Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Ancient Art of Kinging

or What did those nobles do all day, anyway?

When you read fantasy, particularly the medievalish fantasy that seems to be the 'default' setting, there's never anything in there about how those assorted nobles actually filled their days. Oh, you might get a bit about hunting - but they certainly weren't doing that all day every day, and the feasts and whatnot didn't take up that much time.

Besides, somewhere in there the actual nitty gritty work of managing a kingdom or an estate had to happen, and that involved things we'd normally associate with a business - if one with a somewhat atypical approach to personnel.

So what did they do all day? Monty Python aside, it usually wasn't oppressing the peasants, at least, not up close and personal. Nor did they spend all day hanging around brown-nosing the most important person. And since everything that needed to be recorded had to be recorded by hand, and usually done or at least personally overseen by the lord himself (the art of delegation was seriously hampered by the question of trust, which they usually didn't have much of), there was a lot of administrivia in the nobleman's day.

A typical nobleman needed to at minimum check his accounts regularly - they were hand-written by scribes (particularly since the lord probably didn't know how to read or write and needed his secretary - the parish priest for the smaller estates - to tell him what was in them - but you can guarantee he could figure and was very interested in the numbers being right), and often involved barter since taxes and fines were often collected in kind rather than money, so receiving 20 days of labor from landowner X, two head of cattle from herder Y, and so forth, had to be converted into something a little more helpful - preside over the courts, usually in person (which is probably where the modern connotation of royal/noble 'court' came from) and often serve as the final arbiter of justice.

Digression alert - justice varied hugely depending on the culture. England after the Magna Carta had the rudiments of the modern jury system in place and the requirement that no free man be held without accusation or trial. Other places used something based on the Roman model. Still others, anyone at all could apply directly to the lord for justice. In Scandinavian regions, the Viking model lasted for quite some time - and is still partially in use in Iceland and the Isle of Man.

Anyway, our generic lord also kept track of expenses, the storage of precious goods (including spices), ensured his direct dependents - his family and the people who worked full time for him - had enough to eat and decent clothing, managed his agents - part time in smaller, more peaceful kingdoms, but in places that had warring nations nearby or were subject to Viking, Moorish or other raiders the information from his agents was critical to his and his land's safety, and organized hunting partly to supplement the meat supplies (and eliminate dangerous animals), and partly as a diplomatic function not that unlike modern summits (similar to feasts, which had the added joy of demonstrating to his eminent visitors what a grand fellow he was because he could put on such a lavish show), arranging his and his children's marriages - which were very much political business (and for the girls he needed to have sizable dowries so he didn't have to give up land) - and that was just in peace time.

If there was a war - which for mainland Europe was the norm - the lord was expected to ride to battle and take part personally unless he was too old, too young, or crippled. He was also usually expected to lead his men (and provide his share of the army in the form of trained soldiers), although if he wasn't much of a warlord and he was thinking about it he'd find himself a good, reliable veteran and put him in charge of the actual military management. If he was a warlord, there's a good chance he was more or less at war anyway, whether with local bandits (who often proliferated during and after wars, when the nobles were preoccupied and not able to focus as much on keeping law and order at home) or the neighbors.

Exhausted yet? As well as all this, he needed to keep himself in shape, which meant weapons training, riding, war games - the origin of knightly jousts and tournaments - and make sure his people were also training for possible war service, if that was the law. England required all free men to train with longbows until - I think - Tudor times. Other places expected every free man to own and practice regularly with a sword (Switzerland comes to mind).

If he got it wrong, our generic noble could easily become an ex-noble (or ignoble?). Excommunication could happen for reasons we'd consider trivial - and left his lands up for grabs. If he didn't keep himself and his people fit for war, the next time trouble flared up he could be overrun. Then there was the method of replacement politely described in the history books as 'usurpation'. Usually that translated to dead men's boots, and while it wasn't common, it wasn't exactly rare, either. There's a reason food and drink tasters were often part of royal and noble households, and it isn't letting someone else find out the cook didn't keep a close enough eye on the spit-boys and the meat is half raw.

Sadly, although all of this could easily be woven into the background of fantasy novels, it rarely is. Instead we get nobles lazing around or oppressing the peasants - or if the book is sympathetic, said nobles are nobly leading their people to war, without much - if any - detail about what's involved in running a swords and arrows war (hint: it's messy).

Who bucks the trend and gives good background information in their fantasy books? I can't really count PTerry as an example, mostly because he spends most of his writing time outside the little box labeled 'typical' and when he does focus on it, he's looking at it from the kind of angle where none of my rant is relevant (but if you're looking for it, it's there. Just... well, PTerried).


Anonymous said...

But, but, checking the accounts is boring! How can you show the evilness of Duke Brutus if he's just having a bit of a struggling to add lambs from Widow Sweet to the son of that rascally old poacher showing up for twenty days service shooting arrows at bandits instead of his deer, and come up with something coherant so he can pass on the right number of copper ingots from the mine to King Faraway?

Now if he had to send his scarred and nasty Captain to take the lambs, and threatened to chop a hand off the poacher, now that'll make the reader realize who's the Bad Guy in the book!


Anonymous said...

Kate, while I'm generally flippant about it, perhaps I should also mention how very useful your posts about the Real Medieval period are.

It's difficult for a kid like me, raised in the suburbs, to really understand how much work life used to entail.

Sure, I visited my grandparents dairy farm. But for short enough periods that it was fun, and I was more observer than genuine help.

