The Covenant

Witnesspedia
child:
  title: The Covenant
  slug: covenant
  parent: 15338
  summary: Aethnography in Witness
  keywords: worldbuilding, partipatory
  image: https://edgeryders.eu/uploads/default/original/2X/6/658d2d207954827490390655439ac803d6dc53e4.jpeg

The Covenant {style=“color: #fff; text-shadow: 2px 2px #000; padding-bottom: .4rem; font-weight: bold;” class=“leading-tight text-4xl”}

The Covenant is indeed a religious institution Distrikt, tracing itself back to the grand powers of Roman Catholicism. {style="color: #fff; width: 80%; padding-top: 1rem; border-top: 1px solid white; background-color: rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.4); " class=“text-2xl mt-4 mx-auto leading-normal”}


“Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered, ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.’” - Cottica, on Mayor Ebunoluwa Akinyemi, Officium Auctoritatis Summae, I

The Covenant is perhaps the least-understood among all the major Distrikts of Witness. Notable visitors have describe it alternatively as “a kind of feudal paradise” or a “fascist religious hegemony” or “a work of art”. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. The Covenant is indeed a religious institution, tracing itself back to the grand powers of Roman Catholicism. Broadly united under the Officium Auctoritatis Summae - loosely rendered as “the Office of the Highest Authority”, and generally shortened to “Auctoritatis”, it is possibly the single greatest concentration of material wealth on Witness. Magnificent churches stud the landscape, surrounded by carefully planned farms and estates; buildings of singularly brutalist art nouveau style line the streets of Hyborean, the ‘center’ sprawled around the Officium.

The Library of St. Benedict, Witness’s largest store of knowledge and the home of much of the State Machine’s processor cores, occupies a curious no-man’s land in the middle of all this. Guarded by elite military from Hygge, staffed by tonsured monks from the Covenant’s Ordo Libri, rabidly devoured by Librians looking for a competitive advantage, and all but ignored by the Assembly and Avantgrid: it is Witness’s politics in a microcosm.

POLITICAL HISTORY

The distinct features of modern-day The Covenant began to appear under the leadership of Distrikt Mayor Ebunoluwa Akinyemi, who gained the very first mayoral elections of what was then still called Distrikt 3. Herself a Roman Catholic, she run on a platform that mixed a certain social conservatism (described as paternalism by the opposition of the time) with a strong emphasis on religious freedom. Akinyemi’s policies emphasized the autonomy of religious institutions from the Distrikt’s government. As a result, many of the City’s Churches and Monastic Orders chose Distrikt 3 as their main home. The more devout of the migrants to early-days Witness followed suit.

This move cemented Akinyemi’s vision into a solid reality. With a large population of believers, and a strong presence of religious institutions in all main areas of public life, Distrikt 3 consolidated as the religious center of the City. In the course of Akinyemi’s third term, the Distrikt Council voted to adopt Resolution 430, which reformed the Distrikt’s governance to take the new reality into account. Among other decisions, Resolution 430 gave permanent council seats to the representatives of religious institutions, assembled in the Episcopal Conference of Witness, installed the office of the Auctoritatis, and changed Distrikt 3’s official denomination into The Covenant, a nickname originally used in a derogatory sense by progressive media.

Religious leaders welcomed a stable environment that would respect the spiritual quests of their flock, and supported Resolution 430 discreetly, but unambiguously. Once it was approved, however, they adopted the view that it was inappropriate for members of the clergy and monastic orders to get directly involved in Distrikt leadership and administration.

To this day, all elected officials and civil servants in The Covenant are laypersons, although the separation of church and state is nonexistent: major religious sub-sects all have permanent Council seats. The representative of the Collegium Auctoritatis serves as an analogue to a Parliamentary Speaker. Moreover, city officials often request that priests, nuns or monks serve as their expert advisors, under special dispensation from their religious superiors. To have someone from the Officium is seen as an especial honor, as these novitates not just signify a link to the Auctoritati, but also have a Machiavellian knowledge of realpolitik and the art of governing effectively.

