If I ever get around to running a game of Ars Magica, my plan is to set the game in Mythic Iberia. I figured, I’d better give this a read-through. This was produced while White Wolf had the publishing rights for Ars Magica, and that shows. There’s definitely useful information, but the emphasis is on elements that were more popular in the 90s, especially with White Wolf.
Author Peter Hentges shows his work, citing several sources he used in preparation of the book. Those sources, however, are a reminder of how history gets tricky. It’s also I think part of why I found this book somewhat lacking. There are filters to our understanding of history, essentially re-writes for socio-political reasons. History is, of course, a story we tell ourselves about the past. How that story is told and what is included is in the hands of the person telling the story. The cliche goes, ‘History is written by the victors.’ It’s also rewritten by the powerful to make it fit their views or the views they want the following generation to have. Things like sex, the role of women, sectarian violence, and other sometimes sensitive subjects get altered or removed. The Victorians did a lot to change our view of History (and Literature), the role of women, the role of Christianity, and other things. Post World War II American History recreated our past as well, aided by the growth of Hollywood which helped shape a very a-historic view of the past in many minds. A lot of History writers in the past 20 or 30 years have been trying to break through some of those filters, to remind us that women were a thing, that the Romans weren’t all statues of pure, white marble, that some truly awful things were done to put people and cultures into the positions they hold today. Sadly, few of the books consulted for this were new even when it was written. I think this is why the period of time where the Moors dominated the Iberian Peninsula, while mentioned, is given oddly little depth. It’s referenced enough that it feels profoundly important, yet I didn’t feel like it was explored anywhere near as much as it should have been. I think this is, in part, because it was a time in Spain’s history that had been, for a long time, hushed up. Normally the history books will say something like, “Muslims from North Africa conquered Spain but were pushed back by the Christians in the Reconquista….The end.” Because during the default time of Ars Magica, the Moors still control the bottom half of the peninsula and because they’re Golden Age is not long in the past, it is something I’d like to see more about.
Instead, this book focuses a LOT on demons and demonology. It seems like half the organizations in Mythic Spain, be they Church, Hermetic, or civil, are actually secretly run by demonologists. This is where the White Wolf vibe really shines through. This was the era where one of the Houses of Hermes was supposed to be turning into vampires, where the magic was going away, where everything good was rotten. That’s all very 90s and I’m sure it appeals to some. It doesn’t especially appeal to me. Sadly, it gets a lot of space in this book.
There’s a nice, general history of Iberia. There’s a very general guide to its geography. Those things are handy, for sure. For those, I’m glad I own this. What the book lacks, however, is much of what I’d want to run my game. Since I don’t want to run a game about everything being corrupted by demons or magic being destroyed by the expansion of rationality, nor do I intend to run a game set in Barcelona, much of this book isn’t very helpful. I guess that’s the problem I have. It’s very detailed on some things, which I don’t especially care about, while being far, far too vague on the things I would want.
Overall, the book is OK, but I feel that it’s more of a starting point than anything else. From here, I’ll probably need to do more reading on my own for the info that’s going to actually help me with whatever game I eventually run. I’d love to see this book revisited by the folks who did Ars Magica 5th Edition, but sadly, that line seems to be done. I have already read Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal, which is packed with interesting and useful information, but which is organized in such a way as to be almost impossible to read. If you do, I’d recommend taking copious notes and having a timeline handy so you can follow along.