Estonian Muhu Skirts Dyed with Mine Chemicals

Kadri Liik shared on Twitter some of her family history of using mines to dye fabric for colorful folk skirts in western Estonia in 1930s.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s not mines themselves that were used in dyeing, but the picric acid in them. Russian World War I battleship Slava sank in 1917 between Muhu island and mainland Estonia, only 12 years after putting to sea.

Google Maps Muhu Estonia

Estonians scrapped the ship in the early 1930s. During that process, picric acid was extracted and put to use. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, picric acid was first used in dyeing in 1849, initially of silk. In Muhu, it was apparently used with wool.

The bright yellow derived from picric acid was locally known as mine yellow (miinikollane). Below is the Muhu skirt made from scratch by Liik’s grandmother or great aunt in 1930s:

Twitter Kadri Liik Muhu Skirt

Apparently, Muhu skirts enjoyed such popularity that older women might be doing their everyday chores in them as late as the 1960s.

It’s quite striking, isn’t it? It seems that some of these traditional patterns survive, either in traditionally woven textiles or as prints on modern fabrics, which is fabulous. I’m not sure I’d like to know exactly how the picric was extracted in the 30s, though…!

Images: map of Muhu island by Google Maps. Skirt by Kadri Liik via Twitter.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Gold and Silver in Fantasy Coinage

Are your fantasy characters in the market for a loaf of bread? A new suit of armor? A mercenary army? Then it’s time to think about how people in your world buy and sell things. Of course, the beauty of fantasy is that you can do anything. Do you want to write a world where the common currency is bolts of silk and songs of youth? Go for it! But if you want your world to be more grounded in the familiar, coins stamped out of gold and silver are both historically accurate and staples of the genre.

Gold and silver are both relatively soft metals that were easy to work using pre-modern technology. They are unreactive and resistant to corrosion, so coins will not lose weight over time and use. They are also metals that are rare and highly valued for creating objects of beauty and prestige, which gives coins struck from these metals intrinsic value not dependent on confidence in the state that issued them, unlike modern paper money. Gold and sliver coins were worth something no matter where you carried them, even if just to be melted down as bullion.

In the modern economy, with prices driven by industrial demand and market speculation, the relative values of gold and silver can vary widely. In pre-modern times, the values of these metals was more stable, shaped by the productivity of mining and refining on one hand and cultural demand on the other. Geological research has found that silver and gold ores occur naturally at a ratio of about 19 to 1, which is to say that for every 19 grams of silver in the earth waiting to be dug up, there is about 1 gram of gold. Ancient mining techniques were of limited efficiency, however, and it is likely that the ratio of metals actually put into use was closer to 10 to 1. Where we are able to compare the historical values of gold and silver coins in use by the same culture, we tend to find them falling within these brackets: one gold coin was typically worth 10 to 20 times its weight in silver coins. Bear in mind also that gold has about twice the density of silver, so a gold coin will weigh about double what a silver coin of the same size weighs. When gold and silver coins are struck at the same size, that means that we would expect one gold coin to have a value of anywhere from 20 to 40 silver coins.

Assigning an actual value to an individual coin is a trickier proposition. Pre-industrial economies are hard to compare directly with the modern world. Some things are much cheaper in real terms for us today than for our ancestors, like clothes and books; others are much more expensive, like labor. We rarely have good, comprehensive evidence for what a given amount of money could buy in any historical context (and when we do, it is often hard to tell whether the values and prices quoted are realistic or an expression of what someone in authority thought things ought to be worth).

In many cases, our best way of estimating the worth of a coin is to put it in terms of daily wages for a soldier. Military pay was a pressing matter of state finance that was important to get right—you definitely don’t want to forget to pay the people hanging around your castle with swords. That leaves us with reasonably good evidence for soldiers’ pay in many historical contexts (of course, not all soldiers are paid in money).

Gold coins are classic standbys for fantasy currency, but historically gold was too valuable for everyday use. The value of any specific coin depended on its weight, with heavier coins naturally worth more, but even a small gold coin was typically worth a great deal. Examples like the Persian daric or the Roman aureus had a value of approximately a month’s wages for a soldier or a skilled crafter. Most people in their daily lives would never even have seen a gold coin, let alone had occasion to spend one.

