Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Merovingian Sandbox (continued): the CIVITAS-centered campaign setting

We’re back! Let’s continue my recent discussion of early Merovingian society as an alternative template for a lower-prep ‘vanilla’ fantasy sandbox setting. I’ve suggested at least four ways that Merovingian Gaul is well-suited for that role:

  • it’s a post-collapse points-of-light setting, but with dials for ‘brighter lights’ if you want them
  • greater organic social mobility than later feudal European societies; better-suited for classic PC career trajectories
  • political-social geography that scales up excellently as you build a campaign through play
  • a reusable sandbox - cultural-political assumptions that support effective re-use of the same living campaign world in new campaigns
What that earlier post introduced, this post will flesh out in more detail. Please note that I won’t offer here a comprehensive survey of Merovingian history or society. The comments chain for this series’ initial post offers a number of text/resource recommendations for those who want to dig deeper. That’s partly to preserve my own time, but it also will keep the most widely game-able content front and center in this discussion. As I wrote recently, I won’t be terribly offended to learn about any anachronisms in your elf-game application of these ideas! Just recently, I’ve been running myself through a bit of solo Ironsworn in my own personal example Merovingian sandbox…which is good fun…and I certainly (and deliberately) include some elements that I know perfectly well don’t really belong in 6th-century Gaul. Play on!

Again, my aim is not to perfect historical accuracy in your games, but to inspire you with social-political structures that can make play more coherent and satisfying - while offering a refreshing alternative to the 5,000,003 extant ‘fake feudal’ settings already out there.

Sounds good? Let’s dive in.


Today's post will focus on the late Roman and Merovingian-style civitas (to be explained momentarily!). I think that putting this institution at the heart of setting design can make campaigns more interesting and easier to run. To unpack what I'm talking about, we need to get a little technical and discuss the geographical organization of space in late antique and early Merovingian society. 

At the lowest level, the countryside was divided up into pagi (singular pagus) - rural districts (the word is related to modern French le pays, 'country, region' and thus English 'peasant'; our English word "pagan" comes from Latin paganus, "someone who lives out in the countryside" - in other words, "a rustic, a redneck, a hick" - the term 'pagan' reflects ancient urban prejudices, the urban focus of many early Christian communities, and the slower Christianization of the rural population). Out in the pagi, you'd find your little villages, your land-owner estates and various farms, your shrines both ruined and current, maybe an isolated monastery here and there, your mines, various workshops, etc. 

But even though the pagi formed the lowest level of geographic 'building block', it was the next step up that really was fundamental for social organization. 

Multiple pagi together formed the territory of a civitas (plural civitates) - a "city" (sort of; the word is related to Spanish ciudad and English 'city'). A civitas was a city - an urban central space - but it was more than that; the term also encompassed the entire territory surrounding the 'city'. If you're familiar with the large counties and county seats of the western United States, they provide a useful mental analogy: a whole lot of fairly open space administered from a central location. The key thing to understand is that there was a difference between 'urban' and 'rural' space, but the entire thing was the civitas. In many cases, the territorial outlines of civitates still reflected in part the territories of old Iron Age Gallic tribes/polities from before the Roman conquest centuries earlier. So you can translate 'civitas' as 'city' but there's some cause for seeing it as related to tribe, nation, or district (though each such translation would have its own limits or problems too). 

For example, around the year 311 CE - back in late Roman times, prior to Merovingian rule - a resident of the Aeduan civitas (around Autun in modern Burgundy) gave a formal speech to the emperor Constantine, and asked rhetorically: "for which gens [race/people/clan/nation] in all the world should ask to be placed before the Aeduans in love of the Roman name?" As that flowery question attests, a separate identification with one's local territorial name was understood as important, centuries after the Roman conquest, and was perfectly compatible with loyalty to the Roman state. 

The pattern continued into Merovingian times. Here's a key point: for descendants of the Gallo-Roman population living under Merovingian rule, the civitas was a primary focus of identity. To put that more simply, if someone asked you "who are your people?" your answer usually would name your civitas. Yes, you might identify as a Roman (or as a Frank), you might be Christian, but your geographic allegiance was tied to your local 'city'. 

In the wake of the "fall of the western Roman Empire" and the fragmentation of many economic, social, and administrative networks, the centrality of the local civitas provided a measure of continuity despite the collapse. One often reads that "the medieval church inherited and filled the vacuum left by Roman government in the West," but that statement is fairly misleading. Surviving written sources were mostly written by and/or kept by churchmen, so (surprise!) they tend to reflect ecclesiastical or monastic interests. But the glue holding society together owed much to the continuation of local government within the civitates. In fact, as often as not it was the church's own adaptation to late Roman civic and provincial structures that made it a useful part of local administration! (I'll return later to the important roles bishops played within civitates). 

