Holidays: reality and fantasy

Today, for me, marks the winter solstice. (Officially, it happens just before 5AM tomorrow morning, going by UTC time. I’m in the US Eastern Time Zone, which is 5 hours behind that, so it’s a few minutes before midnight locally.) As the days grow shorter and the year runs out, thoughts naturally turn towards the holidays, of which there are so many right now. Christmas, of course, is only a few days away. Hanukkah isn’t too far behind us. New Year’s Day is on the horizon, bringing 2015 to a close. And that’s not counting the not-so-holy holidays this time of year, like Pearl Harbor Day (and the birthday of one of my uncles) back on the 7th or Boxing Day (and the birthday of a different uncle) on the 26th.

Indeed, in our modern, Western calendar, every month is chock full of holidays. (Except August, much to my brother’s delight; it’s totally bare, so his birthday is all by itself.) But that’s one culture, in one time, and nothing says that everybody has the same holidays. It’s common knowledge that Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, while Thanksgiving is an American tradition with no counterpart across the Atlantic. Many countries celebrate Independence Day, but only the USA has it on the Fourth of July.

And what about fictional cultures? What holidays do they have? Tolkien’s hobbits were good English folk, and they essentially used our calendar and our holidays, just with the Christianity filed off. That’s good enough for a lot of stories, but we might want to go deeper. To do that, we need to understand the origins of holidays.

For every season

For a “traditional” pre-industrial society, whether agrarian or hunter-gatherer, life is sustained directly by the earth itself. Food comes from nature, and it is the single most important facet of life. And food follows the seasons, whether the growing seasons of plants or the mating or hibernating or migrating seasons of animals. Life, living, is governed by the calendar. That’s where most of our traditional holidays come from. As it turns out, they might have different names, but almost every culture has a similar set.

Imagine an analog clock face. Now, imagine that this represents the year. Summer, the season with the highest temperatures, can go at the top, with the solstice at the 12 o’clock position. Winter, conversely, will be the low point: 6 o’clock. The spring and autumn equinoxes then fit in at 9 and 3, respectively. And time passes like this in its eternal cycles. Simple, right? Each of those four points I identified are important markers in the year that are recognized by most cultures. (Tropical cultures are a bit of an exception, since they don’t have the most obvious distinction of the seasons, the changing length of the night. But they can still tell the seasons by patterns in rainfall, winds, and the natural behavior of plants and animals.)

For a lot of places in the temperate zones, the spring (vernal) equinox marks the point in the year when temperatures are warm enough to make planting viable. In the same way, the autumnal equinox is a good sign that cold weather is moving in soon, and it’s time to start thinking about harvests and preparing for winter. Since temperate locales tend to show a big difference between hot and cold seasons, this is a very important part of the calendar. Freezing weather kills many plants, including most of those a pre-industrial society depends on for food. Planting too early and harvesting too late are both very real dangers that can, at the worst, lead to widespread famine. (Look up the Year Without a Summer for a fairly recent example of this.)

In a similar vein, the solstices are milestones in the calendar. Among older cultures, the winter solstice has been historically more important, whether as a time to look forward to the spring ahead or to celebrate the passing year. Summer, in temperate regions, is a relative time of plenty already, so it gets less attention. Besides, no one who lives a pastoral life looks forward to the lean times of winter.

So, for many cultures that haven’t reached the Industrial Age (where advances in technology allow food yields to increase faster than the population), these four times are some of the most likely suspects for holidays. And we can add to them four more: the midpoints between each pair. On our imaginary clock, those are at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30; on the calendar, they’re around the beginning of February, May, August, and November. Indeed, some calendars—the Celtic calendar is one example—use those to determine the seasons, while our familiar equinoxes and solstices become their midpoints.

Altogether, then, we have eight days that make obvious sense for agrarian holidays. On our calendar, roughly, they are: February 1, March 20, May 1, June 21, August 1, September 23, November 1, and December 21. And true enough, the Western world has seasons for just about all of them:

  • Early February: Groundhog Day is a modern spectacle that hearkens back to actual folk wisdom regarding the coming of spring. The Christian feast day of Candlemas probably replaced many of those “pagan” traditions. And America’s bloodsport of choice has its biggest day around this time, too: the Super Bowl.

  • Late March: Essentially everybody celebrates the first of spring. (If you’re a Celt, then that was in the last section, as Imbolc. Otherwise, it’s probably right here.) Most of the European rituals were subsumed into Easter, but the pagan origins are still evident. Look elsewhere in the world, though, and you’ll find planting holidays and end-of-winter feasts aplenty.

  • Early May: By the middle of spring, lots of flowers are blooming, and that’s the basic idea around these holidays. Nowadays, May Day celebrates workers in industrialized countries, but the floral connection still exists. The US has never really been a big May Day place, so Mother’s Day pops up here. It’s not a traditional festival-type holiday, though, so we’ll get to it later. The Celts, by the way, started counting summer here, calling it Beltane.

  • Late June: Again, we don’t really have a lot going on this time of year, but that wasn’t always the case. Midsummer was celebrated by plenty of cultures, and it’s a very big thing in northern Europe to this day. Christianity appropriated it as St. John’s Day, but find somebody in America who knows that. Of course, we have the nearby Fourth of July, so it’s understandable. Anyway, midsummer holidays tend to celebrate the long days, maybe even with bonfires that try to further drive back the night.

  • Early August: By August, summer is starting to run out, and fall is approaching. The earliest harvests start around this time, and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar marks August 1 as a “first harvest” festival for wheat crops, called Lammas (Lughnasa by the Celts). The timing doesn’t work everywhere, nor does it work for every crop, so not everybody has a harvest holiday around here, although they’ll have one somewhere.

  • Late September: Traditional harvest festivals tend to fall around the first of autumn. In other words, right here. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the equinox, and its light can be seen as a blessing to those working the fields, giving them a little extra to see by. Harvest, of course, is a time of hard work, but also of feasting. Before modern food storage techniques, people had to eat what they could, lest it go to waste.

  • Early November: Celts have Samhain, Christians have All Saints’ Day, and children have Halloween. These are all connected, as the Church took over the pagan festival, then the people took over the holy feast. Some other cultures have something here, but this one isn’t that big a time to celebrate, as it means that winter is coming. Maybe if you’re a Stark…

  • Late December: In modern times, we’d see it as ending the year with a bang. For a lot of people (not just Christians, for that matter), Christmas is the holiday. But it has its pagan origins, too: traditional Yule and Roman Saturnalia. All of them have the same general idea, though. A feast to get through the long winter nights, a time to look forward to spring, a day to reflect on the year that was and the year that soon will be, all of that fits this time of year. So does gift-giving, that most popular of Christmas traditions. What better time to give to those in need, if not the shortest day of the year?

Getting religion

So that’s it for the agrarian calendar. Add religion to the mix, and things get hairy. For Christianity, it’s mostly simple, as the Church subsumed the pagan holidays into its own, sometimes only by changing their names. They did add some of their own, like Ash Wednesday or the feast of the Assumption, that don’t match up to the seasons. Judaism and Islam, which keep their own calendars, have their own holidays, like Hanukkah and Ramadan, and the same would be true even for fictional religions.

Here, it’s hard to give guidelines. Religious observances that aren’t anniversaries of known events can fall anywhere in the year. They can even be movable, and not in obvious ways: calculations of the date of Easter drove centuries of Christian astronomy. And those that are annual commemorations don’t necessarily need any connection to the actual date the event happened. After all, there isn’t even Biblical evidence that Jesus was born in December. (That he was crucified in spring is pretty solidly confirmed, however.)

