Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Why medieval England?

I’m English and, even better, a Yorkshireman. I like living in a country with castles and monarchy and a splendid history. However, I do wonder why almost the default setting for fantasy is medieval England.

Feudal monarchies are pretty well-known. The King’s the top chap, then there are a range of powerful nobles, and beneath them the peasantry (possibly with a set of guilds, yeomanry and merchants in between). The familiarity helps ease readers into the world, and means the author doesn’t have quite so much explaining to do.

That’s well and good (and I can’t complain too much because 2/3 of the countries involved in my future eBook are themselves broadly similar). But why not use some other ancient civilisations as the framework for a fantasy country?

Greek city-states had a number of governing styles, with Athens (democracy) and Sparta (diarchy, with some elements of aristocracy and democracy) the best known. Athens had some fun rules, such as wealthy chaps being liable for outfitting a trireme (which was bloody expensive). However, a wealthy fellow could avoid this if someone else had more money but wasn’t paying for a ship. They proved this by offering, publicly, to swap everything they owned with the richer man, and if he did not accept the offer he had to pay for the trireme himself.

Republican Rome had a system that was similar to Sparta. Two consuls (elected annually rather than a pair of kings), a Senate rather than ephors and public ratification of certain measures (such as treaties). To be a Roman politician you had to first serve for years in the army, which was mandatory if you were a citizen anyway.

In Byzantium, the emperor was known as the basileus, and was traditionally selected by the army’s will (although quite often coups and hereditary factors were more important). However, the interesting part of the Byzantine system was that the wife of the emperor had her own palace and substantial authority in her own right. A bit like if the American First Lady got a department to run.

For those interested in this sort of thing, Polybius and Machiavelli both have interesting thoughts on governing nations. There are essentially three good systems, according to them (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy), with three corresponding bad versions (tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy). Given the relative rarity of monarchy in the world today, I wonder what most people would make of the idea that aristocracy or monarchy could be valid and good systems, instead of just democracy.

The third nation referred to in my eBook places more emphasis on a ruler’s obligations to the people, rather than on their servitude to him. This is somewhat similar to the system in Macedon, where the King was not a dictator and the army could and did make its voice heard. Alexander the Great turned back not because he wanted to, but because the army demanded it.

Hmm, that got a bit rambly, but hopefully it didn’t veer off of the Path of Interestingness and tumble down into the Crevice of Woe.



  1. Polybius and Machiavelli both thought democracy was a good system? Well neither of them had come across a state with universal franchise so I suppose they might, but if they had I bet they would have said something different.

    Dante classed democracy as one of the despotic systems from which a only monarchy could protect the people "It is only when a monarch is reigning that the human race exists for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. For it is only then that the perverted forms of government are made straight, to wit, democracies, oligarchies and tyrannies which force the human race into slavery".

    Chaucer also argued against democracy as system for providing good government. Even John Stuart Mill warned against the tyranny of the majority. What Mill would have made of a system which gave virtual dictatorial powers to a prime minister who achieved less than 40% of the vote one can only conjecture.

    Churchill famously said that democracy is an awful system until one contemplates he alternatives. He was a man of great wisdom who said some very sensible and wise things. He also, on occasion, came out with some complete tosh.

    Combine the UK's democracy with its welfare state and one may be quickly reminded that a system that relies on robbing Peter to pay Paul will never be short of Pauls. It will also seldom if ever be governed in a manner that provides the best long term outcome for its people.

  2. Hello, Mr. Llama.

    I recall the Athenians voted to kill about 10 successful war leaders during the Peloponnesian War, which they (shockingly) then went on to lose.

    The problem with UK governance is, I would argue, one of the electorate, not the system. A more politically interested and motivated electorate would provide better results.

    Also, I think yours is the first comment on this blog. Hurrah!

  3. Democracy is a good system but it fails to provide good governance because of the poor quality of the electorate? I can't help but feel there is a flaw in that argument.

  4. Not at all. The more engaged and intelligent the electorate the wiser their decisions and the better the electoral results. Plus, between elections, the better the scrutiny government faces.

    It's only like saying monarchy is a good system, but if Alexander the Great gets replaced by Perdiccas the quality of governance drops like a stone.

  5. Ok, but its easier to replace a failing king than it is to replace a population.

    I suppose that I should also have mentioned that English Kings in the early medieval period did not just inherit the Crown because of right of birth, but they also had to be elected, albeit by a limited section of the population.

    Anyway, I guess I owe you an apology. This blog is not supposed to be about politics and it was wrong of me to rise to the, unintended, bait.

    To offer an answer your original question, maybe the default setting for fantasy is the medieval kingdoms of Europe (surely England is too narrow) is that they provide a timeless model of the battle between right and wrong that is so familiar. Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and such like romances have been popular since the 13th century at least.

  6. No, no, quite happy to meander off-topic :)

    Besides, it's not really a change of subject as I did post about varying constitutions.

  7. Hello Mr. Thaddeus, Mr. Llama,

    A couple of days ago I was searching through piles and piles and piles of internet to find something on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and somehow I found this blog, I have spent almost every waking minute since then on this blog reading the juiciest parts. I must say Mr. Thaddeus this is undoubtedly the best blog I have ever read and I sincerely hope you continue to write. I have taken every history/fantasy review you have written to heart and plan on buying most, if not all, those books, including yours!

    I have read many post that both of you have written in this blog and as Mr. Llama once said, I could not not respond to this thread. I created a google+ account just for this and I certainly hope I have not just made a horrible mistake =D

    Anyhow, I fully agree with you Mr. Thaddeus in that an educated and informed electorate would make the republic/democracy/bongo circle. I assume you both are from England, please correct me if I am wrong. I happen to live in Brazil, in the middle of it, in a very dry and hot place much to my dismay, and I cannot help but to agree with that. (One of)the problem(s) that Brazil faces is specifically this our electorate lacks the interested, the drive and the zeitgeist to participate fully and truly in our democracy. Most people think that there is so much corruption in Brazil that there is no hope of salvation, many people think (I included) that every politician is corrupt and therefore unworthy of any amount of trust. (Currently the top politicians of the first half of the last presidential administration are going through a massive trial for embezzling about 12 thousand dollars to various politicians every month to vote with them in various occasions.)

    The point is this, in a nutshell, Brazilians want to be as far away from politics as possible, and for a country which has mandatory vote, many novellas and many, many football games (including many government programs) we live in a current state of Populism, and panem et circenses. It almost seems as if I live in Rome, without any of the good parts.

  8. Thanks for your kind words, Mr. Biaso.

    I once heard a quote about Brazil that it had great potential, and always would (suggesting the potential would never become reality) but it's certainly seeing substantial growth now.

    Well, if you live in Rome in the 2nd century, feel sympathy for the British who fear they're living in the 3rd!

    Unfortunately the quality of our leaders, the interest of the electorate and the objectivity of the media are all sorely lacking here.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Hello Mr. Thaddeus,

    I just would like to know if you recommend any translations of Titus Livy's work in English, or if you find one better than another. Furthermore, are you familiar with any good used books stores in London? I'm very careful with my books and I like them to be in as good condition as possible.

    (I'm the author of the post above, unfortunately I mistakenly used my wife's log in, I hope she doesn't find out)

    Thank you for your time,


  11. On London, I'm afraid not as I've never actually been there.

    On Livy, both books I've read (The Early History Of Rome and The War With Hannibal) were translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. I found them to be very easy to read and enjoyable.