Almost everything we know about the inner workings of the Covenant come from the works of the poet-economist Cottica. Using a pseudonym to evade the attention of censors, Cottica published a viral poem known as Tibi Deus de Purgatorio, chronicling a trip through a supposed high-fantasy world inhabited by celestial and demonic beings. Further analysis revealed a cipher in the opening stanzas that turns the names of the angels and demons within into their respective offices, and place names turn into laws and deeds; thus their grandiose, introspective statements becoming both a history of decisions made within the Covenant as well as a declaration of their political power.

GOVERNANCE

The Covenant has a dual governance system. The secular political institutions are a representative democracy, with an elected Council at the top. Parties of religious inspiration have had an unbroken majority since the times of Akinyemi.

The religious institutions follow the model adapted from the Order of Saint Benedict. Monasteries and churches, formally sovereign, form a federation (Officium Summae Auctoritatis) which exerts on its members a strong moral authority, and an equally strong pressure to conformity. In each religious institution, superiors are elected by monks or nuns having taken their full vows. The federation itself is governed by a small (never more than 40 members) council of senior superiors (Collegium Summae Auctoritatis), which co-opts its own members. A highly trained religious technocracy assists the Collegium and implements its decisions.

ECONOMY

The Covenant’s economy is robust and diverse, with an unusually high presence of manufacturing. The service sector is also strong, notably in higher education, health care, and finance. The Covenant hosts the headquarters of several large utilities, that serve not only the Distrikt itself, but also run some critical infrastructures of other Distrikts.

A unique feature of The Covenant’s economy is the strong role played by monasteries and other religious institutions. While by no mean numerically prevalent, these institutions tend to be over-represented among the most advanced, most successful operations. This observation led economist Malivalaya Nut to describe The Covenant as a dual economy, where two sets of economic agents with completely different objective functions co-exist. In a series of empirical investigation of The Covenant’s economy, Nut discovered a pattern: the economic activity of religious institutions tends to be amplified by businesses that are legally part of the saecular economy, but have evolved for taking advantage of the turbulence created by the existence of the religious institutions themselves – for example lifting innovations invented in the monasteries and re-engineering them for saecular markets.

The number of jobs in The Covenant is estimated at over 4 million, though estimates are highly sensitive to whether the numerous nuns, monks and priests who participate in economic activities are classified as “workers”. The position of the religious authorities is that the manual and intellectual efforts of the devout is part of their spiritual quest, and in no way akin to selling one’s time for money. In fact, many Covenant intellectuals have come to consider the notion of “market” as morally dubious, and that of labour market as outright demonic. Most Aethnographic schools disagree, pointing out that most laypeople long for meaning even while doing paid work, and some find it. Some sympathy for this more lenient position can be found in certain scholars of the Graeber Institute.

MANUFACTURING

The Covenant has a strong manufacturing base, with the highest economic complexity index of all Distrikts Major. In part, this is an effect of the Benedictine structure imposed by the Hyborean Order, trusted by the Auctoritatis as Ordo Operarum. The Benedictine/Hyborean devotion to the motto of “ora et labora” makes them extremely good at the manufacturing of high-quality products since the early Middle Ages. Since they view labor as a devotional activity, the monks refuse to build anything that is not top-quality, and build to last potentially forever. For the same reason, however, they are unwilling to expand production in response to demand. They are also unwilling to raise their sales prices, because the Rule of Saint Benedict explicitly forbids it, on grounds of greed being a sin. This creates a rationing problem for the high-quality, fair-priced goods produced in the Monasteries.

The problem has been solved by the rise of clusters of startups, which huddle around the monasteries implementing the business model known among venture capitalists as “Grow and Multiply”: reverse engineering products of the monasteries, and adapting them for large-scale industrial production. They have an aggressive hiring policy targeting lay Brothers and Sisters, or individuals that, after an apprenticeship in a monastery, decide to remain in the saecular world. This symbiosis of religious and lay manufacturing activity is an example of dual economy.

Much of these activities takes place in the Kyrie region, home to most of The Covenant’s Benedictine monasteries. While the Officium and the area around the Monastery of St. Benedict have become the center of knowledge production, Kyrie has become the City’s workshop, playing a role equivalent to Shenzhen in the 21st century.

