bowled for Rhinos at Franklin Park! 
Shortly after making these arrangements, we went to a great talk at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston by Bill Konstant of the IRF. Bill's passion for rhinos was inspiring, and when we spoke with him about this impending "encounter," he showed us pictures of the first people who had done it... and Yes! They got to pet the rhinos! From then on, we referred to our August 2 reservation as when "we get to pet the rhinos."

This experience was so much more than I could have dreamed. Both my husband and I were moved to tears. We were so close that our pictures don't look very artsy, but Betsey Brewer, zoo co-owner and coordinator of this event, kindly stepped back and got pictures of us looking as if we were in a zoo and rhinos were visiting us!

The bars are for the protection of keepers and, now, the visitors, because happy rhinos like to show their affection by bumping into each other. Little humans couldn't take much of that kind of love. The rhinos also rub up against the posts and give themselves a good scratch, as you can see by the flaking paint.

It had been raining hard earlier in the day and other visitors had cancelled their rhino encounters. We were joined only by people who worked at the zoo. Betsey brought some of their nutritious hay with her, but as soon as they heard people inside the bars, both rhinos came out of the barn where they had been resting, just to get some attention. There was no preamble. They came right to us, like sailing ships with a smooth and premeditated gait. We had been informed where they liked to be touched, but I was so amazed at being so close to these giant beauties that I had to take a moment to collect myself.

The rain was kind to us that day. Not only did it let up in time for our encounter, but the damp and cool temperature meant that the rhinos had not been rolling in mud all day. They don't have sweat glands, so that's how they keep cool on a hot day. I had wondered if I would get dirty doing this, but these were the cleanest rhinos I've probably ever been in the presence of.

The two rhinos, Thelma and Louise, came to the zoo directly from South Africa three years ago, when the previous longtime rhino residents had passed away of old age. They are now about six years old, so the zoo board is in discussions about how and when to breed them.

Betsey told an interesting story. When Louise was in transit at the port authority in New York, she was spooked by the inspectors and got her horn caught in one of the vent holes in her container. She was so riled that she ripped her horn right out! It would be like a human ripping out a fingernail. Her face looked rather concave for some time, but now the horn has grown back stronger than ever. It seems to be more sturdily in place than her companion's horn now.

What does a rhino feel like? Good. Here, on the back, the skin is inches thick and a little bit rough. We were told we could slap them pretty hard back there because they don't feel it otherwise, but I'm sure I was too gentle. It seemed too disrespectful to hit them!

The back has interestingly invisible bristly hairs that contributed to the rugged texture.

Behind the ears, on the other hand, the skin is much thinner and more sensitive. It feels like it has a dry outside, but just underneath, it's soft and warm!

Watch the flicking action! 
Back there, you also get a sense of how stiff their ears are. They flip back and forth on a hinge, but above that, it's all cartilage, no muscle.

The horns are compacted strands of keratin (a biomatter found in most mammals, and in human hair and fingernails). Rhinos like to rub their horns on rocks to shape them, and Thelma had been sharpening hers to a nice point. The rubbing is why you can see hairlike strands puffing out around the middle in these pictures. The horns don't feel like anything special. Touching the horn, you might never know there was such a wonderful creature attached to it. I emphasize: a rhino's horn is of no use to anyone but a rhino.

In all the excitement, I never managed to touch around the nose, but my husband says it's similar to behind the ears. Bigger wrinkles, for sure!

They have strong neck muscles to hold up those big heads! 
White rhinos have a unique way of eating. With no front teeth, they suck the food back with their wide lips and grind it with their molars. Near the end, Betsey put the hay out for Thelma and Louise to eat and we got to listen to them slurping and enjoying their meal for a while.

And then it was over.

We left with a profound sense of peace. I'm not sure how long we were with Thelma and Louise because time stopped and nothing else was important. It was a joyful meditation that made us both effortlessly arrive at what matters most in the world. Anyone with stress issues should pet a nice rhino. Thelma and Louise produced only two anxieties in us: 1. What can we ever do for the rest of our lives that is so fulfilling? 2. How can we save all the beautiful species of rhino from human greed and stupidity?

So I look at my hands now, these hands that have been privileged to touch two lovely creatures with timeless souls. I ask, what can these hands do to make the world better?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Most Adventuresome Author Today at Unusual Historicals

Today at Unusual Historicals, I try to capture some of the adventure of the life of Miguel de Cervantes in a post about a trip he took in 1575, with unexpected and life-changing results. Enjoy!