Short. Got it. Thank you to all those who provided answers before and explained how to fix the problem in the comments as well.

I Want to make an intelligence agency in a fictional setting that only has about 16 century technology. Setting does not match with ours in a lot of ways. Ask if you want more details.

As you know intelligence agencies of the modern day relay in part on electronic means to get information but I don't have that.

So. I want the means that the agency can use to achieve the below goals.

Again I want to know how would they do that? What methods or means or ways to do that?

Example: How to take a castle easily? Bribe someone on the inside to open the gates.


  • Early rebellion detection and general discontent
  • Uncover Corruption.
  • Counterintelligence
  • General information gathering
  • General governmental supervision

Nothing else matters or gets into it. Literally I'm just asking about the methods of achieving those goals in such a setting. Not the possible corruption of them or why I want that or whither or not it even makes sense...etc

Please not that I already have a bunch of things in the setting happening including laws and regulation. Those influence if what you suggest is good or not. But I don't want to clutter the question so ask if you think it is needed.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ Have you done any prior research into this? Spying, intelligence gathering, corruption, bribery, coercion, etc. all were a thing long before electronics were a thing. $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ @fgysinreinstateMonica, I did of course. I was looking for stuff that I might have missed. Obvious stuff like: informants and secret codes and social skills and surveillance...etc are not too hard to consider. In the earlier questions, which needed focusing, I detailed a lot of rules and regulations for the agency and world but that was too long. So. I'm trying to keep it short. Lastly the heart of the matter is using our current theory to modify older practices. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read The Ranger's Apprentice series? It's a more rudimentary intelligence gathering service than 16th century could be, but you could use it as a starting point. $\endgroup$
    – m13op22
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ The organization of your question sounds more like secret police or a security organization instead of an intelligence agency. Intelligence services, as we know them, gather information on other nations. Using both covert and open sources of information. It does look like what you want is the 16th century version of the Stasi, but Francis Walsingham's spy networks in Elizabethan times is an historical model of what can be done. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 7:06

7 Answers 7


Most of the things you need done can be done by regular people who don't work for your agency but will be rewarded for useful information and punished if the government finds out they didn't snitch.

When one of your citizens crosses the border back into your country, ask them privately about the other places they've been. Providing good info gets them a tax break or special privileges depending on the quality of information.

If a citizen hears their neighbors talking badly about the government and they turn those traitors in, the good citizen will be allowed to move to a better part of town or send their kids to a better school. If you find out that citizen should have known something but didn't speak up, they need to go to a work camp for re-education.

If a member of the government doesn't turn in another who is acting badly, that person's family will be sent to prison for not doing their duty in raising them right.

A common citizen can send in tips at the confession booth at any government office or church. They will also be asked in such a booth about a number of things when they pay their taxes, apply for government assistance, etc. They will have to give their perception of opinions in their neighborhood, asked if their bureaucrat is treating them well, if they feel safe, if they worry their stuff could get stolen, if they know they can move up in life, etc. The data will be collated and used to get a good idea where dissidents are working. Then you work to change hearts and minds in the area.

You will have a government ID program with a tier system. People who have never been convicted of a crime will have a certain color, people who get a certain number of points for going to church regularly can move to another color, etc. There should be a lot of tiers that give tax breaks, allow people to live in good neighborhoods, own certain products, speak at meetings, leave the country or city, etc. If a citizen starts to lapse they could be docked points, though. Like if they join an organization that turns out to be antisocial.

"It's strange you live in the neighborhood you do... yet we haven't seen you do anything to make it safer. Tell me a little more about what's going on there."

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    $\begingroup$ Wow. This is very close to China or the USSR. Like 1/3 was an informant back in the day. I also like your ID suggestion. I actually made Ideas for the empire long ago because it make sense $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ If you like the way this sounds, you're gonna be really happy with Europe or the United States in the next 5 or so years. $\endgroup$
    – Morgan
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ This sounds like way too much information to organise in a pre-modern setting. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ It's hard to imagine nowadays, but only a few decades ago, most personal and government information was collected by people and stored in filing cabinets. Reel to reel tape wasn't widely adapted to data storage until the 1950s. Presumably this setting also has a lower population density and less freedom of movement, making data easier to handle. Just have a file on each person in their local parish, and when they apply for a permit to leave, you send a copy to the parish they're moving to. Things like demographic data are simple multiple choice and tally system. Taxes are much the same data. $\endgroup$
    – Morgan
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 2:45

There are certainly historical examples of intelligence agencies from this period. Elizabeth I of England was known to maintain an extensive spy network, run by Sir Francis Walsingham (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Walsingham). There is a BBC TV documentary series about it called Elizabeth I's Secret Agents (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6a3iwf) which may be of interest.

