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Tuesday 25 June 2019

Tuesday Talk Alison Morton does some Roaming with Romans...and Ruth Downie

Alison Morton talks about 
Ruth Downie's  Medicus series

Alison and Ruth
(outside my house!)
Romans, mud and mystery – a gem of a series!

Much of what Legionary medicus Ruso has been told about Britannia isn’t true. Unfortunately, much of what he’s told by his local expert – the enigmatic and independent-minded Tilla – may not be true either. And when it comes to murder, somebody is lying to both of them. (

Written in a self-deprecating tone, the MEDICUS series of books by Ruth Downie are perfect for readers of Roman fiction seeking something more than battles and senatorial conspiracies leading to regime change. Nothing wrong with the latter, but the delight of the almost anti-hero Gaius Petreius  Ruso is that he is a muddler-through: he’s at the beck and call of his superiors, targeted by his emotionally ruthless family to save them financially and taken advantage of by his colleague and friend, the feckless Valens. Desperate to help people, Ruso is realist enough to know he can’t remedy the world’s ills. He’s a Roman, one of the occupiers, the superior class which wields power and control. He takes his duties to his patients seriously, yet under his grumpy exterior his heart is in the right place. Which is a good idea for a doctor.

And Tilla… Ah, Tilla, the stubborn, awkward British slave whom Ruso saves from a beating and death; she drives him to exasperation part of the time and into a state of high anxiety the other half of the time. Somewhere in the middle, though, something much deeper develops.

Ruth - dressed as Tilla
Ruth Downie obviously has a dry sense of the ridiculousness of daily life in any era. Her characters are recognisable in any hospital, office or small business today, as are greed, warm-heartedness and casual cynicism. But intrinsically, they are very much part of their time and this is shown subtly and carefully by the research that has evidently gone into Downie’s books. 

Although readers will subconsciously learn a great deal about Ancient Rome, especially in relation to Britannia, it’s not a heavy lesson. The author goes well past clothes, transport and money deep into the mindset of Romans, Britons, and the multiple nationalities of military, administrators, merchants and scribes scattered through her books. Some readers may be shocked by the pervasiveness of military and political life, by the ruthless drive to take land and willingness to literally put people out on the street. But we are not in the cosseted 21st century. Luckily, Ruso and Tilla somehow manage to weave their way through this labyrinth and the culture clash of their daily lives. Oh, and they solve the odd crime on the way. 

On the practical side, I love the new mosaic style covers for the series and the so familiar Latin phrases used as book titles (I wonder if anybody else has done that… ;-) )

So, let’s start in Britannia where Ruso is a military hospital doctor...

Now called MEDICUS, I first read this when it was called Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls. What a title! 

Britannia - the most remote part of the Roman Empire. Britannia, AD117. Primitive, cold, damp and very muddy.

The Gods are not smiling on Gaius Petreius Ruso in his new posting in Britannia. He has vast debts, a slave girl who is much more trouble than she is worth and an overbearing hospital administrator to deal with . . . not to mention a serial killer stalking the local streets.  

Barmaids’ bodies are being washed up with the tide and no one else seems to care. It’s up to Ruso to investigate, even though the murderer may be hunting him down too.  

If only the locals would just stop killing each other and if only it were possible to find a decent glass of wine and a slave who can cook, Ruso’s prospects would be a whole lot sunnier . . .

But, it’s a series, so we know Ruso survives…

In the hostile north of Britannia Ruso is thrown into a no-win situation. Thessalus, the current doctor at the Fort of Coria, has confessed to a grisly murder but his Prefect demands that Ruso take charge of the patients and convince Thessalus to retract his confession. 

Unfortunately, the corpse is offering up few answers other than to suggest that the natives might be more murderous than restless. If Ruso is to identify the killer, he’ll need all his wits about him to keep Romans, natives and slave girls from each other’s throats.

