Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The term itself originated in the 15th century, along with the rise of the medical profession in Europe and experimentation in bodily systems.  The meaning was simply "united in one body," and really had nothing to do with the rise of the economic entity that you'll find referenced in sources like wikipedia, which suggests the "corporation" of London had been founded in 1067 with the granting of its first charter.  It's generally ignored by modern sources that the language itself has changed substantially since the 11th century, and that in no way could London remotely at that time be considered a 'corporation' as we understand the term.

A charter is an official document granting certain rights or privileges to select groups of persons, usually granted by a royal figure within a monarchical state (and otherwise, but lets not quibble).  It would come about as time passed that charters would be granted to economic entities, entitling them to enact in their own authority for the purpose of gaining wealth, but the modern corporation - one that operated separate from the need to obtain a government charter in order to seek profit - did not truly exist until the 19th century.  But clearly the creators of Civilization did not have this distinction in mind when they proposed that the corporation 'technology' would be obtained commensurate with the development of astrological physics and experimental chemistry.

The actual term used in the 15th century and onwards was 'company,' and the term is very important.  Note that it is a military term describing a body of soldiers grouped in friendship and intimacy (the word originates in the 12th century).  When entities such as the British East India Company were given a 15 year 'monopoly' by government charter to act in their own interest, the recognition was that a physical gang with soldier-like efficiency would set up and plunder a foreign land with little or no regard for the existing laws of the lands being plundered.  The so-called monopoly granted by the British king was matched by a 'monopoly' granted to Portuguese plunderers by their king, and to Dutch plunderers by their government, and to French plunderers by their government.  Every able power in Europe granted some sort of privilege to steal from foreigners from the 16th century onwards, including the Danish, the Swedes and of course the Spanish.  The arrival of a foreign company in Asian, African or Latin American lands was the equivalent of an invasion, and no bones were made about it.  Local pposition was dealt with harshly and in a fierce, cold-blooded manner, with murder or slavery, depending upon the practical application of either.  The men who carried forth these acts were seen as heroes at home, awarded with lands, privileges and prestige, and were believed to possess the very best characteristics one could hope for in a native-born son.

It has only been in the last half century that the unquestioned worship of said former patriots has come to be questioned.  In the 1950s, a real bastard like Robert Clive of India was apt to make a British schoolboy's chest swell, to think he lived in the same country that spawned such a great and noble gentleman.

But unless your world takes place in a time like the Renaissance, and unless it has the sort of steep division between high-technology and low-technology regions, it is very unlikely that any king in your world would agree to grant the sort of open privileges granted to the founders of, say, Archangel in Russia or Jamestown in Virginia.  These privileges were granted because the king at home could not produce the cash-requirement necessary to post an army in a land whose wealth was unproven.  It was much more practical to hand the job off to the private sector, who could live or die within their own means ... and if they died, which many of them did, then all the better that the crown did not suffer the consequence.  On the other hand, if they lived, they would bring home untold wealth to the home country, and open opportunities at a later date for the real army to step in an impose colonial rule.  But then, that was probably little thought of in the late 16th century.

As such, the English king would not have granted a company - remember, a military term - the right to set up shop in Scotland, where real ownership by the crown was practical.  Ireland, which had proven a thorn in the crown for centuries, proved to be better managed by private means ... and thus private forces, both approved and not approved by the king, ranged over Eire either imprudently or with great success.  But it must be understood - this was not the imposition of a business strategy.  There were shareholders - but then, the money for ships and weapons had to come from somewhere.  A group of investors throwing together to buy a notorious adventurer a ship was a risk ... but it was better to sit at home on your ass and wait while someone else got bloody doing the dirty work, in exchange for your share of the plunder.  And remember, the shareholders were knighted, too.

These were interesting times.

Without the promise of pride and prestige at home, however, there would have been little reason to ever return with the ships or the plunder.  Remember that only a couple of centuries before, the way to India and China, or the way to America, was undetermined ... and company charters were hard to come by when the enemy were the Berbers or the Arabs.  Certain groups did get 'backing' by states to plunder in the Holy Lands - we call that time the Crusades - and certain groups, like the Knights of Rhodes, got rich doing it.  But you couldn't call the practice anywhere near as widespread as it became when the whole world became available for pillage.

Still, when you are thinking about adventures for your players, consider the presentation of a charter to enter into the orc lands and slaughter.  With the king's good wishes, its a lot easier to raise a force of a few hundred men, or to encourage a wealthy landholder or two to offer up a little investment ... and all with the expectation of pomp and ceremony when the conquering heroes come marching home, the blood on their boots nicely washed off of course.  And remember that modern sensibilities of honorable practice don't figure in the proceeds - blankets infested with brown or yellow mold, gifts of barrels of ale or wine - and throat leeches, or pretty hats including a resident ear seeker are just as partial to your players gaining a knighthood as straight up fighting.  No one cares how the orcs are massacred or plundered, so long as there IS plunder to bring home ... don't expect much regard for slaughtering enemies who haven't had the cultural wisdom to create hard coin.  The conquerors of Australia and Patagonia are barely remembered.

Does it concern you any that the modern incarnation which pays you an income began as something with even less morality than it is appreciated for now?


Andrej said...

"Does it concern you any that the modern incarnation which pays you an income began as something with even less morality than it is appreciated for now?"

On the contrary, I feel like we've all made some real progress in the last 500 years. :)

Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

This post is very interesting to me. Descended from border reivers as I am, I'm actually from a rather unique class of individuals. My clan has much of its origins intertwined with the granting of charters to bear arms, and to plunder the English side of the border with little regard for what was taken, and from who.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that adventurers in a fantasy game could have charters allowing them to plunder very local territories, so long as it is in the crown's interest.

That said, there is the distinct risk such PC adventurers may find themselves thoroughly despised by both sides, and viewed as honor-less brigands and mercenaries (providing yet more misadventure for them).

noisms said...

I like the post - food for thought for running games. It's worth noting that the word "Company" was used for trade guilds in London going back much longer than the 1500s - I think back to the 13th century or perhaps even further. Some of these "Livery Companies" actually still exist: see the wikipedia article. That's further food for thought for those interested in the economics of medieval or renaissance societies.