King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Saturday, January 16, 2010

History of Syldavia Pt. 1

Part of what fired my imagination upon reading King Ottokar’s Sceptre as a child was that Syldavia seemed like it could have been a real place, just somehow overlooked by time and the modern world. It reminded me of the history books I devoured and the museums I visited, except that it had a plot. Hergé accomplished this sense of plausibility with some smoke and mirrors, I think. He sketched out only a bare skeleton of a historical context (it is a comic book after all) and he relied on liberal doses of charismatic props like renaissance uniforms, invented dialects, castles, archaic dynastic law, coup d’états built around dynastic artifacts and the hinted-at historical presence of Islam to convey a sense of history and of the exotic. He then let our imaginations do the rest. This stuff was Mother’s milk to me back then and I lapped it up. I suspect that I am not the only one around here with this story, however (n’est-ce pas, Jean-Louis?). I had a model castle, a small squad of Britains Guardsmen and some Timpo crusaders and black knights with which I recreated bits of the book, modern and medieval, and then I went on to other stories. And here I am now, still at it, it seems!

Now, because it seemed like a good idea a the time, I chose to shoehorn my revision of Syldavia into the map of the south-western Balkans and to attempt to maintain some degree of historical plausibility as well. This is a tall order it seems, as Hergé’s history, as ambiguous and incomplete as it is, does not reconcile with the history of the real-world Balkans (the Ottomans arrive 400 years too soon? tsk, tsk!). One might well ask “why should it smack of the truth”? Syldavia was Hergé’s Imagi-Nation after all. My answer is yes, but -  I had hoped to preserve in this project the sense of plausibility in Hergé’s book that originally hooked me. The grown up me is a more sceptical guy and it seems that it takes more now for me to be convinced to suspend disbelief (no doubt the result of an academic career spent working with the past!). So, naturally, I have decided to twist and elaborate Hergé’s history, incorporating bits of equally twisted “real” history to keep (I hope) the juvenile lustre the story had for me. I hope that the built-up story will also make Syldavia a more interesting and useful setting for 18th century wargames and for the EvE universe. I have already started this process with maps, so now I will begin to set out my own pocket version of Syldavia’s history. I should note I have kept almost all the sparse "facts" Hergé incorporated in his story, most of what I have done is flesh out the outline. And no, these posts wont all be so long!
Cheers,
Jim


A Brief History of Syldavia Pt. 1: The Foundation of the Kingdom

The Xth to XII century was a tumultuous period along the Dalmatian coast, rife with conniving rulers and would-be potentates, incessant raiding and full-scale warfare involving the Byzantine empire, Serbia, Hungary, the Kingdom of the Bulgars, and a number of petty states. The foundation of what emerged as the state of Syldavia was composed of Hum, Travunia and Zeta, a group of now-obscure principalities that had to fight tooth and nail for their survival and that were periodically vassals of one or another of their more powerful neighbours. These principalities were home to peoples of numerous ethnic identities, Slavs mostly, but also descendants of the Visigoths, Hungarians (who arrived along with the expansion of the Hungarian kingdom), descendants of the Romans, more recent Italian settlers of the coastal region and, finally, German settlers, who moved into the fertile valleys of the Wladir and Moltus Rivers in 10th to 11th centuries.

In a dramatic series of campaigns in 1125-27, Hvegi, the Duke of Travunia, defeated Byzantine and Bulgarian armies in separate battles and then, having overcome his most important foes, created a new kingdom by invading or otherwise obtaining the vassalage of the neighbouring petty states, amalgamating Travunia, Hum and Wladruja into the new somewhat-less-petty-state of Syldavia. After conquering Hum, Hvegi marched his army north into the central highlands, then held by the Bordurians, who were vassals of the King of the Bulgars at that time, and he routed the Bordurian-Bulgar army in a bloody battle near the marshes of the Wladir river, next to the city of Zileheroum. Having gained what amounted to a free hand, Hvegi quickly rousted out the weak Bulgarian garrisons of Zileheroum and surrounding towns, leaving him master of the valleys of the central highlands. Zileheroum was renamed “Klow” (city of the Conquest) in celebration of these victories.

With many other pressing concerns elsewhere, the Byzantine Emperor decided to try to stabilize part of his northern frontier by offering Hvegi (who now styled himself Muskar) a favourable peace treaty that recognized him as King of Syldavia. In return, King Muskar I consented to became a vassal of Byzantium, to sponsor the Orthodox Church and to fund the establishment of a new bishopric at Klow, to pay annual tribute and to contribute a force of soldiers to the Byzantine Army. The Emperor slept well knowing that he had turned a minor military defeat into a useful diplomatic victory with little more than laurels. Muskar I was happy as well, for he was King and Syldavia had arrived. This event is also the origin of, and justification for, the somewhat grandiose status of little Syldavia as a kingdom.
Muskar I adopted the Black Pelican as the heraldic symbol of the new Kingdom. The Black Pelican is a bird unique to the region, found principally in the river-mouths of the Syldavian lowlands, some of the larger lakes of Travunia and Zeta and especially in Lake Skadar, and esteemed for its longevity and seemingly insatiable appetite. A Bordurian wag coined a pejorative for Muskar I, “vulture”, based on the Black pelican coat of arms, obviously spurred by their hard treatment by him.

