Sunday, 29 May 2016

Vanished Kingdoms - Burgundy

Vanished Kingdoms is Norman Davies’ fat history miscellany detailing a dozen mostly defunct (but sometimes just marginal or odd) European states and polities, big (Byzantium) and small (Montenegro), ancient (Strathclyde) and recent (the USSR). If you’ve had any contact with Davies before you don’t need telling how good he is at being eclectic and wide-ranging and writing from outside history’s mainstream (he’s one of a tiny handful of major historians writing in English who doesn’t privilege Western Europe over Eastern, and his big ol’ book Europe is full of literal sidebars where he found stuff too interesting to leave out, as well as massive appendices full of useful trivia about heraldry and popes and philology). It’s a wellspring not just for slightly easy counterfactual history (what if Prussia hadn’t got it together in time to make Germany in its image? etc) but also for reminding that even what we think of as stable, long-established, ‘obvious’ states like France or the UK are nothing of the sort.

But anyway this book is relevant here because it’s also a giant compendium of potentially interesting D&Dables. Some of the chapters are just whole-cloth settings, some of them are stuffed with weird and usable fragments that could potentially illuminate almost any kind of campaign. I could - I might - do a post on what you can take from each chapter.

One of those chapters is on Burgundy, which Davies points out has had - depending on how you count them - about 10 different incarnations. Somewhat fittingly it’s a grab bag of possible RPG inspirations/tools rather than a single wholecloth setting.

To wit - most of the Burgundies have been somewhere along a faultline running from about Amsterdam to about Genoa, but Davies and others think the Burgundians in the first place probably came from Bornholm, a bit of Denmark physically closer to Sweden and Poland and notable for the largest castle in Northern Europe, Hammershus, which looks like this  and has a plan like this and is suitable colossal and angular for use in your games.

I know someone from Bornholm. He is not a fan of it. He left, and so did the Burgundians, getting stuck in to the fading Roman empire and settling down (in a very broad, unsettled, millennium-long sense) in an area we don’t at all think of as a single proper country or even really as a number of proper countries: Switzerland and Luxemburg and other places that seem weird to us. (not really an rpg point but) Simon Winder - whose history books I will also get around to talking about sometime - says somewhere that it’s totally possible to imagine Burgundy surviving into the present as an independent European state, and it is: there’s no reason it necessarily should have stopped existing, although it ultimately did. But though it’s possible to imagine Burgundy surviving in this way, it’s impossible to imagine the resultant Europe: like, completely impossible. A Europe in which the motor of conflict between France and Germany (or the HRE or Prussia or the Hapsburgs or whatever) didn’t exist, or existed in a radically different form, is one we can’t conceive of, which is what Burgundy’s survival would have meant (along with a Europe in which the Netherlands didn’t exist as their own thing, so, probably no capitalism or no colonialism, so...yay?). This is one of the ways counterfactual history is sort of useless, actually, since the butterflies just get too big too fast.

But Burgundy didn’t survive. There’s a brilliant scene in Rilke’s one, otherwise not very good novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge which is a kind of vision of the aftermath of the Battle of Nancy (1477), in which Charles the Bold, the last duke (king in all but name, in this instance) of an independent Burgundy was killed. All the historical detail in the scene is true: Charles’ body was found frozen into a small pond, face torn off by wild animals, so badly mutilated that only his court jester and his doctor could identify it. The atmosphere of the morning after the battle, with a gang of Charles’ closest associates, including the half-mad jester, fully knowing that their country is finished with, searching the frozen field of slaughter, surrounded by men still dying, is magnificent. The immediate aftermath of a battle that shattered a kingdom would be a great place to start a campaign, with the PCs as fugitive remnants of the losing army. Instant exiles.

Also highly D&Dable are the four great dukes (and their names): Charles the Bold was preceded by Philip the Good, John the Fearless, and Philip the Stout. John the Fearless was assassinated by the French in one of those extremely well-documented medieval encounters where you can almost hear the voice of the players round the table:

On September 10, 1419, the dauphin and John the Fearless, with their men-at-arms, arrived on the two banks of the Seine, on either side of the bridge of Montereau. John the Fearless was informed that his life was in danger, and his entourage increased its watch in order to protect the duke. The same was done for the dauphin. In the middle of the bridge, carpenters had put up two barriers with a door on each side, creating an enclosure for the meeting. It had been agreed that the two rivals would enter the enclosure, each with an escort of ten people, and that the doors would be closed during the meeting. Each of the ten men had taken an oath. Despite the arrangements that had been made, the Duke of Burgundy had second thoughts about the meeting.

The atmosphere was tense. The Duke knelt with respect before the Dauphin, who feigned indifference. Rising, John looked for support by putting his hand on the hilt of his épée. "You put your hand on your épée in the presence of His Highness the Dauphin?" one of the Dauphin's companions, Lord Robert of Loire, asked him. Tanneguy du Chastel didn't wait for this pretext to deliver an axe blow to the Duke's face, crying "Kill, kill!" There was then a scramble, according to a narrative given afterwards by John Séguinat, the Duke's secretary, to the commission of inquiry appointed by the Burgundians. Men-at-arms rushed into the enclosure through the door on the Dauphin's side, which had been kept open. The Duke was stabbed repeatedly, while the Dauphin, at a distance, remained impassive.

Philip the Good, in between capturing Joan of Arc and patronising several of the best artists of the Northern (i.e. better) Renaissance (there is no ninja turtle called Claus Sluter, Zak S has pointed out, but he was sculptor to the Burgundian court), founded a chivalric order based on the Golden Fleece and gave its members collars made of fire strikers, which make for ugly collars but are a handy alternative piece of kit to tinderboxes for your characters and a nice bit of authentic-feeling gear. Other things that are fun about Burgundy and one of its capitals, Dijon, are wine and mustard, respectively. Wine is a great expensive trade good, naturally, but so is mustard: in 17th century France Dijon had the exclusive right to make mustard, and this kind of licensing is also the kind of thing people intrigue over all the time. Explosive or flammable mustard is clearly also something you need in your game.