My best advice is to think about the religion. What days are most important? Those will likely be the ones most celebrated. Then look at the rest of the calendar. People like feasts, but they don’t want too many too soon. That gets expensive. So the next most celebrated holidays will likely be those far from other holidays. It’s not an exact science—it doesn’t explain the American August drought—but it’s a good start.

Also, if your story involves a polytheistic religion, think about the different gods and their functions. Gods of agriculture and nature are going to be more tied to the seasons. Death and winter are often linked, for obvious reasons, so a death god might have a holiday in or near winter. Spring is seen as a time of love, fire goes with summer, and I’m sure you can find other relations.


As states become more centralized, especially once industrialization comes about, the nature of holidays begins to change. Sure, the usual suspects are still there: harvest feasts, planting festivals, summer bonfires and winter gifts. But these are increasingly accompanied by a new set of holidays, and we should spend some time on them.

Many of our “secondary” holidays originally had a religious significance, largely stemming from the Catholic saints’ days. Valentine’s Day is one of these, though it also falls on the day of a Roman feast (Lupercalia) that had many of the same romantic connotations. Saint Patrick’s Day is another, but it’s also a “nationalist” holiday, with its strong Irish connection. For these, as for Christmas and Halloween, it’s a case of the secular overtaking the religious. Likewise, Thanksgiving originally had some religious overtones, but these are all but forgotten.

Other holidays are directly nationalist, and these obviously depend on the country. But they all have in common the idea of commemorating a person or group. In the US, for example, we have holidays to honor Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., veterans (originally of World War I, but later expanded to all of them), mothers, fathers, workers, and presidents. The specifics will differ, but a fictitious country would likely have its own set of honored people. This would depend on history, societal norms, technological advancement, and the circumstances around the formation of that country, all of which are good topics for future posts.


On other planets, the seasons still work the same way. A terrestrial planet with a year like Earth’s will have a natural calendar like Earth’s. The names and dates will be changed, but the broad outline will remain the same.

We don’t even know what kind of life can arise on less-familiar worlds, but it stands to reason that they’d have similar ideas about the calendar. Of course, around a red M star, a habitable world’s year only lasts a few weeks, so things will likely break down at this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, habitable planets around F stars might have years 3 or more times that of ours, meaning longer, more extreme seasons. More holidays would appear in a longer calendar like this, if only to break up the monotony.

Now, a society spanning multiple worlds has a conundrum. Most of the holidays, at first, would be those of the homeworld. But colonies would soon become like nations on Earth, each developing their own set of observances (for the same reasons, no less). Almost all of these would be purely local, but some would rise in prominence, as St. Patrick’s Day has done here.


However you do it, holidays add flavor to a world. They’re an important part of life. They have been for thousands of years, and they will be as long as we continue to observe them.

Most of a culture’s holidays are going to come from its roots, and each will have a story. Some are religious, others entirely dependent on the whims of the seasons. A few started out as movements for political or social change, or to honor the leaders of such. And today, every day of the year has been claimed in the name of some organization. (My own birthday of October 16, for instance, is Boss’s Day, which would be great if I had employees. It’s also World Food Day and World Anesthesia Day, because of historical anniversaries.)

As I said before, most stories won’t need this level of detail. But it can find a place in worldbuilding, and it’s always good to have the answers to the kinds of questions you never thought to ask. So, consider this a gift. And whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating over the next week or so, I hope you enjoy it.

On rogues and rebels

A popular trope in fiction is that of the rebel. Rebels, in their various disguises as rogues, thieves, pretenders, vigilantes, and terrorists, live outside the normal bounds of society in some way, and that apparently speaks to some primal instinct in us all. We may not empathise with them, and we rarely support them, but we enjoy them. Sometimes, the rebels are the good guys (Star Wars, V for Vendetta), sometimes they’re bad (every hostage movie ever), but they’re almost always interesting.

But what makes a “good” rogue, character-wise? I can’t claim to know the answer, but I do know what makes a rebel “real”: motivation. Few people turn to the “dark side” on a whim. There’s a reason why someone in real life becomes a rebel. What that specific reason is, however, depends on many factors.

Today’s terrorist groups are founded on ideological grounds, and the same is true throughout history. Religion is the one we’re most familiar with, as it’s so easy to spur people to violence over differences in faith. Peaceful religious rebels exist, too, but we so rarely hear of them in the news. Still, they’re out there, and they were formed on the same basis as ISIS and the IRA. Many of the first English colonies in the Americas, for example, were intended as religious endeavors; the Pilgrims, to name one, intended to create a utopia ordered around their ideals, far away from the influence of the outside world.

Religion isn’t the only motivator for rebellion. Politics can work, as well. That’s what got us the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and a thousand others throughout time. (Obviously, once the rebels take power, they’re no longer rebels, but everyone has to start somewhere.) Political rebellion can happen in just about any form of government, too, and it’s not always an attempt at overthrowing the whole system. In medieval monarchies, succession laws created a breeding ground for pretenders, some of whom gathered followers and pressed their claims.

Other factors can come into play. Economic inequality got us the Occupy movement a few years ago, but it’s also a good explanation as to why some turn to crime. Society itself can also turn people into rebels—minorities of any kind are especially susceptible—but it’s more likely to “amplify” other effects. How, you might ask? Put simply, people become marginalized (for whatever reason), which leads them into rebelling. Once they begin to rebel against authority, social pressures polarize the reactions of others, causing a “with us or against us” dichotomy. From here, there are a couple of paths, but the outcome is the same either way: the “rebels” tend to become more extreme, more hardened against negative opinion.

Individual rebels

The lone rebel is popular in all forms of fiction. He can appear on either side of a fight, as good or evil or (increasingly) as an anti-hero. For the individual rebel, think of Batman, a vigilante who works in the shadows, following his own moral compass. But also think of the Joker, because he’s no less distant from society.

Individual rebels in fiction tend to be outcasts, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it’s the easiest way to motivate a rebellious character. The orphan turned to a life of crime (or of fighting it), the woman in a man’s world, the racial minority—not just black in a sea of white, but also an elf among humans or the single Earthling in a universe full of aliens—whatever the cause, this character is alone. He has few or no connections to the society around him, so he has no reason to follow its norms, no reason to try to conform.

Loners like this are good protagonists in many stories, and some of my favorite lead characters are of this sort. I’d say that’s true for a lot of people, if the popularity of lone-star action heroes is any indication.


It’s usually social factors that create individual rebellion. By contrast, organized rebellion tends to be caused by “the system”. The Rebel Alliance is fighting the Empire. Freedom fighters want to create their own nation where they can live in peace. The faithful are sent by God to wrest control from the heretics running the kingdom. (The savvy reader will note that each of these examples makes the rebels look like the good guys. That’s by design. But you could just as easily invert expectations. After all, the scenarios equally describe the Confederate States of America, the Chechens, and al-Qaeda, respectively.)

Organizations range from the small (a band of anarchists, for example), to the large (national rebellions). At each stage, they can fight for good or bad. The common trait that all of them share, though, is that they all have a “mission”. Why do they fight society? Answer that, and you can better characterize the group. (And that goes just as well for real life, a fact that many people forget.)

