Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Populating England

Jerry Stratton, August 7, 2004

History is a great place for ideas on new worlds. Real world cultures often have very complex foundations due to geography, time, and neighbors. I’m going to use England as an example of an especially interesting real-world source for gaming ideas. Being somewhat of a terminus of migration, and partially separated from the rest of the world, it has seen both conflict and isolation. England has been visited by people from the mainland many times, with almost each time the newcomers dispersing and intermingling with those who had come before. Each of these invaders--Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman--altered the English culture that they found. And each left strange things for later newcomers to explore.

Prehistoric England

There are remains of sivapithecus (middle miocene) and ramapithecus (late miocene) in England. This is the pre-human five to ten million years ago, however. There is evidence of the neanderthal in England, though only by tools. In the upper paleolithic as well (ten to thirty thousand years BC) we find burials and shelters.

By the end of the last ice age, 8000 BC, humans were still only small bands of hunter-gatherers. Superficially mankind looked and acted very similarly to how they had for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years before. However, a more complex social organization and the beginnings of more complex technology soon resulted in major changes. Within two thousand years, large villages appeared. In another two thousand, towns and cities, and another two thousand, city-states and empires (though not in England).

Agriculture--farming and herding--played a major role in the growth of humanity, as humans began to adapt their environment to them rather than adapt themselves to their environment. In Europe, wheat and barley were the major cereal crops. Sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs were the major domesticated animals. This led to beer, wool, the plough, and carts, all important to the growth of civilization.

Farming reached England about 4000 BC.

Even after we get to the end of the last ice age, Britain is still connected by land to Europe. It is only in 6500 BC that the English Channel cuts England off from Europe. Up until that point the people who lived in England were the same as the people who lived in Europe. Afterwards, there may have been some divergence of culture.

There is some speculation that the mysterious Picts are from tribes native to England since the megalithic age or earlier, but current scholarship seems to favor the Picts as a Celtic tribe. Their language is part of the controversy. Some call it a pre-Celtic non-Indo-European language, others (who appear currently to have the upper hand) an Indo-European tongue that is perhaps a variation of Celtic or a merging of Celtic with a pre-existing Indo-European tongue. Some even speculate that both were true: the Picts spoke two languages, one an older, non-Indo-European tongue and one a variation of British Celtic. I don’t see much support for the latter in the literature available to me, however.

Megalithic England

The ancestors of most peoples of Europe, including the English, are the Indo-Europeans, whose language lives with us today from India and Iran, to the languages German, Greek, and English. Sometime either around 9000 BC or 3500 BC, depending on whether they were the first farmers or they supplanted the first farmers, they began spreading from northern-central Europe into the Baltic, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and more to the west, and India, Persia, and others to the east.

The new farmers began to build up their religious environment as well. Some of them built structures of stone. In the megalithic age, we start getting some very interesting structures from a gaming point of view: underground complexes and above-ground temple structures. West Kennet, in southern Britain, holds a neolithic mound with megalithic burial chambers, dating around 3600 BC to 2500 BC. This is the same period as the large standing stones (hence the term, megalithic) such as Stonehenge. Stonehenge was probably the main ritual center in southern England in 2100 BC.

What we know about megalithic England we know from how and where they built. We know that certain astronomical events were important to them, for example, because they built places like Stonehenge around those events. These were difficult, time-consuming structures to create. But we don’t know much beyond that, as there was no writing during this period and little in the way of remains.

The horse was a major innovation during this period. It reached as far as Ireland by 2500 BC.

Celtic England

The bronze age was the beginning of what we call civilization in Greece and elsewhere in the world. The bronze age saw the emergence of a warrior elite throughout Europe, which included an increased role for tribal chiefs. In the Mediterranean, this led to the Greek and Roman empires. In northern Europe, it led into Celtic Europe, which includes Celtic England. We know much about the Greeks and Romans from their texts, but the Celts did not write. From 800 to 250 BC, little is known about the Celts. After this, they begin to invade the literate civilizations, and thus are mentioned in those civilizations’ texts.

Classically Celtic remains first began to appear in southern Germany and the eastern Alps in 800 BC. Here we begin to see weapons, chariots, and even silks. The Celts were in northern England by the fifth to first century BC. They were in southern England in the sixth century BC. At Danebury, for example, a Celtic hill fort was built around 550 BC, and finally abandoned in 100 BC--probably as the result of new invaders.

Celtic culture probably did not just flow into England. England may also have provided some of Celtic culture, including Druidism. According to Caesar, Druidic novices were sent from the mainland to Britain to receive the best training. This training, involving memorization of large amounts of lore, according to Caesar, could take up to twenty years. Novices thus started very young.

Roman England

The Romans first came to England under Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. Caesar left England, however, to deal with troubles back home and never returned. Under the reign of Claudius, the Romans returned in 43 AD with about 40,000 troops. Claudius established Camulodunum (Colchester) as the capital of the province. During the Roman occupation, known tribes in England included the Iceni (in Norfolk), the Briganti (in northern England), and the Regni (in Sussex).