Silver was the standard metal for coinage in most places and times. Silver, like gold, could be minted at whatever weight the issuing state wanted, from large, high-value coins to tiny small change. Often, however, the basic silver coin in circulation, like an Athenian drachma or an early Islamic dirham, amounted to about a soldier’s daily wage.

The difference in value between gold and silver helps explain why gold coinage was rarely debased (issued at lower purity by mixing precious and base metals or applying a precious coating over a base metal core), but silver sometimes was. Gold coins were used for major state expenses and usually only came into the hands of people who could cause real trouble if they felt stiffed; silver was used for routine purchases and changed hands among people with limited recourse except to treat their debased coins as being worth less than face value.

Now, if you remember your classic Dungeons and Dragons coin charts, you may be wondering “What about platinum, electrum, and copper?” All of those metals do appear in pre-modern coinage, but they all have their limitations.

Platinum is extremely rare and hard to work by pre-industrial means. At least in the eastern hemisphere, it was not identified as a distinct metal until the 1500s. There is some evidence that metalworkers in pre-Columbian South America created alloys of platinum and gold, but the process is poorly understood, and they weren’t making coins with it. Traces of platinum are found in some ancient and medieval gold coins, but only as impurities not refined out of the metal. Moneyers in any pre-industrial world are unlikely to have the technology to deliberately produce platinum coins, and even if they did, the expensive and labor-intensive process would make it impractical.

Electrum is an alloy of gold and silver, either naturally occurring or produced by smelting. Some early coins were minted out of electrum, but a problem arose: because the ratio of gold to silver in a particular batch of electrum coins could vary, it was hard to be confident of its real value. Too much silver in the mix, and people might be reluctant to accept a coin at its stated value; too much gold, and it would be more profitable to melt coins down for their bullion value than to spend them. Most monetary systems moved away from electrum to pure gold and silver for the sake of stability.

Copper, usually in alloyed form like bronze or brass, was used for low-value coinage in many places. These coins could be useful for paying wages to ordinary workers or buying everyday goods like a mug of ale or a loaf of bread. Since copper is a much more common metal than silver or gold, its intrinsic worth was much less by weight. As a result, for copper alloy coins to have enough worth to be useful, they had to either be made much larger and heavier than contemporary silver and gold coins or else be issued at a face value significantly higher than their worth as raw metal. Most states that issued copper alloy coinage chose the latter route, making their copper coinage essentially a token whose value was guaranteed by the state’s promise to accept it at the issued value for taxes and fees rather than its metal content. For this reason, copper alloy coinage rarely circulated beyond the reach of the state that originally issued it, while gold and silver were useful as international means of exchange.

As always, you have the flexibility in building your own worlds to make the money work however you want, but for historical verisimilitude you can’t beat gold and silver for your coinage.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Unspoken Messages of an Unswept Floor

This floor mosaic comes from the dining room of a Roman house. The central parts of the floor have been lost, but the edges of the room were decorated to look like the untidy remains of a banquet. We can identify leaves, fish and poultry bones, nut shells, bits of fruit, and the shells of a wide variety of shellfish. This may seem like an odd choice for home decoration, but mosaics in this style were popular in well-to-do Greek and Roman households. To contemporary guests, mosaics like this sent a number of messages about the people who dined on them.

On one level, this mosaic simply reflected the reality of the room it was in. Diners at an ancient banquet could toss their refuse on the floor with abandon because they were not the ones who had to clean it up. The widespread use of enslaved labor for domestic service meant that the rich could lob greasy chicken bones and half-eaten olives around the place without caring about the time and effort involved in cleaning up afterward. In that sense, this mosaic identified the owners of this house as the sorts of people who had other people to do the cleaning up after them.

On the other hand, the evident abandon with which the detritus is strewn around the room is deceptive. The individual pieces are precisely placed so that there the space between them is relatively even. Larger items are spread out with smaller ones between them. They are positioned in loose diagonal lines with a subtle aesthetic regularity; similar objects repeat to help unify the image, but are spaced out and given different orientations to avoid any sense of pattern. This mosaic is an extremely fine one made of very small tesserae in many different shades that must have taken a substantial amount of work by a skilled mosaic artist and a team of workers. The details of this Roman mosaic also imitate a famous Greek predecessor created by the mosaic artist Sosos of Pergamum. The effect was meant to project wealth and power: only the very rich could afford to put so much care into looking so careless.

