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Touchpoints for and thoughts on somewhat nonspecific alternate history?
tamtrible wrote in little_details
I'm toying with a story idea, and rather than either set it in an entirely fictional world, or set it in the real world and pretend the presence of magic wouldn't alter history in a lot of different ways, I figure I'd kind of aim for "obviously this world, but different"--for example, I was thinking of having the major language and dominant country of the British Isles be named after the Saxons instead of the Angles (that is, Saxon and Saxony instead of English and England)

A lot of this isn't so much "little details" as "please make suggestions of what things I should search for/poke at"

The hard, absolute difference between that world and this is the presence of magic--specifically, magical items of varying descriptions that are made from living people (the process kills them, it's generally done on those who were dying anyways for whatever reason), as well as a fraction of the population (probably in the neighborhood of 1%) who can both make such items, and recognize the general nature of any that exist.

The story will probably be set somewhere in the neighborhood of the Enlightenment or the early industrial revolution, in part because I didn't want to do Yet Another Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Story.

The main difference I wanted in terms of history is that, well, Christianity and Islam didn't become as ubiquitous. They're still pretty common--a plurality to a strong majority--in the areas where they were nigh unto universal in our own history, but--if nothing else, it's hard to convert by the sword or whatever when the guy you're trying to convert has a magic sword. It's usually not worth the trouble. So, most places have something a lot like the prevailing Roman attitude about religion--as long as you pay your taxes and don't hurt anyone, who or what you worship is pretty much your own damned business. Being a member of the "wrong" religion in this world is probably about like being an atheist today--you may get people who dislike you for it, and you may have trouble holding any kind of public office in some areas, but you generally will be left alone about it in your daily life.

Despite that, I'd like to have the same general arc if history. Roman empire, which fell apart from size, corruption, and barbarians, followed by a few centuries of superstition, not much technological advancement, and the usual sorts of barbarism. Eventually, probably starting from coastal trading areas and growing inward, science, learning, and the printing press bring about the Renaissance. At some point around now, Europeans start traveling places, rediscovering America (unless I tweak it so that the Vikings never left), eventually building empires, properly figuring out science, and starting the Industrial Revolution.

The questions:
1. Do you think it's plausible for European history to have about the same "shape" even without the overwhelming influence from Christianity?

2. Any thoughts for specific little things that might plausibly be different between this world and our own at the same point in history? I'm thinking things like different (but recognizable) names for the nations/regions/cities/etc (a la my England/Saxony example), differences in national/empiric boundaries (for example, might Scotland still be a separate country?), and the like. Also, any that you think might be "attractive" to me but strike you as completely improbable would be good, so I know what to avoid. I don't want to throw my readers out of the story...

3. Any good sources you can recommend to get enough of an overview of the relevant bits of history that I don't do anything completely silly in constructing my alternate history, and/or my alternate 17th/18th century England?

As a side note, this isn't a "true" alternate history, since the point of departure is basically "There is this specific kind of magic, and it's been there since about as long as there have been humans". But I figured that, with the same physical geography and otherwise similar natural laws, etc, there might have been the same kinds of forces of history, et cetera, leading to a similar-ish world.
Think of this as a little like the Victorian-empire-with-werewolves in Soulless, or Europa-with-Sparks in the Girl Genius comics. Less "here is the point at which history diverged", more "here is a world a lot like our own, except..."

son of edit:
I think 1 has pretty much been covered (as per my comment currently at the bottom). Any thoughts on 2? Basically, I'm looking for alternate names, etc. that would make you go "Oh, she's talking about (place)", or "Oh, in this world, I guess (event) happened differently", but would not leave you thinking that this world is absolutely nothing like our own.

In a nutshell, no, I think you're going to have to do more poking to get things the way you want them, but I'll probably have to come back to this question later to say why more explicitly. For one thing, you want Christianity and Islam to have "a plurality to a strong majority" in most areas but NOT have an "overwhelming influence," and I think those two things cancel each other out. For example, in the USA, Protestant Christianity is the majority faith and has been for centuries, and that has an influence over the whole country, whether we acknowledge it or not. Your Christian majority is still going to want to spend a lot of time building churches and combating paganism; your Muslim majority areas ditto but with mosques. There is no current plausible reason in your worldbuilding why these faiths would achieve majority conversion and then stop. If the early Muslims failed at spreading empire along with religion, how did Islam spread out of Arabia? And how and when did the Roman Empire become Christian? If the "barbarian invasions" consisted of very successful magic-using pagans, why didn't the Empire abandon Christianity for its magic-y old ways? (An example of how things went down in real history: in 410 CE, the city of Rome was sacked by Visigoths. This was very traumatic for the Romans and some said that it was divine punishment since they had given up their old gods (under which Rome was powerful and hadn't been sacked for like 800 years) and become Christians. Augustine of Hippo wrote the book "City of God" to counteract those ideas. What all of them failed to recognize at the time was that the Visigoths weren't even pagans--they had converted to Arian Christianity when they were still outside the borders of the Roman Empire.)

