Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sociology of the Murderhobo: Part II: The Historical Model of the Murderhobo

I got caught up with getting Lukomorye off the ground, and then the holidays, but now it's time to return to more theoretical perspectives on fantastic societies, and in particular, the series on situating adventuring heroes in such societies. In Part I, I reviewed two types of fantasy literature – the American variant, featuring “rugged” and independent frontier heroes, and the European variant, built around epic heroes who were embedded in their respective societies, and questing to reestablish social order in the face of general crisis. We noted that although the former exemplar is typically prioritized as the model for Fantasy Role Playing Games, the latter constitutes a second pole, and a vitally important impetus behind the popularity of the fantasy genre as well. Thus, although rejecting the social impact on the adventuring milieu has a long pedigree, taking it into account is also fully justified – if for no other reason, than because a good deal of fantasy literature does.
In Part II, I turn from fiction to examine the issue from an historical angle. My concern here will be the emergence of the adventurer as a social type. Beginning with the term’s origin, we immediately see its emergence from a European, more socially-laden context.  

Etymological dictionaries suggest that the word adventure, which used to denote a chance occurrence or miracle in both English and French, came to mean a risky or exciting undertaking sometime in the course of the transition from the Middle Ages to Early Modernity. The verb form of the word now began to refer to taking a chance, while the suffix “er” tacked onto the end of the noun form signified, by the end of the 1400s, someone who was a gambler, mercenary, or – note! – financial speculator. In other words, we have whole categories of people rising in the Late Middle Ages who specialize in managing risk – the kind of risk that, prior to that time was placed entirely within the purview of Fortuna or divine powers, and therefore, was regarded as unmanageable by definition. And right from the start, the positive connotations of the adventurer as a daring thrill-seeker were bound up with disruptive ones – of dishonesty in the service of pursuing personal gain at the expense of social stability (still clear today in reference to the political adventurer). That person is necessarily an outsider with no roots, abode, or moral code, who relies on violence, financial schemes, and the majority's fear of insecurity – all definitive aspects of the early adventurer, as we have just seen.
The conquistador - a classic prototype of the fantasy murderhobo

But what is significant about the period from the 14th to the 16th century, when 'adventurer' as a term and social type emerged? It was the time of the Waning of the Middle Ages, when, in the wake of the Black Death, the population of Europe precipitously declined, the Church lost a good deal of its authority for failing to prevent it, and the class structure was shaken up by the increased bargaining power of laborers, who were suddenly in great demand across a depopulated continent. While the traditional class structure was convulsed by these changes, interstitial institutions and groups, which were somewhat marginal to the functioning of the old system dominated by the landowning seigneurs and the Church, suddenly came to the fore. Towns, where one went to ostensibly breath the free city air, expanded; long-distance trade, banking, and a hunger for specie, initially stimulated by the Saxon-Bohemian silver boom, grew manifold; apocalyptic and charismatic religious sects, heretofore checked by the Church monopoly, proliferated; poor countries like Switzerland and Scotland specialized in the production of mercenaries; and young, venturesome people from around Europe but with meager prospects of upward mobility sought their fortunes on the high seas, especially with the discovery of a new landmass across the Atlantic, and a maritime route to Asia in the final years of the 15th century. The Humanist Renaissance that put down roots toward the end of this period constituted a recovery of ancient knowledge, a discovery (if initially tenuous) of the great civilizations of the non-European world, and the creation of networks of knowledge exchange that lay outside the control of any one body. The resemblance of this highly mobilized, monetized, commercialized, intellectually vibrant society that relentlessly pushed out toward new frontiers to the stock settings of the fantasy genre captured by D&D is no coincidence. The 14th century, when the transition first got underway, but before the dramatic expansion of such transformative technologies as gunpowder weapons and the printing press, is the most commonly referenced technological framework for the game’s setting.

But it should immediately be pointed out that the European transition, though certainly dramatic from the long-term point of view, was a civilizational mutation rather than a civilizational collapse. There was no large-scale breakdown of urban life, as during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire a millennium earlier – in fact, quite the contrary. Key social institutions, including the Church, the aristocracy, and the family survived the transition, though their internal makeup and relations to other institutions underwent important changes. One institution – the monarchy – grew stronger – at least in some parts of Europe. Other institutions, such as bonded labor, including both serfdom and slavery, weakened in Western Europe, but strengthened in frontier areas in Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, and then in the Americas for reasons that had to do with those regions’ economic links with an emerging Western European core. In other words, the emergence of the adventurer as a concept and a social type took place in a world in which established social institutions, hierarchies, and discourses continued to play vital roles in motivating, limiting, and variously shaping social behavior. Many people driven by the spirit of adventure may have gone to the towns or to the frontier to escape social controls or to seek their fortune, but in most cases, they invested their fortune in cementing or bettering their social station within the established hierarchy, or to replicate core social institutions in new environments.

