Great Historical Fiction/Fantasy Novels

History is anthroplogy for the past.  Great historical fiction brings you into that past world and makes it accessible.  Would life in thirteenth century Wales chew me up and spit me out?  No doubt.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t spend many happy hours living there.  I am also partial to the fantasy element of historical fiction in part because I acknowledge that past lives are truly inaccessible to me and if I wanted to read about something that was absolutely true, I would get the non-fiction version.  That said the following are some of my most favorite books:

SherwoodSherwood by Parke Godwin.  He’s written a lot of books, but this one has always pulled me in.  I’ve read it innumerable times.  From Publisher’s Weekly:  “Godwin sets his highly satisfying retelling of the Robin Hood legend in the time of William the Conqueror, when the bastard of Normandy was pacifying his unruly new country. After the Saxon thane of Denby is killed at York, his son Edward Aelredson, nicknamed Robin, succeeds to the land, located next to Sherwood Forest. The young thane is outraged by the blinding of one of his men in retaliation for poaching King William’s deer; when his attempt to reason with the sheriff of Nottingham turns to violence, Robin is outlawed. Before fleeing, Robin marries his love, Marian Elfrics, who is then sent to serve William’s queen. Robin and four followers–Welsh woodsman Will Scatloch, blacksmith John Littlerede and Father Beorn and his sexton Tuck–commence the exploits that make them famous and give heart to the downtrodden Saxons. Denby is given to the sheriff, who falls in love with Marian and begins to develop a grudging respect for Robin. An attempt to enlist the two men in a treasonous plot draws them together unwillingly but fatefully. Godwin ( Waiting for the Galactic Bus ) depicts these epochal times vividly and colorfully, with carefully etched characterizations of Normans and Saxons.”

AvalonAvalon by Stephen Lawhead.   There are thousands of books about King Arthur, but this is one of the few that was actually fun.  Hint–he doesn’t die in the end 🙂  Publisher’s Weekly liked it too:  “In this rousing postcript to Lawhead’s bardic Pendragon Cycle (Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon, Grail), such a monstrous evil stalks near-future Britain that an ancient Welsh prophecy will be fulfilled: the Thames will reverse its course, Avalon will rise again from the cold gray sea and Arthur will return. A series of Royals so rotten that the Brits can’t wait to dump the whole stinking lot enables scheming Prime Minister Waring to creep trick by political dirty trick toward Magna Carta II, the abolition of the monarchy. Far in the Highlands, though, former career officer James Arthur Stuart feels destiny stir within him. He is Arthur, come again to exalt Britain and its grand old values:  goodness, compassion, mercy, charity and justice. Accompanied by his enigmatic adviser Embries, his boon drinking buddy Calum McKay and the lissome Jenny, James struggles to come into his own, proving his mettle against modern monsters: skinheads armed with pit bulls, the fickle hydra of the press and the redheaded “total dish” Moira, Arthur’s old witchy nemesis who destroyed Camelot. By the time James ousts Moira’s insidiously treacherous buffalo-wing- and pizza-chomping politicos, Lawhead makes even aristocracy-phobes want to stand up at the skirl of the pipes and cheer on the eternal virtues James represents. In revisiting nearly every romantic Arthurian clich? and playing off snappy contemporary derring-do against the powerful shining glimpses of the historical Arthur he created, Lawhead pulls off a genuinely moving parable of good and evil.”