Muskar I’s subsequent conquests included the duchy of Zeta to the east of Travunia (the Duke of Zeta accepted to become a Duke of the Kingdom once Muskar arrived at the old Zetan capitol of Duklja at the head of his army), all of the Lake Skadar region and finally the upper Drinje River valley, with the town of Bellicosow, another conquest made at the expense of the Bordurians. Muskar I went on to construct numerous important cultural institutions. He started by rebuilding the church and monastery at Travunje, the capital of his old duchy of Travunia. At Klow, he established a law court, a mint, a great church and monastery. He also established his new Royal Court at Klow, a strategic move as the city lies at the crossroads of most travel routes in the kingdom.

The new church and Episcopal seat was named after St. Vladimir, the predatory Prince of Kiev who had embraced Christianity and converted Kiev with him in 987. Vladimir had renounced his past life as a bloodthirsty pagan warmonger to become a ruthless and pious scourge and extortioner of his neighbours. Muskar I naturally appreciated the example set by St. Vladimir and modelled himself after his example. He saw to it that the new Bishop dedicated the new church in Klow to the warrior saint. The Prince of Kiev eventually sent Muskar I a priceless diplomatic gift, two holy relics of St. Vladimir for the church at Klow, initiating enduring friendly relations between these Slavic nations. The Mace and the Purse of St. Vladimir had been used by the saint during his tribute-collecting expeditions, such as that during which he finally met his maker. These objects became the prizes of the church’s treasury and Muskar I even carried the mace into battle on occasion.

Most notably, Muskar I used the mace in conspicuous fashion in his last battle. According to his biographer, the chronicler Brother Demetrius of the Abbey of St. Stanislaus at Travunje, Muskar I gained a tactical victory over an invading Venetian mercenary force at the Battle of Gorostic Bridge in 1142. The mercenary general Don Carlo Cravenelli had been engaged by the Doge to take coastal territories in Dalmatia and moved on Dbrnouk first. Unable to force his way into the recently fortified port with his fleet, Cravenelli landed his forces in a secure cove to the north and marched back to the city. Muskar I rushed south with a small force of cavalry to join up with the hastily assembled provincial forces. He arrived just in time to meet the invaders at the village of Gorostic, where he was able to set up a defensive position while his opposite number attempted to force the crossing of a bridge. Amidst bitter hand-to-hand fighting, Muskar I encountered the commander of the leading Venetian wing and despatched him with a crushing blow from the holy Mace. Hotly engaged, peppered with crossbow fire from friend and foe alike and shocked by the demise of their leader, the leading Venetians cracked and routed with great losses back through the lines of their fellows. Cravenelli chose to withdraw rather than expend more of his army forcing the bridge a second time. The next day, having struggled to re-establish control over his forces and fearing the arrival of Syldavian reinforcements from Douma in his rear, Cravenelli negotiated a truce for safe passage back to his transports, and so quit Syldavia in search of easier pickings. Substantial reinforcements were still days away, so Cravenelli would likely have prevailed if he had persisted or regrouped. In the words of Brother Demetrius, “Such was the fortune of Muskar I in battle, and by such Grace are the small nations of this world preserved”.

The battle and a mass afterwards was dedicated to St. Vladimir, who was then proclaimed the patron saint of Syldavia, its protector and deliverer from invaders. This campaign also marks the beginning of centuries of persistent Venetian attempts to annex parts of Syldavia and to meddle in its politics.
Now united within Muskar I’s kingdom, Klow and the growing port of Dbrnouk in Travunia developed a potent and natural economic partnership that greatly enriched both of these cities and Syldavia in general. As a result of these developments, Klow gained substantial influence in the southwestern Balkans. As well, the German-coloured Slavic dialect of the Klow region became widespread among the elites of Syldavia. This was the origin of a distinctive Syldavian tongue.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent history lesson!
    I've always been fascinated by fictional places, from Middle Earth and other fantasy lands to places like Syldavia, Ruritania, and probably my personal favorite, The Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
    You're right, too - as we grow more knowledgeable about such things it takes more sophisticated "invented places" to suspend our disbelief.

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  2. Hi Fitz-Badger!

    Thanks for the comment. That is just it, one hopes for a more sophisticated daydream and maybe that, with more experience, our daydreams grow more imaginative rather than less so. The Duchy of Grand Fenwick was great fun! I've spent some time in all those other places too...

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  3. A masterpiece of 'realism' - obviously a work of love and dedication.
    Cheers!
    Jean-Louis

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  4. What a terrific history! It's so comprehensive as to be believable. You're off to a great start with this, Jim, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

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  5. Excellent start ... I just wish I could real the source text ?"Scepter of King Ottakar"? which I suspect isn't available in English (sigh)
    I often hear people allude to fictional kingdoms in children's literature, but I never seem to be able to find the source texts (moan)
    Of course, here in the States, we have the works Baum and his OZ ... and I've freely indulged in gaming in Tolkien's world and in Turtledove's Videssos ... but usually wound up making up my own ...
    Speaking of which, anybody want a sausage ... offered at cut-me-own-throat prices and quality???
    LOL
    Arthur
    Reminds me of Prince Valiant and of Asterix ...

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  6. Hi Arthur,

    The book is available in English (and 100 or so other languages probably). Amazon lists it used at $5. See you in Syldavia!

    AJ,

    Thanks, and yes there is more to come. I have, what, 600 to go before the WAS!

    Jim

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  7. An enjoyable history so far . . . very well done, sir.


    -- Jeff

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