Emperors, Soldiers and Peasants – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

This is the last part of a four part series (I, IIa, IIb, III, IV) examining the historical assumptions behind the popular medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings III, made by Paradox Interactive. In the previous sections, we’d laid out what CKIII does very well: building a simulated model (albeit a simplified one) of power and rule within fragmented medieval polities bound together by ties of vassalage.

By contrast this week will be a bit more spread out, as I want to talk about some of the things that CKIII leaves out with that tight focus on fragmented, vassalage-based polities. Now we’re absolutely not going to get to everything. For one, we’re not going to discuss Central and Southern Asia too much here; while they are somewhat in soft focus I both think it is fairly clear that they are very likely to get further ‘flavor packs’ in the future (in the same way EUIV had spread out into less heavily played regions) and also because my own knowledge of medieval Asia is very thin beyond steppe nomads. The other very large ‘area that I think the game misses ‘gap’ that I don’t intend to address much here is institutional religion. CKIII has mechanics for this and while I’d argue they’re a bit underdeveloped for the outsized role that religion, especially the Latin Church, played in the period, they exist as a basis for expansion. Moreover, I am very much not a medieval church historian (a meaningful subfield) or an medieval literary historian (a subfield so large that at times it seems to be the actual field, with traditional medieval history as its subfield), so that sort of focus seems better left to dedicated medievalists.

What we are going to talk about here are a few areas closer to my research interests where I think CKIII is substantially less developed than it could be or where mechanics don’t work as well as I think they might to express the history of the period. That makes for a bit of a grab bag, but we’re going to talk about how the game struggles to simulate actual states, how the innovation system as currently structured both compounds these problems but also plays into a somewhat teleological view of historical progression as a sequence of advances towards centralization, how the current military system flattens some of the interesting diversity in military-and-social structure in these polities and finally – and perhaps most importantly – how the game’s strong focus on the elite largely leaves out non-elite actors, both peasants and burghers.

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The Heirs of Rome

We can deal with the bigger omission which is actually the smaller issue: the Byzantines. It seems necessary of course to note that the Byzzies (yes, I call them that) were clearly victims of necessary development decisions. The fact is, game development on this scale is partly about managing scope in order to actually release the product before the heat-death of the universe. With the decision to have non-Christian rulers playable at launch and to move a number of mechanics that were DLC in CKII to the base game (e.g. men-at-arms units), it was inevitable that certain things got left out of scope and clearly the Eastern Roman Empire (that is, Byzantium) was one of them.

And, though it pains me to say it, this was the correct choice. The ERE is, as we’ll see, a weird creature for this period, a figurative dinosaur walking the earth – great, terrible and terribly out of date – which means that any development time spent on crafting bespoke mechanics for it wouldn’t be applicable for anyone else. And of course there are player expectations to consider; nearly every historical Paradox game that I can recall has at some point gotten a Byzantine-themed patch or DLC, including games in which the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist or else ceased to exist within the first ten years of game start. So very clearly a choice was made, probably very early in development, to leave detailed Byzantine mechanics for later content.

That’s not to say that the Byzzies get nothing here. On launch, what they did get was attached specifically to the Byzantine Empire title, but with the fleshing out of the culture system, those elements got moved into traditions for Greek culture (which makes a lot more sense and means that should some other culture seize the title, as happened (twice), they wouldn’t automatically inherit the unique Byzantine way of doing things). In particular, Greek culture has two traditions that reflect this Roman inheritance. The first, ‘Eastern Roman Legacy’ enables the Cataphract men-at-arms unit, along with shifting Byzantine armies away from levies and towards (expensive) heavy infantry and heavy cavalry men-at-arms units. The second, Byzantine Traditions, enables the limited Byzantine government features, like the ‘Born in the Purple’ trait, a beefed-up short reign penalty (to reflect the greater instability of individual Byzantine rulers) and so on. Finally, the Byzantines begin with primogeniture, which is actually a fairly significant gameplay change since so much of the early game in CKIII is spent managing partitive intermittence everywhere else.

