Medieval Monday: The Labors of June — Allison D. Reid

In the Middle Ages, the arrival of June meant not only a change in the weather, but a shift in daily labors, and in what was on the menu to eat. While most crops were harvested much later in the summer, hay was the first to be cut in June, though it was typically poor […]

Medieval Monday: The Labors of June — Allison D. Reid

Story Time: A Curse that Turned the Entire Bhangarh Fort into Ruins — CastlesandTurrets

In such old mysterious places, we often experience some kind of strange force calling for death, and we cannot stop at that place without the feeling of fear. There are many such forts and castles all around the world; even today whose stories tell about their dark past (such as these haunted castles in Scotland)! […]

Story Time: A Curse that Turned the Entire Bhangarh Fort into Ruins — CastlesandTurrets

Mind Magic: Escapism, Fantasy, and why it’s the best thing mankind invented. — BookmarkedOne

By now you know I am convinced fantasy is the best and most beautiful genre of fiction in the world. But I don’t often talk about why. A while back (yes, concerts and work and university finals, I know. I’m awake now) I stumbled across Sarah Seele’s lovely post “They Found Loveliness Everywhere.” Do go […]

Mind Magic: Escapism, Fantasy, and why it’s the best thing mankind invented. — BookmarkedOne

Medieval Monday: Making Barrels and Wooden Vessels — Allison D. Reid

Medieval coopers were important craftsmen in the Middle Ages. Many different types of goods were kept in barrels, such as alcohol and salted meats. But barrels were not the only things coopers made. A variety of wooden vessels were needed for daily use by the average person as well as many other medieval craft and […]

Medieval Monday: Making Barrels and Wooden Vessels — Allison D. Reid

Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Nine

TRADERS, PLUNDERERS, AND PIRATES

[image description: The traditional “Jolly Roger” of piracy by WarX, edited by Manuel Strehl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=609773 ]

Every fantasy world has its material goods, whether it be everyday items such as food and clothing, or more specialised items such as weapons and armour. The most basic goods will be made from the most basic, readily available materials, such as stone and bone, wood and horn, fur and feather, linen and leather. As societies become more complex however, both the supply and demand for rarer goods and materials naturally increases. Mining introduces rock salt, gemstones, various metals, and so on. Agriculture not only produces surplus food but an increased variety thereof. But trade further opens up the marketplace to a whole new range of goods that might not have otherwise been available.

How often have you read a fantasy novel or series or played a roleplaying game in which the characters walk into a shop and start buying all manner of supplies? In my own experience, I’d say it happens a lot. But have you ever wondered to yourself where all this stuff came from? Was it all locally produced or did some of it come from farther afield? In most cases this sort of thing doesn’t need to be explained. It’s not going to hurt your story if you don’t go into detail about where this and that item or substance came from, or how it was acquired. You can absolutely leave this up to the reader’s (or players’) imagination. But if you are inclined to, you can add a bit more depth to the world you’re building by throwing in a few details such as where the materials came from or how they were made. In most cases you will find that your more complex societies would not be able to produce everything they use or have available for sale all on their own. At least a few items will have been imported, and some will be rarer and thus more expensive than others.

[image description: Three of Wands from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. (Public Domain). Seen from behind, a lone figure wearing a coronet and toga gazes out to sea in expectation from atop a high place, accompanied by three staves planted in the ground, one of which serves as a right hand support.]

Cities have always been great for the trading of goods. Before there were cities there may have been merchant caravans that went from town to town to ply their wares, but these were always vulnerable to bandits. But in a city a merchant could set up shop in relative safety and need only worry about their shipments getting there safely. For early merchants, as for many modern ones, waiting for one’s ship to come in was not merely a metaphor. Yet just as landlubbing caravans attracted opportunistic land-based bandits, it wouldn’t have been long at all before the earliest merchant sea vessels attracted their own brand of thieves: pirates.

“The earliest documented instances of piracy are the exploits of the Sea Peoples who threatened the ships sailing in the Aegean and Mediterranean waters in the 14th century BC. In classical antiquity, the Phoenicians, Illyrians and Tyrrhenians were known as pirates” [Wikipedia].