The choice of food to show in this mosaic is also significant. Meat had a religious, even moral, significance in Greek and Roman culture. Large land animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs were typically eaten as part of a communal religious sacrifice, and religious custom dictated how they could be cooked and served as well as who should partake in the feast. Fish, shellfish, and poultry were not constrained by similar rules and could be eaten when, how, and in any company one liked. As such, this sort of food was associated with indulgence, even decadence. To say that a fellow Greek or Roman dined on fish had a sting of moral judgment akin to declaring that someone today enjoys champagne and caviar. The variety of fish bones, chicken claws, and shells in this mosaic makes a statement that this room is not one for solemn sacrificial meals but a place where the diners can indulge in their favorite delicacies free of any religious scruples or moral condemnation.

A great deal of meaning is packed into a mosaic of an untidy floor. These were messages that the original guests in this dining room would have implicitly understood in same way that we today grasp the status-signaling meaning of a four-car garage or a water view.

Image: Detail of unswept floor mosaic, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (currently Gregorian Profano Museum, Vatican; early 2nd c. CE; glass tessera mosaic; by Heraclitus, copied from work by Sosos of Pergamum)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Herodotus and the Upside-Down World of Egypt

The ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus was impressed by many of the things he saw in his visit to Egypt. He wrote about ancient monuments like the pyramids (already thousands of years old by the time he saw them), great temples, and the works of kings. But he was equally interested in the habits and daily life of the people around him. He noted a number of things in the daily life of Egyptians that struck him as unusual.

Just as the Egyptians have a unique climate, and the nature of their river is unlike any other, they have established customs and norms that are different from any other people. Among them, the women haggle in the market while the men stay home weaving. While other peoples weave by pushing the weft up, the Egyptians push it down. Men always carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pee standing up, men sitting down. They relieve themselves in their homes but eat outside in the street, saying that what is embarrassing but necessary should be hidden away, but what is not shameful may be done in the open. No woman serves as priest either for a male or a female deity; men serve each and every god. No son is obliged to care for his parents if he does not wish to, but daughters must whether they wish to or not.

Herodotus, Histories 2.35

(My own translation)

Herodotus’ perspective on Egypt was shaped by his background as a Greek. These details he lists are things that were the reverse of typical Greek habits: in Greece, men usually went out to the market while many women stayed in the home doing textile work. Greeks customarily ate their meals inside their homes but went outside to relieve themselves. In the Greek world, women served as priests of female gods while men served as priests of male gods.

Two factors are at work in Herodotus’ perception of the Egyptians, factors familiar to anyone who has spent time in a foreign culture. In the first place, we tend to notice things that are different more than things that are the same. When you visit a new place, you tend to notice that people speak differently than you are used to or eat foods you haven’t tried before, not all the little things that are just like at home. Secondly, when we notice these differences, they tend to blow up to exaggerated proportions in our minds. We may come home from a vacation thinking “Wow, everybody there likes to sing a lot,” when the reality was that it was one or two people who busted out a song at a time you just weren’t expecting it.

Some of Herodotus’ observations actually do align with our evidence for ancient Egyptian culture in the period when he visited. For example, it seems it was not unusual for Egyptian women to do business outside the home or for men to work as weavers. Some are simply false: at least some Egyptian women did serve as priestesses. Others are harder to pin down—no one has yet come up with evidence for Egyptian women habitually standing up at the toilet, but it’s not the sort of thing we have much documentation for at all.

Herodotus was a sharp-eyed observer of culture, but even so he wrote from a partial and biased perspective, not just as a foreign visitor trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world, but as an educated Greek who knew something about history and literature. Greeks had a long tradition of writing about Egypt as an alien world, a kind of magical Neverland where nothing was as it was in Greece. We credit Herodotus with inventing the genre of history in the Western tradition, but he saw himself as following in the footsteps of epic poets like Homer. In the details he provides about his time in Egypt, we see how he both tried to ground his account in the facts he observed and also fill out an existing Greek picture of Egypt as an upside-down world where everything was different.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

History for Writers: 2021 Compendium

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2021:

Worldbuilding exercises

Organizing society

Thinking about history and justice

The details that make a different world

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Swedish Riksdaler Plate Money Could Seriously Weigh You Down

Did you know that Sweden used to be a major power in northern Europe? A major power as in having land holdings pretty much all around the Baltic Sea and even beyond? If I hadn’t learned that at school, I probably wouldn’t know; it’s really not talked about much these days.

