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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Celtic, Saxon, Viking & Norman

Since I started my new B/X game I noticed a couple of things about the attitudes towards the various ethnic groups in Britain in the 12th century by the players in the game. So then I just asked my wife and kids what they thought; this is an admittedly unscientific poll, but I have noticed that Celts are pretty much universally favorably received when they get mentioned, only slightly less so when they are differentiated into Welsh, Cornish, Irish or Scottish. I didn't mention Manx or Breton, but I am sure they would have received a favorable reaction too. That makes sense in this house, my wife is 1/4 Welsh and I am half Scottish, so we fairly strongly identify with the Celts here; it probably doesn't hurt that we live in one of relatively few ethnically Irish counties in the US* either. What does surprise me though is the over all positive reaction the Celts in general get, even from people with absolutely no Celtic connection other than the odd CD they like to listen to for relaxation.

The Saxons get mostly favorable reactions too, which is odd to me considering their conquest of Celtic Britain, but there you have it; maybe it's the good press they have in Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. Maybe it's their heroic stand against the Vikings under Alfred the Great. Maybe it's just because we all speak English. I don't know. When they don't get a favorable reaction the never get a negative reaction though and that confuses me some, because I was practically raised on Arthurian legend and Prince Valiant comic strips. When the reaction isn't favorable it's more like "Meh, Saxons, whatever".

Vikings are another bunch that get universal love. I am a little confused by this and a little amused by this. I am confused because EGG took the stereotypical Norse Warrior, the Berserker, and made them a monster in D&D; so they are clearly the "bad guys". They might as well be Orcs in Human suits. Hell, 3e 1/2 Orcs pretty much were just amped up, ugly Viking Berserkers with green skin and fangs. When D&D has to choose between the easy myth of a stereotype and the hard reality of educating people about a culture of the past, it almost always chooses easy myth, but even the easy myth of the stereotypical Viking is grounded in reality and truth, so the Viking Adventurer that is so popular among D&D players, myself included, is actually one of the more blood-thirsty and nasty bunches named here, yet, here they are, universally loved. No one is ever horrified at the possible inclusion of the Vikings.

Then we come to the Normans, and it's the prevailing attitude towards the Normans that made me write this, because I really can't think of a more significant group of people in the High Medieval Period than the Normans. The face of western civilization would be different today without their contribution, but they are pretty much loathed as a people and I am at a loss as to why; is it because of their French culture? Or is it because they were the last people to mount a successful invasion of England? The way they re-invented western European feudalism? Their role in making the First Crusade such a resounding success? The fact that they drove the Moors from Sicily and Southern Italy? Or is it just because they are the bad guys in Ivanhoe and Robin Hood? The weirdest part of this, to me anyway, is that they are the literal direct descendants of the Vikings that everyone loves; so what, you throw a little civilization** at them and they aren't cool anymore?

I don't want to have to go into my rant about how Americans in general don't really know anything about the French, our oldest and best allies, without whom we would not have our independence from Great Britain; or how we adopted the English attitudes towards the French in spite of our close, essentially permanent alliance with them***; but the Normans are stone cold bad-asses that managed to conquer shit everywhere, usually while they were outnumbered and in hostile territory, and hold it pretty well too for the most part**** against all comers, kind of like Mongols. The only reasons I didn't import Normans into my Garnia campaign world were that it was getting a little late period for groups to just disappear from Earth without people really noticing and I was afraid that if I did we'd have to deal with a super bad-ass French speaking aristocracy wherever they landed. That said, some of the old maps would seem to indicate that Frodia had maybe been conquered by Normans at some point

*According to US census data Oswego county in NY state has an ethnic majority of Irish. One of our neighboring counties is also majority Irish and I think two downstate counties were, near NYC. There were also some in eastern Massachusetts as I recall, I don't remember if there were any others in other states.

**Before the Sons of Norway or some other proud Scandinavian group takes offense at that statement, I am aware that the Norse had their own distinct civilization, I was speaking in hyperbolic terms for effect, the "civilizing" influences in question here were Christianity and French culture, the Norsemen in Normandy stopped being Norse and joined Western European (Frankish, as it was called at the time) mainstream culture.

***Way off topic for a D&D blog, but our War of 1812 was caused in part because we in the US tried to be neutral during the Napoleonic Wars and the British refused to respect our neutrality with regards to trading even non-war goods to the French, plus they kept impressing our sailors into their navy. We've had a rocky relationship with a lot of countries over the last couple of centuries because we didn't want to enter into any permanent alliances, but the French have always been pretty favorably inclined to us and us to them. Oddly, we have a pretty similar relationship with the British since about sometime after the US Civil War I'd say.

****The County of Edessa was maybe a "Bridge Too Far" into Turkish territory, but even it lasted over 50 years.