Who Were The Sea Peoples? – Ancient Apocalypse: The Sea Peoples & The Late Bronze Age Collapse

The Sea Peoples, most likely a loose confederacy of seafaring folk from many different tribes or nations, became so good at raiding and plundering by sea and river together that at one point they effectively halted the trade of tin, a mined metal that had become invaluable to the lands they plundered because it was, along with copper, necessary to make bronze. This alloy was in fact so important to these early city-states and empires that the demand of tin, a rarer metal than its other component copper, was likely what led to the establishment of such extensive trade networks across this region in the first place, during what would eventually come to be known as the Bronze Age.

Like the barbarians we touched upon in Part Eight, the Sea Peoples seem to have been the product of several different societies on the move. Perhaps they were settled before, but were forced out of the places they once held as their own by any number of possible calamities, such as drought, famine, pestilence, or war. Whatever the reason for their invasion, they were–or at least would become–just as much a force that linked civilisations as divided them; a network all their own, and one that apparently introduced new things to the already existing network of trade which had previously focused on only a select few items, such as the precious tin required to forge the bronze its clients had come to rely upon so heavily.

For it appears that these seafaring folk, as wide-ranging as they were, brought other innovations with them on their adventures, such as weapons of iron and steel, superior to their bronze counterparts. And as a consequence–due to the ancient law of supply and demand–would also be ultimately responsible for spreading the knowledge of iron-working to the very lands they plundered. And later the aforementioned Phoenicians, at times both traders and raiders, are credited with the spread of the script that would eventually form the basis of the Greek alphabet, which would in turn evolve into the Roman one I’m using right now to record my English words.

Now, I think it’s important for me to add that piracy has not always been frowned upon in all ages, so pirates could very well be the heroes in your fantasy world. “In the pre-classical era, the ancient Greeks condoned piracy as a viable profession; it apparently was widespread and ‘regarded as an entirely honourable way of making a living'” [Wikipedia]. Piracy could especially be considered a noble profession if the pirates were attacking enemy ships and ports on behalf of their tribe, nation, homeland, or empire. But regardless of whether or not such piratical adventures are state-sanctioned, they will usually represent a very different sort of life from the settled one of farm, factory, and city, much like the aforementioned barbarians. There’s a kind of freedom in such a profession, and yet it was not an entirely lawless existence.

That being said, piracy has also been known to undermine tyranny, injustice, slavery, and systematic oppression:

Top 10 Ways Pirates Made Life Better For African Slaves

Coming Soon: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Previous: Barbarians

Medieval Monday: Battling Against the Shield Wall — Allison D. Reid

[Shield wall: What it’s like to be in a shield wall battle?

Jason looks back at our shield wall experiment day that we filmed in the summer of 2017. We put shieldmaker Luke’s handiwork to the test with a group of twenty brave volunteers, who clashed together in various formations of shield wall. In doing so, we explored some of the events recounted in ancient sagas to […]

Medieval Monday: Battling Against the Shield Wall — Allison D. Reid

GeekDad: All Things Drizzt—Hot Summer Reveals for Forgotten Realms — GeekMom

Wizards of the Coast has announced a summer of Drizzt events, a multimedia/multiplatform series of releases featuring the Forgotten Realms and the iconic Drizzt Do’Urden. As the central character of over 30 novels, Drizzt has been explored in a huge array of situations, such as a coming-of-age story facing domestic/childhood abuse, racial discrimination, and forging…

GeekDad: All Things Drizzt—Hot Summer Reveals for Forgotten Realms — GeekMom

Summer Solstice will return to Stonehenge this year. The celebration is due to take place on the evening of June 20th into the morning of June 21st. — Stonehenge Stone Circle News and Information

We all need a little positivity in our lives, so we are pleased to announce the 2021 Summer Solstice celebrations will return this year – if the lockdown restrictions are lifted as planned. The celebration is due to take place on the evening of June 20 into the morning of June 21 – the same […]

Summer Solstice will return to Stonehenge this year. The celebration is due to take place on the evening of June 20th into the morning of June 21st. — Stonehenge Stone Circle News and Information

Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Eight

BARBARIANS

[image description: Illustration of Robert E. Howard character Conan the Barbarian by artist Mark Schultz. (Fair Use). Conan has shoulder length shaggy black hair, bronzed skin, and a muscular “he-man” physique, and he is wearing scale armour. He grips a broadsword in his right hand, the flat of the blade resting upon his right shoulder, and on his left forearm he bears a round shield emblazoned with a falcon crest.]