EDUCATION AND FINANCE

The neo-Jesuit Order runs several higher education institutions, called Collegia, in The Covenant. Though each only admits a small number of students per year, they enjoy a high prestige. It is common for graduates from the Collegia to be quickly hired into senior research and teaching positions by larger universities, both in The Covenant and in other Distrikts, which in turn educate and advise the élites of Witness. Collegia alumni maintain strong networks with each other and their former home institutions (Almae matres), so that the influence of the latter on the city’s academic community is much larger than their size.

The Institute for the Works of Religion relocated to The Covenant in the years following the approval of Resolution 430. The Distrikt Council’s and Mayor’s Office’s hands-off approach to religious institution has encouraged the IWR to engage in substantial financial innovation, though, for the same reason, much of it remains relatively little known. A swarm of brokers, almost all of them AIs, has formed around the IWR’s activities.

COMMUNITY AND CENSORSHIP

It should be noted that the Covenant enforced censorship on many things it deemed immoral, although post-Cottica, these bans have become increasingly looser. The story of her flight is well-known, and instrumental to the existence of the Migrant Train that now runs between distrikts: the State Machine declaration that people who want to leave an area should be allowed to do so has since led to some small migration to and fro the Covenant (particularly between Libria), and a significant drop in complaints from the region.

This new position has been approved by the State Machine as being completely consistent with the Benedictine way. After a probation period, residents pronounce irrevocable vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability; but there is no other penalty for breaking them than losing the monastic community that welcomed them.

Nevertheless, a form of lèse-majesté is in effect around the Auctoritati, the Officium and its institutions, and the Ordo Operarum. Urban legends and casual conversation in the Covenant may refer to ‘white vans’; these are the infamous vehicles of the Officium’s Inquisitores, a parallel police force, staffed by lay brothers and sisters and “advised” (that is to say, commanded) by senior clergy under special dispensation.

TOPOGRAPHY:

The Covenant is notable for its comparisons to a city out of pre-Sundering history: Riga, Latvia. Spread over multiple artificial ‘rivulets’, this sprawling Distrikt espouses an art style set by the tastes of the Auctoritatis. Immense arches, exposed concrete, salvaged bottle-glass painstakingly arranged into magnificent frescoes, decidedly classical statues, steep churches built over decades with hardened stone-colored plastic and steel - this is the signature of much of the Covenant. Church roofs double as solar panels for churches and their surroundings: in this way the religious powers are directly connected to the infrastructure, and the well-being of many a business and household depends on tithes and the good favor of their local priest or monastic superior.

NOTABLE PEOPLE:

The Auctoritatis is an institution unto themselves. The opulence of their surroundings, the tight security, the almost mythical taciturnity of the upper levels of the Officium, and the moral authority combine to make the leader of the Covenant a tourist attraction and an extremely powerful religious figure throughout Witness.

Imagine her sitting by the docks, seaside, by the light of a dying sun, with a fat and angry-looking orange cat next to her. She has grey hair and a left hand that looks badly scarred. For the last so many years she’s been advising the Migrant Train Committee on the yearly train-route optimization, which at its basic level is a variant of the Traveling Salesman Problem with some political tension thrown in. I know because I serve on the same committee.

Today she has proposed a new idea: using the number of connected districts - and the radius of the train-circle -as a measure of how diverse this floating megacity is. But we both wonder whether size is a reliable indicator of diversity, given recent events; distrikts have seceded in the past, and she is deep in thought about whether there is an optimal arrangement of distrikts that enables even the most polarized of them to connect to the superstructure without fighting too much.

Every so often she looks up as the train passes by and pets the cat absent-mindedly.
The cat, of course, does not care.

- Anagram Dias, aethnographer, The Assembly

Arguably the second-most famous citizen of the Covenant is Cottica, the anonymous poet-economist who has revealed so much about the inner workings of the Covenant.