16321632 by Eric Flint.  This is the book that sparked a series, many of which are not actually written by Flint, but it’s the best of the bunch.  20th century people plunked down in 1632 Germany.  Awesome.   It’s even available for free download at Amazon right now:

BCPBrother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters.  I’ve read all her books multiple times, and she saved the best for last.  “In Brother Cadfael’s 20th chronicle, Peters deftly binds the medieval monk’s new adventure with family ties, moving from issues intensely public to problems determinedly private. Olivier de Bretagne, who (unknown to himself) is Brother Cadfael’s son, has been taken prisoner during England’s dynastic war between two grandchildren of William the Conqueror. Cadfael is determined to find Olivier, although to do so he must leave the monastery without his abbot’s “leave or… blessing.” The search begins badly when, at an unsuccessful peace conference, Yves Hugonin, Olivier’s hot-headed brother-in-law, picks a fight with Brien de Soulis, a commander who may know where Olivier is held-but won’t say. When Brien is found murdered, Yves is abducted by one who holds him responsible for the killing, and then Cadfael has two men to find. In the process, he delicately explores puzzles related to Brien’s death and to shadowy deeds in the larger political scene. While Cadfael does his usual excellent sleuthing, Peters succeeds at an equally subtle game, demonstrating how personal devotion can turn to enmity-and how such enmity can be forestalled by justice and mercy.” This book is out of print and not available on Kindle. Ellis Peters’ heirs, if she had any, are losing out.

Maps from the Books!

A reader suggested I post the maps from the books on my web page, which is a really good idea.

This is the main map for the After Cilmeri Series:

Daughter of Time map


For Cold My Heart. It is much the same, except I use the old name for Aber, which is Garth Celyn:

Cold My Heart Map


The Last Pendragon Saga:

The Last Pendragon Map

The Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries. Carreg Cennen from The Bard’s Daughter is not shown, but it forms a triangle with Dinefwr and Dryslyn:

The Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries Map

Historical Sources for King Arthur

cmh blogHistorians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.

2) Gildas, a 6th century British cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century poet, to whom The Spoils of Annwn, is ascribed.  This poem is only one of several in which he mentions Arthur.

4)  Nennius – “History of the Britons” (Historia Brittonum, c. 829-30)
“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”

5) Native Welsh Tales: These connected works of Welsh mythology were named the Mabinogion in the 19th century by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest.  These include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy.  These stories are found in the Red Book of Hergest and/or the White Book of Rhydderch, both copied in the mid-14th century.

6) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”    The early dates of the above works indicate little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized.

Later texts that are built on the above works, in chronological order, are:

1) William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon – “Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface” (c. 1019)
“In the course of time, the usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons. Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the islane, and there was great oppression of the Britons, destruction of churches and persecution of saints. This persecution went on through the times of many kings, Saxons and Britons striving back and forth. In those days, many holy men gave themselves up to martyrdom; others, in conformity to the Gsopel, left the greater Britain which is now the Saxon’s homeland, and sailed across to the lesser Britain [ed. note: Brittany].”.]

[ed. note from There are enough similarities with Geoffrey’s “History” that some have questioned whether Goeznovious might be of later date, i.e. post-Geoffrey. But, unless William’s original source, “Ystoria Britannica,” is found and proves otherwise, we have to consider the possibility that Geoffrey may have used Goeznovious as a source.

2) William of Malmesbury – “The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)” (c. 1125)
“When he [ed. note: Vortigern’s son, Vortimer] died the strength of the Britons diminished and all hope left them. They would soon have been altogether destroyed if Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans who became king after Vortigern, had not defeated the presumptuous barbarians with the powerful aid of the warlike Arthur. This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense even today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories, as one who long sustained his tottering country, and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war.

3) Henry of Huntingdon – “History of the English” (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)
“The valiant Arthur, who was at that time the commander of the soldiers and kings of Britain, fought against [the invaders] invincibly. Twelve times he led in battle. Twelve times was he victorious in battle. The twelfth and hardest battle that Arthur fought against the Saxons was on Mount Badon, where 440 of his men died in the attack that day, and no Briton stayed to support him, the Lord alone strengthening him.”

4) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

5) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.  From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

One critic stands out, however:  William of Newburgh – “History of English Affairs” (Historia rerum Anglicarum, c. 1198)
“For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur, drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own, and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history.”

