From the Ground Up – National Boundries

While I’ve spent the last few weeks talking about the types and styles of civilizations, from City States to Feudal Nations, and the populations that live in them, this week will bring a close, both figuratively and literally to the chapter on nations. I’m going to talk a little bit about how nations defined themselves and their boundaries and their lands. 

Among the points of reference we have in our current modern world, are pretty solid and accurate maps of places, peoples and other sorts of information. This is an extremely helpful tool in learning what is what, and who runs it. 

This, as should be obvious now, is not how the world worked in the 10th through 13th centuries. 

The Borderlands

What is inherently intuitive to us in modern times, is that nations have perfect, delineated borders that separate each nation from its neighbors and create a fully organized and structured world. France has this and that state and area. Germany this other, and Belgium is exactly where it is. I know that it is hard for me to really comprehend a border dispute, like those I hear in the South China Sea, today. What we forget, often, is that our accuracy of maps and borders are not as accurate as the technology of today, and that wording in treaties and other documents can be disputed or brought under contention in and of themselves. This often means that when one of the many wars is concluded, and an accord is signed, the results of that accord could be disputed the very next campaign season. Just because you ceded to your southern neighbor the border area of mountains filled with gold does not mean it is theirs in perpetuity. All the leader needs to do is to rile up his lords and find some casus belli that will at least give plausibility to the act. This is especially true with the divine right of kings, and the nearly universal belief that the monarch is blessed by God and grants righteousness to his causes. 

That these borders are so fluid, and the desires of each kingdom so varied as to make them nearly unpredictable is hard to comprehend. Its why the borderlands are so important and defended in the middle ages. Forts across borderlands and men at arms prepared and ready for the call of war were not the exception, but the norm. Raiding, not for loot, but to test the weaknesses of nearby nations to see if you could overcome them, was a constant, and when it did find a weakness, war would be the inevitable end. 

There were also borders that were not between kingdoms and countries, but were instead between the kingdom and not wilderness. This, too, is hard for us to imagine in a world with nice, neat borders. These places were, often, even more dangerous than the lands bordering nations. In the wilderness and beyond was simply the unknown. There were forests to deep to penetrate, rivers to wide to cross regularly, and plains to fraught with peril to actually settle. It is from these lands that massive migrations of people, sometimes peaceful, but many times violent, would occur. The Mongols, Huns, Vandals, and many different Goths all arrived from outside known borders. Sometimes, the Marquis would be tasked with the slow settlement or the pacification of the land, but often they were simply told to be on the lookout for the the perils of the wilderness. 

To War

We should remember that warfare, during this time, was considered not only a possible political end, but often the desired and sought method of determining the outcome of conflicting point of views. Remember, too, that the army is composed of groups of fighters loyal to a singular noble, who is in turn loyal to another noble, and so forth up the chain to the Monarch. This means that while war is a strong option, waging it can be extremely difficult because you have to cultivate all these relationships within the army, and still bring them to bear against an enemy. This requires co-ordination, organization and above all, time.  

The time portion is what we are concerned about here, because if borders were minuscule, as they are today, then there would be not time to organize and bring the army that you are gathering to bear. Instead, many lands had what are called Marches. These areas were lands that were designated as border regions between nations by those nations, and directly contrast with the heartland or inland areas that designate the nation proper. These would be assigned to a Marquis, who would be in charge of defending the immediate border, and also of notifying the monarch of any invading forces. 

To this end, the Marquis would be allowed a greater amount of personal soldiers and men-at-arms than other loyal vassals. This position would also, generally, be granted to persons of supreme military ability and loyalty who could be depended on to give their life for the crown. This would in most circumstances, start out as an appointed title and become hereditary  once a line proved its military worth.

What is interesting about this setup is that there are large swaths of territory that would be constantly in flux. Disputed lands would be given to Marquis who would be told to protect the center of the kingdom or empire. These lands would be where wars would start and where battles would be fought. While the opening of The Decline and Fall of Rome is one of the best descriptions of classically defined barbarian culture, there is a passage in King of the Vagabonds that is remarkably accurate of the Marchlands, and recommend trying to find time to read it. the whole series is great, but that part, in particular, gives a great overview. 

The People of the Marchlands

Thankfully for the people living in the Marchlands, wars are seasonal, and though these borderlands are nearly constantly war torn it is only for a portion of the year. Many people simply would have simply abandoned these lands if given the choice, but the peasants and their families and heirs are bound to work in these areas, stuck between warring nations that create wastelands of their homes and livelihoods. Unfortunately, this was the lot of these specific subjects.  

Cities, too, would be generally open for loot and pillage, provided that they didn’t have extreme fortifications and defenses. This, often, was where technological innovation would occur when it came to structural defense. It was a simple matter of life and death for those people forced to live in the Marchlands. They needed to have a place to flee as soon as the armies marched, and a place that could easily be overrun would just not do. 

Fantastic Marches

I would expect that these borderlands and marches in a fantasy world would have the most elite fighting forces. Griffonriders, Elven Archers, the works. I would also assume that this is one of the better places to execute a campaign or story. It is easy to have a defensible, strong base of operations while also having a great, unknown wilderness all around. In the 1st edition DMG there is even a special set of rules for exploring unexplored wilderness and experiencing the unknown populations within. Its a great place to start characters and gives a great feel for both wilderness and traditionally civilized adventures. 

I think that this type of land is often neglected in many adventures as a deeper level of the game. While many will play in an area that is essentially a march or a borderland, I feel that a better defined position within the game as one of the marches would really add to the flavor and feel. Try it out and let me know!

Until next time,