Deciphering Medieval Manuscripts

My university degrees were in Medieval Studies. In recent years I haven’t had much cause to crack open a manuscript, but the recent visit of a scholar friend from overseas got me thinking of an old puzzle I hadn’t solved yet.

Manuscript 01020 is housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. Most of it is devoted to a notabilia Bible, that is, a collection of quotable quotes from scripture suitable for inclusion in fifteenth-century business or government correspondence. However, it has a few interesting miscellaneous folios too. One of them is a single page of fencing instructions and another one is a list of unlucky  days of the year. A third one is mysterious calendar.

When I first looked at the calendar a few years ago, I couldn’t figure out how it worked, but now that I’ve returned to the puzzle, I think I’ve solved it. It doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to understand, but you do need to know that the manuscript was probably made in Florence. Click on the photo to see a larger version of the image. Can you see how it works?


Here’s a hint: by medieval Florentine reckoning, numbered years begin in March.

I’ll post an answer at a later date, when people have had a chance to grapple with the puzzle.

Reality: Just as Strange as Fiction

How many times have I scoffed at fantasy novels where a character sleeps comfortably on frozen ground, wrapped only in his cloak? I always assumed those scenes were written by authors from tropical climes who had no concept of winter or hypothermia. Yet today I came across the following passage from Julius von Klaproth’s memoir of his early nineteenth-century travels in the Caucasus (translation by F. Shoberl).

The distance from Mosdok [Mozdok, Ingushetia] to Grigoripol is sixty versts; and in truth it is not a very agreeable excursion to perform in the middle of December, partly at night, over the steppe covered with hoar-frost, and besides at a foot-pace. We had consoled ourselves with the idea of resting and warming ourselves at least till the next morning at Grigoripol, but were grievously disappointed; for on account of the lateness of the hour we were not admitted into the fortress, and were obliged to pass the night in the open air. Hungry, thirsty, and benumbed with cold, we had no other resource than to refresh ourselves with tea, biscuit, and French brandy; and then, covered with our excellent Lesgian felt-cloaks, to lie down to sleep on the frozen ground. The night was rough and windy, but yet we found ourselves next morning much more recruited than we would have expected.

Apparently such things are possible. Part of the explanation may lie in the expression “Lesgian felt-cloak”. The Lezgins are a people from southern Dagestan. Some poking about on the internet turns up the following picture of a Dagestani man in traditional clothing, albeit from a century later. The cloak in question may have been large and rug-like, like this one.


(Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Libraries)

That’s the great thing about reading world history: you discover how fantastical the real world actually is.

On Pen Names

Welcome to my brand new blog and my brand new identity. I’m Ariel Bolton, a soon-to-be-published writer of SF short stories, and a maybe-someday novelist. This week, I sold my first short story. When I received the contract, I had to make the first important decision about my writing career: to choose a pen name or not?

In the end, I decided to go with the pen name. I like my real name, and I’m not ashamed of my fiction, but several factors pushed me to choose a nom de plume.

1. My real name is hard to spell. Everyone gets it wrong at least some of the time. In daily life I’m okay with that, but it becomes a problem when you’re a writer. In a world where more and more books are being sold online, people have to be able to spell your name in order to find you. I don’t want to lose ten or fifteen percent of my potential audience to spelling errors.

2. I intend to publish unsuccessful books under my real name. At some point I will finish turning my PhD dissertation into a monograph and attempt to get it published through a university press. While I love my dissertation, I have no illusions that a book filled with quotes in Latin and historical legal terminology is going to be a bestseller. It will sell perhaps a hundred copies. I’m not sure whether poor sales of a nonfiction book would contribute to a novelist’s so-called Author Death Spiral, where a bookstore orders fewer and fewer of an author’s titles based on the mediocre performance of previous books, but why take the chance? It seems prudent to keep the two brands separate and distinct.

3. I may work for the federal public service in the future. I’ve applied for a job at Library and Archives Canada in the past and I may do so again. LAC’s code of conduct is notorious for muzzling its employees. If a librarian or archivist wants to teach a class or speak at a public engagement on her own time, she has to get special written permission from her employers, and that permission will only be granted if the event has nothing to do with libraries, archives, history or, you know, books. Hopefully, having a separate writing identity will go some way towards keeping employers out of my personal life and ensure that I’m not perceived as speaking on their behalf when I go to SF conventions.

I plan to update this blog regularly. Stay tuned for more posts!