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  • Characters in Ancient Vandal Literature

    bookofthehoursRecently, I’ve gained a fascination with Eastern European history. Of course, being of a literary mind, I’ve naturally read about literature of Eastern Europe, as literature always shows an interesting perception of the culture. While I’ve found many interesting styles, genres, and what have you, perhaps the most interesting of all I’ve found was a concept in Vandal literature.
    If you’re historically inclined, you’ll know the Vandals were the group that sacked Rome in 455 AD. They were the very epitome of barbarian, as they were unkempt, uncivilized, and generally unruly. If one googles Vandal literature, it’s hard to find anything about them….however….in my digging I did find one tasty tidbit. In Vandal literature, the characters fictional age had to match the year of their creation. For example, if a vandal had written an epic of King Gerogis the III in the year 432, King Gerogis had to be in his late 60s (for as we all know that King Gerogis was in fact born in the 360s or so). Likewise, if a fictional character were to be thought up today, but the stories of said character were to take place when said character was 28, the writer would have to wait 28 years after inventing the character to write about said character.
    This custom of age was not just a matter of social taboo, but a matter of law. Violating this law could actually carry a death sentence. For, it was not just an arbitrary law, this was about keeping the Hoi Polloi grounded in reality. I used the example of King Gerogis the III earlier, and this was no accident – for it was highly encouraged by the monarchs of the Vandals to write about their lives. King Wisimar (the first known Vandal King of the tribe of Hasdingi) put this law into place. Remnants of this law might have inspired early tales of Vlad the Impaler, which then of course inspired Bram Stroker’s Dracula…but I digress. The law was about celebrating the monarchs of the Vandals, as it is much simpler to write about a character who was about the same age as the hero in one’s story, than to invent the character 28 years earlier, and then wait to write about said character. Oh – but writers are complex people – and simplicity is often their enemy.
    In the beginning of the law, writers did in fact write about their “beloved” monarchs, however it wasn’t all that long until a few loopholes in the laws were found. As there was no log of invented characters, the writers would suddenly “remember” characters they invented as a child. Furthermore, as there was not a stipulation of who invented the character, writers would simply ask friends, family, etcetera for older characters as 33-year-old writer could not have invented say, a 55-year-old character. In some cases, older Vandals would sell characters of any age. This actually became a decent source of income to those whose physical bodies could not earn them a living any longer.
    And then the Monarchs closed the loophole. Sometime in the early 390s, a new law, stating that all characters shall be documented at the date of creation and registered by the magistrate was enacted, closing the loophole for ten or so years. However, art always finds a way. Savvy quasi-entrepreneurs saw a way to make money. The return wasn’t immediate, but to register a character for a nominal fee and sell the character at a later day could only bring about profit. It wasn’t long until everyone who could afford to do so, would register as many characters as they could. Characters would be sold at auction, used for personal investments, given away as a form of charity, and even written in as part of a will. Older characters were, of course, worth more than younger characters. Stories themselves became a group effort.
    The Monarchy admitted defeat. There were no shortage of characters to write about, and therefore the monarchy gave up on making writers write about monarchs. A great experiment of egotism was deemed a failure. However, greed was not so easily quelled. These were, of course, the same Vandals who sacked Rome. They were cunning, and never passed up an opportunity for gain. The monarchs saw how much income the character registrations were bringing in and they were pleased. But pleased or not, they also saw how much income the character market was bringing to the common people and it was far more than the character registration fees. The Monarchy decided that profit should, instead, be theirs and theirs alone. Once again, laws were scribed. Gone was the original law; a character’s fictional age vs its age of creation was no longer an issue. romeburningAlso gone were the registration of characters; writers no longer had to register characters at their inception. In place of the registration fees, a general character tax was issued. All characters in any piece of literature would be taxed, depending on its age. Just as it had once been easier to write about younger characters in the past, it was now economical to do so. The Monarchs had once again found a way to influence literature. Egotism of the original law bowed to the greed of the new law.
    Of course, there were always bribes to the local magistrates if one wanted an older character and could not afford one. This led to yet another chapter of Vandal characters. There was revolt amongst writers to bribe officials. Yes, it began as a matter of economics, but also became a matter of principle – a way to make sure the monarchs didn’t see the profits they so desired. Eventually – the monarchs gave up on the whole pursuit, and life went on. Stories were once again free to be written with characters of any age. And then the Vandals sacked Rome, and really that was the end of Vandal literature.
    In the end, did art win? Did greed? Were any of the Vandal writings really art? Very few of the Vandal writings have survived, so is it even possible to judge? Granted, it is theorized that Borges thought about characters in Vandal literature when he wrote The Lottery in Babylon. Of course, this is just a theory, and perhaps there is no evidence to support any of these claims.

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