The unique set of bonuses that Greek culture carries which try to express some of the oddities of the Byzantine Empire. Eastern Roman Legacy shifts them towards a more professional, heavy army while Byzantine Traditions both enables the Born in the Purple trait, which is valuable, but also increase instability from the longer short-reign modifier and more common disloyal trait.

All told this is essentially just a framed ‘Work in Progress’ sign. Everyone knows that a more focused, substantive Byzantine flavor-pack is likely at some point (though every time you ask, “Byz wen?” it gets delayed). That said, I hope that when the Byzantine themed DLC does arrive, it isn’t just some features for the Byzantines, but instead takes the opportunity to interrogate the kind of polity the Byzantines had in this period and how that might work in CKIII‘s systems. So what makes the Eastern Roman Empire different and how might that be represented?

I have kept using the word ‘polity’ instead of ‘state’ in these posts because most medieval polities were not states; but arguably the Byzantine Empire was a state, with power at least notionally fully centralized in the person of the emperor, an inheritance from the late Roman governance system. While emperors still had to delegate command (and were thus at risk from rogue generals), political authority remained centralized and the state retained that effective monopoly on the legitimate use of force, at least to the end of the Komnenos dynasty in 1180 (after which the Byzantine Empire begins to fragment).

Via Wikipedia, a map of the Byzantine themes as of 1025 AD. The outsized theme of Anatolikon is not an accident, but a reflection of the fact that this was the largest fragment of the Byzantine army to be formed into a theme, the successor to the primary eastern army, the army of the East (in Greek, Anatole, thus the theme of Anatolikon).

At the level that CKIII works on, the key institution here are the θέματα (themata, sing. θέμα) or themes, which became the key administrative and military divisions of what remains of the Eastern Roman Empire after the catastrophes of the seventh century. The theme-system took the late Roman field armies and – beginning in Anatolia – tied them to specific districts, creating combined military-civilian administrative areas. Ironically this was in some sense a return to the older Roman system of combined military-civilian authority in the person of a provincial governor, but the difference here is that the army itself was essentially settled in its theme, to act as an initial defense force. Meanwhile, over time a new professional field army formed around the emperor, called the tagmata. The commander of a thema was given the Greek title of strategos, ‘general.’ And the developers clearly have this system in mind; the duchy-title divisions in the Byzantine Empire look to be modeled on geographic division of the themes in the early 11th century.

The de jure duchy divisions of the core of the Byzantine Empire. As you can compare them with the map above, there’s a clear effort here to try to replicate most of the themes on their original boundaries.

And so far this seems like the sort of local rule that CKIII simulates well, but the devil is in the details. Unlike the rulers we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the were appointed administrators, not local rulers; they did not hold their positions by heredity, but by imperial appointment. The emperor assigned someone the job of commanding a theme and could (in theory) revoke that appointment at any time. That doesn’t mean that emperors could select anyone; the Byzantine military-aristocracy was fairly small and whereas civilian court administrators could often be elevated from bureaucrats (including eunichs), army command was expected to go to members of the landholding elite who guarded that privilege jealously. However, while appointed, strategoi had essentially total control of their theme and of course some of them used that authority to turn their armies against the emperor.

Modeling that institution within CKIII‘s systems would be tricky. The problem here is that CKIII has a system for local landholdings (barony-level titles) which it fundamentally connects to a system for administrative control over large regions (ducal-level titles) through the vassalage systems. But that connection doesn’t exist in the Byzantine system; while strategoi had to be members of the large landholder class (the dynatoi, ‘the powerful ones’) they could be assigned anywhere, not merely where their holdings were. Perhaps the truest way to reflect this system inside of CKIII‘s systems would be to have all of the count-level vassals in the empire serve as a pool from which the emperor could arbitrarily select to command specific themes, but that would almost certainly break the game’s systems, since you could have a situation where a landholder in, say, Hellas was the strategos of Anatolikon theme where one of the landholders in his theme was the strategos of Hellas. The two characters would be both each other’s vassals and each other’s lieges. At the same time, the system would struggle to reflect the way in which the dynatoi expanded their influence at the expense of the central government by steadily expanding their holdings at the expense not of each other, but of the freeholding farmer class.

