Bizarre bestiaries and weird relics: what fantasy can learn from history

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Swords. Castles. Peasants, knights, shieldmaidens, queens, kings, princes, bandits and men at arms. Games often draw on certain aspects of medieval history, whether they’re using it to add colour and flavour to a limb-lopping action game, swords ‘n’ sorcery platformer or fantasy RPG. But there’s more to the period than grim warriors, noble (and cruel) kings, and dank dungeons. A few games, including The Witcher 3 and Crusader Kings, dig beneath the surface to capture some of the mystery and wonder of a time thick with superstition and folklore, but the middle ages have many more tales to tell.

There’s a smorgasbord of games set in vaguely medieval times, and each time a new one is announced, there is some familiar moaning: “The middle ages have been done to death,” we hear. “They’re playing it safe, it’s a bland and overfamiliar setting.” The immense mainstream appeal of games like Skyrim or Dragon Age gives further credence to the criticism that the middle ages speak to our lowest common denominator. It’s easy to see why gruff heroes with swords and shields seem so dull because the swords and chivalry setting has been overdone, whether it’s in the form of plasticky Tolkien copies or grimy pseudo-realism. Frankly, I’m sick of saving peasants from an ancient evil in Dragon Age, or of bulging muscle men swinging huge swords at each other in For Honor.

It’s a sad state of affairs since any history geek can tell you that the middle ages (all 1000 years of them!) were a colourful time whose glorious strangeness has been almost entirely ignored by games and much of popular culture in general. In an effort to present the horrors of the ‘dark ages’ to a gasping audience, creators are quick to drain all the colour from the setting. Wars, poverty and pestilence were real, of course, but so was everything that gives the period some complexion; its whimsical imagination, its (to our eyes) utterly outlandish customs and beliefs.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. Bestiaries are common in fantasy games, but I dare you to find one that is as fantastical as the actual bestiaries of the middle ages. In those lavishly illuminated animal books popular in the high and late middle ages, you’ll find stories such as that of the beaver that is hunted for the supposedly medicinal properties of his testicles. Fleeing, he bites off his own scrotum and throws it at his pursuers – it’s an allegory, we are told, admonishing us to throw our sin from us as we run from the devil like the virtuous beaver.

On a related note, think of the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ, which was a revered relic and, interestingly enough, the prized possession of several different churches. Religious institutions like Dragon Age’s Chantry with its Urn of Sacred Ashes are a staple of fantasy games, but I have yet to see one that comes close to being as fascinating as the byzantine Moloch that was the medieval church.

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A pursued beaver biting off his own testicles. Harley 4751, f. 9v. British Library.

There’s just a handful of games that capture some of the strangeness of medieval times. Chief among them is The Witcher 3, a game whose often grim fantasy world never gets in the way of an amazingly varied interpretation of a broad period in our own world’s history. In spite of its grimy violence and ‘save-the-world’ quest, there’s a lot of humour, colour and humanity, but some of its most vivid, lurid strangeness can be found in the darkest corners.

The sprawling quest lines surrounding the Bloody Baron are a highlight in this regard. In the course of your dealings with the Baron, you’ll encounter the tricksy Johnny with his folksy charms and wordplays, a sinister spirit imprisoned in a twisted tree striking dangerous deals, the terrifying Crones that lure children into the woods on their Tail of Treats, and the Baron’s stillborn infant that returns as a monstrous Botchling. There’s a lot to unpack here, a wide range of folklore beliefs and fairy tale tropes mixed together in a rich potpourri. It’s morbid, weird, compelling, and deeply rooted in stories whose origins reach back across centuries.

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The Witcher 3 is a great example of how the creative license of a fantasy setting can bring the stranger elements of the past to life. While it’s a shame that the main plotline sticks to a more familiar course, there are dozens of imaginative scenarios and distractions along the route. Between those stranger sidequests, the real world 12th century account of a goose and she-goat who were believed to be inspired by the holy ghost and almost led a crusade would not at all feel out of place.