Smaller groups tend to be localized. The Thieves’ Guild, a common trope in fantasy, is one example, but any kind of organized crime fits. Assassination plots work, too, as do “heists”. On the side of the good guys, there aren’t a lot of familiar options, unfortunately. Small paramilitary organizations might work, but a band of adventurers (or, in science fiction, the crew of a ship) doesn’t quite fit, unless there’s a very specific reason why they’ve been shunned by society. Of course, it’s possible to make criminal groups sympathetic; look at Robin Hood.

A larger organization, one spanning more than a single locality, is more likely to exist in modern or futuristic settings, as communication over greater distances becomes more practical. Today, we tend to equate “organized rebel group” with “terrorists”, but that’s largely a function of media manipulation. It might be less likely, but it’s no less possible to have a large group of rebels fighting for good. (Again, the Rebels of Star Wars serve as illustration.)

While the lone rebel as a protagonist is a staple of fiction, rebellious groups tend to be the bad guys or, at best, a backdrop. This makes intuitive sense, as it’s awfully difficult to characterize a group from the inside without focusing your attention on a handful of its members. Sure, the good guys might belong to a rebellion, and they might even believe in its cause, but it’s harder to work that into a story, in my opinion.

Governments in fiction

I’ll continue this ongoing not-quite-series for another week today by looking at the idea of government and how it is realized in fiction. This time, we almost have to lump science fiction and fantasy in together, simply because they share so many similarities. Most important among those is the fact that they are often (but not always) set in worlds besides our own, in societies besides our own. And a society needs a government of some sort; even true anarchy is, in effect, a form of government.

The rules of rule

Government is as varied as anything in this world. In the modern world, we have representative democracies (like the US is intended to be); parliamentary republics (much of Europe); monarchies (Thailand, Saudi Arabia); juntas (Burma, aka Myanmar); theocracies (ISIS, if you consider them an actual government); and dysfunctional anarchies (Somalia). Go back through history, and you find even more possibilities.

In fiction, though, many of the finer distinctions are lost. Much fantasy tends to go with the most known examples out of the Middle Ages: feudal monarchy, merchant republic, and a distant and inscrutable theocracy. Science fiction set in the future or on alien worlds prefers something more modern: democracy, corporate oligarchy, utopia (either libertarian or socialist), or a distant and inscrutable hive mind.

But there’s more to it than that.

Who rules?

That’s a simple question, but a profound one. Who’s in charge? We have options:

  • A single person: This is true of monarchies, dictatorships, and many theocracies. A single ruler is well-attested in history, from hunter-gatherer chieftains, to the pharaohs of Egypt, through the Chinese emperors, to the French kings and the Arabian emirs.

  • A small group of people: Not necessarily a council, but more of a cabal. They’re usually unelected, and they’re certainly not representative of the people as a whole. An example might be the two consuls of Rome, who had a sort of “power-sharing” system.

  • A larger group of people: Republics and democracies generally have a large government. This isn’t always because of bureaucracy; a system where each representative has N constituents will obviously need more and more representatives as the population grows. Of course, this smaller segment of society can then choose its own government and even a leader. Most modern countries in the West use a system like this, with a president or prime minister leading a larger body.

Why do they rule?

The rule of law is very important, but the reason the rulers are there in the first place shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Again, there are plenty of possibilities.

  • Will of the people: Ideally, this is the goal of representative democracies and republics. People vote for those most likely to support them. We can argue forever about just how effective this is, but the intent is clear.

  • Will of God: Leaders can claim their position is the result of divine will. Theocracies, quite obviously, follow this method, but medieval kings and emperors in West and East claimed the same thing. The coins of many countries in the British Commonwealth still bear an inscription that translates to “By the grace of God, Queen”, even if nobody really believes that anymore.

  • Family connections: Inheritance of rule was (and is) common in the world. Thrones and seats can be passed from father to son, mother to daughter, or any other relation. And nepotism remains a factor in any position of power. (There’s a reason why Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are two of the current election favorites in the US as I write this.)

  • Cold, hard cash: If you can’t get elected, you don’t know the right people, and God won’t help you, you can always buy your way in. Rule by the rich is a hallmark of feudalism and merchant republics alike, but oligarchs are the secret power in many countries today.

How do they rule?

This one’s a lot harder to break down into bullet points. How do your rulers rule? Do they have a codified set of laws, like the US Constitution? Or do they turn to holy scripture (or some facsimile thereof) for laws, morality, and punishment? Or is it simply power, the idea that might makes right?

A “lawful” system like those of most republics, democracies, and similar governments of today gives us a way to change the system from within. The Constitution can be amended, for example. And the turnover inherent in an electoral government means that outmoded ideas eventually get cast aside.

On the other hand, a theocratic system is, by definition, conservative. I don’t mean the political notion of conservative, here, but a philosophical one. Holy books can’t be changed, only reinterpreted, but there are some passages in every scripture that are all but absolute. There aren’t too many ways to read “Thou shalt not kill,” after all. (I don’t think there are too many ways to interpret “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” either, but some disagree.)

Similarly, a government ruled by the powerful will tend to be conservative, simply because those in charge don’t want to change things enough to put themselves on the outside. Military conquerors and coups don’t like to reinstitute elections, and corporate overlords aren’t going to allow a higher corporate tax. Power takes care of itself, and a more pessimistic person might say that’s the general tendency of all governments. But that’s a different post.


Really, like I’ve said in many other posts, the best way to make your fictional culture more realistic is to work it out. Using logic, common sense, and the knowledge at everyone’s fingertips, you can figure out just what kind of society you’re making and how it relates to the ones we know.

Government has its reasons for existing, no matter what you might think of it. Those reasons will be the subject of a future post, but you can probably think of a few of them right now. Think of the three main questions I’ve asked so far. Who rules? Why are they the ones in charge? And how do they stay at the top? Answer those, and you’re well on your way to a properly realistic solution.

Death and remembrance

Early in the morning of August 16 (the day I’m writing this), my stepdad’s mother passed away after a lengthy and increasingly tiresome battle with Alzheimer’s. This post isn’t a eulogy; for various reasons, I don’t feel like I’m the right person for such a job. Instead, I’m using it as a learning experience, as I have the past few years during her slow decline. So this post is about death, a morbid topic in any event. It’s not about the simple fact of death, however, but how a culture perceives that fact.

Weight of history

Burial ceremonies are some of the oldest evidence of true culture and civilization that we have. The idea of burying the dead with mementos even extends across species boundaries: Neanderthal remains have been found with tools. And the dead, our dead, are numerous, as the rising terrain levels in parts of Europe (caused by increasing numbers of burials throughout the ages) can attest. Death’s traditions are evident from the mummies of Egypt and Peru, the mausoleums of medieval Europe or the classical world, and the Terracotta Army of China. All societies have death, and they all must confront it, so let’s see how they do it.

The role of religion

Religion, in a very real sense, is ultimately an attempt to make sense of death’s finality. The most ancient religious practices we know deal with two main topics: the creation of the world, and the existence and form of an afterlife. Every faith has its own way of answering those two core mysteries. Once you wade through all the commandments and prohibitions and stories and revelations, that’s really all you’re left with.

One of the oldest and most enduring ideas is the return to the earth. This one is common in “pagan” beliefs, but it’s also a central concept in the Abrahamic religions of the modern West. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” is one popular variation of the statement. And it fits the biological “circle of life”, too. The body of the deceased does return to the earth (whether in whole or as ashes), and that provides sustenance, allowing new life to bloom.

More organized religion, though, needs more, and that is where we get into the murky waters of the soul. What that is, nobody truly knows, and that’s not even a metaphor: the notion of “soul” is different for different peoples. Is it the essence of humanity that separates us from lower animals? Is it intelligence and self-awareness? A spark of the divine?

