Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

As somebody interested in history, anthropology, evolutionary biology and all that jazz, I find myself increasingly keen on trying to play around with culture and setting in games. Our own cultural history is itself so odd that a fantasy culture could be billions of times odder still.

Consider the Burgundians. Not a distant, bizarre Amazonian culture from Bolivia, but a Scandinavian/Germanic/Frankish one not altogether dissimilar to the Anglo-Saxons who are our direct cultural ancestors. Their legal code contains the following provision:

1. If anyone shall steal a girl, let him be compelled to pay the price set for such a girl ninefold, and let him pay a fine to the amount of twelve solidi.
2. If a girl who has been seized returns uncorrupted to her parents, let the abductor compound six times the wergeld of the girl; moreover, let the fine be set at twelve solidi.
3. But if the abductor does not have the means to make the abovementioned payment, let him be given over to the parents of the girl that they may have the power of doing to him whatever they choose.
4. If indeed, the girl seeks the man of her own will and comes to his house, and he has intercourse with her, let him pay her marriage price threefold; if moreover, she returns uncorrupted to her home, let her return with all blame removed from him.
5. If indeed a Roman girl, without the consent or knowledge of her parents, unites in marriage with a Burgundian, let her know she will have none of the property of her parents. 

Imagine what it would be like to live in such a society (although I think giving over the abductor of a girl to her parents granting them "they power of doing to him whatever they choose" is the kind of law a large section of the readership of The Daily Mail could get behind). Obvious gender politics aside, I find the economics of it fascinating: this was a society in which, if you had money, you could quite literally do whatever you wanted. See also the fines for murder:

  • A murdered slave, 30 solidi
  • A murdered carpenter, 40 solidi
  • A murdered blacksmith, 50 solidi
  • A murdered silversmith, 100 solidi
  • A murdered goldsmith, 200 solidi

So not only could you simply give financial recompense for murder (something we cannot imagine in our society today), the amount owed depended on who you murdered. In modern societies the notion that one person's life is worth more than another's is simply not tolerated. 

There are other unusual provisions - for instance, the code also fixes a price of 12 solidi for "A woman whose hair is cut off without cause"; this is apparently because, in Burgundian society, a woman's hair could be cut off to allow her to become a warrior. Meanwhile, refusing hospitality to anybody (literally anybody at all) was punishable by a fine of 3 solidi "for the neglect".

In all respects this was an alien legal system and an alien culture - but it is one from which our modern law and culture is largely descended. So what kind of cultures would exist in a fantasy world bearing no relation to our own? Note: I'm not suggesting that exploring issues of patriarchy and historical materialism would be interesting in a game - just that people in the past in our own world were really weird by our own standards, so fantasy humans on a fantasy world should surely be weirder still.


  1. "...they do things differently there."

  2. You don't even have to go back that far for game-able legal strangeness: Benefit of clergy.

    1. Benefit of clerichood, it should be called.

  3. "In modern societies the notion that one person's life is worth more than another's is simply not tolerated."

    Interestingly, it absolutely is (at least in civil suits in the US, but I would guess in other common law countries too). In a wrongful death action the damages a willful or negligent killer will become liable for will be directly impacted by the dead person's actual earning potential.

    I wonder if the damages awards in the Burgundian code were analogous to civil damages in the sense that paying them is designed to compensate the family of the deceased, but it does not forgive the crime of murder for which a criminal penalty can additionally be levied.

    1. This is murder, though, not wrongful death! And the damages for wrongful death are a bit more complicated than just the pecuniary loss - bereavement damages certainly aren't based on the job the dead family member had.

      It's an interesting point, though. I think the Burgundian code was a sort of amalgam of civil and criminal law. Almost all the crimes are punishable by both compensation to the victim and a fine - but nothing more.

    2. Yeah, establishing damages in a wrongful death case is certainly more complex than just looking at a table based on the person's occupation as in ancient Burgundy. But the point is that even today you are generally subject to a more onerous financial penalty for killing a high earner than for killing a low earner. We absolutely tolerate the notion that one person's life is worth more than another's.

      Also, I am not an expert at all, but particularly with respect to murder you should take another look at the code. It clearly imposes criminal punishments in addition to the civil penalties.

      Come on lawyer, do some lawyering!

    3. No, Ivan, we really don't. There has to be some way to measure damages arising from wrongful death and of course actual pecuniary loss is part of that, but that is nothing like the same thing as saying that one person's life is worth more than another's. It is saying that the family of somebody who is wrongfully killed will lose an amount of money if the dead person was a breadwinner, and we need to make a rough estimate as to what that amount of money will be and include it within their compensation. Necessarily that amount will vary because damages are compensatory. That says nothing about the values we attach to human life.

      Sorry if my knowledge of the Burgundian code isn't as extensive as yours: I thought it was a nice illustrative example of a wider point, that's all.

    4. I guess you take a narrower view of what amounts to attaching differential values to human life than I do.

      I think your larger point is a fine one (and it intrigued me enough to actually take a look at the Burgundian Code). I was just addressing the underlying facts. I would think you would rather have them right than wrong.

      Incidentally, the monetary penalties you quote above are for killing slaves, not for murder in general. If you kill someone's slave and the slave is a ploughman or swineherd--you pay them 30 solidi. A carpenter, 40 solidi and so on up to the 200 solidi goldsmiths. There are different penalties for killing non-slaves, based on social class rather than occupation.

    5. I apologise about the snippiness of that previous comment, Ivan. It was uncalled for. I had come across the code in other reading, and just pulled a few bits and pieces out I thought were interesting.

      That said, I stand by the point about wrongful death; damages are to a certain degree going to have to be influenced by earning power, but that's nothing to do with the value of the individual life - it's just a reflection of the fact that damages are partly compensating for a financial loss. When it comes to non-financial losses (i.e. the bereavement) the difference disappears.

  4. I've often thought, going by their writings, that the Dark Age Germans & Celts of 1500 years ago were very alien to us, whereas the Romans of 2000 years ago seemed very familiar. I suspect that while we are genetically German & Celtic, our morals owe a lot more to the Romans, by way of Christianity and Roman Law.

    1. I've often thought it was the other way round, an organic germano-celtic culture with a roman-style written culture imposed on top.

    2. That's a really interesting issue. I suspect the Roman elites seem familiar to us because they were intellectual and polite, and they were also better recorded. It might also be that they spoke Latin and Latin has certain cultural resonances for us. The Dark Ages on the other hand are not well known so the people who lived at that time seem barbaric, mysterious and odd merely as a result of us not really knowing much about them.

    3. The things that always come back to me about that are women and drinking.

      We know about german drinking habits from Tacitus i think, and if you took him to a british city centre on saturday he would probably recognise the same stuff.

      Also the idea of having high status women in a public role was very very unlikely for the 'germans', but as far as i know never ever happened in rome.

      And if we think it might be true for those things, how much other stuff might it be true for?

      So if you brought a high status roman male to our time and showed him around he would probably be astonished by all the women walking around outside their homes without escorts and might think 'whats up with these shameless gemano-barbarians?'

    4. But were the Roman drinking habits all that different? And do we know enough about German culture of that era to make an educated comment about the status of women in that society?

      From my own dim understanding of historiography, there are some people who would argue that while the elites of Britain changed all the time, the populations remained fairly static during the Dark Ages. So during the Roman era you had this elite who were a mixture of old celtic British and Roman Latin cultures, who were replaced by Anglo-Saxons after the Empire dissolved, who were replaced by Normans after 1066, but the actual ordinary people remained pretty much the same. So if you were taking that view I suppose the gist of things would be that British cultural values haven't changed all that much since pre-Roman days except superficially.

    5. So far as Roman drinking habits i don't think we can be sure. But tacitus thought the German spree-drinking, overeating and vomiting was so unusual he remarked on it as a point of cultureal difference.

      Maybe lower class romans were like that but he didn't see it.

      We know a bit about celtic woman at least, they could own propert and were not segregated inside the home. High status women were sometimes buried with weapons, which may be symbolic, but would never have happened in rome.

      As for the british population, I have heard the theory that there was not much genetic change no matter who was in charge. Culturaly, I think its changing all the time.

  5. For someone who deals with legal issues for a living, I expected better than this post or your misapprehension of Ivan's points. Like Ivan, I also come from the Distant Amazonian States of America. I'm familiar with common law, and my spouse is a damn fine attorney, and we're both kind of scratching our heads over here reading your responses in the comments.

    There's a lot of Brown People Law and Culture which has had a stronger influence on "our" own than wergeld. You've run across some false cognates, it seems. (By the way, saying "our" with regard to ethnic heritage on the internet generally indicates you're either an idiot, a casually racist idiot, or an explicitly racist idiot.)

    This shit makes me want to play Pathfinder. At least their iconic paladin isn't Scandinavian/Germanic/Frankish.

    1. This comment is, honestly, gibberish to me. What on earth are you talking about? Can you actually read English? Why is it that you (and your wife) are the only people who've read this post who've seen any sort of normative content in it? And in the end you're trying to imply I'm making a comment about race here? Kindly fuck off.

    2. I've just re-read your comment and it's annoyed me doubly. I'd love to know where you got the words "ethnic heritage" from, because they're certainly not in my post. All I talked about was culture. Or to your mind are "culture" and "ethnic heritage" the same thing? If so, I suggest you look in the mirror before you start making snide insinuations that I'm some sort of racist.

  6. It's worth noting that the money payment doesn't necessarily buy much peace of mind; a blacksmith that murders a carpenter and pays the weregild has just funded most of a carpenter's family's revenge.

  7. I remember seeing an old newspaper from the early 1900's (yes, the 20th century) containing an account of a family from "up north" (possibly Newcastle, where I was living myself) who had a daughter taken. They tracked her down to somewhere in the Midlands and then WITH THE HELP OF THE POLICE paid her abductor something like 15 shillings for her return.

    Now, there's a lot left unsaid in the rather prudish language of an Edwardian newspaper, but the similarity to what you posted is striking. And it happened in England less than 30 years before my Dad was born.