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The heraldry of The Witcher 3, too, captures some of the medieval imagination

There are other games that touch on the medieval mindset, of course. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind may not seem an obvious choice, seeing as its giant mushrooms and towns made from plants seem to have little to do with the middle ages, but in terms of what it has to say about messianic religions, prophecies and the transmission of historical knowledge, it taps right into central issues of the period. If you delve into one of the many temple libraries of Vvardenfell, you’ll find countless books full of sermons, spiritual wisdom, origin myths and historical accounts, genres that bear a striking resemblance to those popular in the middle ages. Reading these texts feels like being immersed in a truly unfamiliar world view that that emerges from a historical context that feels alien, yet real.

And just as in supposedly historical accounts, there often are several contradicting versions or interpretations of the same story. How did Indoril Nerevar, chief saint of the Tribunal Temple, die? Will he be resurrected as the Nerevarine as the prophecies say, and if yes, which one of those who claim to be this messiah is the real one? Fierce disagreements about these questions separate the various factions and splinter groups of Vvardenfell, and lead to the persecution of heretics by the Temple. Morrowind creates a complex patchwork of beliefs that may not be as strange and impenetrable as those of the middle ages, but share some of the same qualities.

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The actual history, as opposed to the imagined history, of the middle ages was marked by near-constant religious dissent and upheaval. Countless heresies such as Catharism, which stated that the world was created not by God, but the devil, or Lollardy, a ‘proto-Protestant’ reform movement, sprung up all over Christendom despite the best efforts of papal inquisitors. There were also plenty of prophets and messiahs. Take the strange story of Pseudo-Baldwin.

The real Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders, was killed soon after capturing Constantinople in 1204 and being declared Emperor, but after a while there were rumours that he hadn’t really died and would return one day. Twenty years later, a beggar and hermit appeared and, for reasons that are unclear, was embraced not only as the returning count, but also as messiah. He and his devoted followers – who drank his bathwater along with other acts of devotion – instigated a holy civil war against the real Baldwin’s daughter, Countess Joanna.

Revered and powerful as he had become, he was soon exposed as a fraud and, after much chaos and unrest, finally captured and hanged (see Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium for a host of stories like this).

You might be familiar with some of these heresies, and even dynamically generated stories like the one above, because of Crusader Kings 2, a game notorious for its tendency to spin highly entertaining emergent tales of secret incest and political assassinations against a backdrop of diplomacy and holy wars. Despite its dry appearance, Crusader Kings contains a great deal of whimsical (though dark) humour. I’ll never forget the time I was regent of England and tried to instigate a ‘tragic’ accident involving the children of the late king, and failed time and time again until I was discovered and thrown into the dungeon, a shell of my ambitious former self. Or that time my only heir insisted on serving as a mercenary for the Byzantine Emperor, only to return blinded and castrated, plunging my proud Viking realm into utter chaos.

More generally, Crusader Kings 2 teaches you a medieval way of looking at a world order that’s utterly strange and almost unfathomable to modern eyes, where weak kings routinely struggle for power with their own vassals, and where personal relationships and bloodlines dictate the fate of political entities that are still in the process of becoming ‘nations’.

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Our brief tour of the digital middle ages ends with Darklands, a perfect example of a game that successfully straddles the line between the historical and the fantastical. Set in the 15th century in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly today’s Germany), the player leads a motley group of mercenaries, fighting robber knights, brigands and, most importantly, demons and covens of witches. It does a good job conjuring the spiritual uncertainty and paranoia at the very end of the middle ages, a period during which the foundations for the vicious witch hunts of the early modern times were established. Behind every corner, there are suspected conspiracies, witchcraft and whole villages of devil worshipers engaging in perverse rituals.

Those are just three of the very few games I can think of that buck the trend of presenting the middle ages as a bland porridge of pseudo-historical ideas and adolescent fantasies. Like a wholesome witches’ brew, they restore some of the complexion of an ailing period that is still sadly underrepresented despite the omnipresence of swords and castles in games. Drawing more inspiration from the stranger stories of the middle ages wouldn’t just make games more entertaining, but also more valuable from a historical perspective, revealing that the past isn’t a commonplace populated by clichés, but a vibrant, in many ways alien world, of its own.

44 Comments

  1. yhancik says:

    Y I S !

