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Grittiness, realism, honor, and the life in the middle-ages


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#1 Green Gogol

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 09:48 AM

Hello everybody!

 

I've been thinking for a while now about some trends that we can all see in fantasy.

 

First, there's the knight in shining armour romantic novels, that seems to be considered somewhat outdated and juvenile. And then there's the gritty recent novels that seems to be more desirable and adult. I've read about all the claims how those gritty novels are more realistic than the classic fantasy novels.

 

I've looked a bit around on threads, blogs and wikipedia, and there's a lot of debate going on, but mostly it seems opinions with little real knowlegde about what it was really like in the middle-ages. I've read a short article somewhere on the net where it said that if ASOIAF would have been realistic, it would have been boring. I would like to learn more about life in the middle-ages, what it was like, because I want to be able to judge for myself the level of realism in different fantasy novels and series. Can anybody point me toward serious books or documentary that will help me learn more about the real life and values of the middle-ages?

 

Also, we get to read about battles with big melee that goes on and on for days. I don't know much about medieval battles, except that I read somewhere they were mostly done in 20 minutes, and were more about looking threatening enough to make the opponent give up than huge amount of bloodshed. I have also been a martial artist for a big part of my life, and can assure you that fighting for more than 5 minutes is quite exhausting. I can't imagine doing it for hours at a time. Especially wearing armor and wielding weapons.

 

I know that the values we have right now are probably different from what there was in the middle-ages, but I tend to find people in fantasy like Lord of the rings more realistic than those in ASOIAF. Thinking about what I do every day, what my family and friends do, how they act seems much closer to how Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and cie act, than the actions of Tyrion, Jaime, Ned and the rest. In fact those characters seems to me in serious need of a therapy. I would be surprised to learn that the average male in the middle-ages had the urge to rape, kill, steal and the like. Especially considering how much religion was important at that time.

 

And it appears to me that fantasy is the continuation of fantastic stories from the middle age. Stories like Beowulf, Tristan und isolt, King Arthur, etc. They were written in the Middle-ages and thus presented medieval protagonists in a medieval setting. In a way, it seems those story where a knight fighting fantastic creatures seems to represent the triumph of Christianity over Pagan beliefs, the fight to move forward, the fight for progress, the fight to make the world a better place, the fight against backwardness. So for Fantasy to evolve, wouldn't it be logical for it's next step to move it to present time, presenting myths of our own time, and how we have to fight to keep progressing, instead of toward "realism"?



#2 Glaurung

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 12:57 PM

Yes everyday life was boring, especially for peasants/serfs.  Yes battles were primarily small due to the feudal system most altercations were amongst rival Lords, so the battlefields were pretty small. 

 

However, big events did happen and big battles that lasted hours/days did happen as well.  They were rare, but they did happen on occassion. 

 

Most novels aren't meant to portray daily live or routine warfare.  Novels by nature cover the rare events rather than the every day events thereore a novel is for the most part a story of a big event or a big war.  With ASOIAF it is basically a continent wide altercation and an invetable battle between good and evil.  With A Wheel of Time it's a story of a prophecy coming to fruition and a final battle/Armageddon against a Dark Lord.  The same with the Lord of the Rings.  It's an ending of an age and a final fight against evil.  The times before these big battles undoubtedly involved many small skirmishes and brief wars, but those aren't worthy of any more than an appendix at the end of the book, like LOTR.  The whole idea of the novel coming into existence is because a story is wanting to be told of a huge event. 

 

So,  the everyday feuds between local French Lords may be more common, but otherwise not interesting and unworthy of writing a novel.  A large-scale war between Britain and France(pick one) or the Crusades are examples of huge events that would involve more interesting storylines & huge battles.  Novelworthy.


Edited by Glaurung, 30 January 2014 - 12:59 PM.


#3 Green Gogol

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 01:37 PM

I disagree. A novel is written because someone wants to tell a story. There is no need for a huge event. There's no huge event in the Catcher in the Rye, or in Of Mice and Men.

