Fantasy roleplay is fun, but we need to stop calling it medieval

I was about to post this on Honor’s blog, but I realized that she was just doing a screenshot exploring of a beautiful sim, and my “rant” would seem off-topic and if said there, mean. Because I enjoy her blog a lot, and my rant is at ‘some other’. πŸ™‚

This is a general point about how this genre gets named in Second Life, and among roleplay folks in general. Not aimed at anyone other than whoever is in charge of terminology around here. :p

Been thinking about Roleplay a lot lately myself – in a quest for the right theme for me.

I’ve always been annoyed at the term ‘medieval’ for these roleplay places. They are anything but.

An actual medieval setting would have guns and canons of varying ranges of advancement (starting at 800 AD in Asia, and hitting Europe by 1222 in massive amounts, but even seen earlier in Crusades. Heavy plate armors developed near the end of the period (1400s-1600s).

Peasants throughout the entire period had no freedom of movement or profession, and little to no rights. They were for all intents and purposes slaves.

Punishments were often brutal and inflicted on a clan basis rather than individual. You steal from me, I get the right to kill your daughters – that kind of thinking. But there was no -city guard-. Policing developed mostly in the 1800s. “Law” was enforced by noble clans/families attacking each other in vengeance until higher nobility stepped in to wipe one side out or broker a peace. If your serf did something, I went to you, and demanding compensation. If I killed one of your serfs, you might be able to exact a few coins payment out of me – if the ‘lord’ we both swore fealty to felt that needed.

Anyone off “adventuring” would have been a landless noble. They were the only people with such freedom. And they had it because they were not allowed to be gainfully employed. If they lacked land and serf to prey upon, they had to either be the butt-kisser of some other noble (Courtier / Concubine), or go off and kill people to take their things (Conquistador / Crusader / Knight).

People got married young. As in, get your period and off you go, drop some babies for us. Health was poor. Famine would wipe out many every year (the entire point of the spice trade and age of exploration was to improve food resources – preservatives), disease would get many more. For much of the period cities were much larger than fantasy claims them to be. Only during the black plague did it get cut down so far. They were smaller than during imperial Roman days, and smaller than during the age of exploration. But not tiny. And cities of over a million did exist elsewhere on the planet (Bagdad in 775 AD hit 1 million, Tenochtitlan was about 200,000 during the time of the black plague).

Printing was around. Yes… while Gutenberg’s press is 1436, other more primative ones were about earlier. The screw press was in Rome by the first century AD. Yet despite all of this, almost everyone was illiterate. This is the reason they call it the dark ages – small handfuls of people in Europe retained the technology of literacy, while elsewhere in the world the idea of reading was spreading. Libraries were being built in Mesoamerica, new alphabets were being designed in Asia, and math, philosophy, and theological debate were advancing in Africa and the Near East. The Europeans in this period were the savages of the world. They got lucky later on in mixing, as it is said, guns, germs, and steel – in one location.

This was a harsh world, with very few fun elements to it.

Fantasy adventure and roleplay is fun. But we need to stop calling it medieval.

Fantasy has too many things the Medieval European world lacked, and lacks some critical things it did have.

The fantasy concept is all about adventure and grand stories – so its fine that it is not medieval, because the actual medieval period is a less adventurous notion than even our modern world.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Indigo Mertel (@IndigoMertel)
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 15:25:40

    >> But there was no -city guard-. Policing developed mostly in the 1800s. β€œLaw” was enforced by noble clans/families attacking each other in vengeance until higher nobility stepped in to wipe one side out or broker a peace. <<

    Nice post but I respectfully disagree on the above, as this was not always the case. In medieval Italy many cities were republics. While not comparable to modern democracy, these city states had elected governments and law enforcement. Similar cases existed in other parts of Europe, as was the case of the German free imperial cities and the Hanseatic League. Law enforcement was present even at the times of the Roman Empire with the Vigiles (from which the Italian word "vigile" derives, meaning a local police officer) and the Pretorian Guard.


  2. Pussycat Catnap
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 15:57:44

    That’s a good point – it is not so cut and dry as ‘did exist’ or ‘did not exist’. The concept of policing has evolved over time. Fantasy though, seems to put a city guard down there and have them act like Scotland Yard combined with CSI or Law and Order. πŸ™‚

    Hanseatic league almost backs up my issue. That’s merchants organizing and using private mercenaries to protect themselves against other predatory powers, such as nobles. Not a police, not a system of laws and rights. At best you have German Town Law – which in essence is just an agreement of the nobles to not try and wipe them out (and something that develops to help wind down the medieval period as trade became more important). Your example shows the starting line that forms not the medieval system, but where it began to break down – with one of the powers that caused medievalism to become obsolete.

    Rights are still vested, in these things, not in people, but in the groups they belong to.

    The Romans yes, had citizenship. But that is the classical period. Pre-medieval.

    The problem with fantasy is it usually takes 100 BC Roman civil and legal structures, and the Roman concept of policing – and marries that to some technology from 700AD, some from 1500AD, and calls the whole thing medieval.
    – Which is just fine, as it makes a great genre. But it should not be called medieval.