In truth, it doesn’t really matter. Once religion offers the idea of a soul that is separate from the body, it must then explain what happens to that soul once the body can no longer support it. Thousands of years worth of theologians have argued that point, up to—and including—starting wars in the name of their own interpretation. The reason they can do that is simple: all the ideas are variations on the same basic theme.

That basic them is thus: people die. That much can’t be argued. What happens next is the realm of God or gods, but it usually follows a general pattern. Souls are judged based on some subset of their actions in life, such as good deeds versus bad, adherence to custom or precept, or general faithfulness. Their form of afterlife then depends on the outcome. “Good” souls (whatever that is decided to mean) are awarded in some way, while “bad” souls are condemned. The harsher faiths make this condemnation last forever, but it’s most often (and more justly, in my opinion) for a period of time proportional to the evils committed in life.

The award, in general, is a second, usually eternal life spent in a utopia, however that would be defined by the religion in question. Christianity, for example, really only specifies that souls in heaven are in the presence of God, but popular thought has transformed that to the life of delights among the clouds that we see portrayed in media; early Church thought was an earthly heaven instead. Islam, popularly, has the “72 eternal virgins” presented to the faithful in heaven. In Norse mythology, valiant souls are allowed to dine with the gods and heroes in Valhalla, but they must then fight the final battle, Ragnarök (which they are destined to lose, strangely enough). In even these three disparate cases, you can see the similarities: the good receive an idyllic life, something they could only dream of in the confines of their body.

Ceremonies of death

Religion, then, tells us what happens to the soul, but there is still the matter of the body. It must be disposed of, and even early cultures understood this. But how do we dispose of something that was once human while retaining the dignity of the person once inhabited it?

Ceremonial burial is the oldest trick in the book, so to speak. It’s one of the markers of intelligence and organization in the archaeological record, and it dates back to long before our idea of civilization. And it’s still practiced on a wide scale today; my stepdad’s mother, the ultimate cause of this post, will be buried in the coming days.

Burial takes different forms for different peoples, but it’s always a ceremony. The dead are often buried with some of their possessions, and this may be the result of some primal belief that they’ll need them in the hereafter. We don’t know for sure about the rites and rituals of ancient cultures, but we can easily imagine that they were not much different from our own. We in the modern world say a few words, remember the deeds of the deceased, lower the body into the ground, leave a marker, and promise to come back soon. Some people have more elaborate shrines, others have only a bare stone inscribed with their name. Some families plant flowers or leave baubles (my cousin, who passed away at the beginning of last year, has a large and frankly gaudy array of such things adorning his grave, including solar-powered lights, wind chimes, and pictures).

Anywhere the dead are buried, it’s pretty much the same. They’re placed in the ground in a special, reserved place (a cemetery). The graves are marked, both for ease of remembrance and as a helpful reminder of where not to bury another. The body is left in some enclosure to protect it from prying eyes, and keepsakes are typically beside it.

Burial isn’t the only option, though, not even in the modern world. Cremation, where the body is burned and rendered into ash, is still popular. (A local scandal some years ago involved a crematorium whose owner was, in fact, dumping the bodies in a pond behind the place and filling the urns with things like cement or ground bones.) Today, cremation is seen as an alternative to burial, but some cultures did (and do) see it or something similar as the primary method of disposing of a person’s earthly remains. The Viking pyre is fixed in our imagination, and television sitcoms almost always have a dead relative’s ashes sitting somewhere vulnerable.

I’ll admit that I don’t see the purpose of cremation. If you believe in the resurrection of souls into their reformed earthly bodies, as in some varieties of Christianity and Judaism, then you’d have to view the idea of burning the body to ash as something akin to blasphemy. On the other hand, I can see the allure. The key component of a cremation is fire, and fire is the ultimate in human tools. The story of human civilization, in a very real sense, is the story of how we have tamed fire. So it’s easy to see how powerful a statement cremation or a funeral pyre can make.

Burying and burning were the two main ways of disposing of remains for the vast majority of humanity’s history. Nowadays, we have a few other options: donating to science, dissection for organs, cryogenic freezing, etc. Notice, though, that these all have a “technological” connotation. Cryogenics is the realm of sci-fi; organ donation is modern medicine. There’s still a ceremony, but the final result is much different.

Closing thoughts

Death in a culture brings together a lot of things: religion, ritual, the idea of family. Even the legal system gets involved these days, because of things like life insurance, death certificates, and the like. It’s more than just the end of life, and there’s a reason why the most powerful, most immersive stories are often those that deal with death in a realisic way. People mourn, they weep, they celebrate the life and times of the deceased.

We have funerals and wakes and obituaries because no man is an island. Everyone is connected, everyone has family and friends. The living are affected by death, and far more than the deceased. We’re the ones who feel it, who have to carry on, and the elaborate ceremonies of death are our oldest, most human way of coping.

We honor the fallen because we knew them in life, and we hope to know them again in an afterlife, whatever form that may take. But, curiously, death has a dichotomy. Religion clashes with ancient tradition, and the two have become nearly inseparable. A couple of days from now, my stepdad might be sitting in the local funeral home’s chapel, listening to a service for his mother that invokes Christ and resurrection and other theology, but he’ll be looking at a casket that is filled with tiny treasures, a way of honoring the dead that has continued, unbroken, for tens of thousands of years. And that is the truth of culture.

Faith and fantasy

Religion is one of those things that, as an author or game designer, you have to treat very carefully. The risk of offense is too great, especially in the politically-correct, offense-first world of today. It’s easy to fall into a trap of pigeonholing real-world religions. “Evil, Arabian-looking bad guys that act like Muslims” is practically a genre trope at this point; two examples that I’ve read include the Fanim of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Krasians of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. “Evil, hierarchical church that looks Roman Catholic” isn’t exactly uncommon, either.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Sure, the popular religions in the world are the way they are, and they’re easy to relate to, easy to understand, because we see them every day. But different cultures, especially in different worlds than our own, are going to have different ways of looking at religion, faith, philosophy, and the supernatural. And their beliefs will shape their society, just as ours, historically, have shaped our own.

Of God and gods

In the West, there are three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In addition, there are a number of others that have significantly less popular appeal. The East, conversely, gives us the trio of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, along with a host of minor faiths. (And by “minor”, I mean they have fewer followers, not that they’re less important or less valuable.) And, of course, we also have the “non-religions” of atheism and agnosticism, as well as a number of systems of belief that might better be grouped under “philosophy”.

Even the largest of religions is not monolithic, however. Christianity has a whole spectrum of sects (“denominations”), and many Americans have become familiar with the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Some can even spot the difference between some of the different sects of modern Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, etc.). We know comparatively far less about the other side of the world, though; most people in the US probably think of all Buddhists as Zen, for example.

In fantasy literature, religion—when it is mentioned at all—usually only gets a passing nod. There might be the occasional oath, prayer, or swear, but a story where the beliefs of the people are not the focus often ignores those beliefs. And that’s fine. If it’s not an important worldbuilding detail, then there’s probably not much reason to put it in.

Conversely, games, especially tabletop role-playing games, make religion an integral part of the story. D&D (and its offshoots, like Pathfinder) has lists of deities, each with their own domain, and these almost always function like the pantheons of old, except with added benefits for certain believers. (In D&D, for example, clerics and paladins usually must follow a deity, and they receive divine blessings and spells in return.) In a way, despite there being a very detailed summary of religion, it’s abstracted away into a game mechanic.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Players shouldn’t be forced to study theology just to play a game. But fantasy, both literature and gaming, has a problem understanding the link between religion and society, and that link was a very real, very important part of the period of history favored by fantasy.

