16 May 2014

History Nuggets of the City: Stuff You Can Use

Something I just dredged up the other night was this list, part and parcel of one of those large forum collaborative lists.  This one was offbeat history nuggets that you could toss in to your City De Jour to provide local color, and these were my contributions to the list.  Enjoy!

1.  Summers in the City can be very hot, and there are roofed-over viaducts, sunk halfway below ground level, linking many streets; these are walled with baked white clay from the river bank, and kept very clean as a rule.

2.  The City is home to the cult of a popular darkness goddess, and many businesses have hours deep into the night, because devout worshipers avoid stirring in daytime hours.  These businesses are marked with a silver medallion etched with a flaming candle.

3.  An old law, repealed nearly a century ago, required that all bricks bear the craft mark of the mason; the City’s buildings over a three century stretch can be reliably dated from the marks.

4.  The City is very old, and layer has been built on top of layer, raising the City at this point sixty feet above the surrounding plain.  Excavations for basements routinely break into ruins of earlier eras.

5.  A fundamental law is that no one can venture abroad after full dark without a torch- or lamp-bearer from the Linkmen’s Sodality, as well as having at least one person present with a bared blade.

6.  The City’s clock tower flies a green and gold streamer if the ruler is physically present in the City (not often; the nearest palace is ten miles away), and a plain purple streamer if a member of the ruling family is.

7.   All roads leading into the City’s main market square, as well as the first couple hundred yards of every road leading from the City’s gates, are especially wide.  The story is that during the Northwestern Rebellion two centuries ago, the rebels in the City held out for six weeks due to their ability to barricade the streets, and the ruler who rebuilt it swore she’d never let them do that again.

8.  The City has two principal market squares, North Market and Diamond Market.  They are in fierce competition, and partisan loyalties have arisen depending (in many cases) where your parents and grandparents shopped.  It’s not uncommon for family and friends of stall owners from one market to engage in petty spoilage and vandalism in the other.

9.  For the three years of the exile of the ruling family last century, the City’s mint produced silver pennies (thriftily enough) with dies of the previous ruler’s face, but defaced with a crude bar slashed across the dies.  Possession of coins of that period is just this side of illegal; flashing one is a well-known sign of anti-monarchical sentiment, and sending one anonymously to an aristocrat or government official a well-known warning to Beware.

10.  Many larger homes from last century have bricked-up windows, a relic of an unpopular “window tax” which assessed a surcharge for every dwelling with more than ten windows.  Some buildings from this era have extra-large windows, at a cost to the stability of the structure.

11.  Surviving wallpaper from five decades ago is flat white and hand-stenciled, a relic of an extortionate tax upon printed or painted wallpaper.

12.  From the point of an infamous massacre during the sack of the City four centuries ago, it has been considered very bad luck to bring dead bodies along any of the four main arteries entering into the market square.  Funerary processions go to tortuous lengths to avoid the route.

13.  Surviving wooden constructions from the City’s “colonial” period are uniformly a faded brick red, a dull blue-grey, a washed out golden-brown or a faint dove grey - relics, it is said, of the somber and austere religious beliefs of the day.  (In point of fact, the house painters of the day loved bright hues ... but over three hundred years, paint does fade.)

14.  Buyers and sellers in the market squares are champion hagglers ... but for some unknown reason, no one will haggle over barreled bulk beers, wines or spirits.

15.  Windowboxes for growing flowers is very popular in the City, and a complex “flower code” has arisen.  Connotations for certain combinations of flowers are well-known down to giving praise to the Gods for prosperity (rose, violet and marigold), prayers that a family member in military service will be safe (amaryllis, mayflower) or hope that a child will be conceived (morning glory, impatiens, poppy).

16.  The City stands at the confluence of three rivers, and has many bridges across them.  The bridges all are heavily overbuilt with water wheels for motive power, and craft shops taking advantage of the power fill every bridge.  In consequence, navigation both of the bridges and the rivers beneath them isn’t easy, and backups on both roads and rivers are endemic.