Originally hunted by Covenant agents, she was extracted and offered asylum in Hygge; she has since gone on to study both the Assembly and Avantgrid (she has a noted dislike for Libria) and has been accorded honorary citizen status in both those domains. Very few people know who she actually is, or can recognize her; all that is seen are respectful snippets like the one from Anagram Dias, which appeared in New Horizons serial 641.

Special projects

The Distrikt Minor of Viriditas, located in a narrow peninsula at the extreme periphery of The Covenant, is home to a large congregation of Teilhardite monks. This is a reclusive order inspired by the works of the biologists-saints Hildegard of Bingen, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Stuart Kauffman. The Teilhardites farm both the land and the sea, using minimally invasive techniques that make large use of genetically engineered organisms, but in Viriditas they live only at sea. They have built a large monastery, dedicated to Saint Hildegard, out of connecting a large number of boats and raft. This technique gives Saint Hildegard its peculiar appearance, and has earned it the nickname of Floatsam. They have announced that their mission is to build and launch the Saint Cristopher, a slower-than-light starship for interstellar colonization, conceived as a deep space monastery. The project has an estimated duration of 400 years, with the first 300 dedicated to developing blueprints and the ancillary technologies.

Footnotes

Much of the Covenant was built around @alberto’s writing around the Benedictine way of doing things. Church-led economies produced many of the great works of architecture that dot Europe, creating staggeringly ambitious, multi-generational plans and executing on timescales that seem almost impossible in today’s five-years-to-IPO world. Another major source of inspiration is Neal Stephenson’s magnificent Anathem.

Ancillary reading can be found in many sources, including (but not limited to) two sources that keep popping up - Prayer, Patronage, and Power by Penelope Johnson and The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the Architecture and Economy of, and Life in a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery by Walter Horn and Ernest Born. But these books are terribly difficult to find today, especially in COVID times: for those looking for a easier read, though, Ken Follet’s Kingsbridge series of novels - especially The Pillars of the Earth - comes highly recommended. An interesting parallel can be found in Sri Lanka, where combinations of monks, and kings looking for glory, have resulted in veritable cities of shrines and Buddha statues (see Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa) and a network of artificial reservoirs that still irrigate lands hundreds of years after their creation.

3 Likes

@alberto, sanity check on the Covenant, since like 80% of this text is yours?

I am struck by the complexity of the work, so much stuff! It brings to mind a graphic novel in the style of Moebius or Shuiten and Peteers.

1 Like

On it. I will take the liberty of amending the Latin too: Auctoritatis is the genitive of Auctoritas, so it means “of the Authority”.

Done. I changed quite a bit of the Latin (which I used to read passably in my student days), going back to encyclicals etc. to make sure that it does not sound awkward. In some cases that meant straying a bit: a Catholic cardinal would never call anything Ordo mortis, way too crude. Additionally, the article states that the clergy does not take part directly into Distrikt management: you have to be careful not to stick an Ordo too close to the bureaucracy, the Church does things through what a lay economy would call “public-private partnerships”. So I imagined a voluntary body of religiously inspired police-ish, staffed by lay brothers, and recuperated for them the medieval term of Inquisitor, the asker of deep questions, instead of calling them an Order.

For the same reason, I don’t think that is coherent that Akinyemi, a politician, goes on to be a sort of religious leader.

I am also a bit confused: is the Officium a bureaucracy, or is it a role, as the Latin word implies? I interpreted it as a role, and so called the denomination of the person fulfilling it Officium Auctoritatis Summae, shortened Auctoritati. If you want it to be “The bureaucracy answering to the highest authority” my version of the text has to be reviewed.

The part that I do not see is this:

You seem to think of a religious Distrikt as a dark place of inhuman efficiency and oppression of liberties. I think more of it as a monastery writ large: a largely serene place, where people go to help each other escape the effects of the sensory and moral assault of the saecular world. I am also under the influence of the extreme ecumenism of the modern-day Catholic church: if you walked to a cardinal right now and told him you worship Satan, he would probably sigh with contentedness and say “Yudhanjaya, my son, the fact that you aspire to a connection with something that transcends the mundane makes us spiritual brothers. Like you, I too long for meaning to echo across the centuries, shining intact long after you and I have turned to dust! I, for one, have the greatest respect for Satan. He was once Lucifer, God’s brightest shining angel! And how difficult, and terrible, his choice! Make an appointment with my secretary, come see me, we’ll have a cup of coffee and see if we can do anything for you, one believer to another”.