 

Anyway, that doesn't answer my 2 questions. What are good accessible books to learn more about medieval life (It seems Pillars of the Earth is quite accurate in this respect)?

 

Do you think modern fantasy novel should strive toward "realism", but stay in a medieval setting, or keep the old romantic notion, but move to present time? Or asked differently, what is the essence of a Fantasy novel? Is it vital for it to be in a medieval setting?



#4 The Great Unwashed

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 05:32 PM

 

 

Do you think modern fantasy novel should strive toward "realism", but stay in a medieval setting, or keep the old romantic notion, but move to present time? Or asked differently, what is the essence of a Fantasy novel? Is it vital for it to be in a medieval setting?

 

No, there is a lot of steampunk, urban and antiquity fantasy based settings.  The important part for fantasy is that it's relevant to modern audiences, not necessarily whether it accurately maps a day in the life of the average medieval noble/peasant/soldier, etc.



#5 Gneisenau

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 05:55 PM

What kind of middle ages are we talking about ? Because at one point knight was more a social class, and those armored dudes were called men at arms.



#6 Theda Baratheon

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 08:19 PM

You seem to be equating pseudo-medieval fantasy novels with all fantasy novels. 

 

Also, I'm gonna agree with another poster, these sorts of stories are told about big events, who in the hell wants to read about a medieval peasant throwing his shit out the window and people getting diseases and lice and dirt in a fictional setting??? These things are boring when you're reading fiction, if you're a history buff and you're reading for history then read non-fiction. The middle ages were gross, were they super hyper-violence grim dark gross? Well, most likely not to the extent of ASOIAF, but these *are* fantasy novels. 

 

If you seriously want to educate yourself on the middle ages why are you putting focus on fiction? Pillars of Earth?! If you want to read about Medieval life, read a damn non-fiction book; here I'll even list you a few

 

 

If you like knights in armour and enjoy pseudo-medieval fantasy works then that's completely fine, if you actually want to know about the medieval ages, you're best bet is checking out one of those. 

 

Your other questions confuse me because like I said you seem to be equating fantasy novel with merely medieval-fantasy novel.


Edited by Theda Baratheon, 30 January 2014 - 08:20 PM.


#7 Green Gogol

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Posted 30 January 2014 - 11:26 PM

My, my, you seem to be upset.

 

My point is this. Gritty seems to be put in fantasy novel to make them more realistic. I want to know if it was really like that or not. 

 

And my second point is this. Shiny cheery fantasy is supposedly outdated. Gritty is supposedly the evolution of fantasy. I am asking, if there isn't some other direction it can go to evolve?

 

And thanks for the books, I'll take a look.


Edited by Green Gogol, 30 January 2014 - 11:26 PM.


#8 Free Northman Reborn

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 02:01 AM

 

 

I know that the values we have right now are probably different from what there was in the middle-ages, but I tend to find people in fantasy like Lord of the rings more realistic than those in ASOIAF. Thinking about what I do every day, what my family and friends do, how they act seems much closer to how Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and cie act, than the actions of Tyrion, Jaime, Ned and the rest. In fact those characters seems to me in serious need of a therapy. I would be surprised to learn that the average male in the middle-ages had the urge to rape, kill, steal and the like. Especially considering how much religion was important at that time.

 

 

I have long had this complaint about a lot of modern fantasy. The people I know certainly don't act like Tyrion or Tywin or Jaime or Cersei or Bronn. Most people I know would indeed act like Aragorn or Frodo instead. In my experience, people simply aren't all as dark grey as is fashionable to depict nowadays.

 

A significant part of society is, yes, but to me that's the BAD part of society. A lot of people are more like Eddard or Robb or Jon. Certainly in my experience. I would like to think that a large majority of people would not throw a child from a window to his death, or have a singer murdered for knowing his secrets (Tyrion), or have children murdered to preserve her power (Cersei).

 

But in Martin's work these people are depicted as pretty much the norm, and even as being some of the better people around (Jaime and Tyrion), compared to the really evil ones. Frankly, these people would be in the 10% worst people in the world, in reality.