One to many

We all know the “origin stories” of the major Western religions, whether creation, crucifixion, or revelation. But all of these, as well as those less-familiar faiths of the world, had a major impact on the development of society. The Middle Ages, that favorite era of fantasy literature and games alike, was shaped by religion. In many ways, you could even say it was defined by religion.

When fantasy posits a pantheon (like D&D), that actually breaks the world for their other main assumption: the feudal monarchy. Feudalism, serfdom, the divine right of kings, knighthood, and all those other conceits of medieval Europe are based on a thousand years of Christianity.

“The end is coming soon, so get ready,” goes the common Christian refrain, and that’s largely been true since the 30s. No, not the 1930s, but the 30s, as in 30 AD. Christianity has always had a strain of the apocalyptic—the last book of the Bible is, after all, supposed to be a vision of the End of Days—though it has waxed and waned through the ages. In the medieval period, it was mostly waxing. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war were facts of life, especially for the lower classes, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. “The meek shall inherit the earth” was the closest thing to hope for the future that many people had.

If you replace the strict belief in God (whose eternal good was countered by the increasing influence of the Devil) with a nebulous—if effectual—pantheon, then things change dramatically. Get rid of the Church, the Pope, and all the other trappings of medieval Christianity, and all of society will develop differently.

Changing the game

In medieval Europe, the Church had supreme power, and all of it was centered on the Pope. He could make kings (or break them), crown emperors, canonize martyrs, or call crusades. His announcements of doctrine, the papal bulls, were regarded as nothing less than official interpretations of scripture. And he had one ultimate, terrifying weapon: excommunication.

All that it did was ban a person or group of people from Communion, effectively ostracizing them from the Church. But in a world where the eternal soul was seen as infinitely more important than its mortal frame, this was enough to turn even the most hardened of hearts. Rebels, heretics, willful kings, and political enemies all faced the threat of excommunication, and almost every one of them quailed in the face of such a punishment. Rebellions could end entirely once word came from Rome that their leaders had been cast out of the Church, no longer able to receive the blessings of Christ and thus condemned to Hell for all eternity. Even whole cities (such as Florence) were put under that threat simply to scare their rulers into complying with the Church’s wishes or dogma.

Besides the Church’s chief weapon (I’ll spare you the Monty Python jokes) and its total control of doctrine, it also changed Europe by bringing in its own social structure. Monasteries, hermitages, nunneries, convents, and abbeys all had their roles to play, and they were all part of the Church. And these weren’t always what you’d think from movies. Monks could be rich, nuns literate, and hermits not always loners living in caves. One of them even got elected as pope: Celestine V, who quit after a few months. (Every other pope from 1294 onwards ruled until he died or was cast out, until Benedict XVI not long ago.)

The Christian church and faith was the single largest influence on the development of the Middle Ages. Because of it, the Black Death was asserted as a sign of coming Armageddon, as was the famine that preceded it, and the Mongol horde that may have brought it. Without the church, the culture of monasticism wouldn’t have been so prevalent, nor would the orders of crusading knighthood, such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order exist.

Indeed, even the period’s systems of economy and government are indebted to Christianity. Feudalism lasted as long as it did mostly because people were taught that it was the natural order of things. Serfs were born to be serfs, and nobles to be nobles, and there were shelves full of books explaining all the ways you could see how that was true. Nobles, for instance, were taller, heavier, and healthier. Nobody bothered to note that this was because of nutrition and the often harsh working conditions of the peasantry. Rather, it was taken as part of the divine plan.

The realm of fiction

Fantasy likes to take the feudal society of Europe (especially the later, post-plague society where feudalism began to falter) and make it its own, without taking along the religious aspect that made it possible. In essence, you could say that medieval, feudal Europe came about because of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who converted himself and then his empire to Christianity.

Without a strong, central Church, you lose most of the foundations of the setting. If every city or nation can make its own doctrine, then you have very little world unity and shared culture. With more than one deity to worship, with no fixed scripture proclaiming the end of the world and the promise of a utopic afterlife, then there is no motivation for serfdom, for the glory of crusade.

Even technology is affected by the change in faith. Cathedrals, the defining monument of the Middle Ages, were built because of religion. Sure, a polytheistic culture might build great temples, and they would likely come to many of the same discoveries about building, but would they have the same styles? Likely not. They certainly wouldn’t be laid out in the shape of a cross, like the European cathedrals.

Some areas might become more advanced if you lift the strictures of Christianity. Machinery that could aid in work was often overlooked, simply because there were always more laborers to throw at a problem. The science of astronomy was held back by the belief that the stars were the realm of God, thus unknowable to man. And how would banking develop if the Christian constraints on usury didn’t exist to create a niche (and a stereotype) filled by Jews?

Magic, of course, is an obvious addition to any fantasy world, but it also existed (not really, but in people’s minds) in the Middle Ages. It’s something that was well-known, but totally forbidden. Fireball-wielding mages would have to be fit into the religious world-view, and where would they go? The sorcerers of the aforementioned Prince of Nothing series are excommunicated by default, but it’s easy to imagine a setting where the wizards are seen as messengers or even avatars of God or the gods.

Like so many other topics in worldbuilding, a few decisions change the outcome completely. Monotheism, logically speaking, probably leads to one of the same outcomes as it did in our world. Polytheism is reflected in ancient Rome and even modern India, as well as most fantasy. A lot of other ideas require more thought. If God is everywhere, in everything, then who needs temples or churches? If the world is full of spirits that inhabit every living thing, how can you eat and still live with yourself? (Yes, that means an animist world could have even stricter dietary laws than Islam. Think of Hinduism’s sacred cows.)

The length of time that a religion has existed will also play a role in a society’s development. The older something is, the more likely it is to change. Faiths fracture, sectarianism grows, especially if there is no central authority. A polytheistic culture is prone to develop “local” gods; Athena, patron of Athens, is a good example. New religions exist in a state of flux, as everyone vies for the right to be considered orthodox, often with disastrous consequences for those that lose. (How many Gnostics do you know?)

Rituals, prayers, and even the calendar can also be affected. The word “holiday” literally means “holy day”, and that’s where the oldest of them come from. Christmas and Easter are the ones everybody knows, although few know that they’re replacements for “pagan” holidays celebrating the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. But Lent and Ash Wednesday were far more important in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day, another pagan substitution, has become so marginalized that we celebrate the night before it instead: Halloween. Different religions, though, will have their own holy times: Ramadan, Hanukkah, and so on. As for prayers, who do you pray to when you have a hundred gods to choose from? Who is the one to memorize all the appropriate rituals?

End of this day

As always, there’s a lot to think about, and your choice is one of how deep to go. Obviously, if religion isn’t a major part of your world, then there’s not too much you have to do. But religion might be a significant part of your characters’ world, and it might show in the way they act, think, talk.

Faith and logic don’t always have a lot in common, it’s true. This is one place where the latter makes the former possible. It’s not your faith you’re worried about. Presumably, you’ve already decided that, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on your created world. Logically working out the beliefs of your world and their effects, though, can make for a deeper immersion into your story. It might even make some people think.

On magic as technology

I’ve previously written about the idea of magic and technology coexisting, and I touched briefly on some of the ways that a world would be different from our own, if magic truly did exist the way it’s often described in fantasy literature. This week, I’m taking it to 11. We’re going to look at what happens when magic doesn’t just live alongside technology, but either replaces or supplements it.