Actually modeling this system would thus require severing territorial map holdings from the administration of levies and revenues, which is not something I think that CKIII‘s core structure can handle. The previous game, CKII, modeled appointed officials by making the ducal-level titles (the strategoi) freely revocable by the emperor, allowing the player a much greater degree of freedom to customize their administration on the fly, while still limiting their choices to the holders of existing county titles (albeit generally encouraging that players select strategoi from their own themes, which was uncommon historically). As systems go, that actually isn’t a terrible compromise and might serve as the foundation for more mechanics for CKIII.

I should note there is another kind of medieval polity that this system clearly struggles with and those are larger civic republics: situations in which civic town governance has grown to cover a large area and thus be a state in its own right. The most obvious candidates here are the great Italian republics (Genoa, Venice, Pisa, Florence, etc.) but powerful towns made important vassals or even semi-independent realms all over Europe (especially in the Low Countries). We’ll come back to this but the game has no effective way to simulate the very different way these pocket states worked either, even as powerful non-player entities. Establishing a set of mechanics to try to reflect more centralized states might enable the game to represent some of the ways that these small civic polities often punched well above their weight by virtue of more effective civic mobilization and internal governance.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve run with the Byzantine Empire and aimed to recreate the Roman Empire. This is my most recent effort.

And developing those systems also matters not just for republics and the Byzantines, but also for the ability of the game to model increasingly centralized late-game polities. Moreover, it will be crucial if the map ever aims to expand to include China (something long implied by the ragged eastward edge of the game map), which alternated between periods of fragmentation but also of strong centralized state organization during the period of the Middle Ages in Europe.

I think it is worth noting that while the Byzantine Empire still needs some work, that doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten their share of the new mechanics, like this court design for Eastern courts, clearly modeled off of Byzantine architecture.

But that doesn’t fix all of the fairly obvious duct-tape solutions for the Byzantines, like needing to have unique early access to primogeniture or the problem that Byzantine crown authority begins at ‘autonomous vassals’ without even having the ability to raise it to ‘high.’ All of that leads to problems with…

The Innovation System

The innovation system in CKIII takes the place of the normal ‘tech tree,’ and while I am going to lay into some of its issues here in a moment, I do think that the framing here is good. ‘Innovation,’ is a good, broad term for the complex of ideas, technologies and social structures represented here (all of which have good names for sending players on profitable wiki-walks). It’s also a more fun and interesting system than CKII‘s technology-levels, since each innovation is unique rather than simply iterating a bonus to a slightly higher level.

I won’t bury the lede here though: the main problem is that innovations are gated by era, with each era’s innovations locked behind a minimum year. That has all sorts of knock-on-effects, the most obvious is the duct-tape solution of giving Byzantium primogeniture at game start because otherwise they couldn’t develop it until 1200. But more broadly it shows up in the problem of major cities (Constantinople, but also Baghdad and Cordoba) starting at the development cap with limited ability to expand for decades. Inexplicably the Byzantines start the game having forgotten how to found cities, presumably because – since they have several decades to wait until the second tier of the tech tree unlocks – they needed something to research. Likewise, the early English kingdoms in this system have to start out with minimal centralization and confederate partition with no real ability to much change either for decades or centuries, despite the fact that Alfred the Great (r. 848-899) and his successors seem to have built a remarkably centralized kingdom which wasn’t subject to further fragmentation.

An example of the innovation screen. As you can see, none of the high medieval innovations are available, because the year is not 1050. This would be true even if the second condition (discovering 50% of the early medieval innovations) was met.

