Who are the Direnni?

The Direnni in Brief & Origins

The Direnni were a clan of Altmer, originating from the Tyrigel village, on the banks of the Diren river valley, that left and settled High Rock. From what we can tell, the Tyrigel village was located in the northeast of the Summerset Isle, and had quite a bit of build up before the clan left for mainland Tamriel. Exactly when, I’m a little sceptical of. The book De Rerum Dirennis puts it like this:

Like all on Summurset Isle [sic] in those days, he [Asliel Direnni] was a simple planter of the fields. But while others only grew enough to sustain their immediate kin, even distant cousins of the Dirennis worked together. They would decide as a group which fields were best for wheat, orchard, vine, livestock, or apiary, and thereby always have the best yields of any farm which worked alone, doing the best as it could with what it had.

We’ll be unpacking that in a bit more detail later, but I wanted to flag that the book says “like all on Summerset Isle in those days”. Looking at the Direnni holdings on Summerset Isle in Elder Scrolls: Online, it’s an estate. It’s a castle. That doesn’t make me think agrarian farming communities. It’s possible that the Direnni achieved enough as simple farmers that they could build such impressive structures, but I’m not sure that I quite follow that idea. So I square this roughly by thinking that the Direnni maintained a presence in the Summerset Isles after taking over High Rock, although we don’t have a whole lot of evidence for that.

As the quote suggests, the Direnni were different from the rest of the mer at this point by forming what is essentially a family clan. This is apparently something unique, which, again, I struggle with. The society in Aldmeris has been described, in the Third Edition of the Pocket Guide to the Empire as “agricultural and politically egalitarian”. That almost seems like a utopia, but I also think that it would be strange for family groups to not hang together and produce. Maybe, instead, the difference between the Direnni and the other Altmer is that the Direnni are ambitious. That description of the early Aldmer society doesn’t really lend itself to aggressive expansion, that the Direnni engaged in.

However, we are at a bit of a disadvantage here; the tales we have of the Direnni mostly come from members of the Direnni bloodline, with few outside commentaries on them. So a lot of the sources we’re dealing with will be self-aggrandising. In particular, if the Direnni left Summerset before there were really collective efforts happening before anyone else, they would have left before the Crystal Tower was built, which although we don’t have a date for, was built by Aldmer, not Altmer. That should tell you something about how to take most of these Direnni histories.

I think one defining characteristic of the Direnni as a whole has been ambition, or at least that’s the impression we get from the biographies of them that we have to hand. It might be because we’re getting all these historical accounts as retrospectives, through rose-tinted glasses, though. The examples of Dirennis that we have have all achieved great things, but those are all in the past. The Direnni’s empire over High Rock and parts of what is now Skyrim declined after the Battle of Glenumbra Moors in 1E 482, and so all the writings we have not only from the remnant who have remained on Balfiera island, keeping the Adamantine Tower, but also removed by centuries from when the Direnni were dominant. After that battle, the Direnni began their decline, allegedly because they over-extended their reach, and so their underlings could start to powergrab. I suppose it’s also quite likely that many of the Direnni who would have been ruling would have been killed in the battle, the same way that the French were said to have lost ““almost the whole nobility among the soldiery of France” following the Battle of Agincourt.

What did the Direnni do?

The Direnni laid the foundation for many of the modern techniques for magic, if not the actual schools. In the book Once, we have mention of three members of House Direnni that set the foundations for modern Tamrielic alchemy, enchanting and conjuration. Exactly how that permeates into the rest of Tamriel isn’t exactly clear, because this is quite a bit before the founding of the Mages Guild. I’m also inclined to think that this is part of the “founding myth” of the Direnni, which reminds me a bit of ancient Rome. Asliel Direnni is also the one who codified alchemy, was the founder of the Direnni clan, and was asked to join the Psijics. It’s just a bit too much the “all-perfect founding ancestor” sort of thing to me.

