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Before Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press, producing books was a major undertaking and not just because they had to be painstakingly copied by hand by a team of scribes.

During the Carolingian era of eighth and ninth century Europe, the time period of my novels, books were so precious that dire consequences were invoked if they were damaged. According to Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche, 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.”

Let’s not forget that this is an age that believed in divine intervention. Before Charlemagne’s 791 war with the Avars, for example, barefoot priests performed liturgies. The laymen abstained from meat and wine for three days or paid alms. All so that God would grant them victory.

So 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.

The pages alone took a lot of resources. Parchment came from sheep skin, and a large book required a lot of sheep. In Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, John Butt writes that one sheepskin produced two large pages.

This meant that to have the raw materials for a book, you needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops.

A normal size manuscript took two to three months to copy, Riche says, 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. Then the book was assembled, and if expensive, bound, an innovation of the Carolingians. Really special books had gold or ivory in the binding.

So as I await the publication of The Cross and the Dragon, I do it with gratitude for Gutenberg’s invention.

Drogo Sacramentary

In the Drogo Sacramentary (ca. 850), the C contains the Ascension of Christ. The text is in gold ink. (From Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain.)

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