Even as long-range networks suffered profound (but not total) disruption, even as violence swept across much of Gaul, life in many civitates continued apace. The centrality of the civitas meant that peasants still dealt with local landowners, local families still sought advantageous marriages within local social networks, local administrators still collected taxes (and the continuance of taxation into Merovingian times now looks more important than it did to scholars generations ago). It was, now, less likely (though not impossible) for locals to interact with travelers from afar; but they still interacted routinely with fellows from across the same 'city' territory. So you can almost think of the civitas as a kind of cellular organismic structure, keeping life in motion, even when isolated from other communities - like a self-sufficient (if less complex) single-celled organism. 

And that's why the city/civitas is the basic building block for a Merovingian sandbox: just as every complex living organism is made up of discrete cells, kingdoms and large territorial units were made up of, and relied heavily on, individual civitates

Compared to older Roman bureaucratic institutions, Merovingian top-down administration was pretty laughable (though only in comparison; again, modern scholarship has developed more sympathy and respect for 6th-century government). When kings or princes held territory, what that meant functionally was controlling the appointment of administrators at the civitas level, and controlling access to the tax revenues and military recruitment from across a civitas' lands. This isn't too dissimilar from later feudal relationships ("I've little effective bureaucracy, so you send me troops and $$$ when I need them") but there was a key difference: power certainly was personal, but the focus of royal-local relationships retained a wider collective/communal aspect. 

So, if you were a king and you wanted more power and wealth, you wanted more civitates. You could (and some did) launch destructive raids for plunder into neighboring territories, but that wasn't a great long-term solution. What you really wanted was to secure effective control over the tax proceeds of an entire civitas. To do so, you probably needed to start a war, but a scorched-earth war of total conquest would be ... kind of stupid, since it would destroy the very resources you were trying to annex. Better to fight directly against the army of your opponent (or just murder/threaten them) and wrest control of a fairly intact civitas when done. Alternately, you could use intrigue: find some way to subvert those in office at a neighboring civitas, and get them to open the gates to your troops. Bloodless and enriching. 

Who were those office-holders? Rulers typically appointed a Count to oversee a civitas. Above a Count, a Duke might be given authority over a region, consisting of a group of multiple civitates. Altogether, these would make up your kingdom. But there was just one "Merovingian realm" - one of the more curious aspects of Merovingian history is the profound fragmentation of Merovingian territory across "Francia". This, too, is because of the role of civitates. Focused on gaining more tax proceeds, princes often accepted/demanded control of different cities even when they weren't geographically adjacent. This could lead to weird political maps like these: 

Vidal de Lablache, Gaul in 561

...which changed, only 27 years later, to this: 

Vidal de Lablache, Gaul in 587

ALL that colored territory makes up "the Merovingian realm" - but it was divided, again and again and again, into smaller holdings reporting to different members of the family dynasty. Their internecine struggles kept political affairs lively, but the importance of the civitas not only shaped but also constrained (to some extent) the destructiveness of warfare (with notable exceptions...). 


Alongside, and parallel to the structures discussed above, Christian churches maintained a related territorial system. Little parish churches out in the pagi reported to bishops in civitates. In fact, by the later sixth century, in most cases the location of a bishop's cathedral seat and a civitas 'capital' were usually synonymous. Bishops themselves reported to metropolitan bishops who oversaw provinces, which initially followed the old map of late Roman provinces very closely. The map below, for example, illustrates late antique church provincial boundaries (with one full province, Lugdenensis Prima, highlighted): 

Adapted from Mathisen & Shanzer, Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources

In this way, even when old Roman governmental structures fell apart, ecclesiastical networks did continue to keep lines of communication between civitates open. It got trickier when kings nabbed themselves new civitates, so that different bishops across one province oversaw flocks reporting to different kings. This could lead to the creation of new 'chains of command' disrupting old structures. 

Written sources also suggest that kings or their agents often felt worried about the potential for bishops to betray kings. There's a pretty good chance that those suspicions were (usually) unnecessary, but numerous episodes involved some fear that a bishop might open the gates/hand their city over to agents of another king. This sometimes led to violent oppression in which counts attacked, imprisoned, or exiled suspect bishops. Remember the intrigues I mentioned above? Far from being out of the limelight, Merovingian bishops were such central figures in late Roman society that they almost automatically got caught up in the political affairs of the age. 

Ok, whew. That's been a lot of nerdy stuff, hasn't it? Let's switch gears now and talk about applying it all at the gaming table. 


If you're still with me, thanks for bearing with all that background. Now how can it help us run a smooth campaign?

+ BUILD IT AS YOU GO: you know that (excellent) advice to start small with a campaign map, and only build what you need? The pagus-civitas-province/region-kingdom spectrum offers a template for building just what you need, but with enough structure for everything to work coherently when you're done. Want to run some Lvl 1 types through a small dungeon-crawl after they tussle with bandits or wolves? Fine, create one pagus - one rural district. Just throw a few small square miles onto paper, with a background awareness that 'somewhere out there' lies "the city" - the seat of the whole local civitas. If you're feeling ambitious, go ahead and name the civitas/city. That's all you need, but if you want more, this whole little area has built-in integration with a larger unit nearby. 