In short, the innovation system cannot handle differential development across the broader Mediterranean well at all, gating some societies out of innovations they fairly clearly had for centuries after they fairly clearly had them. Moreover, the ‘eras’ system imposes a degree of teleological determinism here where knowledge must proceed from fragmenting, decentralized, deurbanized polities towards more coherent, centralized and urbanized ones, but the actual routes that historical polities took through this period were hardly so clear-cut. It is a system that works OK for what were clearly the initial focuses of game development – mostly France, Germany and Scandinavia – but falls apart outside of that frame fairly quickly and cannot handle exceptions even within it. There were areas of honest technological advance in the Middle Ages, but a lot of what ends up in the innovation trees is cultural development, which is hardly so sequential and chronologically rooted as the innovation system implies.

Now if I may engage in a bit of amateur game design, the clear purpose of the era-gating is to prevent players from ‘blitzing’ a handful of powerful late-game innovations early in cultures that historically took centuries for them to develop; primogeniture is the obvious candidate for this kind of ‘tech rush.’ But I suspect as the game’s focus expands with flavor packs, the limitations of this system are going to become more and more apparent, because the sequences here simply don’t make a lot of sense. And I also think just having entirely different tech trees for different cultures is not much of a solution either.

My own amateur ‘fix’ would be to ditch the year-gating entirely and instead organize innovations the way dynasty legacies are organized – a series of parallel sequences where unlocking each level makes the next available (so a sequential tree). Thus a culture still needs to discover the different succession options in sequence, and needs to figure out how to manage provinces of 25 maximum development before learning how to do so for provinces of 35 development and so on. Then, to prevent (or at least discourage) players from ‘tech rushing’ key technologies, impose a ‘cool down’ of several decades between innovations in the same ‘tree.’ That could be a hard gateway, “you just discovered ‘hereditary rule’ and so must wait 50 years to begin ‘heraldry’” or a soft penalty to consecutive innovations in a single category akin to Heart of Iron IV‘s ahead-of-time research penalty.

Reshaping the system that way would, I think, allow for a better expression of the structures and innovations that some cultures had at the beginning of this period. The design could then also increase innovation development time based on either the number of innovations known or the highest level innovation known, creating a system whereby the less urbanized and centralized polities could ‘catch up’ over time. Constructing innovations as a tree rather than as a time-gated progression also allows for innovations which represent choices, rather than advances, which brings me to my next topic.

Army Structure

On the one hand, one of the strengths of the Crusader Kings series is that it accurately reflects vassalage-system armies as consisting of a ‘retinue of retinues,’ where each aristocratic vassal brings their own retinue and their vassals who in turn bring their retinues and so on until the army is formed. That leads to a fairly distinctive (and sometimes ungainly) army structure which CKIII broadly respects. The units that make up an army in CKIII are each of the levy contributions from either an individual holding or vassal; these can’t be split up, forcing the player to work with occasionally awkward sized units as a consequence of the system.

In addition to those levy units, a ruler also raises their men-at-arms and knights. The former reflect standing or semi-professional warriors, which covers a range of different kinds of full-time combatants on the battlefield. A unit of professional standing infantry fits under this rubric, as would a whole bunch of knights bachelor (unlanded knights) serving in the household or retinue of the king. The ‘knights’ (the term for these fellows is culture dependent) reflect aristocratic courtiers or vassals in the army and the way they function act more like officers than combatants in their own right – they can have a lot of combat power. I like the inclusion of ‘knights’ – the concern here is, I think, to try to reflect the personalistic nature of these armies without putting so many named characters in them that the player loses all track of them. Finally, a ruler can raise mercenaries, which act almost like a ‘bonus’ men-at-arms units.

The military screen, showing every kind of soldier: levies (derived from holdings), knights (here under the culture-specific label of ‘faris’) recruited from courtiers and vassals, and then men-at-arms units (paid for with money. Below you can see I have also hired a number of mercenary companies.

