Friday, December 2, 2016

Fantasy Bounty Hunters

“Who are those guys?”
Butch Cassidy Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Whaddya mean "no disintegrations"?
Bounty hunters rank right up there with pirates, ninjas and Vikings as one of the coolest jobs every romanticized into mythic proportions.  A recent question about bounty hunters in a Medieval fantasy setting prompted quite the conversation, and pointed out that there are precious few fantasy-genre bounty hunter stories.

There’s a very good, historical reason for this.

Independent individuals who captured criminals for a monetary reward (bounties)—didn’t exist in the Medieval period.


Bounty hunting, as a profession, doesn’t become a thing until the late 1600s and early 1700s.  Before that, there wasn’t a reward system in place that would create and sustain a profession we know as “bounty hunting”.  This isn’t to say that rewards weren’t offered, from time to time, by a government or an authority figure.  Those certainly happened.  But there wasn’t a system of “bounties” that would create enough demand for an individual not attached to the government in some way to make a living, even part-time, hunting them down.

My!  That is a large bounty you have there!
Why wasn’t there an economy of rewards?  There was no need for it.  The agrarian society of the feudal system tied the majority of people to the land.  To survive, they had to work the land, and that just didn’t leave a lot of time for master minding a castle heist.  Wealth was generally in the hands of the aristocracy, whose prime concern was on maintaining and expanding their holdings—meaning walls, forts, and plenty of guards which sharp metal that would leave holes in your favorite liver.  Crimes that did occur, even minor ones, were harshly punished (see the aforementioned guards), which acted as a major deterrent.  Getting your hand cut off for stealing a loaf of bread really puts the kibosh on a reasonable person’s dreams of becoming a master-thief.  Most criminals were of the petty variety and locally sourced—they wouldn't have the means or ability to travel outside of their region to “pull a job” or “make a get away”. Those that did, wouldn't really be worth tracking down in a “bounty hunter” fashion, and they rarely if ever made the radar of the local lord or reeve.

If a criminal, or criminal group, did become a problem, the local authorities would put more effort into capturing or killing them, even to the point of placing a reward—but the enforcement would remain in the hands of the local government.  The rewards were one-offs, and not regular occurrences.

Add to that the relatively small population of the time.  On average, everyone knew everyone
Will work for bounties . . . or noodles!
else and everyone knew what everyone else had—next to nothing.  If your next to nothing was stolen, and Goodman Smith suddenly had slightly more next to nothing, it's a good bet where he got it.  It takes the rise of a merchant class/middle class to spread around the wealth, and see a rise in crime, such that enough criminals become a problem, you need to start putting bounties on their heads to keep the crime rate down. Reward-systems started to come into place in the late 1600s and early 1700s when the merchants were well established, wealth was better distributed, and populations were on the rise.

None of this is to say you can’t have a bounty hunter in your Medieval-based fantasy world.  In fact, you very much can and should!  There appears to be very little bounty hunter fantasy out right now (the aforementioned discussion turned up only a handful of titles).  You don’t even need to explain the economy of your fantasy world to make bounty hunting viable—just get out there and start writing!

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