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
Sounds good? Let’s dive in.
THE CIVITAS - YOUR MAIN BUILDING-BLOCK
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.
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.
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).
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.