As a foundation, this is a good system, but it tends to flatten a lot of the variety in military structure between different cultures in this period. In practice, the system fits best post-Carolingian Latin Christendom (again, understandable given the focus of the game); some cultures, like the Byzantine Greeks above, have small bonuses to tweak the system to better represent their armies (Byzantine characters have larger men-at-arms units and smaller levies, reflecting a more professional army), but a lot of other distinctive and important differences are lost.

We’ve already noted, for instance, that the system cannot really simulate either the causes or the effects of the steady drift towards the heavy use of Mamluks in the Abbasid Caliphate and beyond. The game makes no distinction, after all, between how men-at-arms units are raised, but the political ramifications of the use of enslaved Turkish soldiers in the Islamic world were substantial. On the flipside, just as I’ve noted that CKIII‘s vision of ‘feudalism’ is an odd fit for pre-1066 England, so too is its military system. The early English fyrd-system was substantially more centralized (there’s a reason William the Conqueror had the administrative apparatus post-1066 to do a comprehensive survey of the entire kingdom; that apparatus had been built up for the fyrd military system), aiming to produce big armies of mobilized freeholding farmers (forms around the royal household’s heavy infantry, the huscarls) rather than armies of knights with their retinues. Meanwhile, what I know of the military systems of medieval India, built around the ‘three arms’ of foot, horse and chariot with a substantially disarmed peasant farmer class providing taxes rather than levies, doesn’t fit this model well either.

That said, if I may once again put on my amateur designer hat, I think the levies-men-at-arms-knights model is flexible enough to accommodate these differing systems. My own instinct would be to add ‘army structure’ as either a realm law (parallel to crown authority) or a cultural tradition (I’d lean towards the former). I might offer the following systems as choices (with proposed bonuses to reflect their nature):

  • Fyrd System: Higher levy contribution from vassals to make a levy-centered army.
  • Steppe System: Substantially lower total levies, but levies from steppe-nomad-culture vassals are horse archers, with a bonus that at last it wouldn’t be necessary to give the Mongols a huge number of ‘event’ troops to make them dangerous.
  • Professional Core (e.g. the ERE before c. 1000 or so): Essentially the current traditions bonus for the Byzantines, with fewer levies but more men-at-arms. This might work in degrees, from ‘professional core’ to an almost fully professional army (the latter perhaps reflecting the disarmed peasantry of parts of India, for instance).
  • Mercenary Core (e.g. the Komnenoi, Abbasids): Permanent mercenary companies begin to take the place of levies, but their leaders are powerful and dangerous vassals.
  • Feudal Array: The current system. To balance it, perhaps the liege when raising a vassal’s levies also raises a proportion of their knights – perhaps a proportion based on vassal opinion – which might better reflect the centrality of military elites to this system as compared to the older fyrd-style systems.

Access to a given system could then be put into the innovation system, with different cultures starting having ‘discovered’ one or the other system, but being able to ‘discover’ and adopt another culture’s military system. As the system stands now, essentially everyone deploys what is effectively a feudal array, which rather flattens a lot of the variety in military systems we actually see in the period.

Peasants and Burghers

All of which gets my small issues out of the way and leads into my larger issue with CKIII‘s design. As we discussed at the beginning of the series, I prefer to break what we sometimes call ‘feudalism’ into two distinct systems: vassalage (the system for political-military relationships between elites) and manoralism (the system for economic relationships between the peasantry and elites). And almost everything we’ve discussed has been about vassalage: how it functions, how personalistic it is as a system, how legitimacy is built within a vassalage-based polity and so on.

We have spent almost no time, however, on manorialism and the commons, which is fitting because frankly CKIII doesn’t spend much time on them either. It is hard to say this is necessarily a failing so much as it is a clear choice. As I noted with EUIV and Victoria II, each Paradox game chooses a focus: EUIV is about states and not people, whereas Victoria II is much more about people (and tries not to be about war). In its design, the clear decision was made to make CKIII about elites and not peasants; the former are lovingly modeled with even barons and landless elite courtiers given personalities and making AI-based decisions. That focus clearly comes at the expense of the peasantry.

