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Poor Fantasy World-Building: Poverty, Inequality and Sexual Morality in Pre-Industrial Societies

Originally posted by jordan179 at Poor Fantasy World-Building: Poverty, Inequality and Sexual Morality in Pre-Industrial Societies

(the following comes from comments jordan179 made to marycatelliat http://marycatelli.livejournal.com/338195.html?view=1150483#t1150483)



The worst common offenses I see in fantasy have to do with egalitarianism, sexual morals and wealth. And they all stem from the same false belief about pre-industrial as compared to industrial societies.

An awful lot of fantasy writers seem not to realize just how poor was the pre-industrial world.


In a pre-industrial civilization, the vast majority of people are condemned to live lives of what we would today call grinding poverty. They have to work for long hours under dangerous and unpleasant conditions, their productivity is so low that even the fairest and most enlightened employers can pay them what we would today consider a pittance -- barely enough to live on with (maybe) a very small surplus for "luxuries" (such as a little meat or an entertainment) in good economic times. If they are able to save money or time to improve their economic lot either by education or investment, it is only at the cost of real suffering in other aspects of their lives. And their likeliest fate is to see their health collapse in their thirties or forties, and then if they are lucky live another few decades on the charity of their kin.

This means that most poor people in such societies literally don't look or think like us. Their growth has been stunted in body and mind, they are raddled by diseases their weakened immune systems can't fully defeat, they are ignorant of the wider world, prey to all sorts of superstitions (even if magic works they probably aren't educated enough to know how) and they are like this generation after generation, with all the effects one would imagine on their subculture.

And this is not because the "nobles are cruel" or the "merchants are greedy," though indeed both statements may be true of particular nobles or merchants, or even those whole classes in particular socities. It is because these societies have such a low aggregate productivity that most people are unable to by their labor produce enough to live in the manner that we consider normal -- indeed we consider our present opulence "normal" because of the Industrial and Information Revolutions, and we would live just as badly as they had those revolutions not occurred.

What this means is that the social classes are much more differentiated by appearance, by phenotype (due to dietary deficiencies among the poor) and sometimes genotype (genes programming bigger bodies are less likely to survive in poor social classes than those programming smaller bodies, for instance) than is the case in any modern Western culture. The middle and upper classes really are taller, smarter and better-looking than the lower clases, on the average, and these differences would be noticable even if you stripped them, bathed them and viewed them naked.

Due to the effects of the Western social revolutions of the 18th-20th centuries, this is very difficult for modern writers to grasp. We have spent so long adapting to our new state of affairs, in which rich and poor really aren't all that different, and the rich may be poor or the poor rich and accepted as such within one or two generations, that we don't realize the extent to which this was once not so, and not so for reasons other than irrational prejudice.

For instance, one common plot, used by the best authors (probably because it started in fairy tales and has sometimes happened in real life) is the poor kid, raised as a normal poor kid, who suddenly discovers that he is the Rightful Heir to the Throne and must fight for that position. The problem is that if he really was raised poor, and didn't discover this until he was a young adult, he would probaby not be able to function as a king (or noble, or whatever) because he would have neither received the proper diet nor education. He'd be stunted (though he might be taller than his fellow poor if he survived, due to the microevolutionary adaptation within even a dozen or so generations to economic class: he'd have the genes to grow big but might not be able to obtain enough food for his larger frame to enable him to keep living), and he would not know not merely how to behave in polite society but also to fight, among other things.

What's an even harsher lesson is that, barring technological progress, this was how things HAD to be. The only even remotely-egalitarian people were barbarians: civilized societies were always inegalitarian, and for a very good reason. If a society lacks the resources to amply-feed and educate all its people (because its technological mode of production is too inefficient and its lands too crowded) then the solution which always culturally-evolves is simple: take from the majority to support a minority of people who will be well-fed and well-educated. Without such an aristocracy, pre-industrial civilization is impossible. Thus, the oppression which is seen in all pre-industrial civilizations is unavoidable.

(though it can be harsher or smoother, crueller or kinder, more arbitrary or fair: and the smoother kinder and more fair versions are the ones which lead to technological progress and eventually the Industrial Revolution, so they are to be encouraged).

