Against the great forces of history

What Ada Palmer’s University of Chicago Papal election LARP can teach us about our own future.

“Cesare Borgia oath of Fealty,” from the 2019 Papal election LARP. Photo by Ada Palmer. Used with permission.

Ada Palmer is a wonder. Not only is she a tenured University of Chicago historian who specializes in the forbidden information of Florence during the Inquisitions (witchcraft, homosexuality, heresy and other fascinating subjects); she’s also a composer, librettist and performer whose album-length retelling of Norse mythos is, astoundingly, exceeded by her song about space travel (if this doesn’t make you well up, I don’t want to know you).

And to top it all off, she’s a brilliant science fiction writer, whose inaugural series, Terra Ignota, has just concluded with its fourth and final volume, Perhaps the Stars.

There’s so much to explore in the palmerverse (to say nothing of the extended palmerverse, which includes Jo Walton’s long run of jaw-dropping novels dealing with Florence, antiquity and the Renaissance, most recently 2020’s Or What You Will) that it’s hard to pick a favorite corner of it, but the Palmerian innovation I return to again and again is her annual on-campus live-action role-playing game that re-enacts the election of the Medicis’ Pope in 1490.

Every year, forty-five students are assigned the role of a real historic personage from the fraught, explosive moment: aristocratic cardinals, who spend weeks forming alliances, sabotaging rivals, betraying allies, until, at the climax, the students gather in the faux (AKA “Modern”) gothic Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for a full-costume conclave, the climax of which is the investiture of the new Pope (Palmer has a Google Alert for theater companies that are selling off old costumes and she outfits the class).

This is a delightful exercise on its face, a wonderful piece of pedagogy from an incisive thinker, compassionate mentor and gifted educator, but what I love most about it is how it works out.

Every year, there are four candidates for Pope.

Every year, two of those candidates are the same.

But the other two? They’re different every year.

The great forces of history bear down on the election of the Medicis’ Pope in 1490 — the events of the previous decades make it inevitable that half the candidates will from from the families who’ve built the most durable and extensive power networks.

The presence of those two candidates is inevitable, but the outcome is not. As powerful as the great forces of history are, they are not all-powerful. They are not dispositive. Human action, human agency, determines the outcome, within the constraints and parameters set by the forces of history.

History is not a streetcar on rails, barrelling towards a foreordained outcome. History can be steered. It can be moved. We move it.

After all, “the great forces of history” are just the consequences of earlier human action and agency — there is no fatalistic inevitability, no smooth course of progress, no sure descent into barbarism. There’s just us.


Making history.

That ethos is what makes the whole palmerverse such a comforting and challenging place to live. It’s what makes the Terra Ignota books so scintillating and thought-provoking. No one writes science fiction like an historian, and there are few historians like Palmer. Her annual LARP permanently changed how I see the world — not just history, but the future.