Back to our al-Yiliqi game, once the conquest of Aquitaine is consolidated, a decision becomes available to ‘Avenge the Battle of Tours.’ I get where the designers are going with this decision, but the effects of it – pulling the kingdom of Aquitaine de jure under the Empire of Hispania is an odd one. Still, that will do wonders for kingdom stability, so I trigger it.

In as much as the peasantry is represented, it is as a part of their holding. Each holding has a ‘development’ score which reflects the level of urbanization and population present, which increases the levies and taxes the holding grants as well as the size of army that can be present without experiencing supply loss (essentially a ‘foraging cap‘). The effectiveness and pervasiveness of your administration is reflected by the ‘Control’ score (out of 100), with low control often leading to penalties to levies and taxes. Levies and taxes are further modified by buildings you can construct in the holding in four ‘slots.’

Finally, the attitude of the peasantry to you is reflected by a ‘popular opinion’ score. This is a very simple mechanic, with generally fairly few modifiers, with the largest being if the ruler is the same faith and culture as the county and a stacking penalty for waging offensive wars. It provides no bonuses if positive, but if deeply negative popular uprising factions may form, which are generally far less dangerous than vassal factions (which makes some sense; peasant revolts were both fairly common and mostly failed). A number of in-game events offer dilemmas which can increase or decrease popular opinion, though frequent offensive warfare is the most common cause of highly negative popular opinion. In a sense then popular opinion is the other half of the vassal opinion legitimacy framework reflecting the peasantry’s view of the regime’s legitimacy, but in practice this mechanic is decidedly secondary.

The burghers – the residents of towns – get a bit more focus, but only a bit. Town governments are represented by baron-level vassals (‘mayors’), but as characters in the governing system these fellows are mostly inert. They don’t scheme to expand the town’s influence and pay a fixed percentage of their taxes and levies regardless of opinion.

The player in turn has relatively little to do with the burghers or the peasants. While historical recruitment systems often reached pretty deeply into the organization of the countryside, doing things like brigading households together with each group of households required to provide recruits, or setting land aside for military settlers, the player isn’t involved in any of that, nor do they engage in tax collection or reform. These roles aren’t absent, but they’re abstracted into tasks the player can set their councilors on (stewards can collect taxes or increase development, marshals can increase control or levies) whose effects are directly proportional to their relevant skills; a set-it-and-forget-it mechanic. This, combined with some events, at least acknowledges that this would have been a daily concern of the ruler – the management of his own lands – but abstracts it away so the player can focus on other things. On the balance, I think this is an understandable design decision, but the player looking to think historically needs to be aware just how much is being abstracted away here.

For a game focused on rulership though, the inertness of town governments strikes me as more of a problem. Major towns could be very troublesome vassals. In game, towns are represented as having minimal defensive capabilities, but in actual practice a fortified town full of angry burghers was a very difficult military problem, since a large and motivated town militia could dispose of a lot of labor in its defense. At the same time, because burghers tended to be wealthier than peasants, town militias were a good source of higher quality infantry (both armored infantrymen but also crossbowmen), making good relations with them important for developing military force. A lord could dictate to the peasants, but had to negotiate with major towns, and this just isn’t well reflected in-game.

One of the issues is the structure of holdings: each county is split more or less evenly into castle, temple and town holdings (typically one of each, plus perhaps an open slot or two) and these holdings are more or less equally productive (castles produce more levies, towns more taxes, temples somewhere in the middle). But in practice a big town – which is going to come with its own surrounding agricultural hinterland – could be a substantial nucleus of population and wealth that would have made it substantially more important than surrounding castles or monasteries. Not all towns were like this, but certainly larger towns could be outsized and powerful vassals in a way that simply doesn’t happen in CKIII.

