What I did on my Summer Vacation: Or Historical Research for Fantasy Stuff – Alma Boykin
So, by now everyone knows I’m back in-country from three weeks in Germany, more or less. Part of what I was doing over there was research for a book and a short story that may well become a novella or book if I’m not careful, and for some long-term non-fiction projects. The primary research target is a fantasy novel.
But this is a fantasy world without elves, majestic heroes, and so on. There’s no great quest, no dying empire. It’s nog high fantasy, which means I can’t pull pre-packaged story bits off the shelf, so to speak, and expect readers to follow. The world is roughly high medieval (1100-1300), and it needed to be built from scratch. Which means research below the usual kings-n-bishops level of medieval popular history. The fun part was having a good excuse for going to old cities and looking at how buildings were constructed and used, and following trade routes (did you know that stone for mill wheels and construction was a big-ticket trade item? Me either.) The not so fun part was economics and the politics of trade. Business history makes me twitch.
When I say build from scratch, it includes currencies and weights and measures. Fortunately, coins tend to survive, especially because people buried varying quantities of them, and there is documentation about who minted what and what the exchange rates were, more or less. But fantasy novel prices tend to be seriously inflated as compared to real world prices. Not even at the famous Champaign Fairs would someone pay a pure silver coin for one night’s lodging, unless he was taking the entire inn and stables. Assuming he went to an inn and not to one of the buildings set aside for people from his city or confraternity. Most people rarely saw large denomination coins, like a gold solidus or a Lübeck mark. They saw smaller, thinner silver coins, or pieces of coins and bits of jewelry. Broken rings were the small change of Europe, as it turns out. You valued metal by weight, based on your local system.
Your local system? Oh yes. Six years ago, I was in Bernkastle-Kuse, a pair of small, old towns in western Germany on opposite sides of a river. Embedded in the wall of one of the buildings facing the market square in Bernkastle is a piece of metal, sort of like a yardstick. It was the local cloth measure. Visiting merchants or people selling cloth from out of town had to abide by the local measure, and there it was, for all to see and readily available to sort out disputes that arose. Weights also varied from place to place, although a few became standardized relatively early, like the herring-barrel. One herring-barrel weighed about a thousand pounds and remained comparatively unchanged for several hundred years. And yes, it held herring. Herring was one of the major trade items, up there with dried and/or salted cod, salt, and fabric. Oh, and wax and honey and grain. Russia’s greatest exports were furs, honey, and wax, and goods originally from Central and East Asia that came via trade to Novgorod. Tons and tons of wax, because Christendom needed candles for worship and for every-day use. And for documents, and for medicines, and other things.
So I had to start with the big picture, meaning an overview history of the largest “international” trading group at the time, the Hanse. Once I got that sorted out, I could look at specific products that my protagonist might deal with and in, then what sort of transportation he had access to. I decided that luxury goods would not do. He’s to pragmatic for that, and his parents couldn’t afford to apprentice him to a fur-dealer or silk-merchant. So he deals in leather and hides, and is glad because while he doesn’t make the money, he also has lower risk. Everyone needs leather. And most lords and robbers are not as interested in hides as they are in silk and spices.
What does his world look like? That required a combination of archaeological reading and ground-truthing. Not much remains of true early-medieval cities and ground-plans today. Cities grew and changed, people improved things, tore down and recycled old things, and in some cases there was the Great Urban Renewal following the 1939-1945 period. For example, in all of Hamburg, there is one row of perhaps seven buildings tucked away near St. Michael’s church that show what the city looked like before 1900. Even Bruges Belgium, which seems at first like a town trapped in amber, expanded and has been modified, the streets widened, the largest building torn down and its internal canal filled in because the space was needed for something else. You have to look at smaller cities, in pockets and corners, and the overall shape of things, literally. And add several layers of plaster and dirt.
Once inside town walls, Tycho Rhonardia’s world is narrow and smelly, often muddy. He wears wooden platform sandals over his shoes to avoid the dirt and ordure, as does everyone else who can afford leather shoes. There are few open spaces, aside from a market space near the temples (this is a pagan world). Fire is a constant danger, and night is when honest people are indoors unless the moon is bright. He stays in his confraternity’s section of his Free City’s merchant house in the merchants’ quarter, at least in the city where the story starts. The traders arrange themselves by place of origin and which patron deity they follow, but follow pre-agreed rules and organization when they travel overland or by sea, or if they have a group dispute with a local lord. This is very much what happened in the North Sea and Baltic between around 820-1400, as traders from the Low German region and surrounding formed protective associations that became the Hanseatic League.
If you’ve made it this far, and are not drowsing, you can understand why most of this is deep background that won’t be “seen” in the book. Tycho is a fish in water, and he knows this world inside and out. And it all sounds dreadfully like that boring economic history class your advisor put you in because you were late registering one semester. Where’s the fantasy part?
Ah, magic. This world is full of small magics, and mages are bound by guilds just like craftsmen and merchants were. You have preservation mages, weighing mages, scribe-mages who confirm the authenticity of documents and serve as notaries of a sort, transport mages of varying strengths, mages who assay metals and confirm the validity of coins, mages who make things fire-resistant, who heal animals, and so on. A mage certified in one specialty is not permitted to work in another, even if he has the ability, unless he goes through a second apprenticeship and journeyman period and pays dues to both guilds. Very few mages bother with the trouble and cost. And magic doesn’t work on large bodies of water, only small ones and then it doesn’t “stick” too well. But magic is every where, and ninety-nine out of a hundred people use it and see it in action. Tycho doesn’t. And keeping this secret shapes a lot of his life, including remaining faithful to his wife and not taking a trade-wife while he is away.
Because he can’t use magic, he uses his other senses. And he’s a bit eccentric: he collects coins, the strange and rare ones. He’s amassed a large collection over the years. And when odd coins begin appearing, coins that the mages can’t detect as counterfeit, he’s one of the first to know. And he knows what coins can tell you, and what they can’t. Meester Tycho also knows who to ask about the grain trade and foreign herbs when mages begin dying from contaminated bread. You see, there is a connection between the two…