[ed. note: Amid the near universal chorus of hosannas heard throughout Europe for Geoffrey of Monmouth and his “History of the Kings of Britain,” William of Newburgh stands out as, perhaps, the first and certainly his most ardent critic. In fact, the full preface to his ‘History’ is taken up with ever-crescendoing criticsm, of which the above quote is only the opening salvo. CLICK HERE to read William of Newburgh’s full preface.]

Medieval Help Desk

This is for all you IT nerds out there, my husband included …

When e-books are all anyone has in another 100 years, this will be even funnier.

Romantic historical fiction series set in 13th Century Wales

Today, I’m happy to share with you a book review from my local paper, the East Oregonian.  I’d leave the link, but only subscribers can read it, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you in full …

Book Review of the After Cilmeri Series

by Renee Struthers

Pendleton author Sarah Woodbury has been living for the past several years in 13th century Wales — in her mind, at least.

Her five-volume “After Cilmeri” series, self-published in 2011 and 2012, follows Marged Lloyd and her children across time to medieval Wales, where they change the life of Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales, and the history of Great Britain in a world parallel to our own.

The series is classed as romantic historical fiction, but these stories aren’t the bodice-rippers that generally come to mind with that genre. The books are suitable for teens as well as adults. Love stories abound, of course, but each of these books is also a history lesson on the realities of life and the political climate of the 13th century. Sex is alluded to instead of being a central theme, and while people do die (quite a few people, in fact) the violence is not gory or gratuitous.

Wales, at just about 150 miles long and about 50 miles wide, is a tiny region that has long been difficult to conquer and hold due to the rugged terrain and the rebellious nature of its inhabitants. A large part of the storyline is Llywelyn’s difficulty in holding on to his own land, forever betrayed by the Norman lords who hold the Marche, a no-man’s land between Wales and England, and his own people seeking wealth and power by colluding with them — including his own brother.

I must admit the continual backstabbing (both literal and figurative) and riding the length and breadth of Wales either defending castles or escaping from capture left me exhausted, but also kept me glued to the story. When almost every character is a potential traitor, new twists are always around the corner and the fortunes of a nation can turn on a dime.

Can a 14-year-old boy from 21st century Pennsylvania overcome centuries of strife and forge unlikely bonds between mortal enemies? Can three headstrong, independent modern women be a force for change in a time when women were, more often than not, seen and not heard? And will the legendary King Arthur return to recreate a united Britain? In an alternate world where Llywelyn survives the attempt on his life that vanquished Wales as a nation for more than 700 years, anything is possible.

My only gripe with the series is that, at the end of the last book, I said to myself, “Wait a minute — things were just getting rolling!” Woodbury assures me that new books with fresh storylines are already in the works.

Sarah Woodbury received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Washington in 1995. In addition to the “After Cilmeri” series she has written several other works of historical fiction and fantasy, with sales over 100,000 in the last two years. All her work is available at (both as printed books and ebooks), Barnes and Noble, iTunes and everywhere ebooks are sold, or you may contact her via her website,

The Quest for Welsh Independence

When the Romans conquered Britain, the people they defeated were the Britons, the ancestors of the Welsh, a Celtic people who themselves had come to the island hundreds of years before. After the Romans marched away in 410 AD, the Saxon invaders overwhelmed the British in successive waves, pushing them west and resulting in a Saxon England and British Wales. When the next conquerors—the Normans—came in 1066 AD, they conquered England but they did not conquer Wales. Not yet.

For the next two hundred years, power in Wales ebbed and flowed, split among Welsh kings and princes, Marcher barons (Norman lords who carved out mini-kingdoms for themselves on the border between England and Wales), and the English kings.

Through it all, the Welsh maintained their right to independence—to be governed by their own laws and their own kings.

The ending came on December 11th, 1282, when Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales, was killed on a snowy hillside, the end of a thirty year conflict with Edward I, King of England. Less than a year later, his brother, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, was hung, drawn, and quartered and dragged through he streets of Shrewsbury, the first man of standing to die that particular death—practice for the murder of Scot patriot William Wallace in similar fashion twenty years later (along with hundreds of other Scots, including three brothers of Robert the Bruce).