A world with magical technology shows up in the occasional mainstream setting. Many Final Fantasy games, FFVII and FFXII for example, have a heavy emphasis on magic working as or with technology. D&D’s Eberron setting has a high-magic world where magical implements take the place of technological devices. And, most familiar of all, the Harry Potter series has a number of “industrial magic” instances: messenger owls, phantom quills, etc.

The core conceit

The first thing we have to ask about a magic-as-technology setting is this: how common is the magic? If only a certain few can wield magic at all, it won’t form a major function of the technological progression. But if objects that use magic can be made and then used by those without magical talent, then you have the basis for a “technomancer” guild, where mages can create enchanted objects for the general public. Give everybody the capability for techno-magic, and many people will use it to make things. Some won’t, though, and magic-based “factories” could spring up, offering production lines and volume discounts. It might be a bit like today’s PC market, where most people buy a computer from a big name like Dell, but a select few learn how to build their own. They might pay a little more, but they get a level of customization not possible for the “big boys”.

Knowing how many magically-aware people we have, we can move on to the second question: how does magic work? I don’t mean in general, but only in comparison to science. If magic and technology work in basically the same way, and they can affect one another, then you have a “magitech” setting where the two almost merge (e.g., Final Fantasy). “Technomancy” is more of a situation where magic replaces tech (e.g., Harry Potter). Both of these have their ups and downs, but we’re not here to debate them today. They both have one thing in common: the notion that magic works in a predictable, testable, repeatable fashion. In other words, magic is scientific.

Branching off

When, in the course of history, was “scientific” magic discovered? The farther back you put this defining event, the less the final result will look like our world. Humans have an amazing capability to adapt new things to their use, and magic would be no different.

Take our own world, for instance. If magic had come into being, say, on December 21, 2012, the world as we know it would be largely the same. (I actually had an idea for a story based on this very topic, years ago, but I never got around to making it.) Three years isn’t that much time, after all. We’d probably just be seeing the first stirrings of a magical revolution right now.

Move the magical zero-hour back, though, and things begin to happen. Anywhere within an average lifetime, and the world doesn’t change enough to be unrecognizable, but you get lots of fun what-if questions. What if Osama bin Laden had access to magic in 2001? What if NASA had magical air-recycling in the 70s? What if the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were magically-enhanced? Or, for that matter, what if the Japanese had magical defenses against them?

Beyond a lifetime, the possibilities start to get too much. World War I is just now at the edge of living memory, but imagine if it was the first magical war. The body counts might have been even higher, the damage to the land far worse. Or things could have been changed for the better. Who knows? Wars are the easiest to speculate about, but any historical event could have gone differently if magic had been involved. And then everything would change.

Once you go back far enough, and once magic gets powerful enough, civilization itself turns out differently. If you have magical means of sending messages across miles, who needs radio? Magical copying can eliminate the need not just for electronic copiers, but for the printing press, too. If running water can be provided by a spirit of a river that anyone can tame, then why would you ever invent the aqueduct?

Not just invention, but every facet of life can be changed through the proper application of magic. Travelers could move about at night with magical illumination sources. A “ray of frost” spell is going to be a big boost to the study of heat transfer. “Flesh to stone” can take the place of mausoleum statues. The list goes on ad infinitum, because there’s nothing that wouldn’t be different in a world full of verifiable, technical magic. Even literature wouldn’t be immune. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy in such a world would probably be more of a satirical, comedic genre, or maybe a stylized look at the real world. The true literary heroes might become those who did great deeds without magical help.

How much do you need?

This is a rabbit hole that goes on forever, and it’s easy to get lost in it. For somebody trying to create the illusion of a techno-magic world, I can only offer a little advice.

First, decide on answers to the two questions above. Figure out where magic changes the “natural” order of history (even if you’re making a fantasy world). Work out what kind of magic the people would have access to, and how many of them can use it. The decisions you make here affect everything else, so they’re the most important.

Second, you can “cheat” by saying that just about everything that happened before magic matches up with our world. The precise details won’t be the same, but a world where magic was discovered in Roman times would probably have something resembling a Stone Age and a Bronze Age before that. Basically, any invention from before your branching point gets in for free, and you can work from there.

Third, think about what you need. Sure, it’s fun to explore the different possibilities, the different paths of the butterfly effect, but you do need to remember the needs of your story. Magical, oceangoing ships without sails might be interesting, but people living in a landlocked city-state probably won’t care about them, so a story set there might only mention them in passing, such as a brief phrase dropped in a traveler’s tale.

Fourth, use logic. That’s the whole point of technological magic, that it works the same as science. Wands of magic missile can replace guns, sure, but if they’re easy (and cheap) enough to make, then they would replace guns just about everywhere. Probably bows, too. Hunters would use them, and so would assassins. If that changeover is far enough in the past, society might completely forget how to make guns. (And that could make an interesting story hook, if I do say so myself.)

Finally, resist the urge to stagnate. If magic replaces technology, that doesn’t mean that progress stops. No, it just starts going in a different direction. It’s humanity’s unspoken desire to evolve, and the history of civilization is that of people coming together to change their environment to better suit them. That won’t stop simply because magic becomes involved. In many cases, industrial magic might cause things to speed up. If we can make things fly using magic in the High Middle Ages, then Da Vinci, the Montgolfiers, and the Wrights never need to design or build gliders, hot-air balloons, and airplanes. Magical airships, ornithopters, or the like would be a common sight to them, so why bother making something less powerful, less efficient, and more dangerous?

Going deeper

In case you couldn’t tell, I really like these thought experiments. I want to do more of them. I want to follow the rabbit hole deeper. Maybe it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Maybe you’re satisfied with Generic Medieval Europe With Wizards. That’s fine. I understand that, and sometimes it’s just what I need, too. But I definitely want to keep exploring the intersection of magic and science. I can’t promise it will be a regular, weekly thing, but I’ll put them in every now and then.

Medieval coinage: fantasy vs. reality

I’ve been writing these posts days (sometimes weeks) in advance. Whenever this one may be posted, it was written on 7/7, at a time when the Greek economy is making all the headlines. The talk of money is in the air, so I can’t help but think of it. And when I think of something, I want to write about it, so here you go. (Also, I’m a coin collector, so this fits into not one, but two of my hobbies.)

We all know that fantasy has a tendency to stay stuck in medieval Europe, particularly England. That time (and place) is pretty much the default setting for fantasy literature and gaming. But it’s not the real Middle Ages, only a facsimile, an idealized, romantic notion of that time. World-builders can do better than that; nowadays, they’re all but expected to. However, money is still one place where even the best games and books can trip up.

The Idea

Money is taken as a given in modern society. Whether we’re holding little discs of metal, folded bits of paper, stiff plastic, or bits and our imagination, we use money all the time. For a lot of people, it’s hard to imagine life without it. Thus, since writers write what they know, fantasy worlds almost always have a monetary system, and it’s usually far closer to ours today than those of the Middle Ages.

Money, as an idea, goes back thousands of years. For example, any coin show worth the name will have Roman specimens for sale at reasonable prices. (I bought one for my cousin as a Christmas present in 2004. It cost $20, and it was just about the cheapest thing I got.) Since those ancient days, it’s been made pretty much constantly. The barbarian hordes of the Dark Ages minted their own coins, even after they had all but demolished the western half of the Roman Empire. Everywhere you look, there’s money. Maybe not always metal and paper, but something will have value. (In parts of America, they were using things like cocoa beans around this time.)