(Originally published as Ruso and the Demented Doctor)

Now, at last Ruso goes self-employed…

At last, Gaius Petreius Ruso is to return home to Gaul. Little does he realise the sunny Mediterranean lifestyle conceals dark threats. His family are in terrible debt to dangerous men and when the principal creditor, Severus, is poisoned in the Ruso home, they become the primary suspects in his murder. 

But the crimes go far deeper. What role did Severus play in the deliberate sinking of a cargo ship? Who are the brutal investigators sent by Rome? And how worrying is the outbreak of the new religion, Christianity, in the neighbourhood? Even Tilla, his loyal companion, may not be able to save him from the clutches of a most devious killer…

(Originally published as Ruso and the Root of All Evils. )

It’s all about the money…


Ruso and Tilla arrive back in Britannia where his friend and colleague, Valens, has promised to help him find work. While Tilla yearns for somewhere to make a home, Ruso is tasked with hunting down missing tax man Julius Asper. 

Of course, there’s something else missing: money. Compelled to delve deeper when Asper is found murdered, Ruso discovers that the good townsfolk of Verulamium may not be as loyal to Rome as they claim. 

Despite Ruso’s best efforts to get fired from the job of investigator, he and Tilla find themselves trapped at the heart of a treacherous conspiracy involving theft, forgery, buried treasure, and the legacy of Boudica, the rebel queen. 

(Originally published as Ruso and the River of Darkness.)

Ruso just can’t keep away from the Twentieth Legion…

Ruso rejoins his unit in the remote outpost of Britannia, but all is not well with the Twentieth Legion. As the soldiers keep a suspicious eye on the barbarians to the north, they seem to have found trouble even closer to home – among the native recruits in Britannia's imperial army. 

Why did a young legionary jump to his death from the roof of the headquarters building? When more mysterious injuries and deaths begin to pile up in Ruso's medical ledgers, it becomes clear that this suicide is not an isolated incident. Can the men really be under a murderous curse? And what has all of this to do with the much-decorated Centurion Geminus? 

Every Roman soldier seems to end up at Hadrian’s Wall…

Ruso is in the borderlands by Hadrian's Great Wall, but it’s not long since the failure of a blood-soaked native rebellion, and it’s clear to his wife Tilla that the locals are still bitterly resentful. 

When Ruso's new clerk goes missing, tensions mount and rumours begin to spread. Is there really a dead body hidden in the Emperor’s Great Wall? Or is it all a cunning plot by the natives? Things go from bad to worse when the young son of a local family vanishes. 

As Ruso and Tilla struggle to keep the peace between desperate Britons and frustrated Romans, will they unravel the mystery of the two disappearances before it's too late?

Life is short indeed…

Ruso and Tilla leave Britannia for Rome, but their excitement at arriving is soon dulled when they find that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords, vermin-infested tenements and an over-supply of bad doctors. 

Ruso takes on a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor, Doctor Kleitos, has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, "Be careful who you trust." 

Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question both his competence and his integrity. With his reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Kleitos's debt collectors, track down the vanished doctor and search for the truth about the unfortunate man in the barrel.

Care for a Bath? Valens is certainly in hot water

A scandal is threatening to engulf the popular spa town of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath). The wife of Ruso's best friend, Valens, has been found dead in the sacred hot spring, stabbed through the heart. Fearing the wrath of the goddess and the ruin of the tourist trade, the temple officials are keen to cover up what's happened. But the dead woman's father is demanding justice, and he's accusing Valens of murder.

If Valens turns up to face trial, he will risk execution. If he doesn't, he'll lose his children. Ruso and Tilla do their best to help but it's difficult to get anyone – even Valens himself – to reveal what really happened. Could Ruso's friend really be guilty as charged?

I hope I’ve introduced you to a treasure of new reading. For me, the bad news is that I’ve finished the whole series to date. Ruso isn’t going to fall into the cracks of history, is he? There are taxes to pay, bumbling legionaries to bandage and Tilla to placate. (No pressure on the author…).

Ruth’s UK Amazon page:
Twitter: @ruthsdownie (

Monday 17 June 2019

King Arthur - the story as it might have really happened!