In further retribution, Edward took all the signs of the Welsh principality—the true cross, the scepter, the crown—for himself. And he made sure that his son, Edward II, was born at Caernarfon Castle (in 1284), so that Edward could name him the Prince of Wales. The heir to throne of England has been called the Prince of Wales ever since.

It has been 729 years since 1282. Is that too long a time to remember? A 2007 BBC poll reported that 20% of the people of Wales backed independence, while 70% did not; this is in comparison to Scotland, where 32% of the population supported independence from England.

This brutal history prompted me to write, my After Cilmeri series which follow the adventures of two teenagers who travel back in time to the thirteenth century and save Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s life. In my books, the Welsh people maintain their independence and never succumb to Edward I, nor fall under the heel of the English boot.

The practical side of Welsh independence, after all this time, would be very different from the idea of it, no matter how appealing.  Could Wales be self-sufficient?  England has exploited its natural resources for over 700 years.  How much is left?  And if Wales isn’t going to rely on exports, than what … tourism?  On March 3, 2011, Wales voted for more powers for their assembly.

The Welsh Assembly, according its web page, has three tasks:  “The Assembly has three key roles: representing Wales and its people; making laws for Wales; and holding the Welsh Government to account.”  To see what aspects of government for which the Assembly is responsible:

History of Paper

Medieval lords had castle accounts, right?  On what were these written?  Did they call them paper, or parchment?  Were they made of dried skins, linen, paper?

Account books could have been made of paper, which was viewed as less sturdy than parchment and thus for less important matters.  “There are indeed very many medieval manuscripts written on paper. Cheap little books made for clerics and students were probably more often on paper than on parchment by the fifteenth century. Even major aristocratic libraries had manuscripts on paper. Some paper manuscripts survive with the inner and outer pairs of leaves in each gatherings made of parchment, presumably because parchment is stronger and these were the most vulnerable pages. Paper was a Chinese invention probably of the second century and the technique of paper-making spent a thousand years slowly working its way through the Arab world to the West. By the thirteenth century there were established paper mills in Spain and Italy, and in France by about 1340, Germany by 1390, but probably not in England until the later fifteenth century. Paper was exported from its place of manufacture into all parts of Europe . . .

Medieval paper was made from linen rags. It is much stronger and more durable than modern wood-pulp paper, and fifteenth-century scribes were wrong if they believed that it would not survive. Rag paper is manufactured as follows. White rags are sorted and washed thoroughly in a tub pierced with drainage holes and they are then allowed to ferment for four or five days. Then the wet disintegrating pieces are cut into scraps and beaten for some hours in clean running water, left to fester for a week, beaten again, and so on, several times over, until the mixture disintegrates into a runny water-logged pulp. It is then tipped into a huge vat. A wire frame is scooped into the vat, picking up a film of wet fibres, and it is shaken free of drips and emptied onto a sheet of felt. Another layer of felt is laid over it. As the soggy sheets emerge and are tipped out, they are stacked in a pile of multiple sandwiches of interleaved felt and paper. Then the stack is squeezed in a press to remove excess water and the damp paper can be taken out and hung up to dry. When ready, the sheet is ‘sized’ by lowering it into an animal glue made from boiling scraps of vellum or other offcuts. The size makes the paper less absorbent and allows it to take ink without running. The sheets may have to be pressed again to make them completely flat. Sometimes, especially in north-east Italy (doubtless under the influence of Islamic paper manufacture) the paper was polished with a smooth stone to give it a luxurious sheen.”