Bluntly, they worked the same way that the human intelligence aspect of a modern agency works. Bribery, threats, informers, agents, ciphers, cryptanalysis, violence and vigorous interrogation. The principles are eternal, all that changes are the techniques.


First of all, yes, this would be feasible. Your agency doesn't need to tap the phones, since there are no phones. The main task of your agency is to detect (and maybe even prevent) rebellions. Rebellions would be made by people. The agency would have their own people there, simple as that.

You could inspect the mail, but I don't expect conspiracies to be organised by post. At least not at the stages you would wish to stop it. If there are multiple rebel groups on several provinces, preparing an uprising that needs to be synchronized, then maybe. Although I would expect them to use actual messengers rather than trusting the Imperial Post for such important details.

If a group of peasants were trying to unite to rebel against the governor, they would have some agent ready to join their group and release their plans. Or someone in the group would be easily tempted to out them at the local delegation of the agency (it is well-known that they will pay well the information and give you their forgiveness for your participation, when people start having doubts about their chances, they will flee to tell you!), or someone you can extort, from other information your agency could divulge about them (real or fabricated) to threats to their children, their job...

They have no legal authority to arrest people, detain them, kill them...etc

Note they will have to face the consequences if caught, but they might do it. Or threat to do so to certain subjects. A group of assassins coming from another province (although in the same Agency district), doing their deeds and leaving.

None stays in one place for too long nor do they just choose where to serve.

This may work well for big cities. On rural areas everyone would know who the local spy is, the guy who arrived three years ago (and will leave in two years, having stayed for exactly 5 years, just like the guy before. Moving everyone at once would be useful for periodically organizing your assets, no so much for secrecy)

The entire organization is from time to time investigated, in secret or not, by the IG. The IG is a massive organization of fanatically loyal men and women who are above the law.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? You might have to develop on why these are fanatically loyal in your story so that they can be above the law. Are they brainwashed on a special school? Part of a cult? The emperor is similar to The Mule? They made an unbreakable vow?

And why can't the same be done for every member of the Agency?

they constantly have to justify the expenses

This may be a red herring depending on how far you go, I think. All intelligence agencies need some funds they can dispose of discreetly. You need some oversight of the expenses (in order to avoid corruption) but at the same time, that should not restrict its ability to use them. I expect their books will be full of things like bribery and payments to informants. How much can they pay them, or the value of the information.

In fact, the main problem they will face (as with any intelligence agency) will be to discern (at some point of the chain) the information posing real threats from those which are fake or irrelevant. A group of people badmouthed the emperor at a tavern, and your agency discovered it. Was it a conspiracy or a group of drunkards? Is it worth devolving the resources to spy each of them for... days / weeks / months? If someone is a bit short of money, what would stop him -as a loyal citizen of His Emperor- from uncovering a "conspiracy" he overheard to the rich intelligence agency? Even if it was made up? How to avoid that the agents infiltrated into the rebellious groups actually made them last longer (get paid for disclosing the attacks you are organizing "in order to conceal that you are an imperial agent", seems beneficial to them)?