The boy 
Who became the man 
Who became the king 
Who became the legend

The Pendragon's Banner Trilogy 

What is the truth behind the familiar stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? There is no evidence for "King" Arthur ever existing - but the stories must have come from somewhere - or someone. Surely?

My Pendragon's Banner Trilogy strips away all the made-up Medieval myth and mayhem and delves deeper into the reality of history, uncovering the early, more possible version of the man we know as 'Arthur'. Although I stress, my trilogy is still, very much, fiction.
You will find no Merlin, though, no Lancelot. No holy grail, round table or knights in armour. Instead, a believable warts and all Arthur, set in the 'Dark Ages' of the 5th and 6th centuries between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo Saxons.

My Arthur is no chivalric Christian King, but a man who has to fight hard to win his kingdom - and fight even harder to keep it!

So Who Was The Real King Arthur?

Anything connected with King Arthur must only be conjecture; there is no factual proof of evidence for his existence, which is why so many historians/authors/enthusiasts argue like mad about the various theories, everyone insisting their idea is the truth. I usually take a middle ground and agree to disagree!

The matter of Arthur, however, must be regarded with caution.
If Arthur existed there is nothing factually concrete to place him in any exact period. Was he pre-Roman? Romano-British, post-Roman or early British-Saxon? Or, as some believe, a much later, 11th/12th-century 'knight'? 

His existence in this later period is highly unlikely as he - or his exploits - would have been documented, so Arthur most definitely did not clank around in armour,  live in a stone-built, turreted castle or undertake chivalric deeds as a courtly knight.  Post-Roman seems the more likely placing, in that chaotic ‘Dark Age’ time between the going of Rome and the coming of the English (roughly 450 – 550 AD)

I personally think the scanty references we do have that mention Arthur (Gildas, Nennius etc) are fairly accurate records, but unfortunately, the Medieval monks – and others in the centuries that followed - altered so many ‘facts’ that the truth has become distorted, i.e. the Victorians invented horns for Viking helmets, scythes for Boudica’s chariot – and everyone in early history (except Vikings) was vertically challenged height-wise!

The good thing about Arthur, for us authors, is that we have a free rein to write what we want, within (and even outside of) reason!

When writing the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy I chose to have no myth, magic, fantasy or  Norman make-believe. I did not want Lancelot, the Holy Grail or Arthur as a chivalric King. There was to be no Merlin, no magic sword in the stone. Nor was there to be the love triangle. I, plain and simple, do not see Arthur as a shrug-shoulder cuckolded king. Had my Arthur's Guinevere (I call her Gwenhwyfar) cheated on him both she, and her lover, (Lancelot) would have been dead meat before you could say 'Excaliber'.

I went back to the early Welsh legends which portray him in a very different light to the familiar 'knight's tales'. We have Arthur kicking a woman, stealing cattle – there is even the possibility of him killing his own son. These story-lines conjured a far more intriguing, and in my mind, believable, man than the Medieval King Arthur. 
Plus, I could not see my Gwenhwyfar falling for a 'goody-two-shoes' like Lancelot anyway. 

Those earlier legends intrigued me: why did Arthur kick a woman, what were the circumstances that made him steal cattle from a monastery. How/why did his son die? Add to that there were references to three sons in all (not including Mordred). One was killed by a boar, one by his own father, one was the son of “Arthur the Soldier”. I couldn’t resist the drama of using those three tragic tales, and I do not doubt that Gwenhwyfar was their mother, Arthur's wife.

 I am of the firm conviction that no king worth his salt would have gone off in search of a Holy Grail leaving his kingdom open to unrest. You can argue that Richard I did just that, abandoning his kingdom in favour of the Crusades – but then, I consider he was useless as a ruling king for England, so I rest my case, and anyone he had his mother, Eleanor, to rule as regent in his stead, plus England was relatively settled, (leaving aside the machinations of Richard's brother, John. For which I see a parallel with the stories about Modred). The Holy Grail story-line was nothing more than Medieval spin-doctoring to promote the glory of those Crusades. ‘Your Kingdom needs you! Be like Arthur in the Quest for the Holy Grail – come on Crusade!