Anyway. One fascinating detail from my classes that has stayed with me is the large riksdaler plate money (Swedish: plåtmynt). They were circulated in the 17th to 18th centuries to reduce the costs of minting coins and ease the transportation of money.

The riksdaler could be quite large. For example, according to my old history book, the 1644 coin measured 20 x 70 cm (approximately 8″ x 27″) and weighed 19,7 kg (approx. 43-44 lbs). The one pictured below is from 1744 and obviously not nearly as big as that.

Swedish Platmynt 1 Daler

What if in your secondary fantasy world, instead of chests of thousands of coins, your intrepid adventurers had to deal with large metal sheet money, a dozen or so to a chest? Wouldn’t that be an interesting worldbuilding detail?

Image: Anja Laurila et al. Historia kurssi III. Porvoo: WSOY, 1990, p. 73.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rome Was Not Good

People sometimes argue that the Roman Empire was a good thing for the people of the Mediterranean, Europe, even the whole world. You will especially hear this argument made in connection with claims about the unique value of European (or, even more bluntly, “white”) civilization. Those who make this claim often, implicitly or explicitly, extend the argument to later history, implying that if the Roman Empire was good for the world, then so was all other European-led imperialism in world history.

This argument is wrong. The Roman Empire was not a force for good.

I am not speaking here of the moral qualities of any individual Roman or of the ancient Romans as a whole. People are people, and always have been; some are good, some are bad, and most of us are a mix of both. That is as true of the ancient Romans as of anyone else. My point is rather that the net effect of the Roman Empire on humanity as a whole was not one for good.

Pax Romana

The most typical claim made for the benefits of Roman imperialism is that it created peace in the lands it ruled. This is, in fact, the claim that Romans made for themselves. In the words the poet Vergil put into the mouth of the spirit of Anchises, revealing the future to his son, Aeneas:

Remember, Roman, that you shall rule the world’s peoples by your power.

These will be your arts: to impose the laws of peace,

to be merciful to the conquered and subdue the arrogant.

Vergil, Aeneid 6.851-853

(My own translations)

This claim is, at best, exaggerated. The history of Rome is marked with numerous revolts, civil wars, and other internal conflicts. The first century BCE and the third century CE were particularly blood-stained by the struggles of would-be dynasts and their personal armies. Many provinces saw revolts in the generations after their conquest, and some remained turbulent for centuries. The Roman response to provincial unrest was often a violent reconquest.

It is true that in some parts of the Roman world and in some eras of history, generations of provincial subjects lived free from the threat of war and other large-scale violence, but even this limited peace came at a cost. Roman peace was always the product of violence. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the mid-first century BCE has been estimated to have cost the lives of a million Gauls and the freedom of a million more forced into slavery; the population of Gaul may have been decreased by as much as half as a result. By any definition, Caesar committed genocide. Other Roman conquests may have been less thorough in their devastation, but Rome was never shy to apply overwhelming force. The Greek historian Polybius’ eyewitness account of Roman siege warfare is chilling:

When Scipio judged that enough soldiers had entered the city, he gave the order that most of them should kill everyone they chanced upon and spare no one, according to the Romans’ custom, and not to begin looting until the signal for it was given. They do this, I suppose, for the sake of terror. Because of this custom, you can see in cities captured by the Romans not only people slaughtered, but even dogs hacked in two and other animals with their limbs hewn off. Because of the numbers who were in the captured city, there was a lot of this sort of destruction there.

Polybius, History of Rome 10.15

The Roman historian Tacitus, imagining what the victims of Roman conquest would say of it, put things even more bluntly:

They falsely call stealing, slaughtering, and ravaging “empire,” and where they have made a wasteland they call it “peace.”