 

I don't have a problem as such with authors preferring to focus on the portion of society that is more on the twisted side, but I do have a problem with the depiction of this as the norm, with people like Eddard being depicted as anomalies. I don't think this is accurate.

 

At a rough estimate - and these percentages are obviously fluid, but based on my top of the head impression - I think society is divided roughly into about 30% good people of the Eddard type, about 50% relatively good people, and about 20% utterly loathsome people from which the entire criminal 5% or so originates.

 

The problem I have, is that I find that the lowest 20% is increasingly depicted as the norm, in a lot of fantasy literature.


Edited by Free Northman Reborn, 31 January 2014 - 03:16 AM.


#9 Roose Boltons Pet Leech

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 02:45 AM

 who in the hell wants to read about a medieval peasant throwing his shit out the window

 

Exactly. Especially when no medieval peasant would have had windows. ;)

 

Anyway, high fantasy as we recognise it today was born in the late nineteenth century. The likes of, say, William Morris wrote fantasy because he saw the hell of modern industrialised society as it existed in the Victorian era, and decided "damn it, the Middle Ages may have had problems, but we've lost an awful lot of what was good about them". That's just one strain of fantasy, of course (there are others), though the likes of Tolkien were a bit more nuanced than people give him credit for.

 

What happened was that Tolkien's imitators bowdlerised things right down by the 1980s (Brooks and Eddings), sparking the inevitable backlash towards purported realism/cynicism. Problem is that cynicism in itself does not make a story, and just as Tolkien was watered down by others, the backlash authors have to be incredibly careful that they themselves don't become self-parody (replace generic farmboy formula with rape/murder/incest).



#10 Free Northman Reborn

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 03:05 AM

 

Exactly. Especially when no medieval peasant would have had windows. ;)

 

Anyway, high fantasy as we recognise it today was born in the late nineteenth century. The likes of, say, William Morris wrote fantasy because he saw the hell of modern industrialised society as it existed in the Victorian era, and decided "damn it, the Middle Ages may have had problems, but we've lost an awful lot of what was good about them". That's just one strain of fantasy, of course (there are others), though the likes of Tolkien were a bit more nuanced than people give him credit for.

 

What happened was that Tolkien's imitators bowdlerised things right down by the 1980s (Brooks and Eddings), sparking the inevitable backlash towards purported realism/cynicism. Problem is that cynicism in itself does not make a story, and just as Tolkien was watered down by others, the backlash authors have to be incredibly careful that they themselves don't become self-parody (replace generic farmboy formula with rape/murder/incest).

 

Great post. Fully agree. 



#11 Errant Bard

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 03:11 AM

Can anybody point me toward serious books or documentary that will help me learn more about the real life and values of the middle-ages?

I'm really not an expert in this stuff, but I think that if you still want it to have some fiction in, you could start with the Accursed Kings/Les Rois Maudits, by Maurice Druon, a series of historical novels relating the rise and fall of the last Capetian kings, starting with Philippe le Bel and his burning of Jacques de Molay. Also read some Shakespeare. And medieval poets, like Bertrand de Born, Guillaume d'Aquitaine, and so on, it's somewhat illuminating.

If you still want Fantasy, I feel reading Mary Gentle, KJ Parker or Justine Niogret can sate your desire for realism.
 

So for Fantasy to evolve, wouldn't it be logical for it's next step to move it to present time, presenting myths of our own time, and how we have to fight to keep progressing, instead of toward "realism"?

No. That was the trend before the 90's, that was why Superman was more popular than Batman then, and that was also why Science Fiction was more popular then too. The popularity of Fantasy nowadays is a symptom of the return to conservatism and nostalgia. Myths of our time are actually being written, and they are either not classified as genre novels, or they are classified as Science Fiction, urban fiction or Post apocalyptic. See von Vonnegut, Barjavel, Vernes...