Consider the example of the conquistador, a worthy prototype of the fantasy RPG adventurer. The quintessential conquistador originated within the hidalgos – the often economically insecure and unruly Spanish gentry which had the right to own land and display their own crest, but who were generally called upon to make their own way in the world if they were to at least maintain their precarious social position. While certainly enticed by the economic opportunities offered (to them) by the New World, they were also driven by a collective national-religious élan. Many of them, born into families that made their name during the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors,. They were driven by a proselytizing zeal, as well as a fierce loyalty to the now united dynasty of Castile and Aragon that patronized them and endowed them with an identity. Conquest could be a tightly-knit family enterprise: the two most famous conquistadors – Hernán Cortés, who toppled the Aztec Empire, and Francisco Pizarro – the vanquisher of the Inca Empire – were born a mere 40 miles apart in the Extremadura province, and were related through Cortés’ mother. Once successful as conquerors, their overriding concerns were not for further adventure, but gaining admittance into the high nobility (i.e. becoming a don) – through royal recognition, or through a successful marriage, for which they usually returned home. Spain was where they had to be to ensure the crown granted them encomiendas in their new possessions, recognized their heirs as legitimate, and provided them administrative positions, as well as additional funds. While he obsessed about cementing his material gains and upward mobility, his concern with the conversion of the conquered populations preoccupied Cortés’ enough to be positively cited by Bartolomé de Las Casas – the closest thing to a champion for indigenous people’s rights that that violent age possessed. This was despite the fact that even after the conquest, Cortés’ could act as a murderhobo worthy of the name – he was likely responsible for the cold-blooded murders of Cuauhtémoc – the last Aztec ruler, and his first wife Catalina Súarez, who needed to be out of the way so that Cortés’ could marry up. 
Extremadura province (lower left in green) - the homeland of conquistadors. In the 15th century, it was frontier territory, on the border of Andalusia (bottom-most region, in yellow) - the last Muslim Iberian stronghold.

Or consider another example in another frontier region: the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora in the united Polish-Lithuanian monarchy in the 14th – 16th centuries. Although not strictly speaking “adventurers”, this group constitutes a good illustration of a minority group in a frontier region, characterized as transitioning from a country of wood to a country of stone. The Ashkenazi diaspora moved to Poland-Lithuania from Germany and other lands, drawn by relatively strong and relatively secular rulers who sought to attract investment and expertise from a relatively more developed land, and paid little attention to the religious affiliation of those who brought money and know-how. The Jews, in turn, were attracted by the liberal charters granted by the late Piast monarchs that guaranteed them a degree of autonomy and freedom from persecution, as well as economic opportunities, given the low level of competition and the weakness of the Church – the main agent of driving them from Germany and the lands of Western Europe. Yet the Jews had too much experience as an outgroup to fall into the trap of easy assimilation into a rootless and multiethnic mass, and even if they had wanted to, dominant elements in society ensured that they could not. For the frontier lost its character as a frontier as soon as it became an attractive destination for migrants. Even during the reign of tolerant rulers such as Casimir the Great, Jews faced a backlash on the part of the Church and economic competitors, which accused them of poisoning wells during the Black Death, and various forms of blood libel and ritual murder of Christian youth, resulting in reprisals and persecution. Liberal monarchs encouraged interaction between Jews and Gentiles, and passed edicts stipulating punishment to those who directed violence at Jews entering Christian domiciles. But they also allowed the Ahkenazi diaspora to form into kehiloth – self-governing communities, governed by rabbis and judges from within the community, and overseen by a senior who served as the kahal’s interface with the king. Institutions gave the community greater shape and self-awareness; but, combined with waves of persecution that resulted in ghettoization. The community reproduced itself through the establishment of near-universal primary education (for males) and communal patronage of institutions of higher learning – the yeshivot. Though the character of this education was largely religious, the best scholars nevertheless engaged in debates that resonated with the larger world of newer knowledge. Some spoke in favor of combining Judaism with Aristotelean philosophy; others, like Solomon Luria, dabbled in kabbalistic mysticism. Additionally, while they were generally allowed to enter into local trades, industry, and even agriculture, Polish-Lithuanian Jews continued their prominence along some long-distance trade routes – for instance, along the Smolensk route to even more frontier-like Muscovy. Artisans, merchants, money-changers and scholars could migrate or temporarily relocate to various nodes along this route, and find support from relatives, business contacts, or learned communities, or seek out eligible partners for marriage. This strengthened the Jewish family. At the same time as Jewish communities gained structure and autonomy, they became ever more dependent on the monarchs, and as royal power weakened and Church power grew after the turn of the 17th century so did the Jewish diaspora become increasingly isolated in Polish society. But during its heyday, the Golden Age of Polish Jewry formed it into a distinct diaspora because the frontier that was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved along with it.  
Ashkenazi migrations into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The preceding examples bring into relief several features we can point to as perhaps definitive of frontier social groups that may be overrepresented among the adventuring type relative to the rest of society.