17.  Though the more squeamish and religious people disapprove, a custom predating the City’s incorporation allows shopkeepers to kill burglars on the spot, without recourse to the law, and display their severed heads outside of their shops as a warning to others.  There is no time limit to how long the heads can be on display, and some shops have century-old skulls outside.

18.  The City’s populace is hungry for gossip and news, and an informal cadre of town criers known as “Moontalkers” has arisen.  A Moontalker wears a distinctive green tabard appliqued with crossed trumpets in yellow, and calls out the news at any place where streets intersect.  People gather to listen, often blocking traffic, but while the Moontalker is speaking and wearing the tabard, his or her person is sacrosanct no matter what he or she says, a practice enforced by the mob.

19.  Although the City is the major port for the region’s thriving indigo trade, it is considered unlucky to wear the color blue; few natives dare to do it.

20.  All the City’s temples and churches, from simple shrines on up, have their main entrances face to the northeast, and in mimicry, many private buildings do too.  There are conflicting stories as to why this is, but the most prevalent one is that departing souls find that the most congenial direction to the Holy Mountain, far to the northeast.

21.  There are a welter of deities worshipped in the City, and they all have devout followings.  Between them all, festival days celebrated by one cult or another are prolific, involving parades, holidays, peculiar customs and observances, and as a result, not a lot of business gets transacted, and any business which can’t be concluded in a day can drag on a looong time.

22.  Mercantilism is strong in the City, and everyone belongs to a sodality, confraternity or craft guild.  The guilds run, and are in control of, all cultural, political and social matters, and all inns and taverns are affiliated with a particular sponsoring guild.  A citizen’s status is strongly bound to the prominence of his or her guild.  Foreigners who belong to no guilds confuse the locals, who are unsure how they fit within their tight notions of status and propriety.

23.  Graffiti is common in the City, and the walls of alleys and small byways are liberally festooned with poems, raucous exhortations to eat at this place or that, that Soandso is a bastard born or that Suchandsuch cheats at cards, and the like.

24.  There are no street signs in the City, but there are a dozen roughly defined districts, each associated with a particular animal.   A pictorial representation of the animal is etched, engraved or stenciled into buildings at every street corner.

25.  The City’s New Year is celebrated on the birthday of the eldest child of the ruler.  When the ruler dies, the date of the New Year changes, creating much confusion among outsiders in terms of fiscal and historical records.  This has been made worse on the three occasions in the last few centuries of a newly crowned ruler being childless; in such cases, the City enters an intercalary period, not part of any year, until the day when the ruler declares his or her heir.

26.  Although silting of the river delta has caused the City to retreat fifteen miles from the sea in the centuries since its founding, and the riverside wharves can no longer accommodate deep sea vessels, the City is legally still a “Port,” with a full raft of harbormasters, wherrymen, “harbor” pilots, nautical guildsmen and other officials.  Most of these posts are sinecures for the politically well-connected.

27.  The City also maintains a Swan Warden, who is entitled to four assistants and four guardsmen paid for at the City’s expense, dating back to the days when swans were game birds reserved for the ruler’s hunting.  Since the Swan Warden is formally an official of the Crown, the appointment continues to this day.

28.  While the laws require that anyone casting a spell be a duly paid-up member of the College of Mages, that law was promulgated when the City was bounded by its original walls.  Despite the fury of the College officials, they have not yet succeeded in getting the law extended beyond the Old City to the new neighborhoods sprawling past the old perimeter.

29.  The City’s fishing boats are almost all brightly painted in all hues of the rainbow.  This dates from a celebrated boatwright of fifty years ago, who discounted by 10% all boats she made that the buyers agreed to paint in such schemes.  Her fishing boats were of unusual quality, and between satisfied buyers and those who wanted to claim that their boats were of her crafting, the custom spread and stuck.

30.  The City has a law restricting people who aren’t liveried guard or in the Kingdom’s military from carrying double-edged weapons over eight inches in blade length.  Dodges to get by this include swords with blunted blades, rapiers, foils, non-edged weapons, and single edged swords such as falchions and scimitars.


  1. This and the "spicier cities" post are both really thought-provoking! Thanks.