Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Historicity: Welcome to Elfland 3/6

It's Wednesday again...

This "introduction to medievality" article turned out to be quite long, so currently it has been split up into a series of four articles.

Complex family trees
It's typical to assume that the norm of the past was the cosy nuclear family, with a simple and straightforward family tree, one man marrying one woman, and they have some children, end of story. Not so!

Wives were often much younger than their husbands, with women (yes, women - not girls!) being married in their mid teens (or early teens!) to men in the mid thirties. Part of the idea is that men have proven themselves capable; at least capable of surviving that long (e.g. not getting involved in too many stupid holmgangs, or not offending their manorial lord), but preferably also capable of providing food and protection - a man in his early 20s is unproven and thus not an attractive marriage prospect unless he's wealthy or stands to inherit wealth (or can charm the ladies out of their panties with poetry).

Women probably had natural lifespans a few years longer than men's, even back then, and apart from that some men died unnatural deaths, especially among the warrior class. This created widows, who were often but not always too old to be fully fertile. Some got permission to re-marry, or in some cultures could do so without needing anyone's permission. Others did not re-marry but had one or more lovers, in secret or publically.

Men had rather more freedom, and besides the kind of marriage we know today, may also have had formal or informal concubines or mistresses, or had on-going relationships with female servants or female slaves, perhaps especially once they started thinking of wifey as having become old and boring, or - of course - during that early phase of life in which they did not have the socio-economic standing to be able to attract a proper wife but might still be able to buy a sex pet.

Children not conceived in marraige were fairly common. Some were formally acknowledged by the fathers, others informally acknowledged (with daddy as an informal patron or sponsor - and it's no coincidence that I keep returning to the theme of patrons & clients), and some not acknowledged at all. Bastard children were also often good allies for a nobleman's heir, since they had no right to inherit (in those cultures that had primogeniture) and so had nothing to gain from rebelling against the heir, very much unlike his younger legitimate brothers.

And of course if a man was cuckolded, it was in his best interest to keep the thing secret, if at all possible, pretending the child was his own, to avoid ridicule - a man who can't even control his wife must be very weak indeed!

In some places it was common to postpone marriage until the woman was visibly pregnant. This rarely caused the resulting child to be designated a bastard. With no pension funds in the middle ages, one's best bet for a tolerable old age life was to have surviving children to take care of one, so it makes some sense to not marry a woman until one knows that her womb is functioning (infertility was almost always assumed to be the woman's fault, even though at the same time it was assumed that most or all of the heriditary traits came from the man, with the woman only - or mostly - serving as a sort of egg-like container for the fetus. Then again, it was plausible at that time to assume that if a man was unable to produce children, it was because of impotence - lack of manliness - and so it was strategically convenient to blame the woman, because if the surrounding society started perceiving the man of the family as weak, they might be tempted to victimize him and/or his famly).

Some men took advantage of this, of course, making all sorts of private promises of marriage, without ever intending to do so, viewing the young woman only as a sexual recreation that they'd abandon once she grew a belly. And a pregnant and abandoned woman is under rather a lot of pressure to find herself a husband (or start a career as a concubine or mistress for a man able to take care of her), and can't be too choosy.

Not your religion, but our religion
Today, religion is seen as something that each individual choses, as if from a menu of options. What makes the most sense to you? Buddhism? Wicca? Mormonism? What feels right, in your tummy? Feel free to pick the one that resonates with your heart.

Not so in medieval times. Back them, almost everybody, with very, very few exceptions, inherited their religion from their parents, with an automaticity that seem to us modern-thinkers to be offensively stupid. But that was how it was. The religious memes were passed down from parents to children, and were only very rarely questioned.

Religion was not an individual thing, but a communal thing. Not your religion and my religion and his religion, but our religion. Each family home, each clan, each place, would have its religion, and everbody would participate in community-based religious events, such as Mass, or sacrifice - possibly of fellow human beings - or a mead circle. Changing religion was therefore a profoundly anti-social thing to do.

People were also deeply concerned with natural cycles and natural processes. Today some people, some of whom are roleplayers, see Chaos as something sexy, cool, admirable. Something wonderfully avant-garde and edgy.

To medieval people, chaos was freakin' scary! Chaos represented the breakdown of the natural order, natural processes: The cows giving milk, the wheat and barley growing on the fields, the women having children so that there'd be a new generation to continue the family and take care of the old people in their feebledom. All these processes that have to continue in order for the cycle of life to be sustained.