    I admit I’m one who’s usually turned off by medievalish settings because it’s troped to death and dramatically overserious. It’s even worse when it falls into tolkienan fantasy.. “we can dream up any kind of medieval world we want! So of course it will have dumb green orcs and graceful elves and dragons” and oh jeez.

    Morrowind was indeed fantastic. And Stronghold – its voices will always sound a bit Pythonesque to me :D

  2. ChatterLumps says:

    This article is fantastic and possibly one of RPS’s best in recent memory! Bravo!

    I appreciate the reference to Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, but does anyone have any further recommended reading for this time period?

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages

    • Faldrath says:

      I’d recommend the two books on the Penguin History of Europe series: Chris Wickham’s “The Inheritance of Rome” (400-1000) and William Jordan’s “Europe in the High Middle Ages” (1000-1400). Both are readable and present a lot of recent research on the area – although Jordan’s book is weaker because it gets too hung up on theological issues and loses sight of the social and cultural history, which Wickham does excellently.

      • Moth Bones says:

        I’ll second that Wickham recommendation. He also had one out last year called Medieval Europe, which I haven’t read, but apparently covers “the fall of the western Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s reforms, the feudal revolution, the challenge of heresy, the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of late medieval states, and the appalling devastation of the Black Death.”

    • batraz says:

      Marc Bloch’s ” Feudal Society ” and “The Royal Touch : Monarchy and Miracles in France and England.”

    • TrenchFoot says:

      The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Icelandic mythology)
      Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco (Not just medieval, but a treasure trove of esoterica though the ages.)
      A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance
      The first three episodes of the 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation

  3. Dinger says:

    Speaking of which, back in my youth I found a text claiming that four fourteenth-century churches in France had the True Relic of Christ’s Circumcision, but I have lost the reference. Any idea?

    And yes, FRPG lore bores me, and I can’t read it. We’ve got a lot of manuscript material from the Middle Ages that’s not been identified properly, and so much more that’s just fun to read, once you learn some Latin and the dark arts of paleography, codicology, and diplomatics. And, unlike when I was starting out, you can get much of it right off the internet (like the BL illuminations for this piece). So damn cool.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I remember Qi talked about the many foreskins of the messiah by asking “How many penises did Jesus have?”

      • batraz says:

        “The Golden Legend”, a XIIth century or so compilation of lives of saints, tells a strange tale showing people were aware of this redondance problem : a malevolent guy working at a cemetary sold a random bone to a sick old woman’s son, saying it was saint Augustine little finger. But then the old woman got healed, the word spread of a miracle, and the malevolent guy is questionned ; he ends up confessing he’s a crook and sold a fake relic. Authorities still decide to open Augustine ´s tomb to be sure and then, behold : Augustine ´s skeleton was missing a little finger ;)
        Relics and miracles are about faith and they already knew it then, in their strange confused and lucid way.

  4. heretic says:

    Great article! Reminds me of this book from the middle ages, which no one has been able to decipher to date – contains very strange things in its illustrations. Found it again link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Gomer_Pyle says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard about that before. It has a very interesting history and there are so many different theories as to what it could be. I wonder if it’ll ever be deciphered?

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      MajorLag says:

      One of my favorite hypothesis about this book is that it’s basically a D&D manual.

      Personally, I favor the baseless speculation that it accompanied a traveler from an alternate timeline and was accidentally left behind when its owner ran out on their bar tab. Coincidentally, it’s still that timeline’s equivalent of a D&D manual.

  5. floogles says:

    Oh yes, totally agree with this. History can unlock a mindset that steps away from “we’re right now the most important” into something that riffs on history like The Witcher.

    Recommended and relevant documentary is Inside The Medieval Mind by Robert Bartlett, which even mentions the beaver balls.

    link to bbc.co.uk

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    Drib says:

    There have been a smattering of games lately exploring… I was going to say ‘nonstandard’ but I guess ‘nonTolkein’ fantasy lands. Thea: the Awakening for one.

    It’s always fun to see something a bit different.

    And the middle ages were weird times, to be sure. I have a bestiary book (a compilation/reprint obviously) from that era in my house. It’s full of random nonsense like the beaver thing, and I think that’s pretty great.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Japan is always good for non standard fantasy settings, although I guess they do have their own standard.