Tacitus, Agricola 30

To the extent that Roman rule created areas of peace inside the empire, it did so in part by creating more violence outside of it. The frontier was a militarized zone in which Roman soldiers had effective license to harass, extort, and plunder locals and travelers. Roman commanders appeased restless troops by letting them raid neighboring settlements for booty, and used the threat of attacks to extract tribute from peoples beyond the frontier, whether for the empire or their own personal enrichment. The Roman market’s demand for enslaved labor spurred increased volatility and raiding outside the empire as some people took advantage of the opportunity to sell their neighbors to the Romans.

The world before Rome had not been one of peace and harmony. Roman violence had ebbs and flows, the worst contained in times and sites of expansion and civil war. Some people lucky enough to live in quiet provinces in orderly eras could indeed thank Rome for a life free of the threat of war. On the large scale, though, Rome can take no credit for making the world more peaceful, only for changing the distribution of violence.

Law and order

In connection the claim of creating peace, Romans (like Vergil above) often also justified their empire by its ability to impose law and order on a chaotic world. Like Roman peace, Roman law was real and beneficial for some, but it makes a poor argument for the value of the empire.

Law was hardly a unique Roman creation. All ancient societies had legal traditions because every complex society has to deal with fundamental problems such as the ownership and inheritance of land and other economic resources or the destabilizing effects of interpersonal violence. Societies that had not had to deal with specific kinds of problems may not have developed legal principles for them and so may have gained some marginal benefit from the introduction of Roman law, but this was not particular to Rome; the Romans themselves, inhabitants of an inland city, had imported large portions of maritime law from Greek cities (particularly Rhodes) as they came to terms with ruling a Mediterranean empire. Just because the laws of many of the people Rome conquered have not been recorded does not mean that they did not exist or that Rome was bringing anything new to them by conquest.

Roman law could be helpful to some. It conferred certain rights and privileges on particular groups of people, primarily freeborn Roman citizens, a group to which some portion of the population of the empire belonged. At the same time, it codified many kinds of inequality, most prominently the exploitation of enslaved people, but also several kinds of non-citizen status, each of which had limited rights under law, if the law of the empire recognized their rights at all. The fact that citizenship conferred such privileges as freedom from torture and the right to appeal for the emperor’s intercession should remind us of how many of the Roman empire’s subjects lived without those guarantees.

In practical terms, there were also serious limits on who could effectively exercise the rights that the law theoretically granted them. Roman law operated on a basis of self-help, meaning that a court only pronounced a judgment; enforcement was entirely up to the winning litigant, so the poor and powerless had no meaningful recourse against the rich and powerful. Even gaining access to the processes of law could be difficult. In the city of Rome itself, where elected praetors oversaw the courts, citizens of adequate wealth and social standing could be reasonably confident of getting their case before a judge with a hope of a fair hearing. In the provinces, legal proceedings were under the purview of appointed governors who were famous for their corruption and disinterest in local affairs. The letter of complaint directed to the provincial governor of Britain written by a merchant who had been roughed up by a soldier gives us an idea of how ineffective Roman justice could be:

He beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away. I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods. Furthermore, my lord Proculus, I couldn’t complain to the prefect because he was detained by sickness, and I complained in vain to the adjutant and the other centurions of his unit. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

Tabulae Vindolandenses, II 344

Technology

Another claim sometimes made for the value of the Roman Empire is that it brought superior technology from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. Like other claims for the empire’s virtues, this one is exaggerated at best.

The areas of the world that would eventually fall under Roman rule had long been connected by the movement of people and goods. Such movement carried technological developments in all directions. By the time of the Roman Empire, there was relatively little that Romans could do that the people they conquered could not.

The major differences between Roman and non-Roman material culture had more to do with economics than with technology. The Mediterranean held large cities whose populations demanded goods and public works at a scale not needed in other parts of Europe. To meet these demands, Romans and other Mediterranean peoples developed large-scale manufacturing that depended not on technological advances but on the widespread exploitation of enslaved workers.

Archaeological research has identified few cases in which Roman technology was actually superior to the technology of the conquered. Even at the northern edges of the empire, which lagged in economic development compared with the Mediterranean, Roman products were not necessarily superior. A study of Roman-made and locally-made knife blades in Britain, for example, found that the British blades were equal or superior in quality to the Roman examples. Similarly, research on Roman-period architecture in Britain finds that many buildings that looked Roman in style were built using methods and techniques already well known in Britain before the conquest.