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    $\begingroup$ The big problem with mail is not that they would not conspire but that they would take steps to hide the conspiracy with codes. Talking about Cousin John's gout and how they spent all the money they had without a cure to indicate that an attempt at bribery was insufficient. (Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman discusses this and also what they did to letters to make access obvious.) $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ That quote was literally on my mind. Spot on about most of the stuff. The IG indeed are brainwashed so are insanely loyal. Really nice to see someone getting the heart of the issue. Anyway like I said they don't just have a free hand, so far. I tried limiting their work to basically spying, building a case, then providing the legal system with the data to make a charge. And that is why they have no legal authority to arrest or kill people...etc. That should, in theory, limit their powers to manageable levels instead of insane levels of corruption we see in history. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ Rather than the mail, I bet they would organize at the local tavern or worse... a coffee shop. history.com/news/coffee-houses-revolutions $\endgroup$
    – Morgan
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 10:53

A look into the Abyss

It has been done: Questioning people with extremely low technology is a key staple of both spy agencies, military defense, and similar organizations. One of the most effective examples would be the Stasi, who ended up putting a whole country under fear to comply with the government by their methods.

The US Army in Vietnam developed methods to break people's spirits so they spilled their beans. But they did not do so without precursor: they had studied the less scrupulous methods of the Gestapo and knew the methods that the Kempeitai used in WW2 to question their Prisoners of war. The latter group outright used torture.

The MfS aka Stasi

It might be worth to take a look into the "MfS Handbuch"german - the currently 28 part handbook (as in collected research papers) on the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (aka: Stasi) of the German Democratic Republic. While only available in german, it details the organizational structure and methods, how it interlinked with other organizations (the army and police).

One of the methods was "Zersetzung"german which meant infiltrating groups that were against the GDR, subordinating them, and then destroying them from the inside keeping them apart, seed distrust in likeminded groups, and break them up into smaller ones to destroy them from the inside.

The Stasi were masters in subverting and infiltrating, getting people to do their bidding, and at times not even knowing that they did! And, they had handbooks on how to identify subcultures, a library of jars that contained worn underwear to identify their agents or targets with tracking dogs. The metaphorical Hot Chair? An Invention of the Stasi, where they placed someone in a room with the heating turned high on a plastic chair, waited and only asked questions after a long time - they were really interested in the sweat for their library in those cases and took accidental confessions as extra catches.

The German government not only produces those linked sites above for research and teaching, but it also offers some of the content in English - but as the interest in the Stasi from non-germans is relatively little most is not available in English.

The US-Army

The Army FM 30-15 (1978)Academia contains interrogation techniques that are all psychological but require to have a person on hand to question. But it contains one of the best rundowns of how the questioning of people can result in maximum turnout with minimal risk of releasing information, and how to sift through the information for veracity, who to choose for the role of interrogators, and so on.

The Gestapo

A more evil handbook might be that from the Geheime Staatspolizei (GesStaPo) of the Nazis, which used collaborators that were willing to rat out others for a chance to rise in power to hunt down groups that opposed the Nazi Regime. Apparently, there is an English translation of their training manual available. While not containing information on how to torture, the manual does include how to get into someone's head and put psychological pressure on them - even when they didn't have those people interred.

The Kempeitai

The Japanese Kempeitai had written a document called Notes for the Interrogation of Prisoners of War. A version of this had been captured in Burma and translated in 1943, and it details the methods of how they would acquire information and what from their PoWs. The link above is an overview of the contents; the original contains several chapters on how to break the spirit and body of people.

  • $\begingroup$ A wealth of links. Greatly appreciated it. I'm reading them right now. Those google searches might get me arrested thought. XD. I checked the comment first btw. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 21:57

First off, there are several types of intelligence agencies. One can spy on the neighboring countries (espionage). One can spy on ones own people (I don't know a good name for this, perhaps "domestic surveillance"). One can try to prevent neighboring countries spying on one-self (counterespionage).

I suspect you need all three. The might be one agency, or many. In the case of domestic surveillance, you are probably better off having multiple independent agencies, as otherwise they could take over your country by framing anyone they want to (as in "We don't like Count Andrew, so we will report that he is a traitor.").

The nature of espionage has also changed over the years. In the American civil war era and before, we had the "Flamboyant Spy". This appears in fiction too. The spy that everyone knows is a spy. (They weren't necessarily the best at information gathering. I've read that one notable named American civil war spy sometimes just made up information for his reports.)

By World War One, the game had changed. Covert information gathering was the in thing. A spy identified was generally expelled or killed.