So there’s nothing wrong with a fantasy world having money, simply on the basis that everyone’s doing it, and they always have been. The problem lies in how that money economy is represented, especially in the time period and location we’re talking about here: Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Buy, Sell, or Trade

Not everyone had money then. Not everyone needed it. For a lot of things, you could get away with barter, especially if you were a member of the lower classes (like most people were). You also had the option of payment “in kind”, which was almost the same thing, except that it was a one-way street: you pay your taxes in grain, or cows, or whatever. In a feudal society with heavy serfdom, this works, since the peasantry wouldn’t be buying much, anyway. For games, though, this has its drawbacks, as players want loot, and they almost always want it in cold, hard cash. (Banished, however, is notable for getting away with a lack of money, since it’s a city-building game emphasizing resource management.)

Players want money. Readers expect it. So what’s a writer to do? Well, if you want medieval money, you need to know what money was like in those times. So the rest of the post can serve as a primer to the currency of the Middle Ages.

A Note on Units

For measuring precious metals such as gold and silver, the traditional “Customary” system uses a few units that may seem odd to non-Americans used to the metric system. (In fact, they can be confusing for Americans, too.)

Specifically, precious metals are measured using troy units. The smallest unit is the grain, which was originally based on the weight of a grain of barley; in metric terms, it’s about 64.8 mg. The troy ounce is 480 grains (~= 31.1 g), and the troy pound is 12 ounces = 5760 grains ~= 373.2 g. (Note that this is not the same as the “regular” avoirdupois pound, where 1 pound = 16 ounces ~= 454 g.) We’ll see these units later on, but I’ll try to add in metric equivalents.

Silver: Economic Workhorse

The most common coins in the Middle Ages were made of silver, sometimes nearly pure, but usually alloyed with base metals. Most countries at the time used a system based on the old Roman coinage, where a pound of silver (hence pound sterling) was divided into 240 parts, each making a penny. (The specific amount of weight varied based on the pound used, as different places had different standard weights, but the nominal value is obviously 24 grains, or ~ 1.56 g.) Between the penny and the pound was the shilling, worth 12 pence or 1/20 of a pound, although no actual shilling coin was minted in Britain until around 1500, well after the High Middle Ages.

These are the English names for these specific coins, but other locales in Europe used their own variations. France had the livre (the French word for “pound”), the sou (1/20 of a livre), and the denier (1/12 of a sou). In Italy, it was the lira, soldo, and denari. The states of the Holy Roman Empire had pfunds, schillings, and pfennigs. All of these are translations or descendants of the Roman libra, solidus, and denarius, the forebears of the system.

Pennies, whatever name they go by, were the main currency (when currency was used) for everyone outside the nobility, but they were tiny. The baseline for fantasy RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons (or simply D&D), has its generic “silver piece” coin defined as 50 to the pound, or about 9.4 g. Real pennies were far smaller, rarely heavier than 1.5 g, and often less than one gram. (Not only that, but they often became debased as time went on, meaning you got less and less actual silver content. It was the medieval equivalent to inflation.) Clearly, D&D is way off.

There were other silver coins in use at the time, though, and many of these were bigger. In England, for instance, we have the groat, equal to 4 pence and weighing 4.67 g in 1351. This larger coin was a model going around Europe at the time, also appearing as the French gros, Italian grosso, and German groschen. Most of the time it was valued as four pennies, like in England, but some places had it as six (Genoa), twelve (France and some of Italy), or twenty (Venice). Some places also had a half-groat (2 pence in England) to split the difference between the two main silver coins.

For larger “purchases”, you didn’t necessarily have to have a bag full of coins. Silver bars were still commonly used for trade in the medieval period, and the closest thing to a standard unit for them was the mark, equal to half a pound = 8 ounces ~= 186.6 g. (In D&D terms, this would be around 30 silver pieces.)

Gold: Ooh, Shiny!

Gold, of course, has been valuable forever, and for good reason. Gold coins are some of the oldest in existence, dating back millennia. Focusing on our medieval period, we can see that gold is still valuable, still in use here. Early in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t quite as visible, a bit like $100 (or €100, I think?) bills today. Later on, though, as wages went up and fineness came down, gold coins became more popular.

The gold standard (see what I did there?) of coinage in medieval Europe was the florin. Obviously, it originally came from Florence, but it was soon copied all over the continent. Florence’s version was as pure as they could make it, and it weighed in around 3.5 g, with a value equal to 1 pound (lira) of silver. Venice followed with the ducat, France with the ècu, and so on. England, after an aborted attempt at mimicking the Continent, made its “noble”, equal to 1/3 of a pound sterling (80 pence) and weighing almost 9 g. (This was very close, in fact, to a D&D gold piece.)

Spain, too, went its own way, taking the maravedi from Arabic coinage. It started out roughly the same as a florin (albeit a century earlier), but greed and inflation took their toll. By 1300, the maravedi no longer had any gold in it. Debasement had turned it into a silver coin. Fifty years later, it wasn’t even that, relegated to a unit of account until the colonization of the New World brought a greater need for Spanish small change.

Copper: Of Little Worth

Copper pieces are a staple of fantasy, especially “low” fantasy more interested in the peasantry than the gentry. But that’s a bit of an anachronism. Copper coinage wasn’t widely used in the High Middle Ages. There simply wasn’t much need, as nobody really wanted to buy anything worth so little that copper would be useful. Later in the period, though, copper coins did become popular, starting as heavily-debased silver “white money”, then becoming the even worse “black money”, before finally removing the precious metal altogether.

It’s really in the later 14th century that copper money gets its start. Usually, it comes about as prices fall and cities grow. Urbanites need more small change than rural farmers, as they tend to deal in smaller quantities. In Italy, where urbanism was at its strongest, copper comes into its own, but the whole thing was a mess of different denominations from different cities.

In general, by 1400 a lot of pennies were on their way to becoming full copper, but they were still technically considered silver coins. England, that favorite of fantasy, was the exception: official copper pieces weren’t minted at all until well after the Middle Ages. Instead, tokens of lead were made to trade in smaller amounts.

For roleplayers, copper pieces are all but useless, almost a joke. But fantasy writers might need small change to put in the pockets of their poor. Well, as long as they’re in a city.

Platinum: Not Even There

D&D defines a platinum piece as 10 gold pieces (or 100, if you’re playing 4th Edition). But there’s a big problem: platinum effectively didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, at least not in Europe. There is evidence of its use among natives in South America, but it wasn’t actually used by Europeans until the 18th century. So, if you’re going for realism, you won’t have platinum coins at all. Of course, fantasy dwarves might use it, and magic may make it easier to find, but that’s a topic for a different day.

Paper: Folding Money

Paper money quite obviously requires paper, which didn’t get big in Europe until the end of the High Middle Ages. Bills of sale existed, though, and these eventually evolved into checks, then to paper money.

A serious paper currency requires a printing press, which, strictly speaking, puts it just outside the Middle Ages. But older methods of printing (woodblocks, for example) could work, too. It wouldn’t be anything like today’s paper economy, but there’s nothing stopping it. It’s just not entirely historical. Obviously, fantasy doesn’t have to worry about that; magic might be able to replace the press. (One of my favorite book series, Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and the Coin, actually uses the invention of paper money as a plot point.)