Paper was used in Wales, certainly.  A surviving manuscript (from the thirteenth century) is in the National Library of Wales. It was a ‘pocket’ book of the laws of Hywel Dda (from the 10th century), designed for lawyers to carry around in their scrip, rather than left on a library shelf.
You can view it here:

On the other hand, parchment was something different, and also used, though it was a more precious substance than paper.  It was:  “a writing support material that derives its name from Pergamon (Bergama in modern Turkey), an early production centre. The term is often used generically to denote animal skin prepared to receive writing, although it is more correctly applied only to sheep and goat skin, with the term vellum reserved for calf skin. Uterine vellum, the skin of stillborn or very young calves, is characterised by its small size and particularly fine, white appearance; however, it was rarely used. To produce parchment or vellum, the animal skins were defleshed in a bath of lime, stretched on a frame, and scraped with a lunellum while damp. They could then be treated with pumice, whitened with a substance such as chalk, and cut to size. Differences in preparation technique seem to have occasioned greater diversity in appearance than did the type of skin used. Parchment supplanted papyrus as the most popular writing support material in the fourth century, although it was known earlier. Parchment was itself largely replaced by paper in the sixteenth century (with the rise of printing), but remained in use for certain high-grade books. See also flesh side and hair side.”

Illuminated manuscripts of whatever nature were exclusively on parchment until the late Middle Ages:  “The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from the 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, which had superseded scrolls. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments survive on papyrus, which does not last nearly as long as vellum or parchment. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin), but most manuscripts important enough to illuminate were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper. Very early printed books were sometimes produced with spaces left for rubrics and miniatures, or were given illuminated initials, or decorations in the margin, but the introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century, but in much smaller numbers, mostly for the very wealthy.

Manuscripts are among the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages; many thousands survive. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting, and the best preserved. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.”


Writing Historical Fiction

Back in high school, I remember overhearing two girls lamenting how awful their classes were and how they ‘hated’ history. Since I was hiding in a bathroom stall at the time, I didn’t give voice to my horror at their sentiment, but it has stuck with me in the thirty years since. How could they ‘hate’ history?

Unfortunately, all too easily if by ‘history’ they meant the memorization of facts and dates that had little or no bearing on their lives. Why did they care what year the Civil War began? Or who was the tenth president of the United States? Or what happened in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (though knowing might clarify our wars in the Middle East today, but that’s a different topic).

That’s not what history is about. History is about people. It’s the anthropology of the past. It’s about finding out why people did what they did; what they cared about; and the nitty gritty of how they lived and died.

I strongly believe with Donna Tartt that: “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”

But along with entertaining, what I love about historical fiction is that it can bring history to life.

Because I have an academic background, research comes naturally to me. When I decide on a topic for a new novel, I first spend a few weeks exploring the history, culture, and geography of that time period. It is very important to me to know as much as I can about the history of the time, even if I end up changing aspects of it to suit my novel. At the same time, I try to keep events as historically accurate as possible.

When writing about dark age and medieval Wales, however, there is so much we don’t know that sifting through the data to find out what‘really’ happened is often next to impossible. Many records were destroyed—deliberately for the most part—in the years after Edward I conquered Wales, but other records were lost to time, thrown away in ignorance, were never written down, or were lost when Henry VIII abolished the monasteries. There’s a story that one of the twentieth century owners of Aber Garth Celyn (the seat of Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales) found documents stuffed into a wall and burned them because they were in Latin and she couldn’t read them!

A shelf (or Kindle)-full of good historical fiction can be entertaining, but also gives us a window to the past and allows us to lose ourselves in other times and lives. And ensures that we call can say: I love history!

~originally posted at Past Times Books



Books in the Middle Ages

Books have been around as long as there has been writing–it’s just that in the past, they were less accessible, expensive, and rare.  Many, many fewer people were literate, especially as we understand the word (see my post on literacy:

“Every stage in the creation of a medieval book required intensive labor, sometimes involving the collaboration of entire workshops. Parchment for the pages had to be made from the dried hides of animals, cut to size and sewn into quires; inks had to be mixed, pens prepared, and the pages ruled for lettering. A scribe copied the text from an established edition, and artists might then embellish it with illustrations, decorated initials, and ornament in the margins. The most lavish medieval books were bound in covers set with enamels, jewels, and ivory carvings.”  Source: The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Getty Museum has a long description of the physical process of making a book.  for my own discussion of the history of paper, see:

