Saturday, December 31, 2011

Debtors and Dead Men

Lately, I've been taking mental vacations to the lands of Steampunk Sherlock (saw the current film) and Dickens' London, as well as a side trip to 18th century Hammervania.  It seems to me that considerations of 17-18th century England and Europe are not out of order for many fantasy settings, where great age and magic would allow for developments beyond feudal fare.  In particular, I have been struck by two institutions that deserve consideration for your fantasy setting: debtor's prison and resurrection men.

Illustration of the Marshalsea from Dickens' Little Dorrit
Many may choose to shy away from slavery in their world-building, for various reasons, although this is the most ancient and perhaps obvious solution to the problem of outstanding debts.  In such a cased where temporary servitude to work off debt (yes, so barbaric!  And so different from the world we live in!) is not a favorable option, then one might want to consider debtor's prison.  One then has the character(s) in a relatively controlled setting, if so needed.  Depending on their conditions of their imprisonment, they may be a liberty during the daytime to work.  Needed NPCs could be held there, needing to be busted out or bailed out -- it introduces a whole new sphere to plot Trouble with the Authorities.  It might also be an effective place to hide.  In gaming, it could be a punishment for bad behavior or consequences of failure -- as well as a motive to participate in a get-rich-quick-scheme, such as dungeon delving.  I think places like the Marshalsea and the Fleet, as horrible as they are, add color and shade to a fictional city.

Detail of a Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a resurrectionist
We associate corpse snatching with the robbing of the body from its grave, and furthermore, with the work of Dr. Frankenstein.  But it was a widespread problem in the 18th-19th centuries, and supplied mundane anatomy needs and not simply the work of a single mad natural philosopher.  Now, add in all the needs for bodies that a fantasy setting would require beyond ordinary needs we saw in our own past, and you will quickly realize that resurrection men would have an even more booming business in a fantasy world.  No one would want their body or its parts floating around for various uses (including a tool for pestering them with questions in the other world), much less reanimated as a construct or a walking undead -- or perhaps used for the reincarnation of another.  No, ordinary people would not submit to it willingly, so only the corpses of criminals would be offered for legal purposes.  If we assume, as on Earth, these will not be enough to meet demands, and add on to that a much larger demand from illegal practices such as necromancy, then the ranks of the resurrectionists swell, and so do their methods.  History tells us that fresher bodies were worth more money, and that bodies would be gained by women pretending to be mourning relatives.  If your setting uses the convention of the thieves guild, the resurrection men could be members or they could be practitioners of an independent and slightly more legal, um, livelihood.  For more on the practice, see this post.

As you ponder these institutions past for your mythopoecizing, I hope they will not only add fuel to the fire but cheer to the new year.  For as we say good-bye to 2011 and look forward to 2012, we can all be thankful that we are not dead nor denizens of debtor's prison.


  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Theo. I, too, have been visiting the 17th and 18th Centuries, this holiday. Having recently paid visits to various Colonial American and early Revolutionary sites with my family in Virginia, I have realized that my roleplaying and fantasy writing self is far more comfortable with the conventions of that era than I am with traditional "Medieval" fantasy.

    Additionally, my own theory is that, when you have a bunch of people who are not Medieval scholars get together to play in a typical fantasy setting, the anachronisms they introduce actually mix with the Medieval elements to create what is basically a 17th Century society, anyway.

  2. You're welcome, Paris. I know Williamsburg made me look back on the Georgian fragments of London and on coursework I did on Wesley and Anglican history in a different and more lively way. And really, with few exceptions, the 18th C was not that far from the medieval experience for most people, who continued their agrarian life.

    Sitting in a candlelit tavern drinking ale from a clay mug, I could easily imagine horrors in the woods beyond. Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, M. R. James, and even some Lovecraft would be great sources for a setting like that.

    Differences in distance, location, and economy and resources could sustain a setting in which conditions that would cover multiple Earth centuries could exist. It's all a matter of keeping the elements that would ruin it for you under control or out all together. (In my case, gunpowder, above all.)