Plenty of lands were complete without castles. The mountain kingdom of Riorche, however, boasted seventy such monstrosities poisoning the surrounding woodlands with their attendant detritus.
When King Leapell returned from his first diplomatic mission abroad, he had been vocal about the need to retire the antiquated fortresses, and consequently many otherwise-serene landed ladies spent many summer nights — and even more syllables — eloquently lamenting the obvious decline of his faculties and therefore, inevitably, his family's dynasty. Within five years, a new king stood before the grand board of Riorch's royal keys, and vowed that he would, of course, uphold the sacred duties of his family line and defend the heritage of his people.
The woodlands survived; the new king's sole innovation was a tax on trash, and he used the revenues to sponsor several lovely serenades.
Historically I've avoided learning too much about the knights-and-castles era of history because I feel like it's sort of the standard baseline of fantasy fiction and the historical depths of the time period have already been pretty well-plumbed, but I'm preparing to teach AP World History which means my research is more bounded by professional needs than usual.
The AP World curriculum starts out with a survey of world religions, which I'm pretty well-versed in – religious studies was my 'minor' in college – before jumping into East Asian technological developments, which I'm reasonably familiar with. That lesson is followed by Dar al-Islam, which is a phrase I'd somehow never heard before, although I'm familiar with the idea that there is a predominantly-Muslim region of the world.
In searching for good resource on the rise of Islamic states, I discovered a fantastic encyclopedia article about the Mamluk Sultanate, which I had also never heard of. The article starts off with this puzzling line:
The Mamluk sultanate was a state ruled by slave soldiers of predominantly Turkish, and later Circassian, origin from 1250 to 1517.
Immediately I was intrigued! Slave soldiers ruling? The ethnic groups of the ruling class changing in only a few hundred years? I wanted to know more, and conveniently also needed to know more for work, and so stayed up way too late learning about the Mamluk sultanate. Eventually I stumbled across a reference that let me connect this knowledge to something I already knew about: the Krak des Chevaliers, which I wrote about while researching the short sieges and impenetrable castles edition. It turns out that the Baibars who tricked the garrison into surrendering was one of the Mamluk slave soldiers turned rulers, listed as Baybars in the encyclopedia article because translation is tricksy.
While I was reading all this and orienting myself in the new content, the piece that stuck with me most was how sultans would get their officers to agree to have a son rule after they died, then when the sultan died, his young son would be named ruler. Then – sometimes in under a year – the son would be deposed by whichever officer was strong enough to overpower his peers. Presumably it occasionally worked out that the sultan's son was old enough to have developed a base of power and be able to compete with the senior officers on his own terms, but it was pretty rare.
The example I had in mind while writing Decline was the story of how al-Said Barakah took power. He was the son of the wildly successful sultan Baibars, who helped defeat Louis IX in the Seventh crusade before rising to power – probably by assassinating his predecessor. After Baibars died, Barakah took power and did his best to shuffle his father's senior officers away from the centers of power and put his own allies in their place. He had one killed, another jailed. Three of the remaining senior officers banded together to force him to resign in favor of his 7 year old brother. His father-in-law became the brother's guardian – for a couple of months, at least, until Qalawun gave up the ruse and claimed the title in his own right.
It's a nice reminder that succession systems are often explained in the context of their platonic ideal; i.e. the sultanate was like a monarchy, the rules were set up so that sons succeeded their fathers. The reality, in the Mamluk sultanate and in most governments, including our own, is that these rules are ideals that matter insofar as they reflect norms and culture and how easy or difficult it is for power brokers to gather and utilize power. A son might normally succeed his father as king, but it's not just times when there isn't an heir that can lead to situations like the War of the Roses (which inspired the wildly popular series The Game of Thrones) – if he's sufficiently unpopular, or surrounded by sufficiently ambitious people, he is at risk no matter what the rules say.
The same is true of the norms of a democratic republic. When leaders who feel safe because they have followed the "rules" of ascension to power begin acting too far out of alignment with the will of others with power, they may find themselves deposed as neatly as King Leapell. Or, if power is held in the diffuse hands of the masses, as bloodily as the Teutonic Knights of Samogitia — whose pretty piece of paper deeding them control of Samogitia did not particularly matter to the people who lived there. Their uprisings eventually led to the Great War of 1409, along the Baltic Coast.
In the wake of their defeat, the Knights were taxed quite heavily, unlike the people of Riorche... a sure sign that the new king is not terribly secure in his rule.