In contrast, much modern fantasy assumes that there is no difference between rich and poor save for an arbitrary and unnecessary social construction which can simply be abolished without harm to civilization. Rich people who do not respect the poor as much as they would respect the rich are irrational snobs; poor people who look up to the rich are toadies. Because this is to some extent true today, writers imagine it to have been true before the Industrial Revolution, and they are dead wrong.

Misunderstood Archetypes

This problem entered modern fantasy almost at its birth. J. R. R. Tolkien hated the Industrial Revolution (though, inconsistently, he liked a lot of things which actually came from it) and he idealized not only the medieval but the pre-Norman English medieval past. In his world he avoided facing up to the issue of pre-industrial poverty in two ways: almost all his named characters are either aristocrats (yes, even the Hobbits -- read their genealogies -- Sam is the one exception among the clear heroes and he attains the aristocracy by the end of the tale!) or members of kindreds such as the Elves in which magic makes them so productive that essentially everyone is an aristocrat.

The issue of wealth and egalitarianism is important because they set the framework for the world in which the protagonists strive, and if they are set falsely then the whole story rings false. Tolkien, note, knew enough history that he came up with reasons why things worked the way they did: he deliberately focused on aristocrats in a largely-depopulated world, some of whom had magically-amplified means of production.

Don't believe me? It's all there in the Appendices. Middle-Earth at the time of the Quest of Erebor and the War of the Ring had been repeatedly devastated by plagues, wars and insurrections, many of them secretly sparked by Sauron or Saruman to weaken the West for conquest. As a result, pretty much everyone was farming the best possible soils and working the best available mines. Tolkien may not have liked post-Norman English medieval history, but he had and probably knew well the clear analogy, the 14th-century Black Death which created "Merrie Olde England" by reducing the population to the point where the survivors were all richer than they had been before the cataclysm.

But most of those who copied Tolkien had much less understanding of economic and social history, and because Tolkien wrote a glorious epic rather than "The Report of the Ithlien Commission to King Elessar on the Economic Condition of Modern Arnor and Gondor," it's easily missed. Even if you read the Appendices, you may not realize the implications (I didn't, when I read them as a teenage boy).

So they wind up creating stories where the protagonists are supposedly ordinary farmers, just like Bilbo and Frodo (who were actually the scions of several of the Shire's oldest and richest prominent families, and had their wealth further increased by Bilbo's share of dragonhoard) or Pippin and Merry (Peregrin Took, who would have been a prince if the Shire had a king; and Meriadoc Brandybuck, who would have been the heir to an earldom if the Shire had that title). And they act just like the Hobbits, and the writers never realize that what they're copying is the mannerisms of an (unusually civilized) rural aristocracy.

Or, if they're channeling Robert E. Howard (the other main source of modern fantasy) they make gloomy warlike heroes like Conan -- not grasping that Conan was not merely an outsider to most of Hyborea but was also a very exceptional one -- he was blessed by genetics with extreme strength, speed, endurance and intelligence, and the whole series is about how the exceptional man can transcend the limitations of his age. Conan, incidentally, never tried to reform Aquilonia beyohd providing firm and fair rulership, but the modern writers often go one better and try to have their warlike heroes be social revolutionaries without considering environmental and institutional constraints, so their stories have happy endings as their world's version of what really would be Merrie Olde Northe Korea is born.

This leads to sex.

No, really, it does lead to sex, because the sexual morals of a society are always connected to the larger economic context. When viewed unsentimentally, sexual morals exist to maximize the quantity and quality of one's descendants and other kin by birth or adoption (not just immediate biological offspring): hence, sexual morals are always intimately tied to the requirements of survival.

In most pre-industrial societies, the combination of the fragility of the rule of law, the low productivity of the unsupported individual even in the upper and middle classes, and the limited ability of women to control their own fertility in either direction, inevitably leads to moral codes which are harsh and have little regard for individual happiness, by modern standards.

What do I mean by this?