But there is, I discovered, a logical pointer to Arthur leaving his kingdom and going off on a ‘quest’. A man - a documented man of history called Riothamus fought against the migrating tribes threatening Gaul and his own Brittany.

Brittany  in the Dark Ages was a part of Britain, an extension of Cornwall, and Riothamus – who definitely did exist, but this was very possibly only a title, meaning something like ‘King Most’ or ‘Supreme Lord’. So here was a good, believable explanation as to why Arthur left Britain; he was defending his own territory, not going off after a mythical holy goblet. And there is more - did you know that there really IS a place called Avallon - it is in France.

Skyline of Avallon
I decided to use this theme in the third part of the Trilogy, Shadow of the King, as I wanted to write something different to what was usually expected. What if Arthur was Riothamus and he took his Artoriani Cavalry to Brittany? And what if he did not come back, because he was presumed dead?

Of course, I am not going to answer those questions, you will have to read the book, but I will leave you with this thought to chew on:
Mordred is named as Medraut in the early legends, and there is not one mention of him being the evil toad he becomes in the later Medieval tales. He may well have been Arthur’s fourth son, possibly illegitimate, but the reference states:
“The battle of Camlann, in which Medraut and Arthur fell. which implies the distinct possibility that he fought – and died -  on Arthur’s side... fighting the Anglo-Saxon incomers.

The rewarding things about combining legend with fiction where King Arthur is concerned, is that as long as the plot is plausible, anything will make a good Arthurian story. While there is enough imagination to go round, and people are willing to keep writing, there will always be good, entertaining stories about King Arthur, be his story set in post-Roman Britain, as a thirteenth-century knight in armour, a sleeping Time Lord or as a spaceman in a space ship.

Who cares? Hurrah for imagination and the darn good storyteller.
Long may Arthur reign as King of Fiction... although, naturally if you have not already done so, I would rather you read my trilogy first!

What are your views on Arthur? 
Feel free to leave a comment

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Thursday 6 June 2019

Novel Conversations with Kishan Paul's Character - Eddie

 In conjunction with Indie BRAG
posted on the first  Friday of the month

To be a little different from the usual 'meet the author' 
let's meet a character

Edil Ghani (Eddie)


Q: Hello, I’m Helen the host of Novel Conversations, please do make yourself comfortable. Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee, wine – something stronger? You’ll find a box of chocolates and a bowl of fruit on the table next to you, please do help yourself. I believe you are a character in Kishan Paul’s novel. Would you like to introduce yourself? Are you a lead character or a supporting role?  
A: Brandy would be great but if you don't have that then coffee will work. I'm Edil Ghani but you can call me Eddie. (He grabs an apple from the fruit bowl and takes a bite.) I'm a character in The Second Wife and I should be considered a lead in the story, seeing as how I'm the real hero and all, but Kishan keeps telling me I'm a supporting character. (He rolls his eyes.) I'm on the cover. (He shrugs and takes another bite of the apple.) Read the book and you decide who's the real star.

Q: (Helen nods and hands him a qality vintage brandy) What genre is the novel and what is it about?
A: (He rests the back of his feet on the coffee table and makes himself comfortable.) Do I look like the kind of person who'd be in anything but a suspense thriller? (He chuckles and shakes his head.) This one's all about the action. Don't get me wrong, there's love in there but there's also some dark twisted cr*p and some serious action too. How could there not? This is a story about survival. Alisha was kidnapped by her a$$hole client. (He scowls at the fruit in his hand and then tosses it into trash can.) While she tries to survive the hell he puts her through, her husband, David, is trying to find her. Which is where I come in. I'm the one who helps him do that.

Q: No spoilers, but are you a ‘goody’ or a ‘baddie’? (Or maybe you are both!)
A: (A lazy grin stretches across his face.) That depends on who you ask. How about this? I'm a good bada$$.

