Friday, 26 August 2016

Ages of Life: Medieval and Modern Perspectives

To pick up where I left off in the last update, I'd like to add a few more thoughts about what different periods of life mean in our campaign world, and how the differ from the world in which most of us live.
Researchers at the American Psychological Association coined the acronym WEIRD to describe the bias in psychological research almost entirely done on ‘Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic’ demographics. The typical cohort for study, they observe, is represented by only 12% of the world’s population. Most of what we tend to think is socially and culturally typical was quite the reverse for most of human history, and is still alien to much of the world. We just don’t pay attention, because that’s way out there, and all of us are over here.
That changes when we have to put ourselves in a medieval setting. Not so when the setting is a fantasy world as I described last week, but one rooted in the historical exigencies, quirks, and foibles of the actual Middle Ages.
We’ve had a reworking of society since then, through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and subsequent reworkings of cultural norms, with perhaps the 1960s marking the last big change in the West. For those of us who grew up after that period, it becomes increasingly difficult to conceive of anything different in all but the most deploring and condemnatory terms. Along the way, men became feminine, women became masculine, and no one seemed any happier.
Discussions of gender aside for the moment, our modern society has extended childhood to a degree that I’m persuaded is unsustainable. A typical criticism of the sorry state of contemporary education, for example, is the observation that most university graduates today would have a hard time passing an 1895 exam for adolescents in Salinas, Kansas. While standards for what sort of knowledge and expertise is necessary in a given society is subject to such change that comparisons are sometimes disingenuous, as the above link explains in detail, it is nonetheless sobering to consider research indicating that the average Victorian was 14 IQ points smarter than the average Westerner today, in spite of the Flynn Effect, which ostensibly raises average IQ scores over time. It turns out that the gains attributable to the Flynn Effect are in those areas not correlated with general intelligence. In other words, we’ve become better at taking tests. We’ve had to, because we’ve spent so much time taking them and practicing for them. Aside from that, our education now means so little that prospective employers view a high school diploma merely as proof that an applicant warmed a seat for twelve years. In the process he will likely have learnt little in the way of problem solving, discipline, etiquette, or self-reliance.
The word 'university', like so much else in our language, has become so debased that it seems it can refer to almost anything. I myself teach a few classes at a place that calls itself a ‘university’ but is in actuality a holding tank for the mildly retarded. In essence, my role is that of a glorified babysitter paid to keep overgrown children out of the job market for a few more years. Their ambitions, when they have any, are generally confined to getting a job with the (ever-expanding) government, because there is little of tangible productivity left for them to do.
This is because the intelligent members of our society have successfully innovated to the point where survival is no longer an issue. Survival of mother and child during the ordeal of birth is almost a foregone conclusion, and few children die before the age of five, as would have been the fate of the majority in the medieval period. We live longer, and have less to do, than ever before. As time goes on, prospective employers require more and higher degrees as qualifications, and thus the competing institutions continually lower their standards to accommodate the masses who have neither the interest nor curiosity, nor ability, for higher learning.
In the time period in which our D&D campaign is set, universities were for the elite few, and learning was the only goal. There are two in England at the time, Oxford and Cambridge, and both are within reasonable distance on horseback from the party's current location. At some point it's inevitable that they will have to visit one of these places, and thus will be revealed just how different they are to the modern concept of what a tertiary institution is.
In a pre-industrial society, of course, there was plenty to do. Simply surviving took so much effort that there wasn't much room to coddle children or to permit that fabricated modern interim period called 'adolescence'. At the age of twelve, every male member of the community went through a public rite in which he swore his allegiance to that community and promised to uphold its laws and those of the king. He was, in effect, a man. He might be called a 'young man', but by seventeen he would be simply a 'man'. A woman was in her prime by seventeen, and 'over the hill' by her early twenties.
I recently read a book by an author I admire greatly. I am obliged to make that preface, and withhold details of this work, out of respect for all that this author has done. My complaint about this particular book is that, although the setting is ostensibly medieval, the man character, a 'boy' of seventeen, is naive and irresponsible to an anachronistic degree. He lives alone most of the time, but does little in the way of work and is treated like a child by every other character. In short, it would have been more appropriate in context if his age were made to be about ten.
Now, even in some modern societies, such as Turkey (not ‘WEIRD’), boys as young as six are doing fairly responsible work--bussing tables at restaurants, porting luggage, and so on--and by ten are often holding desk jobs. This isn't because they have a lower life expectancy, though, but simply because the Turks haven't caught on to the idea that people should be babied and enstupidated until well after their physical bodies have begun their slow decline.
This is the way it was throughout most of human history. People learnt what they needed to live and work through their parents, mentors, and masters if apprenticed. If they were particularly gifted--and only then--they were allowed to study at increasingly higher levels. (This was easier if they were from the upper classes, but there were also programs in place for poor boys of particular talent, like Christopher Marlowe, to be educated at an elite level.)
It might help, when playing our campaign world, to think of all PC and NPC ages as the cultural equivalent of several years older than their number. Doing so will make the experience more familiar, at least, generating a sympathetic barometer of relative emotional maturity and wisdom of the sort gained by a life of hardship—and yet the arithmetic conversion must with great caution, for it is all too easy to forget that the younger a society is, the more naïve, the more accepting of superstition, the more prone to sudden change, and the more violent.

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