Medieval people were not so concerned with Good vs Evil, as with Order vs Chaos. Upright, proper behaviour, keeping one's oaths, giving milk to the faeries, and so forth, to preserve the natural order.

Usually, most often, that's a good thing, but it is also, sadly, one of the causes of homophobia, and in a wider sense a cause of collectivism, conformism, and some other forms of oppression

Religions of different shapes and flavours
Also note that not all religions proselytize. That's an important distinction between, e.g., the Abrahamic religions, and the various forms of Indo-European paganism. Likewise, Abrahamic religions are often explicit and identify-forming. A Christian might say of himself that he "is a Christian". And there's a tendency to see the entirety of the religion as a whole. Not so with Indo-European pagans, e.g. a pagan Norseman. He's unlikely to self-identify in any way as positively being a pagan. He may self-identify negatively as "not being a Christian", or more vaguely as "I am a follower of the old custom", i.e. not of the new Christian set of customs (and values - don't overlook the sometimes quite fundamental differences in values). And he's quite unlikely to see his religion as a connected value set. Instead he sees them as separate customs and norm sets, not connected, or at best weakly connected, with each other. It's all very implicit, and taken for granted as a custom that is percieved as having been followed for thousands of years (and which has at least been followed for many hundreds of years).

Most Western people today are only familiar with one of the shapes that religions can have, the Abrahamic shape, and so assume that non-Abrahamic religions are similarly shaped. Which isn't just wrong, but very wrong.

Whether pagan or Abrahamic, religion also provided rituals for passage from one phase of life to the next (something that I think modern society is missing out on - seriously; I'm convinced we'd benefit from a set of scientifically constructed atheistic rites of passage). From fetus to named child, from child to youth, from youth to married person, from living to dead.

Or indeed from unarmed man to armed warrior. Most young men did not buy their own weapons and mail in the local general shoppe, but rather received them as gifts, sometimes from the father or mother, or a grandparent, or the clan chieftain or a feudal overlord, or some non-feudal patron. Medieval knights would often hold a vigil, staying awake the entire night in prayer, in a chapel or church, the night before being formally knighted.

When creating a warrior, of any kind, for any medieval or iron age setting, an RPG, a novel, or a computer game, it may be useful to take some time to decide who it was that gave this individual his arms, because it was usually a big deal, and may be emotionally charged, and create or reinforce loyalty. Also contemplate what kind of ritualism was involved in the process (even "take this sword, and this mail shirt, and sail out and make Daddy proud!" is a kind of ritual).

Swords were fairly expensive, especially in the early medieval period when the only way to get a durable long blade was pattern-welding (later on, improvements in metallurgy made it possibe to make durable swords more quickly, although pattern-welding was still sometimes used in a limited way, because it just looks totally awesome), and mail (no need to refer to it as "chain mail" - that's another D&D'ism like gold coinage - because "mail" was always made out of chain rings) was very expensive, especially because it was extremely labour-intensive to produce (drawing a lot of wire). And of course as you approach the renaissance, actual plate armour begins to appear, which is at least as costly as mail.

Children being an inevitable consequence of sex
We've only had reliable and covert contraceptives for a couple of generations, so it continually amazes me that nearly everybody has internalized this new state of affairs so thoroughly. That makes them incapable of understanding the gender dynamics of the past. The brutal ease with which a man could make a woman his, through forcible impregnation. The extreme care that women not already selected by a man had to take, at all times, to avoid reducing their chances of ever finding a man willing to support and protect them.

I exaggerate only slightly when I claim that the safest and sanest medieval abortion method was to ask a man to kick the pregnant woman in the belly, repeatedly, until the fetus died.

Contraceptive herbs did exist, and abortificant herbs, but they were unreliable, and extremely difficult to use. All abortificants and probably also most contraceptive herbs, are in effect poisons, and if too small a dose is taken, there's no effect. Or else there's a negative effect, meaning that instead of dying, the fetus becomes horribly deformed. Congratulations: Instead of remaining a non-mother, you are now the mother of a disabled child! Too large a dose, and the mother might become barren (a big problem, since children were one's only support in old age!), or die. Any such herbal (or mineral) concoction also had to be administered at the correct time in the menstrual cycle or pregnancy cycle, neither too early nor too late. Abortions were very often illegal, and the use of contraceptives too, which makes sense in light of how dangerous they were (back then. On top of that, most trained physicians flat out refused to help with such things).