If you want to do some reading, I recommend "An Introduction to Late Antiquity" by Peter Brown (a short read and a really great introduction to the "transitional" period between the Roman Empire and the "Middle Ages"), then if you have more time "The Rise of Western Christendom" by the same author, and the sourcebook "Paganism and Christianity 100-425 CE" edited by Ramsay Macmullen and Eugene N. Lane.

I'm not trying to say that Christianity doesn't have a major influence, just that they never quite achieved enough dominance that there weren't still a significant fraction of pagans, freely and fully acknowledged. Likewise for Islam. They may still try to spread the faith and so forth, but there would still be a resistant minority (in some places, majority) that... in many cases, it was essentially *dangerous* to try to convert. Something like the situation in the US today is, actually, a good model for what I'm going for. Christianity is seen as the default, and being a "good Christian" makes it easier to get elected or whatever, but you wouldn't be actively *surprised* to learn that your neighbor was a Jew, an atheist, a Buddhist, or whatnot.

I figured the spreading of empire went a little better than the spreading of religion for the Arabs.

Part of what I figured is that the Roman empire... didn't quite as fully go Christian. And it's likely there was also a reasonable fraction of Christians who had magic weapons and such as well. Possibly fewer of them (I can definitely see Christianity as being one of the religions that had more of an issue with people being turned into magical objects), but neither side had an absolute general advantage.

(and, I don't necessarily need to figure out every single detail of the history, I just need enough of the "shape" of it to get the world that resulted later)

1. No, I don't. "Curiositas" - curiosity about the natural world -was classed with magic during the immediately pre Christian Empire, and magic etc was persecuted ferociously; there are accounts of people accused of magic taking refuge with Christians who didn't mind magic (or curiositas) as long as no demons were involved

Oh yeah. Science went through leaps and bounds in the Middle Ages because it was legitimate interest in the works of the Maker. Pagan beliefs were the heavily superstitious mass beliefs, and the philosophical contempt for the world that precluded intensive study.

This is a huge subject, really beyond what can be addressed here. To your first question, 'Do you think it's plausible for European history to have about the same "shape" even without the overwhelming influence from Christianity?' my short answer would be 'No'. Art, literature, architecture, ceremonies, causes of wars, even naming of children, would all be hugely different.

A lot of differences could be based around who died or didn't die at particular times. If Edward IV had lived longer; if Richard III had won the Battle of Bosworth; if Edward VI had lived and married and had children - the union of the Scottish and English crowns might not have happened, and political union might not have happened, or happened differently. If the Protestant reformation hadn't happened. If Elizabeth had died of smallpox in 1563. If Drake had not returned from his circumnavigation. If the Jamestown colony had failed or the East India Company had never been established. If Charles I had not been executed, or alternatively if the monarchy had not been restored. If Richard Arkwright had died in infancy. If Napoleon had never been born. And so on.

Agree with the others, but suspending disbelief in the overall project for a moment: the Norman Conquest might well have failed if support from the Pope had been less persuasive.

And if you're talking sea-borne invasions, what if the weather had been different at the critical time. If for example Harald Hardrada's fleet hadn't been able to cross to Yorkshire and the English hadn't had to fight the battles of Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge just prior to Hastings.

There would certainly be huge differences, particularly because much of European history wasn't influenced just by "Christianity" as a whole, but by the conflicts between different branches of Christianity. In my view (speaking as a German Protestant with Lutheran leanings), you'd particularly need to be careful what to do with the Protestant reformation.

Just speaking from that point of view: Look at the wars in Germany and around that resulted from Reformation (what we call the "peasants' wars"), and then look at the 30 years' war a hundred years later. While all those wars had other motivations besides religion if you look at the powerful people giving the orders, for many people religion was indeed the important factor that made them take sides. You'd need to decide: Would you want these wars to occur? If not, then the shape of the country and the surrounding ones would be hugely different from what it is now; if you did, then religion would have a larger influence than you probably want.

And from these wars resulted certain principles that are in effect until today. While wars have of course happened in Germany after, what we haven't had are wars between Germans over religion, even though a third of today's population is Protestant, and a third Catholic (obviously with more people being Christian in the past), which is probably in the end a consequence of the solutions tried after those old wars.