So this raises another issue. If you have domestic surveillance and counterespionage going on, your counterespionage people are going to be arresting (or at least harassing) your domestic surveillance people. So the latter need a way to provably identify themselves to the former, in such a way that it doesn't publicly identify them. You don't want to accidentally create another Mata Hari. (Executed as a spy by the British, she was a British spy. She was playing flamboyant spy in the covert information era.)

As for how an agency would "achieve its goals" ... Well, the key is knowing what its goals are. This is obvious: continued employment. They do this by producing rumors and evidence, true or not.

As for how the people who set up the agency get their goals for the agency, that is tougher. I suspect the trick is to make several agencies in competition, occasionally disband (or even execute) poor performers, and split good performing agencies.


Intelligence agencies have existed in the past without modern means. The chief differences are:

  • Without modern computing power, they had less power to collate information. They have to sort through leads quickly to pick out the ones most likely to indicate actual trouble.
  • Their local agents will have a lot more authority. If one is in a city sixty miles from the capital, it takes a week or so for the message to travel if he has to use ordinary means to avoid giving himself away, and even if he has access to the speediest form of horses, it's measured in hours or days. Consequently he will have to act on his own.
  • Travel was much less frequent. Except for places that get a lot of travelers (pilgrim sites, fairs, etc.), the agency will have to recruit local agents with all the problems that brings (such as conflicting loyalties) because an agent from a town twenty miles away will be an outsider.

The Royal College of Handmaidens

In the medieval world, organizing a rebellion of commoners was more or less impossible because commoners could not communicate enough outside of their own social circles to form an army among themselves. Instead rebellions were almost always organized by the nobility. This means that your intelligence network only really needs to have eyes and ears on the nobility themselves. Trying to have a larger network than that will only cause problems since organizing too much information without a modern database can overload your ability to do anything with any of it very easily.

Normally a "Handmaiden" would be a servant picked by a lord or lady to tend to their needs, but there is always the uncertainty of quality and trust. Will they try to poison your food? Are they foreign spies? Do they actually know what they are doing? etc... As the king, you would intentionally instill these concerns in your nobility so that they will demand a system to make sure that their servants are trustworthy before they hire them. So the King declares that all personal servants of the nobility must be properly vetted, trained, and licensed by the Royal College of Handmaidens before a lord may hire these most trusted of household staff. And just for good measure, you can even make it a crime to hire an unlicensed handmaiden. So, just by choosing not to hire a licensed handmaiden, you are exposing yourself to suspicion of illegally hiring unlicensed handmaidens which would itself warrant an investigation.

While these young women are being trained to tend a noble households, they are also being indoctrinated with an absolute loyalty to King and Country above all else. Your could also require an annual retraining seminar where they have to go back to the college to review their skills, but in reality they are are also debriefing their true superiors about the families they are serving. Since the nobility were so rarely without at least 1 personal servant present at any given time, it would be very easy to accidentally let rebellious intentions be known to your household staff, and even if you don't normally let them out of your sight, there is still that darn yearly training that you are legally required to let them attend.

Not only does this relatively small network of women have prime access to all of the most important conversations happening in the kingdom, but they are also in prime positions to perform the more clandestine operations which the OP asked about. Need to kill a rebellious lord in his sleep, why not use the person who is already going in to his bedroom every day to empty his chamber pot. Need help with a castle siege, have the handmaiden start a fire in the food storage. Then you don't even need to storm the walls since lack of supplies can force a quick surrender.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't mean to be rude. But this seems to be a bad idea. Any lord worth his salt will be more than suspicious of those handmaidens. Like they are not stupid. Even your idea of having it be illegal to not hire one is easily fixed by hiring one and NEVER saying anything important in front of it. After all they serve you and you can always give them constant work in that far tower in the castle. Heck. Vetting them is easy. Leak something fake and you know exactly who leaked the info. Like Tyrion did in GoT. But I 100% agree on nobility spying. Different context but that is a good point $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Seallussus Ofcourse they would be suspicious, it could even be common knowledge that the servants are not be trusted, kind of like having an always listening digital assistant on your phone, but just knowing that the app/servant can't be trusted is not enough to keep you slipping up and saying things around it you shouldn't. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Seallussus history has examples of servants acting as spies. +1 Nosajimiki. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH, It is an interesting answer $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 5:14

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