In short, if a man sticks his penis into a medieval woman's vagina, the woman will be keenly aware of the non-zero probability of ending up with a child. Medieval people were not naive about such things.

That doesn't mean that unmarried women never got penises stuck into their vaginas, of course. Even consensually. It just meant that they had to be careful to have a father lined up before doing so, one who could be convinced to assume that any resulting child was his (which means the woman needs to avoid getting a reputation for having sex with lots of different men), or for whom it would be convenient to pretend that it was.

Slaves un-whipped and un-chained
It's odd how people immediately assume all sorts of BDSM tropes when their thoughts are moved to the subject of iron age or medieval slavery. Chains, iron collars, and lots and lots of whipping.

The fact is, most slaves were seen as a part of the family in the same way that a guard dog or a draft horse was. Granted, they were exploited, they were unpaid (except for - perhaps - the occasional small gift or treat, like a honey cake, or a tiny coin at midsummer), and they were not treated very nicely, but every single middle class household and single-living upper class individual owned slaves in slave-owning societies, in much the same way that lots of present day people own dogs or cats, and it is as nonsensical to assume that the average slave owner of the medieval past had sadistic tendencies that he or she needed to live out on slaves, as to assume that the average present day cat or dog owner subjects his or her pet to physical or psychological abuse.

Some use of chains, or collars, or the "license plates" that some of the slaves wear in "Rome", makes sense in an urban setting, but much less so in rural areas, where there is nowhere to run away to (see further down).

Slaves for sex
Slaves were used for sex, sometimes formally in the form of bed-slaves (perhaps involuntary mistress or concubine, occasionally promoted to informal wife or second wife, but sometimes just a convenience for relief), and in other cases informal use of other female slaves (e.g. doing the kitchen maid, with or without her consent) or even male slaves (in some cultures, homophobia applied only to the penetrated man, not to the penetrating man), but that doesn't imply sadism or BDSM.

Rather, an upper class man would own several slaves, each for different duties: one to clean his boots, one to take care of his horses, one to handle his sexual needs, one to serve and taste food and drink, one to run errands and tend to his clothes, and so forth. And it makes as little sense to whip the bed-slave, or put her in chains, as it does to whip or chain down the boot-cleaning slave. Any slave might be beaten - lightly or severely - for neglect of duties, with hand, cane or whip, but so might free servants in most cultures, and the average slave-owner had no good reason to be violent towards his slaves as long as they were dutiful.

There were two main ways to become a slave. One was to end up a slave due to debt, often one's own debts, or that of one's parents (a man selling his wife, or some or all of his children, into slavery).

The other was to be captured by strong, armed men (sometimes vikings), and taken far away from one's home. Far away being the important part. Almost all past cultures were strongly collectivist and family- or clan-based, rather than individualistic. You had your rights as a free individual not by law and enforced by any kind of police, but rather guaranteed by your family or clan. If someobdy mistreated you, your family or clan would avenge it. Thus, while the state of slavery was in many places a legal concept, it was also very much simply the de facto state of being kin-less. Being far away from anybody who had any sympathy for or sense of duty towards you.

Why not run away?
This second kind of slave, in many times and places the most common, has no one more interested in his or her well-being than his or her owners (however scant that interest was). In most cases it makes no sense to try to run away. Running away is a huge gamble, and the slave must balance the level of abuse (often fairly small) he or she is suffering under the present owners, with the probability of ending up owned by other people who may be far worse. Often the sensible decision is to stay and endure it.

Setting a slave free may look like a kindly gesture, but the question was, in many times and places, free to what? Where would the slave go, and how would the slave have his or her basic needs met? In an urban culture there may be employment opportunities (it sucks less to be an unskilled urban labourer, than to be a slave. Or does it?), but in rural and less economically sophisticated places, the correct spelling of manumission is freedom to starve to death.

