Galthamar: an example of socially-constructed race

As I have discussed in recent posts, I’m world building with just one highly variable human species, instead of absolutely separate races in the standard DnD mode. But I still have a bit of a soft spot for the traditional sub-Tolkien archetypes and a few years ago it occurred to me that I could recast some of them as socially-constructed and socially-signalled membership groups rather than essentialist kindreds.

‘Galthamar’ is my working title for the medieval-ish fantasy setting I’m developing; it is a name for the continent. (There are other continents on the same world, not yet detailed, where people will be somewhat different to Galthamar overall and certainly have their own social subgroups. There will probably also be other worlds in the wider continuity.)

Most of the regional and national societies across the continent share a common cultural origin, and many common features. I call this cultural family Galthamarian for now, though its earliest origins are elsewhere, and there are elements of other cultures here and there on the continent, some of which may have been there for longer.

As far as I have created at the moment, all the people of Galthamar qualify as human, but humanity there is much more varied than in reality. I have therefore given the humanity description a page to itself.

Divisions of Galthamarian society

Among the shared Galthamarian cultural features is a social structure divided into classes. These have similarities to some theories of social structure in the historical real world, such as the three estates of European Christendom, the four classical Hindu varnas or the ancient Chinese four occupations. Since I’m writing in English and using plenty of English source material for inspiration, I’m going to call these classes ‘estates’.

There are four or five estates in Galthamarian culture (one of the estates is less formalized and some do not count it in their enumeration). In this write up, I’m going to give them names that make very clear how they correspond to Tolkienesque races, but I am likely to change some of these names if I write more about them. They are:

Highmen.  The landowning and warrior elite.

Eltheren. The learned and cultured class.

Dueren. Artisans, merchants and other tradespeople.

Holbits. The peasantry.  

And the fifth, less formalized than the others and not listed by some authorities as an estate:

Gobelins. Surviving in the gaps left by the other four categories, often including urban and industrial labour and irregular work.

These estates are semi-hereditary: people most often marry within their own estate and it is normal for children to be brought up in the estate of their parents. But it is certainly possible for people to change estates, usually because adoption, apprenticeship or marriage brings them into the household or other establishment of a new estate, of which they may then learn and adopt the ways and if necessary undergo the rites of passage. Some members of the adopted estate may remain reluctant to accept a member not born to it, especially if the newcomer has a ‘wrong’ physical type or does not completely adopt the cultural practices of the new estate. The shift may even be rejected by the community in general.

Because the estates are not isolated breeding populations, inherited characteristics are generally spread across them. Membership of the estates is mainly signalled by non-inherited signs such as clothing, hairstyles and behaviour.

Ironically, it is the departures from estate inheritance that drive the limited heritable differences between estates, as the more privileged estates tend to draw in those with characteristics that they value and exclude those with characteristics that they reject. These selected characteristics are then passed down to future generations in the estate. However, this process generates only modest tendencies to inherited differences the estates; each estate in reality shows wide variation within itself, and considerable overlap with the others. There is, however, a tendency for observers to mentally fit members of a given estate to their expectation of how people of that estate are supposed to look, and many Galthamarians will tell you people’s estates can be identified by sight, independently of their clothes and styling. It is, however, easy to find counterexamples to prove these assumptions unreliable.

In my next post I will for reference outline the general characteristics of the humanity in the Galthamar-verse and then specifically on the continent of Galthamar. In forthcoming posts (now linked above from the estate names) I will go into a little more depth about each of the estates.

(A little aside I don’t currently have another place for: I have observed a tendency in DnD publications over the years for magic to be treated as a white-collar skill and for spellcasters to form a subset of the educated class. With a complementary tendency to assume that blue-collar work and soldiering are largely done without magic. In Galthamar, this would suggest that most spellcasters be Eltheren, but that’s not how I want to play it. I am putting magic-workers in every estate, usually applying magic to the typical occupations of that estate. So Highman spellcasters tend to focus on battle magic, and may also use spells for other functions such as estate management or political manoeuvres. Elther scholars of magic learn the arts for their own sake, often focusing on theory and/or the development of new magic. Those who dabble alongside other disciplines may use magic to assist with research, learning or cultural expression. Dueren often weave magic into their crafts, and may apply it to other business purposes. Holbits work practical magic, promoting fertility and productivity, treating ills and assisting labour. And Gobelin magic-workers use their skills to get by any way they can.)

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