Do you think modern fantasy novel should strive toward "realism", but stay in a medieval setting, or keep the old romantic notion, but move to present time? Or asked differently, what is the essence of a Fantasy novel? Is it vital for it to be in a medieval setting?

No, there are plenty of Fantasy novels outside of medieval setting. Stardust by Neil Gaiman, for example (actually, most of what Neil gaiman writes), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, Shadows of the Apt, Blindness, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Long Price Quartet, Vlad Taltos, The Book of the New Sun, The Gentlemen Bastards and so on.

#12 David Selig

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 04:47 AM

 

I have long had this complaint about a lot of modern fantasy. The people I know certainly don't act like Tyrion or Tywin or Jaime or Cersei or Bronn. Most people I know would indeed act like Aragorn or Frodo instead. In my experience, people simply aren't all as dark grey as is fashionable to depict nowadays.

 

A significant part of society is, yes, but to me that's the BAD part of society. A lot of people are more like Eddard or Robb or Jon. Certainly in my experience. I would like to think that a large majority of people would not throw a child from a window to his death, or have a singer murdered for knowing his secrets (Tyrion), or have children murdered to preserve her power (Cersei).

 

But in Martin's work these people are depicted as pretty much the norm, and even as being some of the better people around (Jaime and Tyrion), compared to the really evil ones. Frankly, these people would be in the 10% worst people in the world, in reality.

Martin in ASOIF writes mostly about the high nobles of a feudal society, which are the bad part of society, the families who have manage to get and stay on top through brutality and suppressing their opposition by force and extorting money for protection from the peasants. These guys naturally tend to be power hungry and arrogant scumbags, it's the nature of the system.


Edited by David Selig, 31 January 2014 - 04:51 AM.


#13 mormont

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:03 AM

I have long had this complaint about a lot of modern fantasy. The people I know certainly don't act like Tyrion or Tywin or Jaime or Cersei or Bronn. Most people I know would indeed act like Aragorn or Frodo instead. In my experience, people simply aren't all as dark grey as is fashionable to depict nowadays.
 
A significant part of society is, yes, but to me that's the BAD part of society.


This is not how people work, sadly.

There is no 'BAD part of society'. There is, instead, a BAD part of people. It is within all of us, not just a certain number of us. And the fact is, modern society - by and large - makes that part of us pretty easy to suppress. Because, by and large, that's what modern society is designed to do. We have laws that are largely consistent, democratically made, well enforced, and underpinned by a moral consensus: we have a high standard of universal education and communication, which makes people aware of why laws exist and how they are enforced. We have near-universal access to justice and protection. And we have a decent standard of living.

We have it easy, in other words. Modern society is structured to, as far as possible, make being good easy, because that's how society works best. And when being good is easy, it's easy to be good. Most of us will never in our lives have to make the difficult moral choices characters in novels have to make: that's exactly what makes those novels interesting to us, wondering what we would do in these positions, vicariously living out situations we can feel comfortable we will never experience.

#14 Clueless Northman

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:06 AM

Martin in ASOIF writes mostly about the high nobles of a feudal society, which are basically the families who have manage to get and stay through brutality and suppressing their opposition by force. These guys naturally tend to be power hungry and arrogant scumbags, it's the nature of the system.

This. ASOIAF is about the 1% mostly, people who often are totally dissociated from the people - so mostly the peasants - as a whole, and where logically you'll find more sociopaths than in the average population. Heck, even now, you find more sociopaths in the billionaires and politicians than amongst the general population of Western countries.

 

 

The other point is that most of the time, for most people, life was just as boring as nowadays, probably more. But when shit hit the fan, it was pretty rough. Way rougher than usually depicted, and far less fair than appears in the "good guys always win and don't get much hurt" trope of late 20th century fantasy.

Of course, this trope isn't entirely new, the old knightly tales of 12 to 15th centuries had some of this already - but those weren't accurate representations of the fighters' lifes, they were ideals, partly meant to inspire knights to behave more chivalrously.

And we have plenty of occurrences of wholesale massacres, cities burned, citizenry completely wiped out, and the like. France during the 100-years war was nastily ravaged, including by the great companies of mercenaries, some being not even marginally better than the Brave Companions.