    The Italian Republics likewise, are more accurately described as ‘armed unions / trade organizations.’ Like your modern chamber of commerce taking up arms and controlling a city. Why do this? Again, to keep the nobles out and keep them from making everyone a serf. Did individuals have rights? Not really. Powerful merchant clans simply wander around in the same way noble families would – and you pay out to a guild or a blood feud therein when you step over someone else’s turf.

    But as they grew more sophisticated – this is a bit of why the ages of enlightenment and exploration feature heaviest in Italy and German thinkers… Your citing the forces that, after enough time, broke down the medieval structure.

    They would be fine models for a magical genre – but they’re also generally -not- used in fantasy all that much. You have guilds in fantasy, but these are nothing like the merchant cities of Italy or the Hanseatic. They’re more often like the ‘Thieves Guild’ concept which seems to be based on the American Mafia… but get used by roleplayers so often because they let people make ‘teams’.

    Fantasy City Guards, that arrest people, take them to the castle cells, and cart them to the local tribunal or noble for judgement… sometimes in fantasy these resemble 20th century Scotland Yard, and sometimes they resemble Kind Solomon. Often a hybrid therein. Rarely do they resemble something from 400-1400AD Europe.


  3. Indigo Mertel (@IndigoMertel)
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 19:30:21

    I see your point and I agree with you. It sounds as you are a history buff, I enjoyed reading your answer. πŸ™‚


  4. Pussycat Catnap
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 00:06:48

    Poly-Sci ‘nutcase’ which often leads me in a worse place. I know less about what happened and how (historian) and more about why and connections. Harder to enjoy it when you can’t stop seeing ulterior motives under it all. πŸ™‚ I had a friend who was an historian – I envied both his better facts and ability to be oblivious about their consequences.


  5. Iohannes
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 23:41:12

    Sorry for a long comment, but also have a passion for this period as well. πŸ˜‰

    Coming from the more literary background, I can understand the use of ‘Medieval’ as a catch all for period dress and genre of story. Though most the time what period they’re really getting is more Renaissance. The Medieval times would be more like a second or Christian era bronze age, so actually, Gor style dress is much more appropriate for that particular time in most cases. That is, unless of the aristocracy that could own property and not only afford, but also have the means to do trade, which was a lot more expensive and harder effort than today’s ebay and e-trade. One actually had to get up off their arses and either travel to places for trade, or have a loyal enough entourage, particularly of a mercantile system that saw a value in doing trade with nobility. Keeping their heads and business was generally the major incentive, rather than being a head CEO of business.

    And it should be noted that, while the merchants could be considered a sort of middle class, rarely did they mix with the lower class. Most serfs were seen as beggars and thieves, because they rarely had money to pay for anything. And they knew that their best source of income came from the ruling class.

    Anyways, so while I can understand that the term is used for genre, it is indeed a term badly used because it rarely gets the named genre right. For one thing, most have a terrible understanding of the role of Christianity at the time – whether due to Protestant and/or secular anger or angst -, and often don’t understand how the Church preserved a lot of the literature that later would be rediscovered more broadly and on a secular level by the time of the Renaissance and Reformation era, when more people had the resources and luxury to learn how to read. Charlamagne, most people don’t realize, was the closest thing that the Medieval/Dark Ages time had to a Renaissance man, being that he was a warrior king that actually found benefit in learning to read, and tried to impose one of the first instances of a more public education. But beyond that, life was brutal, and such an experiment was short lived.

    But was life without fun? No. Poverty was everywhere, and a horrible state indeed, but the people were a lot more open to an oral tradition of storytelling, particularly among the serfs. We look at the innocent sort of seeming fairy tales that are related by the Brother’s Girmm, and later more purified by Disney for our modern general audience. But the fairy tales of the time would be considered vulgar, and quite gory, even by today’s standards – but which ought to be expected for the time. And they were often used as deterrent to keep children from wandering too far off in the woods, lest they come by the wicked witch, or whatever, that would eat them up for supper. And that’s not even beginning with the Christian witch hunts, but already a folklore that was very wary of strangers and what certain people might do to them, because strangers and people with certain know-how often were considered dangerous and a threat, and more often than not proved to be. So a lot of tales of the time were ways of warning.

    But some also seem to be ways to escape, or maybe give a more fantastical, feel to the time. Orphans are known to claim that they were born into royalty, or some great family of an aristocracy because they want to believe that there is more to the world than the current state they are in. And maybe the element of fantasy gave that same sort of feeling for the serfs to create such fantastical stories. Maybe there was some truth behind the fantasy of of a given story, to which the truth may be worse (or better) than the tale.

    At any rate I do agree that the genre in RP is confused, and more often is appropriate to call it either fantasy or Renaissance fiction. But I think if people really want to make a Medieval period style RP as close to genre, it would behoove them to actually read up on the real fiction genre. Probably a good starter for reference would be ‘Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, and Customs’ by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. This is more Eruo centric, but at least if one’s particular fantasy deals with this period and culture, then you have something to draw from of actual substance to the period and literary genre.


  6. Iohannes
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 01:39:23

    I couldn’t help but also spin off from this in my own blog:

    So I must thank for a bit of inspiration for something to write. πŸ˜‰


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