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Charlemagne’s friend Abbot Angilbert transformed the monastery of St. Riquier into an early medieval center for learning. He donated 200 manuscripts, acquired a lot of relics and set up altars for them, and bought expensive lighting, among other things. Too bad my characters in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar visit the place in 778, 12 years before Angilbert’s appointment.

There is little information about the monastery before Angilbert ruled it and its origin compounds my dilemma on how to portray it.  Influenced by Irish missionaries, Saint Richarius founded it around 625, which meant he likely followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus rather than the Rule of Saint Benedict. Columbanus was more austere, and the Celtic practice had a different tonsure and a different liturgical calendar.

As a novelist, I had questions to answer. Whose rule do the monks follow? What relics do they use? What does the reliquary for their founder look like?

Authors of historical fiction have more than one right answer. Because a novelist is not a scholar, I side with those who think it’s OK to play with facts. If making the monastery a center for learning 12 years earlier best serves the story, a writer can do so and disclose that liberty in an author’s note.

My illiterate characters in Ashes don’t care if St. Riquier is a center for learning. They know books are valuable and will pray before relics, but all they really want is to trade goods with the abbot and have a safe place to sleep and rest their animals. For Ashes, I decided to make my best guess of what the monastery was like at the time. So St. Riquier doesn’t have all those books in the library or so many relics or the silver and gold rings to hold candles. Eighth-century monasteries likely followed the Benedictine rule, so St. Riquier does, too. The founding saint rests in a tomb rather than a golden reliquary.

The relic my characters swear upon for a trial is not entirely made up. A tree Saint Richarius like to rest under existed in the 8th and 9th centuries, and it was not to be chopped down. Twigs and branches fall from trees, and one of those pieces of wood is perfect for what I and my characters need.

St. Riquier

A 17th century illustration (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)