And I think that's one of the points of Lord Grimdark himself, from what I read - sure, he might write violence for the sake of it, but it is also because the goodie knight, most of the time, was just a myth, and these guys were first of all hardened killers, not role models.

 

Thing is, as said, fantasy novels deal with extroardinary events, not with the usual life. They're about times when shit gets real and all threaten to go downhill, like during the plague or a crusade. You have to keep in mind that usually things are quieter for decades.


Edited by Clueless Northman, 31 January 2014 - 05:10 AM.


#15 Free Northman Reborn

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:12 AM

This is not how people work, sadly.

There is no 'BAD part of society'. There is, instead, a BAD part of people. It is within all of us, not just a certain number of us. And the fact is, modern society - by and large - makes that part of us pretty easy to suppress. Because, by and large, that's what modern society is designed to do. We have laws that are largely consistent, democratically made, well enforced, and underpinned by a moral consensus: we have a high standard of universal education and communication, which makes people aware of why laws exist and how they are enforced. We have near-universal access to justice and protection. And we have a decent standard of living.

We have it easy, in other words. Modern society is structured to, as far as possible, make being good easy, because that's how society works best. And when being good is easy, it's easy to be good. Most of us will never in our lives have to make the difficult moral choices characters in novels have to make: that's exactly what makes those novels interesting to us, wondering what we would do in these positions, vicariously living out situations we can feel comfortable we will never experience.

 

It troubles me that that many people find the choices made by some of the immoral characters in this series to be "difficult choices".

 

I don't speak the truth or act with integrity because the law requires me to do so. I act in that way out of inner convictions and a moral code.

 

Deciding on whether to throw a child out of the window is not a difficult choice. It is not even an option.

 

Having someone murdered who knows a secret about me is not an option either.

 

If you think these type of decisions are merely suppressed in the average person due to the restrictions of society and because of the long arm of the law, then I worry about your view of morality.

 

I think the bottom 20% worst part of humanity will, if unshackled by the law, act in the way that you describe, yes. But not the average good person, who may have small vices and who is by no means perfect, but who will find the actions of these type of evil characters repulsive in the extreme.


Edited by Free Northman Reborn, 31 January 2014 - 05:14 AM.


#16 Richard

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:32 AM

I don't speak the truth or act with integrity because the law requires me to do so. I act in that way out of inner convictions and a moral code.

 

 

Sigh.  Kind of missing the point here - where did you get your inner convictions and your moral code from?  You grew up in a social context where speaking the truth and acting with integrity were valued.  Had you grown up in an Italian city state circa 1500, your context would have been substantially different, and so would your inner convictions and your moral code.



#17 Free Northman Reborn

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:45 AM

 

Sigh.  Kind of missing the point here - where did you get your inner convictions and your moral code from?  You grew up in a social context where speaking the truth and acting with integrity were valued.  Had you grown up in an Italian city state circa 1500, your context would have been substantially different, and so would your inner convictions and your moral code.

 

Interesting. That's not what I got from Mormont's post. What you're saying is that society was more duplicitous, dishonest and self serving back then than it is now?

 

I would disagree with that contention.

 

As far back as the Old Testament, virtues like Truth, Fairness, Justice, Courage and Self Sacrifice were valued by humanity.

 

If on the other hand you are saying that the 1% of the population that the nobility represented in the Middle Ages had an inferior moral code, then that is something I could buy into.


Edited by Free Northman Reborn, 31 January 2014 - 05:45 AM.


#18 mormont

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 05:47 AM

It troubles me that that many people find the choices made by some of the immoral characters in this series to be "difficult choices".


Well, let me know if anybody does that. I was, however, discussing 'grey' characters, not 'immoral' ones.
 

I don't speak the truth or act with integrity because the law requires me to do so.


