Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Historicity: Welcome to Elfland 5/6

It's finally Wednesday again...

... this concludes my Welcome to Elfland article series, and will be followed by a bibliography post.

No free market of social relations
It's no coincidence that I keep referring to the classical age Roman concept of patron/client relationships, in this article series, because most medieval people did not exist in a "free market" of social cont(r)act(s), as we do today. Rather they found themselves enmeshed in a web of alliances and social relationships, having various allies with whom they were more or less equal, but frequently also patrons whom they were inferior to but where supported by, or clients that they were expected to help in exchange for being "paid respect" and for being given various forms of support (mainly social support).

In "The Long Ships", when Orm Tosteson has arrived at Göinge and is trying to purchase seed grain from Gudmund the Howler, so that Orm has something to plant on his fields, Gudmund refuses to sell.

That's not because Gudmund doesn't want to help Orm.

It is exactly the other way around. Gudmund wants to help Orm by generously giving him the seed grain for free, so that this creates a sense that Gudmund is Orm's superior, is Orm's patron, and creates a sense of obligation in Orm - that Orm owes a favour to Gudmund.

It's Orm who will have none of this patron-client shit, and instead wants to make a clean we-do-it-and-then-we're-square business transaction with Gudmund, paying directly for the seed grain with his Iberian silver. Orm wants to interact with Gudmund as his equal, whereas Gudmund wants to interact with Orm as Orm's patron, as the superior, since Gudmund styles himself as one of the big men of the Göinge tribal era. Orm, being the badass that he is, gets his way, in one of the many memorable scenes of this wonderful novel.

It's not that Orm dislikes Gudmund, or doesn't want anything to do with him. He merely wants to make a clean and simple business transaction - not get involved in local politics by becoming Gudmind's client. Orms sees himself as - at least - an equal of Gudmund.

Offers you'll find it hard to refuse
I recently re-watched the first Godfather movie, and it's somewhat the same pattern there. Don Corleone wants the undertaker to call him "Godfather". To show respect in that explicitly verbal fashion, and to acknowledge that he owes him a favour. The undertaker, for his part, is trying to avoid such entanglements by offering to pay Don Corleone money in return for Don Corloene's thugs solving the undertaker's problem, and the Don takes this offer of money as an insult.

Don Vito Corleone wants everybody to view him as a patron of his section of New York City, a patron who supports his clients so that they build up nonspecific social obligations towards him, and owe him favours which he can call upon when needed.

That doesn't make the Godfather movie character an asshole (other things may - he is, after all, a criminal), or even an asshat. Nor Gudmund the Howler. It just defines what kind of person they are, what position they have (or wish to achieve) in the grand scheme of things, the complex social webs of alliances and relations. And in Orms case, it doesn't work out.

You have your allies. People more or less equal to you. Those are the ones you go to and ask for help, when you need it. If you don't ask them, they may take it as a personal insult. Likewise, unless you're at the very top of the social ladder, you're likely to have a patron, or more likely several patrons (oh, what fun conflicting loyalties are!).

You can call upon these patrons for help, when you need it, when their expertise or resources are relevant. Or rather, you should. Not doing so can, again, be insulting.

Likewise, unless you're at the bottom of society (where most people are, except that fiction, whether non-interactive or interactive, rarely has such people as the protagonists, and for mostly good reasons), you're going to have clients. People who depend on you. One of the few bad things about the miniseries "Rome" is that it didn't really portray this element of Roman society. I think there was a total of one single scene, in 25-or-so full hours of miniseries, that portrayed Atia listening to client's petitions.

Gift economies instead of capitalism
Somewhat related to the above, some past societies had economic structures radically different from present day capitalism. "Great Men" were regarded as great not according to how much stuff they had, but how much stuff they could - and did - give away as gifts.