Some Roman technologies were unknown in the farther reaches of the empire. These included glass-blowing, the smelting of brass, and the production of concrete. These technologies, however, were not freely shared with the subjects of the empire but were held as proprietary secrets either by the Mediterranean artisans who knew them or by the imperial administration itself. Conquest brought little to the wider European and Mediterranean world that could not have come through peaceful trade.

Rome in the balance

There is no denying that the Roman Empire was a good thing for some people in some times and places. It was particularly good for the Roman elite who gained access to new sources of wealth, enslaved labor, and prestige through conquest, but some of the conquered benefited as well. Individuals and communities who aligned themselves with Rome’s interests could reap the rewards, and some were simply in the right places and times to enjoy periods of peace, stability, and economic growth.

All of these benefits, however, came at a cost. For those in the empire, there was the brutality of conquest, and the frequent need for reconquest in future generations, the violent side effects of Rome’s unstable politics, and the costs that came with the disruption of traditional social and economic organizations. Outside the empire, the ripple effects of Rome created volatility and violence whose effects were felt hundreds of kilometers from the frontier. Some people lived richer, happier, more peaceful lives because of Rome, but many others suffered war, deprivation, and enslavement to make these benefits possible.

Those who claim that Rome was good for the world align themselves, consciously or not, with the conquerors, and the reveal much about their view of both history and the world today by assuming that the benefits to the victorious matter more than the sufferings of the defeated.

Image: Gemma Augustea, lower register, photograph by Andreas Praefke via Wikimedia (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria; early 1st c. CE; onyx)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Bringing Color Back to Ancient Statues with Light

Here are a few interesting pictures from the Pergamon Panorama in Berlin where colored lights are used to show a few different variations on what marble ancient statues might have looked like in their original colors. A very neat idea and some great photography from Twitterer @BelovedOfOizys!

An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with blue light showing on the clothing
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with magenta light showing on the clothing

Images: Statuary from Pergamon with colored lights, photographs by @BelovedOfOizys via Twitter

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Worldbuilding in a Sentence

This fall I am finally teaching a course I have long dreamt of: History for Fantasy Writers. The course is built around the same ideas that I often blog about here, that studying history is a good way of exploring the possibilities of human societies and is our best resource when we want to imagine a world that is not like the one we live in.

As an early exercise to examine this idea, I asked my students to consider the following sentence: “The knight in shining armor rode his trusty steed toward the queen’s castle.” What can we tell about the world of this story just from this one sentence? They came up with some good answers:

  • The existence of knights and queens implies a stratified social structure. If we’re hearing about the people at the top, there must also be a lot of people at the bottom.
  • For instance, the knight must have dozens of people supporting them: someone to take care of the horse, someone to polish the shining armor, lots of people working the farms so they all have something to eat. The same and much more goes for the queen. Someone had to build that castle and keep it running. The lifestyle of a queen involves both politics and pageantry, for which she needs advisers and staff. All those people have to be clothed and fed.
  • Castles and knights in armor only make sense with certain kinds of warfare. In particular, this world must not have effective gunpowder weapons, which made both castles and mounted knights obsolete in our history.
  • If the queen lives in a castle, that means there must be a lot of fighting in this world. A castle is designed for defense, and it’s not a particularly convenient kind of place to live in peacetime. A queen wouldn’t be likely to live in one if she didn’t need to defend herself on a regular basis.
  • The fact that it’s the queen’s castle means that at least in some cases women in this world can wield power.
  • Castles and armor tell us something about the level of their technology. Building a castle takes a lot of quarrying, cutting, transport, and fitting of stones; armor requires mining and smelting ore to create metal, then working that metal into some complex shapes to make effective armor.

Of course, any of these observations could be undone in fiction. Maybe in this world horses magically take care of themselves. Maybe everyone is a knight or a queen and they’re all equal. Maybe the castle is carved out of a mountain of crystal, and the armor is made of enchanted tree bark. You can do that sort of thing in fantasy if you want to, but that’s where history helps you understand the “rules” so that you can break them in a way that is thoughtful and interesting.

I’m impressed by my students’ work so far and looking forward to more conversations like this one.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rules-Lawyering Monarchy

How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.

I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.

In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.

We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.

This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”

Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.

Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.

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