Fragility of the Rule of Law

In most pre-industrial societies, there is insufficient surplus to support what we think of today as a "normal" police and criminal justice system. Crimes are difficult to detect and guilt difficult to prove. The capture and sometimes even punishment of malefactors may be up to the friends and relatives of the victims. With most of the lower clases uneducated and possessing little leisure time or surplus resources, going to suit at law, even if the mechanisms exist (as they did exist in the Classical Roman and Medieval European worlds) may be impractical.

The implication of this for sexual morals is that women must take care to avoid rape, because if they are raped it is quite likely that the perpetrator will go unpunished -- especially if their rapist is of higher social standing than themselves. The lack of reliable contraception makes it more likely than is the case today that the victim of rape will have to bear the rapist's child; inferior medicine that she will die in childbed; and lower wealth that she will die in consequence of the economic burden imposed by her fatherless child.

Furthermore, many actions which are technically legal may violate custom, and absent a firm rule of law customs may be violently enforced without consequence to the enforcers. If a modern American woman chooses to dress like a prostitute and strut her stuff right in front of a church on Sunday, people may look at her with disapproval but she is unlikely to be beaten, raped or murdered for this offense: both a better legal system and a more enlightened morality protect her. If a woman did the equivalent thing in most pre-industrial societies, not only would her action probably be illegal as some form of "blasphemy" or "disorderly conduct," but she would be publicly declaring herself to be an immoral person who would be a proper target of customary violence.

(This is very common in the world outside the modern West even today: women are beaten, raped or murdered with impunity for far less blatant acts of disrespect to general opinion in modern Egypt, Iran or Pakistan. Sometimes, the people beating, raping or murdering them are the police authorities!)

Low Productivity

People in pre-industrial societies are poor by modern standards even when they are healthy, and when they fall ill or are injured they absolutely depend upon the support of their kin to survive until they recover. This means that families have much more practical authority over their members than is the case today, whether or not this authority is supported in law (by something like the Roman paterfamilial system).

Suppose that you are a woman who gets pregnant. You'd better have a husband who is willing to acknowledge and help support your child. If you don't, your original family is likely to be very annoyed at you for imposing the burden of this unwanted baby upon them. If they aren't willing to help support you, good luck surviving pregnancy and childbirth, and good luck obtaining the resources you'll need to feed and rear your child. Will another man be willing to marry you and help support your bastard, who after all would be at best his stepson?

In practice, a woman in this sort of situation,often had only a choice between death and prostitution.

In practice, social structures of disapproval evolved so that families had moral excuses to cast out single mothers if their resources or inclinations did not extend to helping them support their children. A single mother in such a sitaution was in really deep trouble: without land or other significant property of her own, she might be forced to prostitution to survive and to support her child (who usually died anyway). Even if she had resources, without her family's protection she was vulnerable to criminal violence, or even dispossession through corrupt legal means (assuming her society even acknowledged her property rights in the first place).

Is it any wonder then that women in pre-industrial societies, unless they have actually decided to be prostitutes, are usually very careful with whom they will have sexual intercourse? What is casual pleasure for him may be death to her, and she knows this. This even extends to courting, since the lack of a firm rule of law means that what we would now term "date-rape" will either be prosecuted by her family or left unpunished.

Limited Control Over Fertility

Many people take for granted the existence of cheap, reliable contraceptives; some of cheap, safe abortions; and almost all of safe childbirth. All are products of the Industrial Revolution: specifically, the medical advances enabled by the increased surplus available to support a large class of professional doctors practicing scientific medicine.

In pre-industrial societies, contraceptives were often expensive and always unreliable; both abortion and childbirth were dangerous: a promiscious woman was gambling with her life every time she had sex. (For that matter, so was a chaste wife, the difference being that she could count on her husband and kin for support if things went wrong, which increased her likelihood of surviving the experience).

Expensive contraception (such as the half-legendary silphium used in Classical Roman times) means that only the wealthy (or at least prosperous) woman can afford promsicuity. Unreliable contraception (ditto for silphium) means that even the wealthy woman is not safe. And speaking of safety, many of the means of contraception practiced in pre-industrial times were anything but safe: some involved noxious tinctures with really severe side-effects.

