One of the most often missed and yet the largest factors in how the world worked in the High Middle Ages, is the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. This wasn’t codified as a thought until much later, but is built on concepts as old as humankind itself.
Where it comes from
In the world we live in, the divine right of kings was a powerful call to the divinity to grant credibility to the authority that the ruler, normally a monarch, would wield over their constituents. From the earliest days of Rome and Greece, the lineage of the rulers, and sometimes even the rulers themselves, would have some form of divinity. Sparta had Hercules, Rome had Venus, and Athens… well, Athens was different. Side note: This is one of the many things that made Athens different, and why it is lauded so much in modern times, as their system of democracy was abberant, something we can’t really understand in the now. The Gods were real, and their power was real, and so was the authority granted by it. While the concept of sin came much, much later to many religions, it was known to be offensive to the gods to defy their rightful chosen ruler. The specific usage of the christian divine right of kings is based on Saul’s anointment by the priests, and the power this gives him to be unquestioned in the eyes of the people of his religion. It influences all the decisions of those who would speak against him.
Its Affect on Life
In the High Middle ages, where we like to focus our general fantasy worlds, there is a strong divine presence in the everyday life of most people. The Crusades are happening (1095-1291), the Church is united and singular (mostly) as the Protestant divide is yet to happen, and the day to day lives are overseen in many parts by the local Parrish priests, so God was with them every day. This spills over to the monarchs, who are seen as an extension of Gods will in the world, but not as singularly divine entities.
The strongest benefit to the monarchs and the church is that the ordained ruler has authority that no one can really deny, in a circular sort of way. The Monarch is in that position because God gave them that position on his authority, and his authority makes the monarchical power absolute. If God did not want that monarch in power, they would simply be removed. However, attempting to remove the monarch was an act of treason against God, so you were unable to act on any desires you thought out regarding revolution, revolt and rebellion. It is a very hard cycle to break.
In a Fantasy World
One of the first things I noticed when I started putting together my fantasy worlds, was that while kingdoms and monarchies existed, the reasons behind their existence was ill explained. For a setting so inured in being realistic fantasy, that which makes sense to our minds and to our gaming realities, the basis for that power was either missing or ill explained.
When I first started looking at the problem, there was an obvious choke point that I had to work out that was present in nearly ever fantasy setting I’d been part of in any way; books, games or movies, and that was the lack of a single, monotheistic religion. There was no single God tying all the kingdoms together against common enemies or even giving them reasons to fight against each other because they held slightly different beliefs. Instead, almost every fantasy world went in the direct opposite ends of the spectrum; either there were no gods, or many. This creates a very specific difficulty, as their are either many patrons, or none.
None is harder to solve, and one I don’t intend to tackle here, as you essentially have to work on some form of anachronistic form of government that either was small scale or not yet imagined at the time. Tackling the Pantheons is a much easier quest.
Often what happens in these circumstances is that racial pantheons are created and pit against one another. The god of orcs hates the god of elves, so on and so forth. It is fairly trite, though it does emulate a certain aspect of the Christian God, because each belief that springs up is at odds with the rest and forms into a new sect that hates the rest, and are generally small and local, relating to where the belief or interpretation sprang up.
I took it a different route, and one that feels more natural for the whole of the world. I did two things simultaneously. First, I created a pantheon that worked together against a common cause, but still had inter-personal strife, though not much of it. This created a singular entity – the Pantheon – that much of the world could rally around. Instead of their being a few gods that were evil/terrible/ect, I instead instituted a whole second pantheon of evil gods that would focus the actions of the pantheon. In this way, I was able to make countries, kingdoms and other territories on the same side without having to have them all convert to one of the “good” gods.
For instance, Typical D&D Has the god Gruumsh of the Orcs and the god Corellion of the elves at odds and at war with each other. Worshipers of Gruumsh and Corellion would likely not work together due to their animosity, even though their is a great evil to be fought, due to their religious differences. In my circumstances The god of Orcs, Takkannas, and the god of the Elves, Nera, are both on the same side. While they feud and have their differences of opinion, they are more than willing to set them aside for a time to concentrate on the larger picture.
Second, I gave each country or kingdom a patron god that they revere greater than all the others, the founder of their civilization and the progenitor of their culture. These gods could war against, and with, each other against all sorts of different enemies – or each other – without a large and convoluted reason behind why that could happen. The Kingdom of Fire and the Kingdom of Water may be enemies, but when the demons rise from the Rift of Eternity, they can put aside their differences and stand together.
additionally, this gave the divine right of kings and the reasons that Monarchs existed for so long, a but more staying power. Instead of being defied by the revolutions and uprisings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the presence of the gods is well known and strongly felt, which would be a strong deterrent for those aforementioned civil unrest.
thinking about, and using correctly, the power of the divine right of kings in a campaign will create a solid and believable world for anyone looking to put their own together. You can, of course, avoid it all together, but people will feel the dissonance with the world they are in, and the world they believe they are in. Find a solid answer to assuage their mind, and you’ll be in the clear. I personally enjoy the sense of realism it adds, but not all will.
Until next time,