The lights in the lecture hall were dim. The projector was showing a single massive image on the screen. It was a page, obviously extremely old. On it were characters from some very odd language. It seemed to flow in a circle – from the middle to the outside or from the outside to the middle.
“Can anybody read this?” asked the man behind the lectern. He was a Professor of Medieval History.
A corpulent man in his late 40s, he was disheveled and unkempt. His hair was a knotted and tangled mess and seemed to have been last washed in the period he studied. Even from a distance, you could imagine that he smelled. He was not a respected man in his field. But, as his appearance would have suggested, he was not a man who lived and died on the opinions of others.
For that reason, and that reason alone, he was a trusted man. And when he called this conference, to share something most unusual that he had found, his peers came.
Nobody in the audience of hundreds raised their hands.
“That was the response I expected,” said the rotund professor.
“These parchments were found in northern France, near the town of Vouziers. The town is not far from the city of Reims, where the Kings of France were crowned. As you can see, they are not written in any known European script. In addition, they are not written in any linear direction – but rather in a spiral. A spiral which pre-determines the length of the message to be composed.”
296 thoughtful eyes were trying to break the code while the presenter spoke. None stood a chance.
“The skill required to compose these messages indicates that they are not the work of amateurs. These letters are the work of craftsmen. Craftsmen who struggled not to be understood.”
A hand went up.
“How do we know that?” asked a voice in the darkness.
“Because,” said the Professor, “We found a key to this language. And that key spoke of the efforts to decifer this language – and of the importance of doing so. And that key is why this language has ceased to exist.”
“What do you mean?”
“Bear with me.. there is a fascinating story here. We found this parchment first. And then the key was uncovered during follow-up research. And then this parchment led us to a search across hundreds of locales throughout Europe. And, today, we have a collection of 7,000 individual parchments. All look roughly like this. Spiral composition. Their width and height varies, but the script is consistent. And what we read uncovered a world we didn’t imagine existed.”
A low murmur went through the room. Had the corpulent professor gone mad, or was he on to something. He ignored the talk, and kept going.
“I’ve had the pleasure of reading and understanding these texts. All of them. And when they are laid out chronologically what they tell is a tale of correspondence. Not between Kings and Queens. But between members of a secret clan. This was their script, and through it, they – for a time – controlled Europe.”
“More Templars bullsh-t?!?” exclaimed an exasperated voice in the audience, “I came here for this?”
The room exploded in conversation.
The professor waited for a break in the noise. And then he said, “No, not Templars bullsh-t. These people were SERFS.”
The room went suddenly silent. Nobody really believed what the man had just said.
“Serfs couldn’t write.” came an objection.
“The vast majority could not,” said the professor, “But in settlements throughout Europe there were dozens who could. This was their script and their method of communication.”
“Why hasn’t anybody seen this before?”
“Because,” said the professor, “Everybody wanted to keep it hidden. The serfs because of how they were using their language, and the nobility and kings because of how they were used by it.”
The professor paused, allowing what he had said to sink in.
“Let me tell you the story of these sheets.”
He looked into the crowd, waiting until he felt all eyes refocused on him. He didn’t want them to miss what he was about to say.
“In 804, a scribe named Ian of Bulgaria. was banished from the court of Charlemagne. Ian was banished for a minor offense – writing in a foreign tongue. Such a man could not be trusted – but they did not recognize the language and so in no way suspected he was a spy. Indeed, he was not a spy. He had been creating for himself a new method of writing, a method of secure communications which others would be unable to read. He was spared his life, but banished from his previous life of privilege.
“Thrust into the life of an itinerant, he took advantage of his natural charisma. He taught those he encountered to read and write his new tongue. He earned his keep through a talent for negotiating the disputes of those whose villages he visited.
“Over the course of a decade, he built up a cadre of serfs across Europe. He communicated with them through bards – bards who would transmit his written pages. Over time, his hobby became something more serious. It happened quite by accident. One of his students informed him of a military action planned by his Lord. The scribe, knowing the value of the information offered to sell it to the nearest interested party – the Lord of the region he was in. From there, things steamrolled. The scribe became a very rich man and those in his network were well rewarded for the information they provided. During the wars that followed Charlemagne’s death, it was his serfs who picked winners and losers. Throughout, their power came through their hidden text. None could disturb their network – intercepting or introducing messages. Feeling the grip of this peasant network, Lords and Kings alike sought interpretation. They paid armies of scribes to attempt to crack those samples they intercepted.
“Eventually, they met with partial success. They could decode the text, but they discovered that every message could be read in two ways. From the center of the page out, or from the outside, in. And the two meanings, invariably, were completely at odds. Messages could not be reliably interpreted until that conundrum was addressed – and to this day it has not been.
“Eager to destroy the network, the nobility introduced fake parchments – forgeries that drove apart the cohesion of Ian’s network. And then, with that small flame set amongst the trusting correspondents, the network was gone. Just like that, it disappeared.”
The room was silent.
“These parchments,” continued the professor, “Contain a history that has been totally lost. A history of peasant life and a history of medieval politics. But they also contain a story. A story of exile, of daring, of adventure and of success. All in a world where a banished man was as good as dead. And, in the end, they tell a story extinction.”
The professor paused, a smile on his face.
“Who,” he asked, “Would like to learn how to read them?”
Hundreds of arms shot up.
The corpulent professor smiled.
He knew they would enjoy the tale.