Sunday, 17 May 2015

Mindsets: Meeting a Medieval Monarch

I once met a Medieval monarch, but didn't know it until years later.

When I write stories set in the past, or some fantastical equivalent, I'm out to tell a fun tale not produce a historical treatise.  I aim to give the reader a sense of the time and place, slipping in touches that make people realise it's not the world they know.  In SF circles it's called world-building, I suppose in other genres it would be called world-building.  Not only does landscape and surroundings matter but what the rails our minds run on are important too.

Last time I said that the idea of 'some things never change' was cobblers (see teenage girls now and four hundred years ago).  I should have said similar things shift into other places.

So what about meeting a medieval monarch then?

Years ago I caught a bit of a TV interview with Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of my country.  She was the first woman to hold the job and a reporter asked her what it was like.  I think the interviewer meant 'What's it like being a woman Prime Minister?'.  A care with words is vital in life and this mistake produced the answer: it was like being a medieval monarch because those closest to you are the ones who'll wield the dagger.  Mrs Thatcher wasn't thinking gender, just about the role.  Funny thing is, many real life Queens of the past thought the same way because being the sovereign is bigger than gender.

It made my mind spin because I realised she was spot on.  As Prime Minister, leader of her political party, she was the Power.  Her  largesse would make someone a minister or head of a powerful parliamentary committee.  In fact many jobs and positions of power were her gifts to bestow or remove exactly like an absolute monarch.  It was equally true her bitterest enemies, other political parties, could barely touch her with her phalanx of supporters providing protection out of loyalty or knowing when she fell so would they.

Her own observation was true: it would be her 'lords and lieutenants' that would put the knife in when she weakened and that's what happened, when her grip on power wasn't absolute she was taken down by those closest to her.  Thankfully real knives weren't involved.

When she died in 2013 some people burnt effigies in the streets and had parties, if that's not medieval behaviour I don't know what is.

So what about meeting a medieval monarch then?

I have not met a Prime Minister, but when I was a student I did encounter the equivalent.

I had this summer job at a company's European HQ in a seventeen storey office block.  When the workers trooped in every morning the two lifts and stairs quickly choked and it could take an age to get to your desk.  I'm an early bird and always arrived just before the crush.  That day I saw what I thought was an empty lift and leapt in just as door was closing.

I was wrong.  I shared the small volume with this huge man, with a long face and a hunched form.  He breathed like a death rattle.  For all his expensive clothing he looked like Frankenstein's monster and sounded like Frankenstein's monster who had smoked far too much.  He stared at me like I was something on his shoe, actually he stared at me like he didn't know what I was.

I go for cheery harmless because that's what I am.  I tried a smile and a 'hello'.  The express lift appeared to be on a go-slow because it felt like hours of his rattling breathing and stare, his expression never changing.  No word of response.  I did wonder if the poor old codger was on his last legs and positioned myself so that if he collapsed his great bulk won't crush me.  Perhaps his silence was a warning he was having a stroke or I was hearing his last desperate breaths.

Eventually I left at my floor puzzled by the encounter.  Later I found out the man was the 'Head of Europe' in charge of everything on this side of the Atlantic and a major 'player' in the highest levels of this big company.  When people spotted him entering a lift, they let him have it all to himself.  Me, I probably hadn't registered anyone in my haste to get to work - yes, I am an eager beaver even now - and simply invaded his personal space.

I don't think he was being rude, he probably wasn't angry with me as an upstart sharing his conveyance, I suspect I surprised and puzzled him.  Who is this smiley young idiot in the lift? he thought.

That's the other side of being a medieval monarch people start to behave differently.  He was taking the lift like everyone else except everyone else gave him space.  The actor Martin Sheen played the President of the United States in the TV show 'The West Wing' and was asked how to you behave like the President.  He said, it was like playing a king in Shakespeare, you behave normally and it's the response of those around you that creates the aura of the ruler.  Like the wind, power is invisible, it's effects are what you see.  I bet you can think of a good number of movie and pop stars, usually surrounded by entourages, who forget the laws of the land apply to them too.  It's very easy when you're in the centre of that 'aura', the world becomes a very different place.  Like never having to share a cramped lift with a dozen workers still two minutes from their first coffee of the day.

Through no fault of his, the very powerful man I met, working on a floor all to himself, had become isolated from his 'subjects'.  All he knew about his company came from his 'lords and lieutenants' and all they heard about the 'peasants' or workers was from their 'lords and lieutenants'.  There is an inevitable disconnect, that can be fatal for a company or career.

It works the other way too, ordinary folk get annoyed at those in power because 'they don't know how the other half live' and yet they are doing the isolating because that enveloping mantle of power works both ways.  We still think like medieval people too.  We pick leaders on height and ridicule short ones as in some way defective.  I think we're still looking for warrior leaders, those that stand out, people we think, deep down can handle themselves in battle. I think that's one of the reasons women have problems, physical presence is still important, now that is medieval in attitude.

When you're writing a story about a king, queen or even a pop star remember that isolation and remember the aura.  Imagine what it's like when everyone cheers (or boos) when you enter a room.  Consider the effect on your behaviour if when you meet someone they ask for your signature or hold themselves away from you like you might lash out at any second.

Medieval monarchs are long gone - in most places - but the mindset is alive and well and living inside us all.

By the way, I never saw the 'Head of Europe' again and wonder if I would have let him have the lift all to himself, if I did.  I probably would have deferred to my 'king'.

Useful Links

Learn more about Margaret Thatcher here  - I suggest you do a lot more research than just this, which could be called a 'fan site' for the former Prime Minister.  In the UK she divided opinion like no other.
A more neutral summary about Margaret Thatcher - I still advise reading more before forming an opinion.

IMBD's Entry on Martin Sheen

Summary of Taller People earning more money - if you're short please don't get a complex.  You could be my hero.  Weirdly most of my heroes like Annie Oakely and Audie Murphy weren't that tall.