Again, something of a straw man. What I said was that a society that has universal, consistent laws that are largely beneficial to and well understood by the majority of the population is one in which it is simply easier to act with integrity, because that society is set up to reward such behaviour and reduce the number of times when seriously morally 'grey' choices (like killing to protect one's family) will actually come up.

I act in that way out of inner convictions and a moral code.


Which, of course, are completely sui generis?

I think the bottom 20% worst part of humanity


Let me stop you right there. If you seriously believe there is a 'bottom 20% of humanity' that are only shackled by the law and that the rest of us are all innately 'good people', I worry about your view of morality. I am not denying the existence of a small number of seriously sick individuals, but 20% of the entire population? No. It's this sort of 'them and us', 'bad people and good people' division that is used in our modern society to excuse all sorts of immoral choices (excuse me; 'small vices':rolleyes:). It's OK for me to cheat or lie or be selfish, because I'm basically a good person. It's fine that those people have their rights abused or are left to starve, because they're not in that blessed 80%. I could never be like those people and they could never be like me. That mentality is as bad as anything you are criticising. That's not morality - it's tribalism.

#19 Mentat

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 06:29 AM

I would like to learn more about life in the middle-ages, what it was like, because I want to be able to judge for myself the level of realism in different fantasy novels and series. Can anybody point me toward serious books or documentary that will help me learn more about the real life and values of the middle-ages?

 

As Theda points out, if you really want to learn about life in the middle-ages, non-fiction is going to be far more useful than fiction, no matter how 'serious'.

 

That said, I'm a very big fan of Karen Maitland (she's one of the few authors whose books I'll buy no questions asked). All her books are set in Europe during the middle ages (and she only writes stand-alones, so they're not connected in any way), and although there's usually an element of fantasy in them, its skilfully toned down (to the point where until the very end of the book it's very hard to tell if there's actually something supernatural going on or its just superstitious folk being superstitious). Her first book 'Company of Liars' is also one of her best. I'd recommend picking it up and giving it a go.

 

In fact those characters seems to me in serious need of a therapy. I would be surprised to learn that the average male in the middle-ages had the urge to rape, kill, steal and the like. Especially considering how much religion was important at that time.

 

Remember the relative importance of religion in society is very different from true piety. Religion in Europe was also a total mess of half-understood concepts poorly translated from Latin or Greek and twisted by the local priest to suit his purposes mixed with endless pagan beliefs and superstitions. Just to illustrate this, one of the councilors at the local government where I work, in a small Spanish village, offered today to perform a spell on me involving waving a handkerchief over my stomach and muttering some kind of prayer which can only be taught to another 'holy healer' the day before Easter Friday and was supposed to help with my indigestion problems. I politely declined.



#20 Richard

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Posted 31 January 2014 - 06:33 AM

As far back as the Old Testament, virtues like Truth, Fairness, Justice, Courage and Self Sacrifice were valued by humanity.

 

 

Man, I want some of what you're smoking........

 

Seriously, though.  Have you read any of the Old Testament?  And bear in mind this is the ancient Israelites own propaganda machine, so it's casting them in what they perceived as a good light - said good light including among other delights a cheery approach to mass slaughter and genocide, the willing sacrifice of daughters to rape if it protects your male house guests, and the torture of faithful servants to test their loyalty.

 

Moving forward to the Italian city state era I mentioned, you would have found Truth, Fairness and Justice in very short supply if you'd been unfortunate enough to be born into a Jewish family of the time; you'd be forbidden to own property, you were confined under curfew to a ghetto and required to wear identifying clothing in public.  You'd also be suspected of slaughtering Christian children to use their blood in making your passover bread, and you might get summarily beaten up or murdered on that suspicion.  It's important to stress that these were the social norms of the time and place.  Good, right-thinking Venetian citizens subscribed to this as the way things should be.

 

But we don't have to back up even that far for a demo of how naive your outlook is - try this on for size.  Mid-twentieth century in the good old land of the free.  Curious how that evil 20% you were on about somehow magically all managed to show up that night, and none of the morally upright 80% were available for duty........


Edited by Richard, 31 January 2014 - 06:34 AM.