Gifts might be given to guests, or to visiting travellers (see below), but were also often informal but expected rewards for loyal service (see above). A Viking Age jarl or King would have a so-called Mead Hall, and attract warriors who'd enter his service, protect his property and help him with military and semi-military endavours (and accompany him whenever he goes out, so that others can gauge his importance by the size of his retinue), and in order to encourage these warriors to stay with him, in his service, he'd have to be generous towards them, supplying them with good food (including plenty of meat) and booze (mead or ale, or even imported wine - and not the weak versions I've talked about in one of the earlier articles), and reward them at regular intervals, with gifts, such as fine clothing, well-made weapons (or even valuable shirts of mail), and blingy stuff to wear. In pagan Norse society, a generous lord was known as a "ring-giver", a kenning that refers to the gifting of arm rings, made of silver or sometimes even gold.

Hospitality and travel
Most past European and Middle Eastern cultures, quite possibly all of them, had traditions of hospitality. If it was just the Indo-Europeans, or just the Semitics, one might assume it's some kind of common cultural heritage, but since it appears both places, it's likely to be a case of parallel evolution, probably having evolved as a custom in many different places, simply because it's a freakin' good idea.

There's not much travel in a medieval setting. Peter Jackson's addition to the "Fellowship" movie, with Sam Gamgee telling Frodo that he's never been more than perhaps 20 miles away from his home, is entirely authentic. Both for hobbits (except Tooks!) and for medieval peole. In spite of this, people were still eager to hear news of faraway places, both places that concerned them (such as the place where the local lord lived, or news about wars or great raids), and news of exotic and very far-away places that entertain and titilate but doesn't really represent useful knowledge. Also, poets keep making up new songs and poems, and these were passed on too (one benefit of rhyming poetry, whether traditional end sound rhymes or alliteration, is that it's fairly easy to remember, for many, if not most, people),

So, when travellers come by your farm, you offer them food and drink and lodging, even if the lodging is just permission to sleep in the hay in the barn (which may well be a comfortable and warm place, except during winter), and in exchange they pass on whatever news they have. Even if it's just gossip.

A bit on towns
In many cases, the main reason a town had walls wasn't to protect it from raiders, but to control trade, by demanding a gate tax from every trader's wagon that entered and/or left through one of the gates. In many places, the very definition of a town might be that it's an urban('ish) settlement surrounded by such walls (the same way that in Catholic Europe, one definition of a city was that it had a cathedral, the seat of a Bishop).

Trade would of course take place anywhere, but much as in the MMO EVE Online (if any of your friends play EVE, ask them about something called "Jita", some day), traders tend to gravitate towards to where other traders already are. Small towns would have a market day once per lunar cycle or once per month, medium-sized towns might have 3-5 market days per month/moon, and the rarer large towns would have permanent markets, early in the middle ages. In the later part of the period, towns would tend to be larger, and even medium-sized towns might have a permanent market, and then there'd also be great fairs, huge - no fucking ginormous - markets at set places and set times of the year, such as the Champagne Fairs.

In many places, including recently converted Germanic areas, it makes no sense to demand that all strangers, who wish to enter through one of the gates in the town wall, must hand over their weapons. Instead, strangers, not known to the town, or more specifically to the gate guards (or to any guard officers that they might complain to), were required to "peace-bond" their swords, tying the sword's crossguard to the scabbard with string, so that the knots must be untied (which takes at least a few seconds) before the sword can be drawn. As a brake on violence.

Eating habits were often quite different from modern days. Medieval monks who lived by the Rule of Benedict (most did, even if non-Benedictine orders used their own slightly modified version), ate one meal a day during the winter, and two meals during the summer, but they were by no means starved. Benedict's Rule was not about torturing one-self. They got what they needed, although red meat was usually off the menu, even though I personally find it a somewhat daunting thought to have to consume all my daily caloric needs in a single sitting. There also had to be two different dishes, just in case some of the monks didn't like one of the menu items (how can you not like Benedict for being so considerate? I'm sitting here chuckling at it. However stupid and wrong and unnatural Christinaity is, it's hard not to like that guy at least a little bit). Eating was done in silence, with the monks using hand gestures to signal "pass the salt" and so forth (not that they were likely to have salt - it was a somewhat expensive commodity, in medieval times. Some monasteries probably had it, but Saint Francis would not have approved). Entertainment was provided by one monk (a literate one - not all were) who'd read aloud, usually from the Bible, or possibly sometimes from another good Christian text.