One solution to this is to re-hire the slave as a free worker, to do the same job the slave did before, but now treated as a kind of employee, rather than as a piece of property that happens to be capable of performing useful work. That may be problematic, because a non-slave worker must be treated better than a slave, in terms of material support. Employees were rarely paid any kind of salary (outside of cities), but were instead given support, in the form of a place to sleep (a bunk bed, or a huge suite of rooms, or something in between), appropriate food and appropriate clothes, and the occasional gift (often small, sometimes large), such as perhaps a single penny coin every Christmass and every Easter ("go and buy yourself something nice..." - at least there was usually no measurable inflation, so no equivalent of the half-senile grandfather giving his grandchildren three eurocents each and telling them to go buy ice cream). That was rarely done, though.

It wasn't fun being a slave. But nor was it, on average, at all horrible. Most people thinking of medieval slavery probably get mental images that are more appropriate to the Southern plantations of the early to mid 19th century, although a few medieval slaves did live extremely horrible lives:

Male slaves set to work in mines (or on Roman-style plantations, although there were few of those around even in the early middle ages), or as galley slaves (although those were always rare), and female slaves set to work in brothels (being nothing more than orifices to be exploited - except possibly in the extremely rare high class brothels, where life might - perhaps - have been tolerable). Any of those can reasonably be said to be a fate worse than death, but those were a minority of slaves.

Slave-owner proximity, and more about sex
As a principle, the closer a slave is to his or her owner, physically, the more likely the owner is to realize - and be frequently reminded - that the slave is a human being. Perhaps a sub-human being, with the worst kinds of close-proximity owners, but certainly never a non-human being. Severe deficiencies in material needs are more likely to be addressed. Any children the slave may have are likely to be treated reasonably (if you want some really good nightmare material, think about all the children produced by a typical rent-a-cunt slave brothel in a port town, and how the cynical mama-san will get rid of them, if she can't find childless couples to sell or give them to).

In particular the children of a bed-slave, if she has been "faithful" towards her owner (or managed to make him believe that she has), may well end up with some form of limited acknowledgement from the father, and could become trusted administrative slaves (butlers, and the like) for the household of the next generation, or be set free with some aid (arms, or a small fishing boat, or whatever, or after having been taught to read and write). Indeed it makes a lot of sense that one of the best way for a society to control bed-slaves, is to have a long-standing custom that suggests that the conduct of each individual girl determines how well her children will be treated. The ultimate reward is perhaps for the bed-slave herself to be set free - again with a parting gift so she can support herself (seeing as setting her free with nothing means she will starve to death) or at least use it as a dowry to find a husband - once she is no longer young and of interest to her owner. Or upon her owner's death.

It's one of the aspects of the past that we know the least about. Many sources suggest that sex between free men and female slaves was illegal, which is absurd (you go to the slave market, and you buy a very expensive pretty young woman, and all you make her do is serve food, and sing and dance for you? Yeah, right!). I find it much more likely that the bloggers of the middle ages were extremely eager to eliminate any rumours about having slaves in their own pedigrees (e.g. as grandmothers or great-grandmothers) and so made up that convenient fiction. Likewise, the notion that the offspring of sex between free men and female slaves were never acknowledged by the father, even partially. It is absurd to claim that that never happened.

One thing we do know is that during the Roman period, some female slaves were sold with a sales contract clause that made it illegal to re-sell them to brothels, and it is reasonably speculated that this was because the original seller thought it likely that he was their father, and so wanted to ensure they'd never end up as brothel slaves (see above). That's not a whole lot of acknowledgement, and so can be said to be the minimum expression of that phenomenon.

In praise of "Rome"
One thing "Rome" gets right is the manumission of the slave Posca in Julius Caesar's will. He has been a dutiful and loyal secretary and occasional advisor (and according to TvTropes he was also Caesar's childhood tutor). It makes perfect sense. Also the stipend or pension, given to Posca so that he can support himself in freedom.

Another thing that makes perfect sense is Posca's attitude towards Caesar. Slaves were people, and would talk back as much and as often as they could get away with, especially in private, when alone with their owners (talking back to the owner in public was quite another thing!). A slave close to the owner, whether as secretary, bodyguard or bed-slave (or indeed former tutor, or wet-nurse, thus having known the owner when he was a child), will quickly realize that the owner is just another human being, imperfect, even fallible, with smelly farts, and so forth, however much the owner may want his property to regard him as superhuman or even as god-like.

Welcome to Elfland!
did warn you. Elfland ain't Disney. Which do you want? That which is comfortably familiar and boring? Or that which is strange and different? The blue pill or the red pill? Or if you like, postpone your decision until you've read it all...

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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