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The Pillar And The Cloud

On medieval computing.


“Ah, yes, another long day of keeping Christendom in order!” Adalbert of Fulda, secretary of the Holy Roman Empire, scratched his tonsured scalp with one hand as the other gestured wearily at the pageboy to announce the next item on the imperial agenda. The page ushered in a portly messenger struggling to bear a large and ornate tome. Sitting at his desk by the throne, as the gilding on the cover caught the light of the afternoon sun, Adalbert saw the Emperor straighten his posture.

“Your Majesty, I bring a fascinating account from a renowned scholar of the University of —, who has made a discovery that may hold the key to a new era of prosperity throughout the realm!”

The Emperor could be heard to clear his throat. “Uh, pray tell, what exactly is this discovery?”

The messenger ceremoniously opened the book to the first page, which carried a striking illustration of a thunderhead that appeared to be burning. “Using the latest techniques in speculative meteorology, he has gathered evidence suggesting that, contrary to the conventional wisdom”—the messenger apparently felt that the “conventional wisdom” merited a slight sneer—“the clouds of heaven may be a kind of cold fire which emits rain rather than heat and light!”

The Emperor did his best to appear to consider this thoughtfully on his own before turning to his secretary. “Hmm, very interesting—Adalbert, what do you make of this?”

Adalbert carefully maintained a neutral tone of voice. “My lord, I, uh, rather think the emission of heat and light is essential to fire; excepting of course the fire with which the damned are to be burnt for all time, which emits heat but not light.”

“Yes, yes, that does seem plausible,” said the Emperor, looking back now to see whether the messenger also appeared to think it was plausible.

The scribe, for his part, hastened to turn to a new page of the book. “Umm, perhaps, Your Majesty, but! If this man’s hypothesis is true, it would seem that perhaps we could, through some process of, uh, kindling, induce rain and thereby allay droughts!”

Triumphant in his search for the next page to display, he held up an elaborate diagram, showing a kind of allegorical river. The river proceeded first from an image of clouds, to a curious box labeled FOMES, to a harvest of bountiful produce, to, at last, a very large and detailed image of a pile of gold.

Adalbert was quite unsure what new information about the theory this diagram was supposed to convey, but a glance at the Emperor, who was studying it with rapt attention, told him that things were becoming dire. “Your Majesty, I must confess that I do not understand how categorizing clouds as fire, rather than the understanding which we receive from the Psalmist, who calls it ‘the water above the heavens,’ would thereby reveal to us a means of ‘kindling’ rain.”

The messenger, sensing his opportunity, held the book ever so slightly closer, the better for the Emperor to see. “Well! The renowned scholar says that if he were given a modest stipend of, er, five hundred shillings, he could begin work on cloud kindling immediately, with potential proof of concept as early as Michaelmas of next year!” He could not help sounding slightly shrill.

The Emperor winced at the mention of the funds but was apparently emboldened by the aggressive timeline. “Well now, that sounds promising does it not, Adalbert?”

A very deep sigh escaped him. “My lord, might I suggest we agree to supply him with fifty shillings upfront, with the remainder to be granted after he develops his, ahem, proof of concept. I need not remind you of last year’s efforts to decant oliphants from camel milk.”

The Emperor, looking a bit sheepish, nevertheless replied: “Uh, yes. Well, we’ll settle for one hundred shillings to start. He must have something with which to begin his research, Adalbert, or else how shall we hope to achieve any kind of results?” He nodded now with finality. The messenger, having received his pledge, scurried away rather gladly for one who had only been granted a fifth of his request.

The Emperor turned, with a grin unsuccessfully concealing some degree of guilt. “I say, it seems you churchmen are always ready to slow the wheels of progress, aren’t you, Adalbert?”

The secretary was already thinking of his hemina of wine. “Quite so, Your Majesty.”

Henry Pine is the author of “Terry” and other sketches.

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