1 Like

Done. I changed quite a bit of the Latin (which I used to read passably in my student days), going back to encyclicals etc. to make sure that it does not sound awkward. In some cases that meant straying a bit: a Catholic cardinal would never call anything Ordo mortis , way too crude. Additionally, the article states that the clergy does not take part directly into Distrikt management: you have to be careful not to stick an Ordo too close to the bureaucracy, the Church does things through what a lay economy would call “public-private partnerships”. So I imagined a voluntary body of religiously inspired police-ish, staffed by lay brothers, and recuperated for them the medieval term of Inquisitor , the asker of deep questions, instead of calling them an Order.

Nice, thanks. I was thinking in terms of linguistic drift; given that post-Sundering, much of the world’s knowledge stores would have been lost, I imagined a bastardized latin that people cling to for very much the same reasons it was prevalent for a long time - to give the impressive of authority derived from the weight of history. But since latin scholars would be thin on the ground, I used something between the pig Latin of Warhammer 40k and Google Translate’s Latin, dropping certain clauses.

However, the new version works! An inquisition has the right overtones.

For the same reason, I don’t think that is coherent that Akinyemi, a politician, goes on to be a sort of religious leader.

Actually, with the reversing of separation of church and state, I’d argue that Akinyemi’s position makes her too powerful not to be crowned the religious leader: she holds too much political power otherwise, given that the Distrikt exists in large part due to her activism and the crowds she draws. Perhaps this can be a political office + concessionary religious title that rapidly evolved into power?

You seem to think of a religious Distrikt as a dark place of inhuman efficiency and oppression of liberties. I think more of it as a monastery writ large: a largely serene place, where people go to help each other escape the effects of the sensory and moral assault of the saecular world.

On the contrary: I am merely anti-utopia. We have spent many paragraphs discussing how productive this place is, how beautiful, and even how "Notable visitors have describe it alternatively as “a kind of feudal paradise”. It only makes sense to also point out the darker aspects. Very few societies, particularly those of high homogeneity, preserve their domains without some military or economical power - and by the way, I wish to add that my experiences with the Catholic church and its political flexing, especially in countries in the Global South, is extremely different from the ecumenism you portray.

So I argue for a Covenant that can be both a garden of spirituality and oppression for those who do not want to be there. In fact, this would be instrumental in setting up the migrant train; people who do not want to be there can leave, and as a result everybody’s net happiness increases slightly. Let me add that in now.

This is completely consistent with the Benedictine way. After a probation period, you pronounce irrevocable vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. But there is no other penalty for breaking them than losing the monastic community that welcomed you. You are free to leave, but in leaving you’ll become another you.

1 Like

Nice! Added - and updated the COMMUNITY AND CENSORSHIP section.

@yudhanjaya, I just realized you have slashed my Viriditas distrikt minor (the “Special projects” section of my entry “Economy of the Covenant”. I meant it as an “hook”, detailed enough to prime the pump of imagination but vague enough to leave plenty of space. Did you find it too detailed?

Apologies. Entirely by accident, I assure you. Definitely not turning down detail. Let’s please put that back.

Done. Thanks! I have wanted to advance the idea that Benedictine monks are the right people to crew a slower-than-light colonization starship for a long time. I mean, they take a vow of stability anyway! As long as onboard life observes the Rule, and the Abbott-Captain does not skip a beat, they are good. Of course, there is the slight problem that the second and later generation cannot choose not to take a vow of stability…

Note to self: we need to disambiguate, as in the text Auctoritatis is sometimes used for the institution Officium Auctoritatis Summae, other times for the person heading it.

I had some fun with an AI demo system that creates images from text, and had it make visuals based on the Distrikt descriptions. Here’s Covenant.

Covenant2 Covenant1

1 Like