The two previous articles:
It took me five years to come back to this subject, but here we are.
A bonus book for those of you who know Finnish: Vakoojakoulu. It’s about the prisoners of war being turned and sent to USSR to spy for Finland during the WWII. It has a wonderful point of view of having to work with the materials available… which isn’t much since most of the documents were destroyed in order to protect these people. This actually makes it seem like all their efforts were for nothing, but on the other hand, they did keep doing this for years, so there probably were many successes, but we just don’t know about them.
1. Kathryn Hughes: Victorians Undone – Tales of the flesh from the age of decorum
Why did Darwin have a huge beard? Well, this book goes into quite a bit of detail on that very subject. Mostly this could be used as a way to make a place alien. The terms in which these people talk about these things are kind of weird to us, even though they happened roughly 150 years ago. Why did everyone have a beard? Because it’s the fashion, but it became the fashion because certain people felt they needed to hide some features on their faces. In Darwin’s case, excema.
It also goes deep into various other bodily things. How did queen Victoria cope with her short stature? How did the people regard the sexuality of children? Stuff you wouldn’t think about, because they are outside of our experience as modern people.
2. Oliver Tearle: The Secret Library – A book-lover’s journey through curiosities of history
Back in the day a friend of mine was adamant that today’s music is basically shit compared to music from the 70s. He used Led Zeppelin as an example. Sure, disregarding all the stealing Led Zeppelin did, they were good and popular, but in this case, he was choosing a certain section of 70s music and comparing that to all of modern music. I mean, IV never reached number 1 in the US market. There was an album above it in the charts. Also, this friend of mine couldn’t stand disco or punk, so there’s that…
What we still revere from the past, might not have always been what was popular at the time. The true visionaries often weren’t appreciated in their times, but it also talks about just various oddities in the history of literature. Did you know, for example, that Edgar Allan Poe was a successful author, but not of fiction. Of course he is now, but in his day, his only successful book was a study of snails. (If I remember correctly, he was also the first to propose the idea of light having a limited speed.) Again, a different look into history. This time it’s just through books. After all, your all powerful evil sorceror is going to need the Farmer’s Almanac, because they too need to know when the circumstances are the best for whatever spell they are working on. Missing the full moon might be catastrophic.
3. James M. Murray: Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390
Bruges still has a very well preserved medieval city centre. Why is that exactly? Apparently because the waterways became clogged. But for those hundred plus years, Bruges was the center of renaissance, even if it’s PR hasn’t been quite as strong as that of certain former Italian citystates, but the city had a major role in both economical and artistic renaissance before most of Italy got into the swing of things.
It documents the city in many ways. How many churches where there? How did the migrant women make money? (Hint: prostitution. Not only that, but apparently quite often.) Who vied for control of the city and why? There’s a lot of details you can pretty much directly copy from the book to your wholly original fantasy city.
4. Wolfgang Schivelbusch: Tastes of Paradise – A social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants
How important was spice trade exactly? Apparently it shaped the world as Portugal and Holland were world powers despite their small area and population just because they had access to those spices. This is a book that explains why those black peppers are actually great loot.
The book does cover various drugs and what political thinking that lead to the still on-going prohibition in most of the world, but to me that’s much less interesting than the parts about the spices and they are also probably much more usable from a fantasy point of view.
5. Paul Elliott: Warrior Cults – A history of magical, mystical and murderous organizations
6. Alan L. Karras: Smuggling – Contraband and corruption in world history
Much of the book is about modern smuggling and how easily the society just pretty much looks the other way in these cases. Not professional smuggling mind you, but the kind where some rich person buys a lot of expensive clothes and then lies about their value on the border. Obviously, there has been smuggling for as long as there has been limitations to trade over borders (either in the form of tariffs or outright bans). The book puts emphasis on the difficult situation the people guarding the borders were put in. The locals didn’t mind the smugglers. In fact, they were often in on it or even dependent on it. Those parts of the book could be a nice basis for a campaign.
7. Jacques Le Goff: Medieval Civilization
Admittedly this book is boring. Very, very boring. It’s also from 1964, so the approach to history might have changed quite a bit since then. Still, even if you aren’t interested in actually reading the whole thing, there’s a lot to learn here. There are a lot of depictions of battles, fortifications and so forth.
8. John Julius Norwich: A History of Venice
Venetians were a republic for a very long time. This lead to some weird situations. Once they chose a pirate captain as their new doge, because they felt that was the way to stop the piracy. He also happened to be the son of his predecessor.
The country does have an interesting history. It’s no wonder that it made it into Civilization V as an actual civilization despite being a city state. They did at various times control a very widespread empire and had their hand in various important moments in history (like redirecting the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinopole, one of the greatest bastions of Christianity at the time).
9. Russell Shorto: Amsterdam – A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
LIke Venice, Amsterdam was (and still is) a major world center. Actually probably the world center for some time. How did that happen? It’s in a small country that’s geographically in a very precarious position between various superpowers.
Also, just reading about the values of these people is interesting and in some ways very heartening. Perhaps we can all reach the same level of liberalism at some point in time.
(And yes, I do tend to read a lot of books on cities I visit – or visited in the beforetime – note the date, people from the future.)
10. Edward Brooke-Hitching: The Phantom Atlas – The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps
The are numerous reasons why maps can be wrong and this gives a bunch of examples of just this. Sometimes someone just lies about it in order to be able to sell an island to someone and sometimes people just make mistakes. Some of the stories would make excellent ideas for scenarios.