Or look at language - Luther's translation of the Bible prompted a lot of the development of a common German language unifying the various states. The mere concept of having important things like religious worship take place in a language that normal people could understand was a new one, too.

Do you want the Reformation (whether Lutheran or Calvinist) at all? If not, then what Christians there are in Germany and surrounding countries that have strong Protestant presence (Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and multiple others) are going to be Catholic, which will change culture. And if you do want it, then the resulting conflicts will need to be dealt with.

I'd really recommend looking at the Reformation and its consequences. The same would be true for the English reformation, although the process and the consequences were rather different than the Continental one. And you'd need to decide how exactly you want the Catholic church to look if you don't want them to be as, hm, convinced that they are the only ones who are right and that everyone should join them as they continue to be until today.

Also, this:

if nothing else, it's hard to convert by the sword or whatever when the guy you're trying to convert has a magic sword. It's usually not worth the trouble

What makes you assume that whoever is doing the converting isn't also going to get their hand on the magic sword and use it to do the converting, as long as it can somehow be justified against doctrine? Vague, dubiously translated Old-testament bans against "witchcraft" certainly wouldn't be enough if the magic was useful, as Christians through the ages have often been quite happy to do away with, say, the bit about not killing people. And if the ban against witchcraft held, then there would probably be considerable energy invested in stamping it out.

I was going more for the idea of... if you have 2 people with magic swords going at each other, it tends to go badly for both sides, and often for bystanders as well. So majority religions tended, out of self-protection if nothing else, to develop a "don't poke the bear" attitude about minority religions, as long as members of said minority religions behaved themselves. They're still going to hell, of course, but if they're not willing to accept God's love and protection, that's their look-out (or something like that...)

The magic in this world... likely wouldn't affect bans against witchcraft, as long as the process of converting people to magical objects (in appropriate and accepted contexts) wasn't considered "witchcraft". It is likely that most or all religions have very strict *rules* about the process, but most don't ban it entirely. It would definitely complicate the issue, however.

Narrative history would have been different, but folkways might have persisted. See for example Alan MacFarlane's studies of English individualism, which trace it back to the later Middle Ages, and Emmanuel Todd's work on family organization as a determinant of political values; or, rather later on, David Fischer's Albion's Seed, which examines how different regional British cultures took root in different parts of the United States.

No help but "like being an atheist today--you may get people who dislike you for it, and you may have trouble holding any kind of public office in some areas" really doesn't apply in Britain...

Or, for instance, Germany. Well, except in some regions of Bavaria where you'd probably best be Catholic (Protestantism might not be much better than atheism there). But honestly, I have no idea nor do I care what, if any, religion any of the local and most of the state and national politicians follow, except for the ones where it's made an issue for some reason or other. OP, from your profile page it looks like you might be American - I'd be careful translating an US view of religion's influence on politics, society and so on to European countries. The influences do exist, but they manifest themselves rather differently (for example, more than just a few fringe people fighting the teaching of evolution in Germany would be absurd, and people wanting to homeschool children so they aren't polluted by evil non-Christian society need to seek asylum in the US).

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First, you're idealizing the Romans. They certainly did not have a laissez-faire attitude about religion unless it was the Roman religion. See Christians dying. You'd have better luck investigating China's attitude towards religion. Secondly, much of European history was motivated by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants or heads of state and church, etc., etc. You basically have to rewrite culture, both the origins and evolutions of. It's more research than your average world-building.

Good point. Not just Christians dying either - not wanting to worship the Emperor as a God once the Romans had come up with him being one wasn't something that went over well either, no matter if people paid taxes and didn't hurt anyone. This is what happened to the Temple of Jerusalem.

ETA: The Romans weren't "tolerant of other religions" as such - they were just rather willing and able to integrate other Gods into their own system. So Zeus was really Jupiter, and Bacchus Dionysos and so on, and more "exotic" Eastern gods could be integrated too as long as the rituals weren't too outrageous. That worked quite well for all involved - unless they happened upon people with some form of "Thou shalt not have other gods beside me" making them emphatic about their god definitely not being Jupited, at which point tolerance wasn't much present.

Edited at 2014-03-11 07:45 pm (UTC)

My first reaction was, why aren't animal deaths adequate​? If there's something about blood compatability, you might get blood types recognised earlier, and also a different, and here perhaps less horizontal, racism.

By whatever mechanism, there is likely to be illegal traffic for magical items. Traditionally, newborns are the target for this sort of thing, so there might be a whole lot of superstions about babies and small children, perhaps carefully sequestering them. For adult deaths, there could be something like the Thuggee cult.