Yeah, I've raised horses, but I did my level best to keep them out to pasture as much as possible. I've built a small barn and a run-in shed. Buying the lumber, the nails, the sheets of siding, the steel roof panels. I didn't have to start by cutting down the trees.

My veggie garden is small, fruit trees few, fertilizer, insecticides and fungicides available at need. We have it so easy, and we consider it normal.

Yeah, the nobles worked too, even the bad ones. And that shouldn't change, just because we're writing fantasies.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The thing is I just recently re-read Glory Road, where Heinlein actually does fantasy with SF underpinnings and it's ... WEIRD. It's not total escapism nor you know, spaceships. Anyway, the prize I think lies somewhere between. Showing your character signing or stamping a lot of stuff (the great seal!) is boring. OTOH naming no names some of us get very annoyed at medieval societies that make no sense economically, or at "wars" one commutes to. (Yes, okay, it happened in WWI but that was a special war.)

I suspect that the good point lies somewhere in the middle or "in media virtus" which does not mean "the media is virtuous" -- now there's too unlikely a fantasy!

Anonymous said...

Commuter wars. Ha!

One of the few chunks of historical research I've ever done was looking at the Second Crusade. Hey, what's a Cadfael fan to do, eh?

Nobody. Nobody . Would believe that, in a work of fiction. Nobody. Period.

Brendan said...

To put nobility into modern terms I have basically perceived them as 'Management'. The country lord was a bit like a local manager - the boss but works closely with the commoners. The higher up the ladder you get the more further from the day to day you end up being and the more difficult to define "what you do" is. Instead of networking over golf nobles went hunting, had to sit through tedious meetings with the local Guild masters, and all the other little day to day things managers do.

Chris McMahon said...

Methinks they hung around the hearth, patting their hounds, drinking ale, eating great legs of meat and rubbing the grease through their tangled beards. Oh what a life!

Kate said...


Thanks for your comments. I had no real idea myself, until Impaler hit me between the eyes and made me write it. I had to learn what medieval life was actually like because the story demanded it.

What I dug up was so completely alien to me (suburban brat, and you separate me from my internet at your peril) I was amazed, especially as so much of it was Really Neat Stuff. Generic Medieval Fantasy is bland, tasteless stuff by comparison - although to be fair, it usually doesn't leave bits stuck in your teeth, and tends not to have the unidentifiable wobbly bit.

Besides, I get irritable when people get things wrong. Google doesn't give you much excuse any more - you can find online translations of primary documents, and boy oh boy are those eye-opening.

Kate said...


Yes, the balance is the key thing. Sometimes all it needs is a side comment here and there. You can imply a whole world when King Poorbuthonest asks his steward if there's enough food to spare for a celebratory feast - or when his neighbor King Dastardly orders his armsmen to chase those starving farmers away from the castle.

Kate said...


It's kind of a truism that however weird it is, it's probably happened somewhere and if you put it in a book no-one would believe you.

Like the Byzantine Empire. A thousand years in which the most prominent feature was utter, mind-boggling incompetence lit by all-too-rare flashes of brilliance - not to mention the fact that fewer than half the emperors got the Imperial throne by any kind of orderly succession, and about a third of them openly usurped it (and murdered the predecessor).

Kate said...


That more or less sums it up. They were somewhere between management, slave owners of the old-fashioned (i.e. pre-USA) sort, and rulers.

Most of them, at least during the medieval era, regarded the doctrine of divine right as a duty rather than a definition of privilege - if God appointed you as King, then you'd better do a good job of it, because He expected you to look after your kingdom and the people in it.

The dissipated, idle noble living off the backs of overworked, starving peasants mostly didn't happen until rather later on, and in some areas didn't happen at all.

Kate said...


You forgot the belching competitions ;-)

WangZheng259 said...

I have problems* with some aspects of what Tamora Pierce writes, but some of her stories are, I think, more or less an example of a decent job of the issues you raise. At least, I think she has also done her homework.

Myself, I have lived a soft life, softer than my parents, and grandparents. I have a good imagination and capacity for abstract thinking, and my reading in younger years included Edwin Tunis and some historical fiction of varying degrees of quality. My intellectual knowledge of the generalities is okay, but I really appreciate the work you are doing here.

*I am a natural nitpicker, and am habitually argumentative, so I can find problems with just about any piece of writing. Sometimes these are more a matter of taste or fundemental assumptions than anything else.

Kate said...


Thank you for your appreciation. I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with a series of posts that could be called "Medieval History in a Nutshell for Writers" but then, these things ambush me.

I think most modern western and many non-western societies are very 'soft' by comparison with many historical eras. It's really only in the last hundred years that even western societies got to "indoor plumbing for everyone" - as recently as 25 years ago for some.

Also, knowing the generalities still can trip you up if you can't understand and to some extent think in the mindset - to me, water is clear, drinkable, and comes out of the faucet. To most people who have lived - and quite a few people alive now - water is a nasty color, smells bad, and has to be hauled from somewhere by someone, usually you.

Tamora Pierce is one of the better ones. Sarah and Dave are also very good at it (Dave's A Mankind Witch, for instance, and Sarah's Shakespeare series). As for the nit-picking, it was an essential art in those times, but not one modern authors should dwell...

Er. Sorry. I lean towards nit pickery myself, and have a very low idiot-tolerance. Might explain why the day job is software quality assurance...