“Most medieval manuscripts were written on specially treated animal skins, called parchment or vellum (paper did not become common in Europe until around 1450). The pelts were first soaked in a lime solution to loosen the fur, which was then removed. While wet on a stretcher, the skin was scraped using a knife with a curved blade. As the skin dried, the parchment maker adjusted the tension so that the skin remained taut. This cycle of scraping and stretching was repeated over several days until the desired thinness had been achieved. Here, the skin of a stillborn goat, prized for its smoothness, is stretched on a modern frame to illustrate the parchment making process.

After the surface had been prepared, the parchment was ruled, usually with leadpoint or colored ink. In this prayer book, you can see the ruling in red ink. Ruling lines helped the scribe to write evenly and were part of the design of the page. The scribe wrote with a quill pen made from the feather of a goose or swan. The end of the feather was cut to form the writing nib. A slit cut into the middle of the nib allowed the ink to flow smoothly to the tip of the pen. The appearance of the script—whether rounded or angular, dense or open—was partly dependent upon the shape and the angle of the nib.

Illumination, from the Latin illuminare, “to light up or illuminate,” describes the glow created by the colors, especially gold and silver, used to embellish manuscripts. In making an illumination, the artist first made an outline drawing with leadpoint or quill and ink. Next, he or she painted the areas to receive gold leaf with a sticky substance such as bole (a refined red clay) or gum ammoniac (sap). The gold leaf was then laid down and burnished, or rubbed, to create a shiny surface, which sparkles as the pages are turned. Finally, the illuminator applied paints that were made from a wide variety of coloring agents: ground minerals, organic dyes extracted from plants, and chemically produced colorants. These pigments were usually mixed with egg white to form a kind of paint called tempera. The deep blue of this illumination was probably made from crushed stone, while the background is a solid mass of shining gold leaf.

Once the writing and illuminating had been completed, the parchment sheets were folded and nested into groups called gatherings. The gatherings were ordered in their proper sequence and sewn together onto cords or leather thongs that served as supports. Once the sewing was finished, the ends of the supports were laced through channels carved into the wooden boards that formed the front and back covers of the book. The binding was usually then covered in leather or a decorative fabric. This binding’s most stunning ornamentations are the metal corner pieces and raised medallions that would protect the binding as it rested on a surface. The dyed parchment pieces inset into the central medallion were once brightly colored yellow, green, and blue, creating a stained-glass-window effect on the covers of the manuscript.”

And the, for comic relief 🙂


When e-books are all anyone has in another 100 years, this will be even funnier.

Red, Black, and White Books

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves Sam the Red Book of Westmarch, in which to record the goings on of Middle Earth after he is gone. Tolkein himself says that his inspiration for the fictional book was the Red Book of Hergest in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which he knew well.

In Wales, there were three such books of which we know:
The Red Book of Hergest
The Black Book of Camarthan
The White Book of Rhydderch

The Red Book of Hergest was written between 1375 and 1425 by Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Fuellt, for his employer, Hopcyn ap Tomas ap Einion of Ynys Tawe. In it are some of the most famous Welsh texts, including the Chronicles of the Princes, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and so on. The complete list is here:

The Black Book of Camarthen, in the National Library of Wales (Peniarth Manuscript 1), dates to the mid-thirteenth century and is believed to have been the work of a single scribe at the Priory of St. John in Carmarthen. It is one of the first works written wholly in Welsh and comprised mostly of poetry, primarily on the subject of Dark Age (sorry, Brynne) topics. The contents of which are here:

The White Book of Rhydderch contains much of what is in the other two books, with an emphasis on religious subjects and prose, rather than poetry. The copy in the National Library of Wales dates to around 1350 AD. It is found here:

As to how old the material in the books actually, it is not clear, or from what earlier books they were copies. Scholars date the version of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi that is in these books to around 1100 AD, given the linguistic characteristics, but that is not to say that the stories aren’t older. Much of the poetry is much older–dating to between 400-700 AD for the Dark Age poets such as Taliesin and Aneurin.