Q:  Tell me about another character in the novel – maybe your best friend, lover or partner … or maybe your arch enemy!
A: Well, there's David Dimarchi. He's not my best friend or lover or anything but is a pretty solid guy. The man practically begs me to help him find his wife. (Eddie drops his feet from the coffee table and leans forward.) He's a surgeon living a sweet life in Philadelphia. So using a gun much less flying down to Pakistan and going up against a terrorist organization aren't really things he'd been trained to do. As much of a pain as he was, (He raises a brow) and trust me he was a serious pain in mine, that man loved his wife and was willing to do anything to get her back. (Eddie shrugs.) How do you not feel for him?

Q: Is this the only novel you have appeared in, or are there others in a series?
A: I'm in all three books of the series. Like I said, I am the hero of that series. I think Kishan just doesn't want to admit she's wrong and I'm right.

Q: What is one of your least favourite scenes you appear in?
A: (He reaches for his glass and takes a long slow drink.) Sayeed is about as bad as they come. There's a scene in the book where David and I are watching him torment Alisha and we can't do anything to stop him. Not yet anyway. Sitting there seeing how he hurts her and seeing how it kills David to watch it happen, and not being able to stop it - that was a low point for me. (He takes another big swallow of his brandy.)

Q: And your favourite scene?
A: (He slides the now empty glass back on the table and shifts in his seat.) There are a couple. One, I can't say much about with out giving it away but I'll say this, there was a part of me that I thought I'd lost forever.  In that scene, I find it. Another favorite scene of mine is where Alisha goes all Vampira on me and bites me on the neck. (Eddie pulls the collar of his shirt and points at the spot). I still have a scar.

Q: Tell me a little about your author. Has she written any other books? 
A: Kishan is finishing up The Deadly Match the final book of The Second Wife Series. This one is my favorite of the three books because even Kishan admits I am the leading man of that story.  Aside from that series, she's written some other stories, Blind Love, Stolen Hearts, and Taking the Plunge.

Q: Is your author working on anything else at the moment?
A: She's been talking about a whole new series that she wants to start on. A new suspense.

Q: How do you think indie authors, such as your author, can be helped or supported by readers or groups? What does your author think is the most useful for her personally?
A: Post reviews and tell others about her work. When you post a review or tell your friends about how amazing a man I am, then other people are going to want to read the books so they can have a taste of me. And once they taste me, they'll want their friends to do the same. (He winks.) I don't mind being shared.

Q:  Finally, before we must bid adieu, the novel you appear in has been awarded a prestigious IndieBRAG Medallion, does your author find this helpful, and is there anything else he/she would like IndieBRAG to do to help indie authors receive the recognition they deserve?
A: Kishan's pretty proud of the IndiBRAG Medallion. She brags about it and puts it in all her ads. From what she told me, she likes it when you post about her books too. It's that whole sharing thing I mentioned. When we post reviews and share our favorite stories, other readers discover the stories too.

Thank you Eddie it was a pleasure talking to you. Would your author like to add a short excerpt?
And while she's sorting that out, would you like another brandy? (He slides over his empty glass and flashes Helen a smile when she refills it.)

Salute! Here’s to being a successful Brag Medallion Honouree!

(When David meets Eddie for the first time.)