With the rise of civilisation there came a new characterisation of those who had already existed since long before. As people began to gather together in large urban centres and dwell there for generations, putting down roots, the folk who had continued living nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer or pastoralist/horticulturalist lifestyles as they had for time immemorial, eventually became thought of as uncouth wild people, called “savages” by some and by others that favourite moniker of the fantasy fiction and tabletop roleplaying worlds alike–BARBARIANS!

Sorry, I felt like I should introduce that much maligned and misunderstood category of people with all caps and an exclamation point. In fact, barbarians get so much disrespect outside of the aforementioned fandoms that I WOULD LIKE TO RAGE.

[image description: Germaniae antiquae libri tres, Plate 17. “Germanic warriors” as depicted in Philipp Clüver’s Germania Antiqua (1616). Public Domain.]

As you may well know, the English word “barbarian” comes from “Greek: βάρβαρος (barbaros pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi). In Ancient Greece, the Greeks used the term towards those who did not speak Greek and follow classical Greek customs. In Ancient Rome, the Romans adapted and used the term towards tribal non-Romans such as the Berbers, Germanics, Celts, Gauls, Britons, Iberians, Thracians, Illyrians, and Sarmatians” [Wikipedia]. It was likely the first city-dwelling peoples, the Sumerians, who had lent the Greeks their word barbar, meaning foreigner, and for Greeks it originally meant the same thing, merely applying to anyone who was not a Greek.

History Human: What is a Barbarian?

The bad reputation barbarians would eventually acquire when it came to such centralised concentrations of wealth and prosperity as early cities and city-states was probably not entirely undeserved. Think about it… you’re eking out a precarious living just as your ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years, but then here are these pretentious self-glorifying arseholes metaphorically sitting pretty atop their mountainous money piles like Scrooge McDuck, hoarding the wealth they’ve likely acquired through conquest of one sort or another, living it up high on the hog in the lap of luxury while you’re barely making ends meet. And then, gods forbid–something happens, like a plague or a drought or widespread famine–and suddenly these pretty little cities are like low-hanging fruits, just ripe for the picking.

Or so I imagine. After all, it’s not my job to give a proper history lesson. As you may recall and I almost didn’t, this is about worldbuilding for fantasy writers and gamemasters. But it’s what these city slickers feared, anyway–that we know for certain, because they left voluminous records concerning their constant anxiety with regards to barbarians, and continually built walls thick, strong, and high to keep them out. And the barbarians known as the Visigoths did finally sack Rome, so they weren’t exactly wrong.

[image description: Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by JN Sylvestre 1890. Public Domain.]

The concept of barbarians has existed in many cultures at many times in world history regardless of the actual word used to designate them. I’ve already mentioned the Sumerians, the Greeks, and the Romans, but the Chinese also had a term (actually more than one) for a barbarian: yao 猺 “jackal”, and everyone knows the Great Wall of China was built to keep out the non-Chinese barbarians to the north. The Aztecs “used the word ‘Chichimeca’ to denominate a group of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that lived on the outskirts of the Triple Alliance’s Empire, in the north of Modern Mexico, and whom the Aztec people saw as primitive and uncivilized. One of the meanings attributed to the word ‘Chichimeca’ is ‘dog people'” [Wikipedia]. Barbarians, from the perspective of the “civilised” people–which is largely the only one left to us since they tended to be the only ones who communicated their ideas to posterity in writing–were, by all accounts, the proverbial wolves at the gate. But we now know that they were so much more than that.

Not all were conquerors, not all were excessively violent, and even those that were had highly evolved cultures and produced their own music, poetry, and art. Most didn’t have a system of writing, but they preserved their own history, myths, and legends within a rich oral tradition. To say that they were uncivilised or uncultured, or anything of that nature is pure nonsense, but such attitudes have their roots in the city-dweller’s (in my opinion false) sense of superiority to their nomadic neighbours of the mountains, steppes, forests, and dunes. The Greeks and Romans were more guilty of what we would nowadays call “barbaric” acts than all of the tribes they named barbarians combined. And as we are also reminded by one of the greatest films of all time, The Fall of the Roman Empire:

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”

― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers

Next: Traders, Plunderers, and Pirates

Previous: The Agricultural Revolution and the Rise of City-States