I think there’s also possibly a back-and-forth between the Direnni and the Psijics, if there’s even a grain of truth to that tale, because Raven Direnni’s enchanting is compared directly to the Psijics. With the Psijics being the place that the Mages Guild sprang from, I imagine the Direnni are possibly another strand of the “sundering of Summerset”, if I can put it that way. This is all my own reasoning, with little to back it up, so bear with me.

The relationship between the Direnni and the Psijics is quite cordial, in these tellings; there’s a link of membership at the start of the Direnni clan. If that happened at the same time as the exile of the Psijics, then we have an interesting idea of the Direnni as ideology, which I think fits. The Psiijics split off when Aldmeri worship tended away from “all our ancestors”. The Third Edition Pocket Guide puts it like this:

The religion of the people also changed because of this change in society: no longer did the Aldmer worship their own ancestors, but the ancestors of their “betters.” Auriel, Trinimac, Syrabane, and Phynaster are among the many ancestor spirits who became Gods. A group of elders rebelled against this trend, calling themselves the Psijics, the keepers of the Old Ways of Aldmeris. With their mystical powers, they were able to settle in Artaeum, away from what they considered the corruption of their society.

This is a change from the “agrarian” idea of early Summerset, which . My feeling is that, instead of leaving before all that stuff happened, the Direnni exodus was possibly part of the same era, but with a different take on it. The tone that the Direnni seem to have is that they’re more “clannish”, more family oriented, than the rest of the Altmer. If the Psijics rebelled and left Summerset because they wanted to be able to worship all their ancestors, the Direnni may have left because they wanted to keep worshipping their own particular line. That seems in keeping with the atmosphere that the Direnni seem to have.

Given that sort of a start, the Direnni represent a break from the more traditional magic of Summerset, which seems to have been hoarded in the Crystal Tower, from what I can tell. I’m inclined to think that the mer who remained on Summerset may have had some sort of magical regress, that the exodus of the Direnni, Psijics and Chimer (and possibly the Ayleids at this point as well) caused a “brain drain” in Altmer culture that set them back relative to the more innovative splinter groups. I find it quite telling that pretty much all the groups (with the possible exception of the Chimer) have a form of magic associated with them. The Psijics developed powerful magics of their own that became Mysticism, the Ayleids did really funky stuff with the White-Gold Tower, Welkyn stones and mythitecture, and the Direnni codified a lot of stuff, most particularly enchanting and alchemy.

Direnni and the Bretons

Out-of-universe

The thing that the Direnni are most known for is creating the Bretons. Although if we take an out-of-game perspective, it’s the other way round. At the time of Daggerfall’s development, the Bretons were conceived of as human, and only later made into mer. We have this quote from the book A History of Daggerfall:

There were multiple opportunities for her to exercise this army and navy during the Direnni conflicts with the force of the Alessian Order. The Dirennis were native Bretons and Bretons are hardly ever given to excessive religion.
(emphasis added)

I think what we have here is another example of The Elder Scrolls getting some of its most interesting lore from retcons and coverups, although I’m sure I remember Ted Peterson saying somewhere that the Dirennis were meant to be elves from the start as well. However, if they were originally conceived of as Bretons, then their inconsistent appearances make a lot more sense, particularly the “last hurrah” of Battle of Glenumbra Moors that otherwise comes a bit out of nowhere. As a Breton House, the Direnni can die away while the Bretons are still around, whereas if they’re mer, they need to fall before the Breton kingdoms are established. Perhaps the most glaring piece of “they were originally Bretons” is in Daggerfall’s design, where Medora Direnni is clearly a human.

Quite why the Direnni were changed to be a merish race, I’m not sure. An emphasis on the mer as inclined towards magic, perhaps? That feels a little too stereotypical, particularly as the revamp of the Direnni happened as the lore was being steered away from that direction.

In-Universe

In-universe, the Bretons came about because of interbreeding between the Direnni and the Nedes of High Rock, which I’ve already talked about. I’m not going to go into too many details here, but talk about the implications of those pairings, and what it seems to say about the Direnni.