·      To be able to take risks and gamble – as conquerors, proselytizers of a spreading religion, seekers of profits or of new (or hidden) knowledge, people had to have something they could gamble. This could mean a certain, relatively high standing in society, the support of powerful rulers or institutions, accumulated wealth or know-how, or strong social bonds (religious, ethnic) that allowed communities to pull together and pool risk, allowing for a greater chance of success.

·      Of course, tough frontier regions are always replete with stories of the lone-wolf desperadoes with nothing left to lose. Surely, such people existed, but their lack of social bonds spoke to their relatively lower lack of success, which was always measured against society at large. They were bandits camped out in wooded hideouts, or petty criminals eking out a living on the city docks (though the latter have some built-in advantage by virtue of being urban-dwellers). There is nothing wrong with including such characters in fantasy-historical campaigns, but they surely would generally be marginal characters. The ones that truly aim for success rely on family networks, like mafias (who, as we know from the Godfather films, always aim to “go legit” in the longer run), or religious rebels, that rely on well-established precedents to attract followers and build sects around themselves.  

·      Given the availability of social, economic or cultural capital which they can draw on to take risks (i.e. “go on adventures”), most adventurers tend to be from intermediate strata in their society. A quick look at the rundown of backgrounds from 5th edition D&D bears this out. Adventurers derive from middle strata with specialized skills (Guild Artisans, Merchants, Soldiers, Sailors, Entertainers, Sages, Acolytes) that are engaged in struggles to improve their social standing, and use their unique skills that the rest of society lacks as trumps in the drive to emerge on top.

·      The accumulation of wealth, power and prestige in fluid environments is of course deeply resonant with accumulating experience points to increase power in the context of the game. These same populations also tend to be mobile – they make their living by moving from place to place, by seeking out distant buyers and sellers of the goods and services they offer, willingness to take positions in distant chapters (outposts, lodges, monasteries) or by tracking down lost knowledge or objects, and exchange information within a far-flung network of like-minded people).

·      The palpable experience of upward mobility suggests that their principles will not be uncritically borrowed from the established elites, but be shaped by their own experiences. They will claim to prioritize merit and wit over birth, and regard established strictures as arbitrary and unjust - obstacles in the way of people living up to their true potential (or excuses used by the weak not living up to their principles). Merit and success will be judged according to simple and incomplete, yet difficult to challenge measures: amount of wealth accumulated, land owned, fights won, converts gained. At the same time, this obsessive quantification will also foster a realistic attitude toward the powers that be: even if they are corrupt, they still hold the reins of power and order, and have numbers (in monetary, military, and demographic terms) on their side.

·      Social elites are explicitly represented in the game by only one background – the nobles. Aristocrats generally have more mobility and more to gamble than the rest, and do, but the struggles they are engaged in are somewhat different. They already stand atop the social pyramid, and fight in order not to lose their place at the apex. They contend with rivals conservatively, so that how they conduct themselves is at least as important as what they actually do. Style tends to outweigh technique, because if it was only about technique, the nobility would be no different from other contending groups, and would lose their claims to elite status.

·      However, the games the nobility plays tend to be at the very center of civilization, for all the marbles. Though this type of contest is certainly a very worthwhile setting for a fantasy RPG, it is, as we have seen, atypical, because it takes place far from the frontier. Usually, long-standing campaigns evolve in this direction after the heroes have accumulated a sufficient degree of power (so they can face off against the most powerful people in society, on their own terms.

·      Alternatively, noble characters can descend from impoverished families or be the proverbial “second sons”, in which case, their social standing is little different from the middle strata discussed above. Many will also hail from frontier clans that were only yesterday on the wrong side of the frontier, and regarded as little better than “monsters” themselves. Their prime imperative will be to preserve their lineage at a time when their old, simpler and smaller world has already disintegrated, and their options are to become part of the elite in a much larger, more complex world, or to face oblivion. Given these pressures, they will break with their old life decisively, and do what they must to destroy or convert all those who do not recognize the new order. Paradoxically, they will also retain a visceral or spiritual kinship with other “monsters”, in whom they will see actual individuals, and not simply demonized “types”. In some ways, the monsters’ outlook is closer to their own than that of the rulers they now work for, and the temptation will always be there to "go native" and join the “monsters”, or at least, to defend them.

·      Symbolic elites, whether priestly or scholarly, can also offer vehicles of social mobility. Initially, they will be more fluid with regard to orthodoxy, and institutionally weak relative to experiment-friendly frontier rulers and enterprising newcomers. With time, however, the frontier becomes the key locus of symbolic struggle. Popular masses are mobilized by one side or another, orthodoxies are defined, rivals are accused of being in league with demons, crusades are called, and castes begin to form. Minority or losing sects become ghettoized, and close in on themselves.

Jewish representatives (lower left-hand corner) attend a 1570 session of the Seim  - the parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
In Part III, we will shift focus and observe how more-or-less established society looks at the adventurer. While adventurers often regard themselves as heroes, most people will probably perceive them as murderhoboes properly so speaking, and negotiating this divergence is an important part of what the adventuring life is all about.

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