The magic-fixing ability is genetic? Then by the rules of chance, it's likely to occur more in one geographic area than another. Even more if it isn't genetic, of course.

Again looking to classic India, the brahmans, who were meant to have magic abilities, didn't rule the Indian kingdoms directly, but expected obedience and support from kings. Bards in pre-Christian Ireland were the same. Can the magic be fixed onto, say, the dying man's skull?

In Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, magic users are encouraged to join the Church, which has very much helped to make it powerful.

Do the Native Americans have their own users? It does sound like an Aztec wank, except the earlier Mayas would probably still be flourishing.

Suggestion: you might find a magic user had conjured up something that believed it was a god, or the ghost of someone, even if it wasn't

"For adult deaths, there could be something like the Thuggee cult."

The Celtic severed head cult would have been MASSIVE if the heads had *really* been magic.

So much of European Mediaeval politics involve the Holy Roman Empire, and indeed early Mediaeval Europe was shaped by a couple of hundred years of Christianised Roman rule, so I think if you take that out, Europe would develop very very differently; and as others have pointed out, 16th century Europe was pretty much defined by the Reformation. Science, learning, and the printing press were all fuelled and funded by Christianity, at least in the West (Gutenberg is credited with the development of the printing press in Europe, and writers like Luther and Erasmus helped to popularise it).

My guess is that if Europe hadn't been so heavily Christianised, it would have been taken over either by the Moors or the Chinese, but that's only a very wild guess. Judaism would probably also have had a great deal more influence in the absence of persecution.

It's probably worth bearing in mind that while Christianity did do _some_ conversion by violence, quite a lot of it wasn't at sword-point, and was either genuine and willing, or political in nature. This site provides a quick overview which may be helpful.

Edited at 2014-03-11 07:39 pm (UTC)

Good point. Bah.

And, I think it was more Islam that was doing conversion by the sword...

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This is alextiefling - I'm having problems with my sign-in cookie.

First up, have you read Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle? She does some of the things you're talking about here - a magical middle ages, divergent Christianities, no Islam. Warning: It is the longest single-volume fantasy novel in English.

Secondly, I'd echo what the other posters here have said: it's going to be quite a stretch to keep any familiar historical touchpoints in place once you make the basic changes you've described. You also need to become a lot more familiar with European history, culture, and social values.

So, to answer your specific queries:

1) No. The key events which to my mind will mess things up:

a) The conversion of the goths to Arian Christianity - helps unite them sufficiently to overthrow the crumbling Western Roman Empire.
b) The growing divisions between the eastern and western churches, which leads to the Pope siding decisively with Charlemagne against the Empress Irene...
c) ...and 254 years later, the Great Schism, formalising the split between East and West along religious lines.
d) The Christianisation of Rus along specifically eastern-Orthodox lines, providing a focus for national identity in the face of later Mongol invasion.
e) The Christianisation of Iceland, eventually subordinating it to Denmark and turning the Norse world away from westward expansion.
f) The Crusades - especially the First (establishing the short-lived Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, and entrenching divisions between Christendom and the Ummah) and the Fourth (with the sack of Constantinople a major step in that city's decline as a Christian power).
g) The Protestant Reformation, and the policies which triggered it - church attitudes to language, printing, money, science...
h) The Renaissance, with its deliberate idealisation and sanctification of the pagan Greco-Roman past - which, as others have noted, is evident in your own premises.
i) The Christianisation of Lithuania, and the resulting rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a major power in late medieval Europe.
j) The developing role of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the sacralising of kingly authority generally in the late middle ages and early Renaissance.

2) Scotland and England were still independent of each other at the beginning of the 17th century, and were officially separate nations under a common ruler until 1707. That aside, you'd need to be very familiar with the many different linguistic elements in western European place-names to produce a convincing effect; many otherwise good authors fall down on exactly this - place-names that sound too generic, too American, Why does Greendale sound more convincing than Greenvale?

3) It's taken me the past 15 years, and I'm still not good enough to do this professionally. I'd recommend beginning with some good histories of Christianity - take the time to learn the historical and theological points of difference between the major traditions. Many modern people - especially American protestants and atheists - assume that all Christianity is as preoccupied with biblical literalism as they are; it would be good to become properly familiar with features such as ritualism and monasticism. I'd also suggest reading at least one properly scholarly book on each of the following: The Habsburg dynasty; Poland-Lithuania; the rise of French nationhood under Richelieu; Spain (particularly with reference to the intersection of race and religion during and after the reconquista); the civil wars in England and the rest of Britain; the papacy and its temporal power.

