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While I was polishing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I realized I needed a little more detail about the royal villa of Compiegne, which my characters, a small merchant party, visit in the hopes of trading with Queen Hildegard, wife of King Charles (known today as Charlemagne). The year is 779, and Compiegne had a rarity, an organ.

The Royal Frankish Annals report that Byzantine Emperor Constantine in 757 sent the organ to King Pepin, Charlemagne’s father, as a gift among other presents, and this may be the first time an organ appeared in the West.

Early organ

An organ appears in the obelisk of Theodosius. (Detail from a photo by Radomil talk, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

An expensive gift from an emperor was significant enough for the annalists to write down. Pepin was an upstart. Only seven years before, he had seized the throne from the Merovingians, who had ruled Francia for about three centuries. Pepin’s legitimacy as king was reinforced when he and his sons were anointed by the pope in 754, and the emperor’s gift is another acknowledgment of Pepin’s rule.

Why would Constantine give something so precious to Pepin? An ally of Pope Stephen, Pepin had twice invaded Lombardy to protect Rome from the Lombards. The emperor’s realm extended into parts of the Italian peninsula , and he might have wanted to stay on Pepin’s good side.

The organ likely would have been a source of pride for Pepin and later for Charles, even more than two decades later.

As helpful as they are, the annals leave several questions unanswered. Among them, what did the organ look like? What did it sound like? And how would three medieval commoners who have no education and never even heard of an organ react to it?

After poking around on the Internet, using such sources as Questia and Jewish Virtual Library , I came up with these paragraphs:

With servants in the great hall bustling around them, Leofwin and his companions again marveled at the instrument they had listened to after last night’s evening meal. Musicians had gathered around the arrangement of bellows and pipes, now glinting in the morning sun, and played melodies unlike any Leofwin had heard before, like many flutes only with much deeper tones.

“The queen’s maid told me it is called an organ,” Leofwin said. “The emperor of Byzantium gave it to the king’s father about twenty years ago.”

“The emperor of where?” Jarvis asked.

“’Tis leagues to the east.” Leofwin stared at the organ. “It must be a strange land.”

A lot of time for a few paragraphs, to be sure, but they give a sense of time and place. And if anyone reading this knows something about early medieval organs, I’d be glad to hear from you.