It gets my ruler the cool name ‘the Avenger.’

In my view this reflects one of the major weaknesses of CKIII‘s design. I suspect the developers are aware of this too; quite a number of events added with Royal Court relate to the concerns of the burghers or the peasantry so there is an apparent desire to represent this, but it isn’t well integrated into the game’s systems. Whereas I can imagine DLC or flavor-pack sized ‘fixes’ for the game’s struggles in these other issues (states, the Byzantines, etc.) it’s hard to see how CKIII could do much more than just those events without a fairly radical redesign. That said, I understand this as a design concession; games like this have to focus on something and some of Paradox’s other titles (Victoria and Imperator especially) are much more common-people-oriented. As I’ve noted before, one of the great strengths of the Paradox oeuvre is that because each game focuses on different aspects of history, they can serve as correctives and rebuttals to each other, though it is a shame that by far the most people-oriented game in the catalog, Victoria, has also traditionally been the most niche of the set.

Reading Crusader Kings

For all of these complaints though, I think Crusader Kings III is probably more successful at achieving a historically informative simulation as compared to EUIV and Victoria II (though neither of those games is a failure by any means). My own sense, witnessing also the way that their other titles, especially EUIV, have evolved over time is that this is reflective of the growing maturity in Paradox’s historical design, but also the smaller geographic scope (though even here CKIII suffers from placing South and Central Asia in soft focus). It isn’t perfect, mind you – indeed I’ve just spent the last 5,000 or so words complaining about it and this is hardly a complete bill of goods. The core of both the success and the omissions of Crusader Kings III‘s vision of the Middle Ages is its focus on fragmented polities governed through dynastic, personalistic rule; within that framework the game is a remarkably capable simulator of vassalage politics (within the bounds of what is possible for a mainstream video game), but historical elements outside of those bounds are at best gestured at in events, when they aren’t simply omitted.

For the teacher then, looking at how to respond to students whose vision of the Middle Ages was substantially formed by CKIII‘s theory of history focused around dynastic politics and for the student looking to expand their knowledge from that base, the exercise will mostly be one in filling gaps, addressing key historical themes that sit outside of that focus. That can mean a focus on the sort of polities that do not fit well within CKIII‘s simulation, like the Byzantine Empire or town governments (both those within larger kingdoms but also the independent Italian civic polities like Venice, Genoa and so on), but it can also mean a focus on the sort of people that CKIII leaves out of focus, which mostly means the peasantry, but also to a meaningful extent the clergy.

Honestly now beginning to run out of things to do I spot the ‘Secure the Mediterranean’ decision, which likewise expands the de jure holdings of a title, enabling more stable expansion. It’s going to secure me to take Corsica and Sicily, which means quite a bit of war, but Muntasir is up for it, so to war we go.

Fortunately, the study of the Middle Ages is fairly well equipped with Annales-inspired micro-histories exploring the lives and mentalités of the peasantry, works like E.L.R. Ladurie’s Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966; available in trans. J. Day, 1976 as The Peasants of Languedoc) or, reaching just into the early modern period, Carlo Gunzburg’s Il formaggio e i vermi (1976, available in trans. Tadeschi and Tadeschi (1980), the former exploring the material reality of the common peasantry and the latter their cosmology and worldview.

Likewise, it might be worth putting a bit more into exploring the situation within the towns. My own knowledge of medieval Italian communal structures is sadly fairly thin beyond the basics (I’m actually hoping at some point to rope a colleague into guest-blogging about them), so I shall stick more to the rest of Europe. S. Ogilvie’s The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (2019) is both a remarkably summary of scholarship on the topic and a tremendous wealth of data and analysis of what we know about how guilds shaped the structure of civic politics and also how they interacted with both city government and larger political structures. In a narrower study, L. Crombie’s Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders (2016) provides a good ‘glue’ between the lords-and-vassals centric vision of CKIII and the social structures of towns, as well as illustrating the importance of that relationship since these guilds were both important civic institutions but also key means for lords (in this case the Dukes of Burgundy) to obtain effective infantry from the towns in their realms. Of course variation by region, time and relationship is substantial; City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (1994), edited by B.A. Hanawalt and K. L. Reyerson collects a dozen smaller studies of individual interactions (rituals, festivals, donations, etc.) between ‘feudal’ rulers and the towns in their domain which gives a sense of the variety and particularity these relationships could have.

