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Are there good books/references that list things that might have been politically dangerous to do? I see webpages about tropes and they're helpful for quickly finding out what kind of plot elements to put, but I don't see any reference that's as helpful for that when I am looking for specific political intrigues or political actions that basically drive the plot. I am wondering if there's a way to get a lot of them or most of them quickly without going through hundreds of books. Is there any research techniques, reference books or other things that might help me during the research phase?

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  • Reminder to all, please do not answer in comments.
    – linksassin
    Jun 24, 2022 at 2:51
  • I think you need to narrow your scope to a location. Even Europe would have massive differences as to where you are. There are Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Pagan dominated regions as well as kingdoms, city-states and republics. The rules in Venice would be very different than in Riga than in Granada.
    – Allan
    Jun 24, 2022 at 17:04

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The medieval period (in Europe, at least), was pretty much dominated by the church. Not completely, but they had a lot of political power.

So perhaps a list of what the church considered taboo or forbidden political practices, as well as what they did will help you!

I can’t actually find anything about that, since it’s too vague for google, but I think it’s a good lead you can trace.

Also, the Donation of Constantine is an interesting piece of forged documentary that you may find inspiration from.

Here’s a link that discusses a separation of powers, I.e. how the judicial, ruling and another power is separated. This was different in the Middle Ages. The Netherlands got this fairly early, and the book Homo Deus (or Sapiens, I forgot) has a small section discussing how the difference between policies of Spain and the Netherlands have influenced the economy.

Research relationships between monarchs and aristocrats, the feudal system, as well as military coups. The last one tends to tell a lot about weak points in their system, which you can use.

The divine right of kings is another interesting concept that has heavily influenced political history for longer than you might’ve thought. Regicide was considered evil in some cases too, so there’s a taboo.

Also, the Mandate of Heaven is just the Chinese version of the above, with some variation.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that, since I’m not a historian (though I do like learning about it a lot), so if anyone thinks what I’m saying is wrong or needs more clarification, please comment.

Good luck!

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I want to share some context for medieval times that might be helpful. I've been reading up on medieval history in the Arab world for a while, so I'll try to cite books/events.

Often in political intrigue there's the actual reason someone important wants you dead vs. the official reason. The official reason sounds like what you're researching, just keep in mind that these official offenses could not be enforced all the time, and if they were there might be another motive. High motive incidents that come to mind:

  • treason. Kings will go to extreme lengths to track down rival claims to the throne and eliminate them, sending assassins to far off lands etc. Women could get caught up in this if their children were potential heirs
  • Behind the scenes influence at court. There was a lot of competition to be liked by the king, to remain relevant, or to influence the king's policy. There might be advisors or people with official jobs who got to control access to the king, or could make someone look bad and get them kicked out of the palace or punished. Courts were a place of great access to wealth, as the king would give presents to people he liked or prestigious political appointments.
  • You just broke a newly established but unpopular rule and are made an example of. Caliph al Hakim of Egypt banned molokia, a popular sauce! People were actually paraded through the streets for getting caught selling this sauce, but I'm sure there were others who just didn't get caught.

Kings could technically execute anyone they pleased. Same with governors or more petty authorities, since empires and kingdoms did not have consistent control over their domain. There were official reasons like accusing someone of treason or heresy, but also petty ones that may or may not be covered up. Everyone was aware of this arbitrary power. In a 10thC Arab sailor's tale, a traveler worries his companion will get himself killed if he falls in love with a woman who's a mistress to the Caliph or someone from his court. Caliph Harun al Rashid suddenly executed a beloved and highly competent vizier (and his sons) for no known reason. Maybe he was tipped off to a plot, maybe he was just jealous. To this day no one knows, but at the time speculation was he did it for personal reasons (see note below).

In medieval times the state could not track down everybody who broke the law. A king would have very tight control over his court, maybe even the city around him, but vast parts of his kingdom were inconsistently governed. Most bandits went unpunished, peasants who didn't want to pay taxes or go to war fled to the hills, and someone with a criminal past could escape to a new place and start over. To compensate for the limited reach of their power, medieval authorities would do spectacular public executions when they did catch somebody. Foucault's introduction to Discipline and Punish talks about this. If the intrigue is related to succession on the throne, the violence might happen very secretly. Especially if the victim is a member of the royal family or otherwise high status. A king wouldn't want to broadcast his vulnerability.

My advice would be to read widely online first to narrow down your century or location based on what elements interest you. Maybe look into coups or bizarre rules, or charismatic kings or courtly life settings. Then you can find which rules would apply. It took me a while to narrow down to my time period too!

SOURCES: Wikipedia: Jafar Barmakid (the executed vizier) and Harun al Rashid. One bizarre rumor said the Caliph wanted to socialize with his sister and his vizier at the same time, but it was improper for a woman to be in an intimate setting with a man outside her family. So Harun ordered his vizier to marry his sister to get around the rule, but swear never to consummate the marriage. When the vizier did anyway, he was executed.

The Wonders of India by Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar (primary source, sailors tales)

When Baghdad Ruled the World has a lot of court intrigue. Try looking up rulers who interest you and see what court life was like around them. Wikipedia often has great detail.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. The book is really tough reading but it's well known and easy to find discussion about it online

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