Scotland and Its War for Existence

Today I have a guest post on a parallel subject to my interest in Wales:  JR Tomlin on the Scottish quest for independence.  Her book,  Freedom’s Sword, is available from Amazon or Smashwords:  Welcome!


Because I write about Scotland, I felt it would be a good idea to briefly discuss Scotland’s history, and in particular, its invasion by England, as well as the eventual loss of its independence. I won’t do so with an emphasis on academics. For that, I suggest reading the work of G. W. S. Barrow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh and probably the pre-eminent medievalist of the last century. In particular, I recommend reading both his Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland and his Kingship and Unity: Scotland, 1000–1306, that is if you have a deep interest in the subject.

 Otherwise, just read my rather lighter, if somewhat educated, ramblings on the topic.

Most people begin their interest in the topic with what is generally referred to as the Scottish War of Independence. More properly, it is the First Scottish War of Independence.

Many people have the impression from Mel Gibson’s un-researched and historically inaccurate movie, Braveheart, that Scotland had long been conquered by England. This is not true. In fact, it is an outright lie–as is most of “that movie”, except for the fact that William Wallace was brutally and unjustly executed in 1305.

So what did happen?

In the year 1286, Scotland had been at peace since defeating a Norwegian incursion at the Battle of Largs twenty-five years earlier. This occurred under Scotland’s strong and able King Alexander III. However, King Alexander’s untimely death from a fall while riding up a steep cliff on his way to visit his bride in 1286 left only his 4-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, as his heir.

Margaret was the daughter of the King Alexander’s daughter and King Eric II of Norway and is generally referred to as the Maid of Norway. Scotland would be ruled by Guardians of the Realm during her minority. Disastrously, the Maid of Norway died on her way to her kingdom in 1290.

There was now no clear heir to the throne of Scotland. However, there were two men with very strong claims through the female line. They were Robert the Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale, grandfather of the future King Robert the Bruce, and John Balliol, Lord of Galloway. Both families were powerful, noble and had a strong following. Scotland was on the brink of a civil war.

In order to prevent civil war, the Guardians of the Realm made a mistake. It was a mistake that would lead to untold suffering and bloodshed.

They asked Edward I of England, as ruler of a supposedly friendly realm, to arbitrate between the contenders. They believed his oath not to interfere in the affairs of Scotland after the arbitration. They thought this would avoid a war. Instead, this dreadful mistake cost decades of years of warfare. [Sarah’s note . . . after what happened in Wales, you’d think they would have known better!]

After several years of dispute, Edward I decided in the favor of John Balliol. Later Scots were convinced he did so because he believed that Balliol would be the easier to manipulate. There is no doubt he was the less capable of the two men.

There is also no doubt that once Balliol was crowned, Edward I broke every oath he had made to the Scots. He began to interfere in the affairs of Scotland, even demanding that the King of the Scots come to England to appear before an English court and demanding that major castles bordering England be given over to him, thus leaving Scotland vulnerable to invasion.

Balliol at first caved in to the English king; however, at the insistence of the Scottish nobility, he eventually refused to accede to King Edward’s demands for power over Scotland. They insisted that King John Balliol summon all able-bodied Scotsmen to arms. An English army sat on their border.

Edward I had spent his life at war, especially the terrible war of conquest of Wales and long wars in France. He was a powerful and skilled warrior-king. Now he thought to conquer Scotland.

Thus, in 1296, began a bloody war in which Scotland would lose her independence only to regain it under her own warrior-king, Robert the Bruce.

Heroic Fantasy in Dark Age Wales

I was invited to guest post about my book, The Last Pendragon.  at  Come check it out 🙂