The Buck Stops Here

Cultures in Middle Ages Europe, broadly speaking, did have a monetary system. It’s not much like our own, but it’s equally distinct from the faux-medieval ideas shown in fantasy literature and gaming. Players of RPGs might not like the complexity of the real thing, but authors surely do. But even they are guilty of anachronism. Even the notion of decimal currency (100 cents to the dollar, pennies to the pound, etc.) was unfamiliar seven centuries ago. Standard weights existed, but each country (in some cases, each city) had its own standard. I doubt anyone would want to play out the process of getting your foreign loot exchanged into local coin, but it wouldn’t be nearly as out of place as knights carrying platinum pieces.

Okay, I’ve gone on far longer than I first anticipated. Time to stop.

On magic and technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Clarke’s third law. But the reverse is true, too, especially in fantasy. It’s a staple of the genre that magic exists (at some level), but there are few authors who take the time to truly illustrate that fact. If magic exists in any predictable form (not just, for example, as the powers of capricious gods), then it can and will be predicted, if human evolution is any indication. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from hunters and gatherers to spacefarers, and we’ve used everything at our disposal to get there. Why wouldn’t we use magic, too, if we could?

Fantasy, particularly high fantasy, apparently doesn’t work that way. Magic is often seen as a natural force that can’t truly be harnessed, even by those mages who wield it. Very rarely are its effects on society shown, and then usually as something like an evil wizard overlord terrorizing his subjects or a land made inhospitable by a magical explosion.

But we can do better. Indeed, some authors do go to the trouble of working out the consequences of their world-building. (Whatever your opinions on his writing and stories, Brandon Sanderson is certainly one of these, and he’s only one of the most popular.) Fantasy doesn’t have to be restricted to the generic European Middle Ages setting, nor should it be. In science fiction, it’s common to take a single development (the invention of faster-than-light travel, say) and write a story around the fallout of that development. My argument, then, is that fantasy authors should do the same kind of world-building, even if it’s only for background, because it creates a deeper, more immersive world.

So, we’ll assume that we all agree that fantasy needs world-building, too. And fantasy’s replacement for advanced technology is magic. Thus, it stands to reason that magic is the focal point for our world. Now, we can ask a few questions about that magic, and we can follow a logical path to a magical world.

How many mages?

First, just how common is magic? Are there only a few mages in the world? Or even a single one? Lord of the Rings, for instance, only has a handful of magic users in all of Middle-Earth. Although they’re pivotal to the plot, they don’t really affect the world all that much. By contrast, a series like Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera has a world where essentially everybody uses magic, and it’s a whole different place.

If magic is all-powerful (or even just plain powerful), and there aren’t that many mages, then those lucky few are probably going to be in positions of power. There’s no real reason they won’t be. Think of Watchmen, but imagine that they’re wizards instead of superheroes. For that matter, think of Sauron. If there are only, say, a dozen wizards in the world, but they can call down the wrath of the gods, they won’t be advisors to kings. They’ll be the kings. You’ll need some serious contrivances to make a realistic case that a handful of powerful mages won’t be the leaders of the known world. Gandalf, for example, is truly good, but even he admits he can be tempted by the power of the One Ring. The same for Galadriel, with her “in place of the dark lord, you would have a queen” speech.

Give the world more magic users, and things begin to change, as long as their power is “diluted” by numbers. One mage in every city, easily killed if you can get the jump on him, might still lust for power, but he won’t be able to get as much of it. Put a low-level mage in every village and town, and it becomes just another craft like smithing. This is the default assumption of the sword and sorcery genre, especially that based on tabletop RPGs.

With magic slightly uncommon (somewhere on the order of one wizard for every thousand people), users will be respected, but not deified. And that’s a lot of mages: that same ratio would give us seven million magic users today. In other words, everybody in Hong Kong is a wizard. Somewhere around this point, the medieval/D&D assumptions go out the window. Sure, you’d probably have magical schools and guilds, but the world would change drastically.

Go to the extreme, let everybody tap the power of the arcane, and the world is a totally different place. At this point, you’re not really writing about the human race anymore. You’re writing about a race of mages that look human. If magic is that common, it won’t live alongside technology at all. Instead, it might entirely take technology’s place. Why invent a lighter when a fire spell works even better? If you can concentrate energy into a tiny ball of lightning, then who needs electricity? Working out the specifics of a “ubiquitous magic” setting is a topic for a later post, but you should try to imagine the repercussions of giving magic to the whole world.

What kind of magic?

What does magic do? Can it be used to create, or only destroy? In Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series (and its sequels), it’s an overriding theme that sorcerers can only mar the world’s perfection, like a child’s scribbles across a painting. They can’t make things truly beautiful. They can’t remake things. Magic is, to a first approximation, only destructive. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the general idea.) D&D’s Dark Sun setting is another take on this “creation and destruction” dichotomy.

In a world like this, where magic can only be used to harm, not help, it will certainly be weaponized. That’s just human nature. We’re always looking for better ways to kill (and to protect ourselves). But destructive magic will also have use outside of warfare, just like guns today. Destructive magic could still be used for the benefit of society. Think building demolition, clearing weeds from a field, mining, and even simple hunting.

If you allow for creative magics, then a whole new world opens up. Magic can become an art form, a craftsman’s tool, in addition to being a weapon of conquest or defense. In a “binary” world of creative and destructive magic, users of either side might actually work together, each using their own specialties. After all, building a house takes more than a construction crew. Sometimes, you need bulldozers.

With a magic system that divides the arcane into smaller pieces (elements, colleges, or whatever you want to call them), you start to get a rich background ripe for factional conflict. But there will also be knock-on effects in society at large. Fire mages would be awfully popular in the frozen wastelands of the north, while water or weather wizards could take the place of irrigation systems in arid regions. Magic then becomes a trade, and therefore subject to economic forces like supply and demand. (Again, the full ramifications can wait until a future post, but feel free to speculate.)

Other ideas

There are so many “what if?” questions one could ask about magic that a single post can never answer them. I couldn’t even begin to try. But here are a few that I feel are worthy of note. What if…:

  • …magic is technology? Namely, it’s the machinery of a long-lost civilization. This neatly ties back into Clarke’s law by making magic and advanced tech equal, instead of merely equivalent.

  • …magic is new to the world? If we discovered magic next year (i.e., 2016), then the world in, say, 2066 would be far different than if magic was first found in 1066.

  • …magic is religious? Honestly, I don’t see that changing much. Clerics and wizards aren’t that different. As long as it’s predictable and testable, it doesn’t matter whether magic comes from God, the earth, ley lines, or solar radiation.

  • …our enemies obtain magic? It’s no different from any other weapon of mass destruction, really. Sure, the idea of ISIS with guns and fireballs might be terrifying, but, unless magic makes them invincible, there’s only so much they can do.

  • …magic changes you? Plenty of authors have tried this one. (Hopefully, I’ll be guilty of it by this time next year.) The use of sorcery–since it’s usually called such in those settings–taints your soul, destroys your mind, or wrecks your body. In that case, yeah, mages might limit the use of their power, but that would actually serve to make magic seem more…magical. Fireworks would lose their luster if they weren’t limited to the Fourth of July and New Year’s. Plus, magic that can only be used so many times would be saved for the times when it’s really needed, and that sounds like an interesting story to me.

The end…?

I’ll write more on this subject later. An idea I have (that I may not actually do) is a whole constructed culture, similar to the “Let’s make a language” series, but exploring the ways a culture is shaped by its environment, its history, and itself. That’s for later, though. For the next post, I want to take our idea above–magic as technology–and run it to its logical conclusion: “magitech”.