Abortion was nightmarishly-dangerous. Actual surgical extraction was very likely to cause puerperal or other fevers. The more normal technique was, essentially, the administration of a sub-lethal dose of poison to the mother to induce spontaneous abortion. Good luck measuring the dose! Both methods would be horribly painful: I draw a kindly veil over some of the remaining alternatives, most of which were actualloy attemnpted at one time or another.

Childbirth was also dangerous. Depending on conditions (midwife skill, health of the mother, environment) mortality of the mother in a first childbirth might range from 10 to 50 percent (the low end is for skilled midwives, healthy mothers and familiar clean surroundings, the high end is for unskilled midwives delivering sick mothers in unfamiliar filthy surroundings). Subsequent childbirths were safer, though still horribly-dangerous by modern standards.

This all assumes some support by husband and kin. Without such support, the chances were that the mother or child (sometimes both) would die. And a bad delivery often resulted in sterility (it sometimes still does this today).

In short, any woman who was at all remotely wise would make very sure that she only had sex with her husband (or at least betrothed), and was always careful both of her reputation and personal sexual safety against violence. And the sexual morals of pre-industrial societies reflected this fact: double standards, with women expected to be far more chaste than men, and always with an eye toward the preservation of both personal and family honor.

People are sometimes confused about this by the observed fact that certain individuals, even women, especially in the upper and lower classes, could be quite promiscious. This is because members of the upper clases had far stronger social and personal safety nets to protect them if they got into trouble (their families had more resources than the families of the poor); members of the lower classes more often found themselves in extreme and desperate personal circumstances where the need to (more or less literally) whore themselves to survive today superseded any consideration of longer-term consequences. As always, it was the middle classes who were the most concerned with morality and long-term consequences, for they were not so rich as to confidently ride out storms, nor so poor as to dare to take no thought for the morrow.

What we particularly miss, given our egalitarian assumptions, was just how normal extremely-exploitative relationships were in pre-industrial societies, especially if the exploiter was of much higher social status than the exploited. The classic example is the rich young gentleman who seduces and ruins the serving girl, who gets pregnant and is cast out of the household in consequence. What he did was always viewed as "bad," but it was not until at least the 18th century that it was viewed (first in England) as being very bad, even though the girl may well have yielded out of fear of being fired if she refused, and when she was fired she may well have been forced to turn to prostitution as her only means of survival. Going back a bit further, in Classical Mediterranean times it was taken for granted that a slave (of either sex) might rightfully be used sexually by the master (and, in some cultures, mistress) without this being considered "rape" or even harsh treatment. (We may genuinely thank Christianity for the fact that this was no longer the case by medieval times, though the evil was merely submerged and survived as long as did slavery).


I've written all this as if it primarily affects women, because it does: women are the ones who get pregnant. This is a case where reality is "sexist," and complaining about this is complaining about reality (to the extent that there is a solution to this sort of "sexism," it would lie not in a mythic past but in some very advanced technologies, such as full-genotypal and phenotypal sex changes and uterine replicators).

Of course it also affected men, because men also might face consequences from a woman's pregnancy. Not only moight they find themselves sexually-rejected by those wise women, but if they were not rejected by their more foolish sisters, said sisters would expect them to take the relationships seriously and might exact revenge (either personally or through kin) if the men didn't. In other words, save for the case of decadent aristocrats and careless peasants, there was little casual sex, and even in those cases there might be duels or murders in consequence.

If a woman actually got pregnant, the reputed father would be under great social pressure, possibly to the point of a threat of direct and lethal physical force, to marry her. Or her kin might not want him as an in-law, and might then just kill him. This could lead to a lot of unhappy marriages, or, alternatively, to characters with good reasons to go far from their original homes and have adventures.

The point is that you aren't going to see a social environment of casual, whimsical "hookups" or one-night stands -- and if you do, it's a sign of some pretty serious social decay in the class or subculture practicing this behavior. And even then, it will have consequences, and possibly consequences beyond the happiness or even survival of the irresponsible individuals.


Not our modern world, especially not the modern world as perceived by sheltered, impulsive twenty-something and thirty-something overgrown spoiled brats. Which, alas, makes up too much of fandom.  And indeed society.

But that's another rant :)
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