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).