Dave sized him up. With his black hair cut short and dark eyes, he looked very Middle Eastern. Maybe he could take me to Pakistan. And he was built as if he’d walked out of a men’s fitness magazine. Probably kick some serious ass.
    When Eddie scanned the room, his gaze fell squarely on Dave. He seemed intense, like someone who didn’t waste his time laughing or cracking a smile often. Intimidating. That could be a good thing too. Even the way he dressed in all gray from his long-sleeved shirt to his dark slacks, sent a don’t f*ck with me message. All of which would help find Ally, unless he was one of the people Sayeed was bribing, and then Dave was the one f*cked.
     Eddie flashed a smile and reached out his hand. “Dr. Dimarchi. I’m Eddie Ghani. I’m with the CIA.”
    Dave stood and accepted the outstretched palm. The man pulled out a white piece of paper from his pocket. “My card.”
    He took the card and, incapable of reading, stared at the letters. In the past few minutes, a thin bead of perspiration had developed across his forehead and now dripped down his temples. Dave swiped at the moisture and stuffed the paper and his fists into his pants pockets.
    “Dr. Dimarchi, I’d like to sit and chat with you for a bit.”
   Voices warred in his head. Who should he trust? How much should he share? When he rocked on his heels, the drive dug into his toe. He tried to concentrate on the pain instead of on the fear building inside him that he was screwing up.
   After dropping his messenger bag on the coffee table, Eddie sat on the sofa, leaned in, planted his elbows on his knees, and pointed at the armchair. “Please.”
    What if he was the one person who could bring her home? It wouldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say, would it?
    Dave positioned himself in the chair.
    An approving smile stretched across the agent’s tanned features. “Thank you. We need to  talk about the visit you had fifteen minutes ago. Tell me what you know about him.”
    What the hell was he supposed to say? The weight of his decision bore down on him, and the idea of running away seemed very appealing. “Nothing.”
    Eddie squinted and assessed him as he rubbed his hands together. “Nothing?”
    Dave kept his face as expressionless as possible and nodded.

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Monday 3 June 2019

Vellum - a magical material

A Guest Post by Nicky Galliers

Parchment, or vellum as I am going to refer to it, is an amazing material and one that is poorly understood. Yet few realise how little they understand it.

There have been many writing substrates through the millennia: stone, papyrus, wax, slate, vellum, paper and others besides. Paper is the most familiar, obviously, but that makes us think we also know about vellum. Vellum looks like paper, does the same job as paper, we think it does what paper does, only in a more old fashioned way.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To assume vellum and paper are practically the same is to assume that a horse and a scooter are the same because they are both forms of transport. Few people truly understand the marvellous, almost magical, material that is vellum.

Vellum is a natural product, more natural than many a bleached, processed paper. Today it is the by-product of the food industry, from skins that would otherwise be disposed of by being burned, causing harm to the environment. In the past sourcing wouldn’t have been limited to the food industry.

Today, each carefully selected skin is cleaned, bleached if necessary - many skins are selected for the natural characteristics and colour - stretched on a frame called a herse, resulting in a 25% increase in surface area, and left to dry. Once dry, it is removed from the herse, smoothed and then trimmed into sheets.

Related image

There are many qualities that vellum possesses that makes it a rather astonishing material. Its very toughness has been exploited over the millennia for more than just writing on. It won’t tear, won’t break, snap or disintegrate like paper. It takes 500 years for it to discolour, if it is going to.

Another quality is its inflammability; you can’t set it alight. It doesn’t carry a flame. Hold a flame to it for long enough, yes, it will start to degrade, but it won’t catch, so when the flame is removed, the vellum stops burning. This means that to destroy a piece of vellum takes a bit longer than paper and a bit more effort. You can’t just shove the corner in a candle flame and leave it to it – as soon as you move the flame away, it all stops. To fully burn a sheet of vellum you have to apply the flame to the whole sheet. You can drop it in a fire, a piece I dropped on a barbecue charred and curled quickly but not as quickly or thoroughly as paper. I was able to remove it and it wasn’t hot to touch. It is medieval Nomex or Proban, the materials that race drivers and circuit marshal wear to protect them from flame. A word of warning for those who want a character in a book to get rid of some vellum in an underhand manner by burning – it stinks! 

one of my experiments, immersing vellum in water.
I cut this piece from the edge, you can see the corners.
Then I left it in water.
That’s around a 50% shrinkage. 
If fire is not the enemy it is to paper, what is? How else do you destroy vellum? Well, the short answer would be that you can’t, not easily, but it can be damaged, sometimes beyond repair, by water. Paper is damaged by water, the average piece of A4 white paper absorbs it and it warps and no amount of ironing will flatten it, hence papers for artists have to be prepared before they are used. Vellum also changes in water, but in a different way.

