Scriptorium Trials

The scriptorium* was white with the noise of monk-powered quills scratching over yellow-white sheets of vellum.

“Put those books – gently – on that table there” whispered Bertram. “And don’t – I SAID DON’T – I mean I said don’t you dare bang them down, those are works of ART I mean art, you witless clods.”

The novices scurried away, leaving Bertram smiling apologetically at the frowning copyists. He turned to the stacks of books facing him and pulled up one of the nearby stools. He began to read, determining both the quality and content of the books. Muttering under his breath, he slowly worked his way through the stacks, sorting them into two piles. One of the piles he would take with him as Alnwick’s contribution to the book-circulation enterprise, and the others would be filed away again. Into the books in the first pile he placed small scraps of cloth, all of various colors. Each color represented a particular abbey, who had specifically requested certain books for copying. He checked these books against a sheet of paper that he kept carefully folded up in water-proof leather pouch, that detailed the requests from various abbeys. Once he gave them their books, he would take what he could from their libraries and bring them to the next abbey, and so on throughout England.

He felt a light, hesitant tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a small, aging monk standing behind him, nervously stepping from foot to foot.

“I beg your pardon,” he breathed pianissimo, “but you’ve got my stool.”

Bertram quickly stood up, pushed the stool towards the monk, and took another from a nearby desk. He hated interruptions.

The tap revisited his shoulder, even lighter than before. He turned irritably.

“I’m so sorry,” exhaled the old brother, “but you’ve got my pen.”

Muttering, he handed over the pen, and sharpened up another from a pot on the next desk.

The monk’s finger tapped his shoulder again, so softly that it was barely discernible through his tunic. He spun around, eyes blazing, grimly silent. This had better be good.

“I do apologize,” the relic whispered as quiet as a moth, “but you’ve got my desk.”

It was a credit to Bertram’s self-control that he did not explode, but the quiet of the scriptorium was too sacred to disturb. He forced a smile and began carrying his stacks of books over to the nearest desk. It took a while. Finally, he went to sit down. There wasn’t any stool or pen.

Several birds perched on the roof flew off in terror as a long-suppressed yell worked its way out. A few seconds later, Bertram came stalking out of the scriptorium. Let the monks rebuild their shattered quietude with more book-copying: he, on the other hand, was going for a walk.


*A Scriptorium was a place in an abbey where monks copied and illuminated manuscripts.


“Manuscript” Manuscript Ch.1 Rough Draft

The grey skies were awash with rain over the English road. Streams slunk through the muddy ruts, and splashed under the wooden wagon wheels of a solitary cart that wound its way up the long hill to the abbey. A single man walked beside the weary cart-horse. The monk turned away from the window. It had been a year since Bertram had last come to the abbey, and every year to the day he was faithful in returning. Brother Mark hurried down to the gate, where Brother Obadiah was already opening the modest wooden bars. The cart creaked through slowly. It was clear that their guest was tired out from the cold rain and soft roads. Under the long brown hood, his face was barely visible. “You, you, and you,” he said, pointing at three watching novices. “Get the cart into the stable, and don’t you dare take any of the wraps off until I get there.”
The novices hurried off with the horse and cart, cases jolting under the heavy leather and cloth tarps that swathed the entire contents of the cart. “Slower!” he called after them, and turned to Brother Mark.

“Is all well here, Brother?”

“All is well. As usual, you arrive on time, and as cantankerous as ever.”

“Bah! What’s wrong with my temper? It’s these fool novices of yours. No idea how to treat precious cargo.” He snorted. “It’s a good thing I take a year between visits. I can only take so much of you celibate ink-dribblers.”

Together they turned and headed for the main hall.

“Father Abbot had been expecting you. He’s particularly interested in this new book about the history of the church in England. Do you have it?”

Continue reading

Sticks and Stones

Words are dangerous.

Some words are everyday words. Your eyes will barely notice them where they lay on the newspaper, hiding in the margins of advertisements, crouching at the end of dull editorials. Turn over an old textbook, and you’ll find words sitting there looking surprised, like the life that goes scurrying for cover when you pry up a rock.

But some words are not everyday words. Some words are the kind of word that you only hear a couple of times in your life. Some words, if you wrote them down, are strong enough to tear themselves off the page, grab you by the neck and shake until you listen. Some words are strong enough to break people, make a people, tear down countries, raise up kings, and send armies to battle.

This is a story about words, words that grabbed one lonely, particular man and dragged him into a tale beyond his wildest vocabulary. So, of course, it is one of the hardest stories to tell.

But fortunately, I have the words that are just right for starting such dangerous tales.

Once upon a time…