In some misogynistic cultures, the menfolk, the father of the house and his sons, would eat first. Only after that would the wife (or wives, or concubines) and daughters eat, so that in times of famine, the females only got the scraps.

Sitting together, everyone (except any servants or slaves were usually required to eat at a separate table, if not in a separate room, and/or after the free members of the family had eaten), and sharing a meal, was quite common elsewhere, though.

Among the Norse, the food was doled out by the mother of the house, so she'd decide how much everyone got, her husband, their children, any children he or she mght have from a previous marriage, and any slaves or servants. If wifey didn't like hubby's newly acquired pet slave girl, shortening her rations was one way to get a kind of revenge. Or shortening hubby's rations, to punish him for being a horny old goat and trying to replace wifey with a younger model.

Most people rose and went to bed with the sun. Nobles often dined late in the evening, sometimes even around midnight - that must have been expensive in torches (and was more often bragged about than actually done), but most people were limited by available daylight. I imagine that during the summer, when the nights are quite short (at least up here at around 55°N), people took a mid day nap to compensate, except during harvest time when everybody was really busy (but harvest wasn't in late June, anyway).

It's known that many medieval people employed a biphasic sleep pattern. It certainly makes some sense to do that during the winter, when the night might be 15-17 hours long (or even last for several weeks, north of the Polar Circle). People would go to bed at sunset, or sit and talk by the fire for perhaps an hour, winding down (much like we do), then go to bed. Then they'd sleep for some hours, after which the adults would wake up and spend an hour or two doing something (the children usually kept sleeping, since children and young teenagers require more sleep than adults, and are likely to be sleep quite well after a day of hard physical activity, either vigorous outdoors play, or tiresome farm work), which could well be having a nice quit fuck, or even going out to check on the cows, or (I've read this somewhere) visit neighbours to have a chat (presumably mostly in villages and towns). Or lie and try to recollect dreams (dream interpretation was taken quite seriously in some cultures), or engage in prayer (if belonging to a religion where prayer is a feature).

Everybody having his own bed is a fairly new thing. Most iron age or medieval families shared a bed, or eventually two beds when there were so many children that they couldn't fit into a single bed any longer. This means people were rather close to each other, and even if it was dark, most children would be used to at least hearing their parents getting it on with each other, from a very early age. A few inches away. It therefore makes no sense to have medieval teenagers be naive about where babies come from.

Infant Mortality
Children were important. For the poor they were a sort of pension plan for old age, where you expected your children to take care of you. For the upper class, it was important to have an heir, that one could pass one's property on to (see Stability of the Social Order, et cetera - a King or Duke dying without an heir makes for interesting times).

But you had to breed a lot of them, because they tended to croak. Disease wasn't rampant, except during the period of The Black Death, but it did happen, and when it did you were usually quite screwed, because physicians didn't know much (in particular, Christian medicinal science was inferior to pre-Christian Roman medicine). Famines might also lead to infanticide (often decided by the father, against the perhaps less-than-perfectly-rational mother's will), as small children are comparatively easier to get rid of (just dump the baby in the forest) than older children (you're more likely to have formed an emotional bond with an older child, and you also have to whack it over the skull, out in the forest, to make sure the lil' bugger doesn't come toddling home again to knock on the door).

Sometimes, mothers accidentally killed babies or very small children, by falling asleep on them in bed in the evening (see above). Given that most mothers (sadly, there are exceptions) have healthy nurturing instincts, this is probably indicative of those mothers having been made to work very, very hard for almost the entire day (such as washing clothes, grinding grain by hand, and other very physically demanding things that the stronger sex is liable to force upon the comparatively weaker sex), to the point of exhaustion, flat out not being able to avoid accidentally squashing or choking their babies.

Most medieval life expectancy statistics include infant deaths, so if you see aveage lifespan stats such as 20 or 25 years, do remember that small children are more likely to die than older ones, and that infants are very vulnerable. If you're lucky enough to survive childhood, you're quite likely to live to the age of 40, quite possibly even 50, although your later years may well be absolutely miserable due to gradual physiological breakdown.

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?

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

No comments:

Post a Comment