The Romans built their famous roads, and cities as well as forts, and equipped them with theaters, forums, and baths. London was built up during this time, as Londinium. Legionaries retired to Britain: the colonies of Lincoln, Colchester, Gloucester, and York were all settled by retired soldiers.

England proved a worthy conquest: it provided much grain for hungry Rome. It provided metals: lead, tin, and gold. It also provided animals, such as bears and wolfhounds, for the Roman arena.

The Celts of England, perhaps inspired by the Romans, created the Ogham script, possibly a form of Runic script, beginning in the fourth and up to the seventh centuries. Romanized Celts also used Latin, taking it with them into Ireland as they built the later-famous Irish monasteries.

Because of its isolation, Roman Britain continued to prosper throughout much of the turmoil in Rome. Continental turmoil may have added to England’s prosperity. When access to grain supplies on the continent were disrupted, England remained a secure and accessible source. However, in the third century AD, the Saxon raiders who would one day conquer had begun to show up on the east coast.

The end of Roman England really began in 367 AD when three groups of barbarians attacked from three directions: Caledonians from the north, Irish from the west, and Saxons from the east. Many Roman warriors deserted and joined the invaders. Rome regained the province starting in 368 AD, but in 383 AD Roman generals began draining England of troops, until 407 AD when they were pretty much left to themselves. In 446 AD some Romanized Britons may have appealed to Rome for assistance, but Rome was dealing with the Huns and did not come. Rome (or at least, the western half of the empire) was never in a position to assist again, and the Anglo-Saxon invaders took over England’s culture. The great cities and forts of Roman England, for the most part, went empty.

Rome, however, also brought with it a written language. Thus, from this point on we begin to know a lot more about the peoples of England. Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, all left written records of their visits, in various scripts and languages.

Rome may also have brought with it the tradition of burying corpses, which has also helped our understanding of English cultures following Rome’s departure. Throughout the Iron Age (up to the Roman period), few examples of formal burials exist, leading some scholars to speculate that before the Romans came, the English practiced cremation and exposure of the ashes, or exposure of corpses. The growth of cremation burials after Caesar may lend credence to this theory. Or it might instead indicate Celtic continental Romans, who already practiced cremation burial, escaping Roman rule.

The few burials that have been found before the Roman period seem to indicate ceremonial deaths, such as human sacrifice.

Iron Age East Yorkshire was an exception. We know quite a bit more, relatively, about early Yorkshire because they did practice burial.

Anglo-Saxon England

In the fourth and fifth centuries AD, with the Huns pressuring Germanic cultures in their homelands, with Roman wealth tempting them, and with a desire for new farmlands, Germanic tribes renewed their raids on Roman borders. As Rome was recalling its armies to deal with Germanic invasions at home, the opening of once-closed borders made it easier for Germanic tribes to cross once-guarded barriers. England suffered Germanic invasions beginning at least in the fifth to sixth centuries AD, coming in from the east. Germanic cultures such as the Anglo-Saxons migrated into England over this period and pushed the Celts from dominance.

The burial at Sutton Hoo is culturally impressive in its diversity. In or about 625 AD, an East Anglian ruler was buried in a ship, with Swedish weapons and armor, Merovingian coins, and Byzantine silver.

Some of the Romans and Romanized Celts moved into their merchant colony of Brittany on the coast of France. Others crossed the Irish Sea into Ireland, or the Welsh Mountains into Wales. Welsh is perhaps the last fragment of the British language spoken before the Anglo-Saxon arrival.

Resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invasions by Celts or Romanized Celts may have been part of what merged with previous Celtic legends to become the legend of King (or battle-lord) Arthur.

The Anglo-Saxons preferred fields and woodlands to cities and castles. They tended to avoid or ignore the large towns and structures of the Romans. Roman villas were abandoned, Roman roads allowed to deteriorate.

Among the Germanic tribes, the “futhark” runic script was first used in Europe starting in 200 AD. These runes were brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons in 450 AD. Seventh century missionaries, including the Irish, tried to suppress this script in favor of the Latin script.

The Anglo-Saxons were not, for the most part, Christian, so Christianity, brought in by the Romans, temporarily left England during this period (though remaining in, and sometimes fleeing to, Ireland). Christianity had a hard time throughout the Roman world, as the instability in Rome propagated to instability in the Christian hierarchy. This resolved itself after Rome’s fall into an emphasis on missions, which brought Christianity back to England.

The missions also brought Latin back to England, from which English borrowed, and kept, many words.

Celtic Ireland, which had remained free of Roman rule, had become a center of Christian scholarship. Known by 800 AD as “The Land of Saints and Scholars,” Irish missionaries were even to spread back into England and the mainland and preach to the non-Christian tribes in England and France. From England, Anglo-Saxon missionaries went to Saxony and northern France. By the end of the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had at least nominally been converted to Christianity.