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        Drib says:

        Yeah, stuff based on the yokai or what-have-you from there is often interesting.

        Just because they’re super weird compared to the general western mishmash we’re used to.

        I’d like to see more native American tribal legends re-figured for games too, but I guess that might come across as a little insensitive to American audiences.

        • pepperfez says:

          On the one hand, there are folklore/mythological traditions that are totally ignored in Western pop culture, and it would be cool to see more of them. On the other, there’s so much unexplored in the Greco-Roman/Western European/Abrahamic stuff we’re used to that it seems kinda silly to look elsewhere yet. I mean, we’ve got a clear idea of their general outlines, so it’s easier to make things weird without making them incomprehensible.

  7. Sulpher says:

    For more of this sort of thing follow DamienKempf on twitter. Strange imaginings prefiguring Bosch!

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    wonderingmonster says:

    Hear, hear!

  9. Sin Vega says:

    This was great and much needed. It’s staggering how much history is utterly untapped by games despite tens of thousands of bullshit ‘fantasy’ games purporting to be inspired by history.

  10. casusbelli says:

    Great to see an article by Andreas Inderwildi here on RPS, combining one of my favorite websites with one of my favorite writers. And a fantastic piece, as usual.

  11. JB says:

    Thanks for the article, that was a good read!

  12. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I gotta concur with the others… that was a great read, and a wonderful contribution to the site.

    It calls to mind one of my all-time favourite novels: Umberto Eco’s Baudolino (spoilers follow). It’s a brilliant historical fiction novel that takes place in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. While hiding from the army looting the city, a self-confessed pathological liar tells the story of his life to a Byzantine court historian. The first half of the story is pretty fantastical, but he demonstrates enough specific knowledge about certain events for the historian to conclude that at least some of what he says is true.

    Then comes the second half of the story. Baudolino (the storyteller) tells of how he and his friends set off to discover the lost Christian kingdom of Prester John, which they believed to be somewhere in “India” (read: medieval slang for “really fucking far to the east”). From this point on, the reader knows that everything Baudolino says is bullshit, because verifiable historical events disappear and are replaced with verifiable medieval myths about the far east. He talks about meeting little one-legged dwarves, men with mouths on their stomachs, the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, among countless other people and creatures that would have fascinated a 12th century European.

    I guess I bring it up because, to me, it was eye-opening to see fantasy from a medieval perspective, rather than a modern one. The Witcher 3 does a wonderful job of this as well, though in that case they chose to forgo detailed historical accuracy in favour of thematic consistency (which was the right call). I’d like to see more of this in gaming – and in art in general. Fantasy and folklore should be seen through the eyes of those who dreamed it up.

    • Rorschach617 says:

      I agree with theangriesthobo’s recommendation of “Baudolino”. I suggest people might think about reading a copy and include “The Name of the Rose”.

  13. King in Winter says:

    The thirty-six lessons of Vivec.

    The ending of the words is ALMSIVI.

  14. andycheese says:

    Great article. I found King of Dragon Pass, despite it’s fantasy trimmings, to offer a good analogue for what we know of pre-Christian Britain. It’s focus on a culture based around cattle-raiding, seasonal warfare and polytheistic religious ritual draws heavily on authentic stories of the period, notably those found in the Cattle-Raid of Cooley and The Mabinogion. Such tales, usually written down long after they supposedly took place, are a veritable mine of juicy historical and folkloric detail.

  15. Chillicothe says:

    Really feeling the lack of Shin Megami Tensei on modern computers with this great article.

  16. Gomer_Pyle says:

    Nice article! I would definitely like to see more in this vein.

  17. cpt_freakout says:

    Great stuff! Another problem with the conventional medieval setting is that it’s always vaguely the same period, in the sense that there’s always plate armor and huge castles and stuff that belongs to the late middle ages. Rarely does the period have any relevance: the aesthetic is almost always the same.

  18. batraz says:

    Great piece, Crusader Kings II, may I add, gave me the impression I understood medieval power structure on an organic level; all in all this is the most successful attempt at combining playing and learning I’ve ever experienced.

  19. Axolotl says:

    That was a great read! I’m often disappointed by how lacking in imagination most games set in the medieval ages are. You were right on the money with this article.