Related image

The production of vellum is all very natural. It is stretched on a herse and dried under tension and it then stays that way. It is not tanned like leather is, a process that alters the proteins in the skin permanently. Apply water and it will want to go back to how it was. A sheet of vellum immersed in a bucket of water will have reverted to its previous size and shape within fifteen minutes, a dramatic and violent change. However, if the vellum is still in the frame, or stretched tight over something else, and it is then moistened, it will again try to shrink and cockling (lumpiness) will appear where it is trying to shrink, but because it is under tension, it will dry back into its stretched form.

These two startling processes have different uses. The latter is perfect for drums. When consistently hit in the same place, a drum head will stretch and the drum will lose its resonance. To rectify this with a vellum drum head, one merely rubs the whole surface with a wet sponge and leaves it to dry. It will dry and tighten back to how it was when it was new.

The former process has several uses. For instance, furniture. Carlo Bugatti, father of Ettore Bugatti who made cars, used vellum extensively in his designs, decorative and practical. In the construction of furniture vellum is used to secure joints. Wrap the vellum around the joint and wet it. As it is not under tension, it shrinks and it will hold the joint securely.

Another little-known use is for bow strings. A piece of vellum long enough to create a string doesn’t exist, but flat, square sheets weren’t used. Instead, you cut a circle and then you cut around the circumference a millimetre from the edge, working your way inwards in a spiral, and like peeling an apple, you have a long strip. This was then affixed to either end of the bow. This in itself creates a very strong bowstring, but you wet it and it shrinks, giving that much more tension to the bow and a greater range. It dries, it returns to its former size, and you wet it and start again.

Vellum document 1802 
There are two historical events that I was always curious about and a chat with the general manager, Paul Wright, at William Cowley vellum manufacturer (the only vellum maker in the world that still makes vellum the same way as the Anglo-Saxons) helped to explain them. The first was the dreadful fire that destroyed swathes of the manuscript collection called the Cotton Collection at Ashburnham House, Westminster, London, in 1731. If vellum doesn’t burn, what happened? The vellum itself, the manuscript collection, wasn’t the accelerant that caused the fire to burn. Something else fed the fire - bookcases, carpets, curtains etc. - and the flames were applied to the vellum causing it to degrade. Then there was the water damage from the attempts to extinguish the fire.

Ash Burnham House 1880
The other was a new scenario for Paul Wright but he was able to explain how it was possible. In 1347 a letter was smuggled out of Calais which at the time had been besieged by the English for a year. The letter was a plea to the French king to relieve the town, else they’d be forced to surrender to King Edward III of England. When the English attacked the ship carrying the letter in Calais harbour, fearing the letter expressing the dire situation would fall into the hands of the English, it was attached to an axe and thrown into the sea. A English sailor jumped in after it and retrieved it, and it was taken to King Edward.

But how did a letter written on vellum that had been in the sea remain legible? Paul wanted details about how the letter was attached to the axe that I couldn’t supply but it sounded plausible for the letter to have been wrapped around the axe handle and secured with some twine before it was thrown into the water. In which case, Paul explained, as a roll, only two surfaces were exposed to the water (the outer and inner of the roll), and only those would have been subject to water damage, and these surfaces would have covered the rest and protected them, leaving them dry and undamaged. Had the writing only been in the centre of the sheet, it would all have remained perfectly legible. And it would have taken, he estimated, about a quarter of an hour for the exposed surfaces to be damaged, leaving the interior safe for longer than that, giving Edward’s sailor possibly as much as half an hour to fetch up the letter from the floor of the harbour.

Vellum is seen as archaic and irrelevant. Parliament decided in 2017 to stop recording public acts of parliament on vellum. And yet a few years ago the vice-president of Google referred to ‘bit rot’ where files are rendered unreadable through defunct software and called for ‘digital vellum’ to be created to preserve a generation of data from the digital age. Domesday Book is still as legible today was it was when it was written in 1086.

Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106).jpg
Magna Carta - again, written on vellum
(British Museum)
In this modern age of digital technology, of cloud storage and digitalisation, data is ephemeral. 

Vellum, however, is almost everlasting.

© Nicky Galliers