The term Anglo-Saxon covers several similar groups, and England even after consolidation of settlements had seven kingdoms: one ruled by the Jutes, three by the Angles, and three by the Saxons. They fought each other frequently.

Viking England

In the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxons had someone else to fight: Vikings in search of farmland and the new Anglo-Saxon wealth began to invade from the north. Just as Roman wealth and English farmlands attracted the Germanic tribes, Germanic wealth and English farmlands attracted the Scandinavian tribes.

First the Norwegians and then the Danes poured across the North Sea from Scandinavia. In the ninth century, the Vikings took over some of northeast England and even parts of Ireland. From Ireland, the Norwegian Vikings even spread across the Atlantic. They reached Iceland in 870, Greenland in 982, and Vinland in the year 1000 AD. They were assisted by an abnormally warm period, during which Greenland was, in fact, green, and provided good farmland.

The Scandinavians had a later version of the Germanic runic script, which they brought to England when they arrived around 800 AD. The Viking and Anglo-Saxon tongues were also closely related: they held many of the same words, but a different grammar. English borrowed few words from the Vikings, but the language was simplified as a result of the contact. Because of the similarities between the two languages, a pidgin may have easily developed that itself contributed back to English.

Other Vikings in this time moved into northern France, and became the Normans (Normandy being the land of the north-men). The Normans, by the time they invaded England in 1066, spoke French. Thus, the English language assimilated some French words and even grammar under Norman rule.

Christian missionaries had made strong headway into Anglo-Saxon England before the Vikings arrived. While the first Vikings to invade England were mostly non-Christian, those who controlled the Danelaw were later converted, at least partially, to Christianity. Coins from the Danelaw carry Christian symbols as well as symbols of Thor and Odin--sometimes on the same coin. The Normans, being under Frankish control, were Christian.

This had been a period of state-building. All around England, nations were forming: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Germany, France. Even in Ireland and Scotland control passed from the Scandinavians to local rulers towards the end of the first millennia. Just before the Norman invasion, King Edward had united most of England. His death in January 1066 seemed likely to undo his work, but the Norman conquest, paradoxically, held England together as a nation.

After 1066, England had a tripartite language: English for common speech, French for political speech, and Latin for learned speech. Over time, the dominant English would absorb many pieces of the other two. For now, England was both Christian and united, albeit under foreign rule, and the so-called “dark ages” were over.

Gaming Ideas

From our real-world history we can get some cool ideas for our fantasy worlds. Take the idea that England was once part of the mainland--back when mankind was young. Imagine a primitive, mysterious religion that once covered the mainland, and whose monuments still stand on hilltop against the sky. Cut off by rising sea level from the rest of the world thousands of years ago, one sect of this cult remains long after their brethren were supplanted on the mainland.

There was one period in which England was not a terminus: during the later part of the first millennium, Greenland was reasonably habitable. The Vikings went from Ireland to Greenland and then probably to the Americas. There is no real reason that the reverse could not have happened. You could probably make a great fictional history in which the first people to come to England were the American Indians or one of the Arctic peoples, perhaps becoming the Picts or some other mysterious group.

The formation of the English channel could be fascinating. Did it happen quickly, over a period of a day or a week? Or did it take years, slowly rising, allowing walking across at first, then allowing swimming, and finally requiring boat travel? Did it become impassable in a single generation or several generations? Was it seasonal at first? Was it tidal in its early stage, making for times of the day when it was easier to cross than others? There are some good game-world ideas hidden in the English channel.

For more specific adventure ideas, look at the megalithic burial chambers. A more classic dungeon-style adventure setting would be hard to find in real life! And later Anglo-Saxon ship burials such as Sutton Hoo contain massive amounts of treasure even by many hack and slash standards. In a fantasy campaign, of course, Sutton Hoo would also contain deadly traps, undead from the burial, and strange creatures from the underground that have migrated upwards.

Liminal periods can be great world settings if your players enjoy political intrigues. The transition from the Pax Romana to Anglo-Saxon England left Roman political structures intact but with no power behind them to confront Anglo-Saxon invaders from the continent who themselves had a complex society but one very different from the Roman.

Later, the Viking invasions also provide ideas, especially in a gaming world where player character adventurers are unlikely to huddle in monasteries waiting for raids like the stereotypical Anglo-Saxon monks. In the face of invasions from a mysterious northeast land, player characters might well decide to “invade” the invaders. Their journey could be a spying mission, or a mission to steal a powerful artifact, or a raiding mission to steal back important, culturally-significant treasures.

When looking at history for adventure ideas, think not just about how these historical settings would make good adventures, but also about what adventurers would do differently in such settings. It would be a mistake to force the adventurers to relive history. Adventurers are heroes. They make history. And that is part of the allure of integrating historical ideas into our heroic adventures.

  1. <- Building History
  2. Solving Mysteries ->