King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

They paused again at what Shef identified as a church, if a Jewish one. In it men and women were praying, bending to the ground like Mohammedans, but somewhere in the dark interior Shef saw a candle burning, and in its light a man reading from another book, seemingly to two separated groups of men and women. Further on a square, and in it two men debating. Each listened impassively to the other, then, at intervals of perhaps five hundred words, spoke in his turn. From the ring of their voices it seemed to Shef that each would begin by quoting words not his own, and would then go on to explain them and fit them against the arguments of the other. A crowd surrounded them, intent and silent but for grunts of agreement, moans of rejection.

“The one says, ‘Take thou no usury’,” clarified Solomon. “The other replies, ‘To a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury.’ Now they are disputing as to the meaning of the word ‘stranger’.”

Shef nodded, reflecting. He knew of rule by the sword, like his own and that of the Viking rulers he had overthrown. He knew of rule by fear and slavery, like that of the monks and the Christian kings. It seemed that this was rule by book and by law, and by law which was put down in book form, not decided by the doom of king or jarl or alderman. The law of the book seemed, however, no wiser than that of the immediate judgment of his own courts. There was something he did not understand.

“Do your people study anything but law?” he asked.

Solomon translated, heard the reply from the prince still leading the way before them. “He says, all learning is either a code or a commentary.” Solomon struggled to find expression for either idea in Shef’s Anglo-Norse, fixing in the end on “book of laws,” “book of decisions.”

Shef nodded again, his face imperturbable. Was this new knowledge? Or just old knowledge continually chewed over, the thing he had set his face against in his own land and his own capital?

“See,” Solomon said, pointing the way finally to a small building down almost by the harbor-front once again. In the background, between the alley-walls, Shef caught a momentary glimpse of a kite swooping in the air, gaped at it convulsively. They had flown off without him! And he was almost sure from the glimpse that they had sent Tolman aloft after all: the kite had not been moving freely in the air, had been under control.

“See,” said Solomon again, more firmly. “This at least you will find new knowledge.”

Reluctantly, still craning his neck upwards, Shef followed his hosts into the building. Inside, tables set round a central space. Men behind the tables, and from them a continuous scritch-scritch sound as their hands moved, seemingly all in time like the feet of the Emperor’s marching soldiers or Shef’s own troops. A man in the midst of them all, standing up, holding a book and reading from it. Reading, whatever the language, very slowly, a pause every few words.

They were copying, Shef realized. He had heard of such places even among the Christians. One man read slowly, the others wrote down his words, at the end, depending on how many copiers you had, six, even ten books where there had only been one. Impressive, and showing once again how the People of the Law knew their law. Yet this too was hardly new knowledge.

A word from the prince, and the reading stopped, the reader and the copiers turning to their ruler and bowing gravely. “It is not the copying that is new,” said Solomon, “nor, the Holy One forbid, the copied. Rather that which they copy on to.”

At a word the reader held his book, his master copy, out towards Shef. He took it clumsily, unsure for a moment at which side it might open. His hands were used to hammers and tongs, rope and wood, not these little thin sheets of skin.

Skin? If it was skin, he did not know what kind of a beast it came from. He raised the book, sniffed carefully. Felt the leaf between his fingers, twisting it as he would have a sheet of vellum. Not vellum. Not even the other thing, papyrus, made from strange reeds. The thin stuff parted, the reader stepped forward again with a look and cry of anger. Shef paused, held the book carefully, returned it, staring into the man’s angry eyes without hint of expression or apology. Only a fool thinks everyone knows what he knows.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry