Friday, 26 April 2019

He Was Merely King

I have been reading Jonathan Sumption's mammoth and as-yet unfinished history of The Hundred Years War. (Three series of books which I desperately hope I will some day see concluded: Sumption's The Hundred Years War, Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and, against my better judgment, A Song of Ice and Fire.) Sumption puts us all to shame; a career as a hugely successful barrister and QC, followed by summary appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court...and meanwhile manages to find the time to write 4000 pages of serious narrative history drawing from a vast range of sources in English, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and Dutch.

The bastard.

I love reading books which attempt to seriously grapple with the question of what medieval life was actually like - mainly out of genuine interest, obviously, but also out of a desire to give my D&D a slight veneer of authenticity without being boring or pompous about it.

Here's Sumption on French kingship in the early medieval period:

[T]he reality of power was more elusive than the formulae. At the beginning of the eleventh century Robert II...exercised direct power in less than a tenth of his kingdom, a compact lozenge of land stretching from Paris in the north to Orleans in the south. Here he was the immediate feudal lord. Elsewhere he was merely king, compelled to rule through vassals who exercised the royal power for him but did so in their own names and with an independence which reduced the monarchy to a portentous honorary dignity. The princes could and quite frequently did make war upon him and upon each other, as well as maintaining direct relations with the papacy and foreign powers.

I love that: merely king. A reminder that medieval "countries" were nothing like "countries" as we understand them today. How much power does the king in your Blahblahland have?

Along similar lines:

Provinces long engulfed by the expansion of the royal domain remained nations in themselves, sustained by traditions rooted in recent history and geographical fact. Paris was infinitely remote from most of France at a time when a mounted messenger could cover only 30 miles in a day in the best conditions. Convention and conservatism isolated these communities even when geography did not. Strangers were to be ejected from parish churches, as the statutes of provincial synods never ceased to declare. Villagers marked out their territory with rows of stakes and crosses. Beyond these frontiers, there lay the cathedral city, the market town, the shrine of a local saint, little else. 

"Points of light", anyone? I love the idea of PCs turning up at a village and finding it marked out by sinister-looking stakes, and then being summarily ejected as "strangers" for not having some form of legitimate and accepted customary introduction. And, on the subject of language and the medieval state:

[A] bishop of Viviers could..threaten to disinherit his nephews if they spoke French instead of the 'language to which I was born and my father before me'. Pope John XXII was born in Cahors, was educated at Orleans and reigned in Avignon, but he was nevertheless unable to understand a letter which the King had addressed to him in French.

Even better: at the village they not only don't understand "common", they virulently despise it and will cast out and disinherit anybody who even dares to let it pass their lips.

16 comments:

  1. Trial by Fire - specifically the section about the chaos following the battle of Poitiers - might be the one of the finest pieces of historical writing I've ever read. State collapse and feudal chaos described on an almost day by day basis.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He is a much more engaging writer than the average popular historian.

      Delete
  2. Oh yeah man. That's the kind of stuff everyone could use in their game!

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's a tremendous corrective to the medievalism-lite that so often characterises RPGs.

    The biggest casualty should be the "village tavern" - essentially teleported in from the eighteenth century (and probably Tolkien's fault). You can add a lot of awkwardness to travel if PCs are negotiating for a place in a peasant family's bed (with or without the peasant family) rather than paying for a room at an inn.

    From memory, Jack Vance was pretty good at conjuring hostile and suspicious communities - probably a better model for pseudo-medieval adventures than the Prancing Pony or Green Dragon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The closest thing to a tavern at the village level would be during the harvest/brewing season when folks (particularly women) would sell beer out of their homes, though I'd expect hostility to strangers even then -- cash in hand would only partially offset resentment of strangers drinking "our" beer.

      This sort of environment would tend to make Charisma less of a "dump" stat -- It'd be advantageous not only in negotiations for lodging, but for deflecting the suspicions of local authorities and making contact with the few (probably younger) locals who would actually welcome contact with outsiders bearing news of the world and entertaining stories.

      Delete
    2. Yeah - I have another post coming up about that topic.

      Delete
  4. I've had fun with this kind of thing on occasion and, in fact, some of this forms an underlying basis for a campaign that I'm planing and may eventually get to run. A collapsed duchy to which all the scum of the kingdom (i.e., the PC's) migrate in order to avoid an upcoming war elsewhere. Better to face death at the hands of monsters and the unknown than to fight in a war against "those guys," even if it means dealing with hostile peasants, clergy trying to convert you and always looking for favors, and suspicious and greedy petty puffed up lords controlling a single town or farmstead and not much else. Should be fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like Northumberland.

      Delete
    2. Can't tell if that's a dig against Northumberland, or if there's an RPG setting named after it that I've not heard of, yet.

      Delete
    3. Not a dig at Northumberland - it's where I live after all! But it seems to have been as you described it for most of its history.

      Delete
  5. Of course a lot about D&D assumes an early modern setting as much as a medieval one - particularly the developed late 1st Ed-onwards settings.

    re "merely King", I'm reminded of something I recently read, which made a compelling argument that the rise of the Papacy as a European spiritual power, and its relation to the Reformation, is essentially "early Modern", not medieval - and therefore the Reformation had demonstrably medieval features, too

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes - the implied setting of D&D is almost regency period in its level of societal development.

      Delete
  6. Thanks very much for this--though more for the book reference than the D&D concept. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of Sumption, though I studied a good bit of medieval history in college. I guess at that time his first volume had just come out too. What an interesting character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He has a big brain on him, that's for sure.

      Delete
  7. Related to the last bit about language, I've found that my game got a lot more entertaining once I threw out the concept of 'Common' and actually developed language/dialect groups for my campaign world.

    (Especially since a good portion of it has outlawed magic as the work of demons and devils, so Comprehend Languages can potentially get you in a lot of trouble.)

    ReplyDelete