A thought on world building – remember that pre-industrial doesn’t have to mean primitive

I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.

Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.

I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.

So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.

So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.

2 comments

  1. When we visited Bruges we went to the lamp museum, which was far more interesting than it sounds. There’s an inherent problem in using vegetable and animal oils for lamps, in that the wicks don’t work easily. There were ever more complex and baroque ideas for lamps. Then suddenly mineral oil was used, and lamps became simple again. Then suddenly gaslight became ubiquitous – and then electricity.

    Am off to Malta at the end of the month and will keep an eye out for that lamp.

    1. I must remember the lamp museum if we’re ever in Bruges again! If you’re ever in Utrecht, the Spielklock museum (mechanical music) museum is equally fascinating.

      Malta is fascinating, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time – if that’s for leisure rather than work. That particular lamp was in the Palazzo Falson museum in Mdina, very well worth a visit http://www.palazzofalson.com/

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