  20. Rorschach617 says:

    The wondrous thing about the Middle Ages is the way that the people there “translated” the physical world around them into systems that they could understand using “common sense” or theological ways of thinking.

    We are all acquainted with the concept of Trial by Ordeal and specifically, the Ordeal by Water. But I bring it up because of the details that have been lost by modern thinkers.

    It wasn’t just for witches. Any accused person could submit to it.

    The people of the Middle Ages did not have forensic sciences to discover the guilt or innocence of an accused person. So, they reasoned, God knows all, how do we get him to manifest his judgement? We either have an innocent man or someone who has lied under oath.

    A priest would bless the lake or pond which makes the water Holy. If the accused sinks, the holy water has taken him in and accepted him. If he floats, the water is rejecting the liar and he is guilty of the crime.

    The great thing about this is that each step is logical to the medieval mind. God sees and knows all. God manifests his will in subtle ways. Holy Water is a different substance to regular water and it has powers.

    It is all reminiscent of “Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail” if-she-weighs-the-same-as-a-duck, she-is-a-witch sketch, but that is where that bit was particularly clever. The Medieval people were stumbling at trying to work out the physical laws of the world without the tools necessary to do so.

  21. Rorschach617 says:

    Just remembered an old story.

    In medieval England, members of the clergy could not be tried by common courts, only by the Church. The accused could claim “Benefit of Clergy” when brought to trial and would then have to prove it by reading a text from the Bible, reading and writing being something that normally only the clergy or an educated noble could do.

    Long story short, a man was accused of a crime and planned to claim “Benefit of Clergy”. He couldn’t read, but he had bribed a clerk to stand behind him and whisper the contents of the text.

    When the time came, the accused stood up, held the parchment in front of him and repeated what his co-conspirator whispered in his ear.

    “Pray, remove your thumb.”

    After laughing his head off, the judge accepted it!

  22. Oakreef says:

    One of my favourite medieval beliefs is the notion that geese came from barnacles. Geese migration wasn’t known about so it was a bit of a mystery where the hell geese were for half the year and no one in Europe ever saw nests of migratory geese for obvious reasons so they figured they had to come from somewhere different than normal birds and so it was hypothesised they hatched out of a type of barnacle called goose barnacles (they’re still called that, and there’s a species of geese called barnacle geese).

    Also because these barnacles tend to grow on driftwood people reasoned the geese actually grew on trees and therefore weren’t made of meat and used this as a loophole to eat geese on holy days when meat was banned.

  23. Shiloh says:

    Great article. There’s something fascinating about the medieval mind – vulgarity, naivety, wit, cunning and a profound belief in the hierarchy and order of things, combined with deep-seated religious belief and noble ideals of virtue.

    Have a look at the gargoyles next time you’re passing a medieval church and you’ll see what I mean.

  24. Shiloh says:

    And while I’m down this medieval rabbit hole, have a look at this website detailing some of the marginalia which bored scribing monks added to the manuscripts they were patiently copying, presumably for a bit of light relief from the tedium of scratching away in the scriptorium all day (I think the image at the top of this article comes from it)…

    link to io9.gizmodo.com

    Slightly NSFW, but hilarious.

  25. innokenti says:

    Good, but not enough penis trees.

  26. BathroomCitizen says:

    I guess someone hasn’t played Dominions 4!

    Pick it up and have your myth galore.

  27. caff says:

    Excellent article! I must admit I haven’t played much of the Witcher 3 – it’s combat mechanics and potion brewing menus turned me off – but the first tavern you come across I was thinking “wtf?” looking at the flowery colourful pictures painted on the walls.

    Then I realised… if you ran a medieval craft beer tavern with locally sourced dishes (probably rabbit) in whatever century, you’d decorate your tavern in any way you bloody well wanted to. Rather than some dark and depressing grey affair like you see in Skyrim.

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    CdrJameson says:

    The Warhammer 40,000 universe seems to be a proper attempt to summon a medieval atmosphere and way of thinking, certainly in the way that it portrays the role of the church in everyone’s existence.
    I’d like to see more of that, along the lines of Eisenhorn: Xenos rather than just Space Marine hacky-shooty-splat.