Thursday, June 23, 2011

just a little reader rant

As you, my hypothetical reader, probably know, I'm into history, or at least, I'm interested in several historical periods, and I'm a material-culture geek in a small way.
I also read fantasy.

One heck of a lot of fantasy is set in medievaloid or at least pre-industrial world.
WARNING: Gross oversimplification to follow!
Much of the subgenre of epic fantasy (aka Big Fat Fantasy, aka Extruded Fantasy Product) is set in what looks like Saxon-to-Tudor Northern Europe, with a sprinkling of apostrophes across the naming system. There is usually magic, because magic is what makes things go. Sometimes magic and technology are outright enemies and one rules out the other. But for certain sure, there is no industrialisation. Imports and exports may be handled by perilous caravans, less often by ships.


In the historical real world, people in pre-industrial societies did not have cheap consumer goods. Every thing that anyone owned was made by hand, usually by hundreds of hours of labour of several people.
There were no factories turning out cheap shoes and watches and tableware. If you were wealthy, you have some remarkably fine tableware of precious metals, and lovely expensive tapestries and paintings. If you were middle-class you have cheaper imitations, still hand-made (of course) and painted or gilded or whatever you can afford to look like your rich neighbour's goods.

You have a shirt? It was made by growing, cutting, retting, beating, hackling of flax or nettles or hemp into fibre, that was spun thread by thread with a spindle, later with a wheel. That's months before it could be woven into cloth. You have a woolen gown? First someone grows a sheep, then shearing, washing, carding, combing, before the spinning. After weaving, woolen cloth is fulled, combed, and sheared to make it soft and water-resistant. Oh, yeah, then it's cut and sewn into a garment.
When your shirt gets worn, it may be 'turned' (taken apart and rearranged so the worn bits are less visible), then patched, then cut down for another garment, and so on. If you're reasonably well-off and charitable, you may give that shirt to a beggar, or you may sell it to a fripperer (dealer in used clothing) One of the frustrating aspects of studying medieval everyday life is that everyday things didn't get preserved in waste-heaps or attics. They were in use until they were destroyed.

Cloth is valuable. When soldiers looted a city, they didn't just grab gold and jewels (that's for officers...) they carried away clothing and bolts of cloth. Servants and apprentices were paid in cloth, 'enough for a suit of clothes', once or twice a year. Well into the 1800s, the stealing of clothing drying on hedges was a specific criminal trade, and small children were sometimes abducted, stripped, and released--their clothing was worth more than them.
Cloth, ironware, leatherwork, even pottery was repaired and re-used. The upper and middle classes might discard something that was unfashionable or unwanted, but the lower and criminal classes were waiting to snap it up, sell it, use it themselves, take it apart. Kind of like the ocean, with food descending from one level of fish to the next, less and less each time.

Sure, even a generic fantasy world is not actually pre-industrial northern Europe. But if your fantasy world is pre-industrial anywhere, you need to bear in mind that it will not have cheap consumer goods. Not until the Industrial Revolution does home decor achieve the clutter of a Victorian interior. Look at Dutch interior paintings.
See a lot of stuff? No.
See many things that are purely decorative and have no useful purpose? No.
Do you want your fantasy setting to be different from the modern world, to have its own texture and existence? Maybe not. And maybe the majority of readers don't worry about it. I can only speak for what I like to read. But would you lose anything by imagining your world just that much more consistently and plausibly?

This rant triggered by two stories read recently. One was by an unpublished writer on a display site, the other by an established writer in a fantasy magazine.
One story began with two young knights riding into a city. The path to the city was strewn with discarded belongings: knives, goblets, bits of clothing. No beggars had come to carry these things away and sell them. No rag-and-bone man. No mudlarks. (I'm getting 19th c. here, but my point is that even into the 1800s broken cutlery and rags had resale value). For the opening of the story I thought the city had been emptied by plague and the fleeing populace had dropped their belongings as they fled, but no.
The other story began with a corrupt city watch hassling a poor householder, demanding protection money. He refused, saying they'd taken everything. The watch roughed him up and threw him against a small table, knocking down the vase that stood on it. So, what was this everything they had taken? How well off was this poor man, to have a vase? Did he buy cut flowers to put in it, or have an extensive garden?

One of these stories I continued reading (but it was a near thing) and it turned out to be good. I just couldn't believe in the setting.
Would either story have suffered if the author had thought a little harder and made the setting work?

4 comments:

Terri-Lynne said...

This is why I go to you when I need details of primitive life! I think you should rent out your brain and/or body of knowledge for a hefty income. You would certainly earn it!

batgirl said...

Aww, thanks! But Doyle's brain is the one I'd like to rent. She's amazing!

Sharon Needles said...

You're awesome. This, too, is a pet peeve of mine.

batgirl said...

Someday I should do a list of assumptions and misconceptions about pre-industrial life that tick me off. But it would be very ranty, and not as funny as your rants.