I use the invasion CB in North Africa, netting a much larger sweep of territory, before a final hard-fought war to pry the last bit of Sicily from the Byzantines. This is as far as I got at time of posting this, though the game remains exciting as the Pope has just declared a Crusade to recover Leon that probably has enough troops for me not to be able to stop it. Alas, posts must go up on schedule, so that will have to be a challenge for another day.

Finally, while CKIII can and does gesture at the literature and intellectual culture of the period, with the player able to commission literary works and retain scholars that fairly clearly call to historical exemplars, by necessity it only alludes to the content of those works. Thus the player is never going to meet St. Benedict, Gregory of Tours, Ibn al-Athir, Dhuoda of Uzes, Peter Abelard, Heloise d’Argenteuil, the Venerable Bede, ibn Khaldun, Anna Komnene and so on, or their writings. Fortunately, every medieval history course I’ve ever seen already foregrounds intellectual and literary history in this way; myself I make heavy use of the venerable Rosenwein reader (B. Rosenwein, Reading the Middle Ages (2006, but now in a third edition), easily one of the best source readers I have ever taught with) to introduce students to the literary culture of the Middle Ages. For those looking to self-teach, it should be noted that the reader is intended to sync up with Barbara Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages (now in a fifth edition), which is also a very capable textbook.

On the other hand, for the medieval enthusiast for whom CKIII has inspired a desire to look more deeply into the business of rulership and the intellectual framework around medieval kingship, it is hard to recommend a single volume on the topic. While CKIII models many of the common elements of kingship fairly well, in practice when one wants more specificity kingship generally rapidly becomes the study of particular models of kingship and royal administration that are specific to their time and place. The next step is thus to pick a polity or dynasty and go reading, though the books written at this level are intended for scholars and written with that in mind. Nevertheless some tentative suggestions: J.E.A. Jolliffee, Angevin Kingship (1955),, H. Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (1993), J. Naus, Constructing Kingship: The Capetian Monarchs of France and the Early Crusades (2016), and L.E. Wangerin, Kingship and Justice in the Ottonian Empire (2019). There’s also a fair amount of kingship scholarship discussed and cited comparatively in T.R. Trautmann, Elephants and Kings (2015), stretching into Southeast Asia, though its primary interests as elsewhere. As you might imagine from books written for scholars, there’s quite a range here in prices and availability.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there is more to this period – indeed any period – than any single game can cover. Even more than the other Paradox games we’ve discussed so far, CKIII picks its focus and sticks to it: this is a game about individual elites and the decisions they make as rulers, and the way that expectations and norms of rulership shape those decisions. A lot of the missing elements above frankly wouldn’t fit well into a strategy game of this sort in any case; unlike with Victoria II, where the lives of regular folk could be presented through the processes of industrialization and political liberalization in the period, reflecting the relatively unchanging structures of peasant life in the Middle Ages isn’t a great fit for this kind of game. Personally, I would love to see a developer really tackle medieval peasant life (in a game where ‘peasant village’ isn’t just a transition stage to ‘big city’ – I’m actually quite impressed by Farthest Frontier, but you don’t stay a village in that game) either as an economics/business sim (run the farm, try not to starve, maybe accomplish some upward social mobility) or a narrative driven RPG. Different genres offer different opportunities.

Next week we’re going to trade in our spurs for wings to discuss the theory and practice of strategic airpower. This is a topic that has recently become a frequent request owing to current events, so that’s where we’re going next.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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