Then, after the PCs have leveled up a bit, have a local landowner or a priest or bishop call them into the local city for help with some urban adventures. Note that the people in power in the city are NOT isolated from the rural districts; their own local social networks demand their involvement all over the civitas, so it's quite appropriate to introduce them as early as you want. 

As time goes on, ambitious PCs might become local landowners, abbots of local monasteries, Count of the local city, bishop or archpresbyter of the local city, etc., etc. But wait, they can't ALL be Count of the city, oh no! Wait - in what's now Burgundy, there is some evidence of the Burgundian kingdom (early contemporaries who fell to Merovingian conquest in the 530s) assigning TWO Counts per city, one to administer 'Roman' affairs and one to oversee the immigrant Germanic Burgundian population. Problem solved. 

Later, you can start branching out into much bigger adventures that require engagement with surrounding civitates. The nice thing about the civitas model is that the whole thing tesselates, while permitting diversity. You needn't know what's over the horizon until you need it, but you know it will follow the same basic pattern of rural districts integrated with a central civitas seat. Who knows what happens next - maybe PCs become Dukes of surrounding regions, or even fight their way into the royal dynasty and becomes sub-kings. 

+ WAIT, IS THIS A FRAUD? HOW IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER SETTING? Yeah, don't feudal maps also include lots of little villages and some cities and kings who want to squeeze it all dry while still looking good in the history books? 

Yes. But fairly differently. 

As I've discussed before, feudal societies (while very, very diverse) had their own certain logic. 

As an overgeneralization, feudal societies organized space in less coherent ways (I think that's a fair way to describe what I'm getting at). Chartered towns were generally exempted from many of the feudal/manorial land-tenure relations around them. They were, of course, still connected to the land in various ways, but the underlying social structures tended to emphasize difference between rural and urban spaces. In the Merovingian civitas model, rural and urban spaces are more connected by coherent social networks, rather than divided between them. This means that a patron for that dungeoncrawl mission last week is just as likely to want the PCs' help in town, and vice versa. PCs can go back and forth between all the different landscapes of the campaign and become more integrated into society at each step, rather than always drifting as outsiders. There's a certain mystique of the alienated drifter-adventurer that many gamers find appealing, but I suspect this tells us more about our own individualistic society than it does about the past. A Merovingian sandbox offers a post-collapse and often bleak and violent setting, but one where social networks and identities matter. 

As members of the same civitas, starting PCs can be as different from each other as you want, but they retain a common sense of place and a shared identity. They are more or less invested in a community (albeit one with its own, potentially vicious, internal politics). 

HARUMPH, FINE. NOW TALK MORE ABOUT INTRIGUE MISSIONS. Ok, I'll humor you. Although you can just build up your setting layer by layer, you can have even more fun if you decide early on to locate play right on the borderlands. That might mean a B2-style Keep on the Borderlands frontier, but it could just be (or could also be) the edge between two civitates, especially two civitates owing allegiance to different kings. 

In that context, things can get quite interesting, quite early on. 

That landowner you interacted with last session - why is he meeting with warriors from just across the border? Who is framing the local bishop for treason (or is he being framed)? Almost from the start of a campaign, you can weave in a plot to subvert the local civitas and flip it to a neighboring kingdom. How will the PCs react? Will they join the plot, and profit? Will they stop the plot, and secure favor from their own Count or King? Shenanigans ensue, with plenty to do for Fighters, Thieves, Rangers, and Clerics. 

DIDN'T YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT RECYCLING YOUR CAMPAIGN SETTING? Yep. Let's say you try this out, and you like it. You run an epic campaign after which your players have become Counts, Dukes, Metropolitan Bishops, and even Queens or Kings! Nice. Now those characters have left their fingerprints all over things. What if you've invested lots into the setting and you'd rather not reinvent the wheel for another campaign? 

Remember how I showed two maps above that illustrated shifting royal borders in just a few decades? 

Unlike later European generations that favored primogeniture (the firstborn kid, usually male kid, inherits everything), Merovingians practiced partible inheritance - chop that property up, and give a bit to all the heirs! This is why the political map looked so fractured, even though a single Merovingian realm theoretically existed. Periodically, a strong ruler did emerge to consolidate that whole realm into one big territory. No big deal - upon that strong ruler's death, the whole thing was liable to get chopped up once again. 

This means that, in a Merovingian-inspired sandbox, you can have characters achieve profound glory by conquering or consolidating the entire realm, but you can count on cultural practices dividing everything back up again within a few generations. So long as you maintain the same basic cultural practices and civitas identities across your setting, you run and rerun and rerun the same setting, a couple generations later each time, without retconning or pretending away the achievements of an earlier group in play. 

OK - I'm going to stop here for now. There's loads more I could discuss, but I'm not sure whether any of this is making sense or seeming compelling. What should I clarify? What ideas have I sparked? Does this all make sense? I'll find out - if you comment.

Happy gaming!