If this seems like a lot, it's because what you're asking is a lot; the more prepared you are to take a point of departure for your AH that you know well, and write your own history from there on, the easier it'll be. An AH with a vaguely-defined but early point of departure, that's still expected to conform in certain ways to real history, is a much tougher challenge.

The thing is... I'm not sure how much I actually need to define the history, I just need enough of a general shape for it to give the feel of "kind of like this world, but different", and to properly construct my present day.

On a side note, most science in the Renaissance came from the Arabs*, who'd had their Golden Age during Europe's Dark Ages, and had unbroken scientific development from GrecoRoman times. They also picked up math and sciences from India, and paper and the printing press from China, to name a few imports. If Islam hadn't fairly well united the tribes... who knows, it could've made the process of development slower via fragmentation, or faster via competition.

*We still call our numbers Arabic numerals today, though they originated among the Hindu. Also, we have a lot of Arabic words in our oldest math and science concepts. Zero, azimuth, zenith, algebra, algorithm, alchemy (granted, via the French and Latin, but the al- came from Arabic), the names of several stars like Betelgeuze (Ibt al-Jauzah, Beit Al-Gueze) and Aldeberan, etc.

1. Do you think it's plausible for European history to have about the same "shape" even without the overwhelming influence from Christianity?

Nope. It can't; you cannot remove one of the major and ubiquitous influences of the last 1700 years, and have things go in remotely the similar path. You could substitute some things - but that is going to take masses of research - but 'about the same shape', I can't buy it, unfortunately.

There are also other consideration: in an absence of Christian persecution, where does Judaism stand? Would Buddhism spread west? Would Christian Ethiopia send missionaries north in the absence of a powerful papacy? There are TONS of factors at play. Which isn't a sign not to do it, but it is a sign that there needs to be a LOT of research as to the fallout.

I'm also a bit confused as to how magical swords are going to change things? Presumably if some people have them, they'll be traded around, and so even everything up again. (And that's....not exactly how religions tend to spread.)

Edited at 2014-03-11 10:04 pm (UTC)

1. Do you think it's plausible for European history to have about the same "shape" even without the overwhelming influence from Christianity?

If you're cynical and tough enough, and make very clear that this has been a whole nother world/reality all along*, then probably yes. Easily if some other religion had taken the same overwhelming shape as Christianity. That is (cynical view) if the same people had acquired the same overwhelming power in the name of some other religion.

To show the difference between the two worlds, Constantine could report a vision of a different signo in which to take over the disorganized Roman Empire, resulting in an institution, and a world history, as similar or dissimilar as you like.

* like Lyra's and Will's worlds in HIS DARK MATERIALS

Edited at 2014-03-12 03:24 am (UTC)

Another example of the kind of thing I'm going for.

The history will not, in any case, be the focus of the story. I'm not sure what the focus will be, but it will probably be on the personal troubles of Our Heroine, and her father's relic. The history is just the underpinnings of the backdrop.

Any government that has the power to enforce laws against murder, theft, and tax evasion also has the power to enforce laws against blasphemy. If the widespread availability of magic swords discouraged your alt-medieval monarchs from mandating Christian worship, then it would also have discouraged them from exercising power in all sorts of secular matters as well, in which case, alt-Europe political structures would evolve in a radically different way.

So. It kind of sounds like, as far as religion and the history, my major options are:
1. don't change the role of Christianity significantly
2. Completely replace Christianity with another religion that takes on a similar role
3. Don't have a fairly similar history, or
4. Break at least some of my readers' suspension of disbelief.

The main thing I was hoping to achieve by reducing the role of Christianity is having a significant-minority religion a little bit like Shinto, because... I think in a world where some of the inanimate objects used to be people, more people would believe that inanimate objects have spirits.

Under ~1, I could probably only have that if they had at least almost all surface-converted, though as of my story (age-of-reason, reduced role for the church), some may be more blatantly going back to the old ways.
Under 2, either that religion or an offshoot/descendent of it could be the replacement religion

That sound about right?

Christianity has done well with incorporating old pagan traditions - one of the theories for the date of Christmas is that it was simply put close to where people already celebrated something; the same is true for other holidays. You can also google for articles that claim that the Roman-Catholic Virgin Mary-worship was influenced by pagan worship of female deities and that saint worship was a way for people to keep revering their slightly-renamed polytheistic gods.

Maybe you could mash the "inanimate objects have spirits" belief into the belief in saints/saintly forces, or angels/angelic forces, or at least find some parallels.

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