First of all, their actions were quite different from the Ayleids, Falmer and Chimer who spread across Tamriel. The Ayleids enslaved the local Nedes, the Falmer were at outright war with the Atmorans, and the Chimer arrived first and resisted the invasion of the Nedes. The Direnni did something else to the Nedes they found. First of all, there isn’t a full agreement on whether the Direnni arrived first, or the Nedes did. So either we have a situation where, to quote the third edition Pocket Guide to the Empire,

the Aldmer coming from Summerset Isle were the first to settle and form permanent communities. The early Nedic people who arrived next were stumbling upon a highly sophisticated culture, and were quickly overwhelmed and absorbed.

This is contrasted with books like the book Skyreach Explorer, which notes extensive Nedic settlement in their own style before the Direnni arrived. According to this narrative, the mer then subjugated the men they found there. I think this is the most likely explanation, because the Direnni rule was feudal. Historically, feudalism is a system that results from a decentralisation of power. The different classes within the system have various rights, at least in theory, right the way down to the lowest rung on the ladder. I don’t think that you’d get a feudal system if the Direnni were able to do whatever they wished with the Nedes. That would result in something like the Ayleid treatment. So why feudalism?

I think that a feudal system, with well-defined classes with rights and obligations connected to each other, evolved in High Rock because the Direnni had to accommodate the Nedes somehow. Yes feudalism is quite paternalistic and has the assumption that those at the top are inherently better, but it feels like a compromise compared to what the Ayleids pulled off. It might also be a logical expansion of the very familial system that the Direnni seem to have developed, clannish if I can use that term.

If we assume that the relationship between the Direnni and the Bretons was not one of outright subjugation to begin with, then the imposition of feudalism makes sense, and the later tendency to not adopt the half-Direnni offspring into their own families was an attempt to keep power concentrated in the hands of the mer. However, I think this created a situation where de facto and de jure power were different. Creating, as the book The Bretons: Mongrels or Paragons? describes, a class of mixed-blood people who were increasingly given the tasks of administration means that, over time, they would access the levers of power. The numerical advantage of humans here became the telling factor, and eventually the Direnni diminished because they were unable to have enough bodies to fill their rulership positions, particularly after the invasion of the Nords in the First Era.

Unless, and this is something we don’t have textual evidence for, the feudal system was only something put into place after the Nordic invasion? That the Direnni were diminished by the Nords, and then had to reform their system of governance in order to cope with a new reality. It’s possible, but also part of a wider change that was going on in Direnni society around that time.

Direnni and the Ayleids

There’s some sources that suggest that the Direnni were also bolstered by the arrival of the Ayleids around this sort of time. The book The Last King of the Ayleids suggests that part of the Direnni’s “last hurrah” at Glenumbra Moors was down to the influence of the Ayleids, who fled to High Rock, among other places, after Alessia’s conquest in 1E 242, and accelerated after the adoption of the Alessian Doctrines in Cyrodiil after 361. Although I wouldn’t agree with the book and say that the rise of the Dirennis was down to Ayleid influence.

Also, the dates around this are a little contradictory, which suggests that it wouldn’t have been a smooth transition either way. The first edition Pocket Guide claims that the Direnni were beaten back from most of High Rock by 1E 500, which suggests that Nordic conquests were ongoing until that point. However, multiple other sources state that the War of Succession, which ended the Nordic empire, began in 1E 369. I can get onboard with the idea of a Direnni resurgence because of the Ayleids, though.

We also have some evidence that the Ayleids may have attempted to restart their society independently of the Direnni. The Doomcrag was apparently an attempt by the Ayleids who had fled to High Rock to create a new Tower. If they were integrating fulling with the Direnni, that wouldn’t have been necessary. So the regrowth would have been a little limited, possibly, because the Ayleids wouldn’t have been totally onboard with the Dirennis’ own project of a mixed empire; despite their nature as a confederacy, the Ayleid empire wasn’t that onboard with the idea of men being part of that future, marking the Direnni as something unique in the merish empires of Tamriel; a culture that was able to get on with their mannish subjects to a reasonable degree.

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