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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.