In my previous post, I examined the origins of the 5th edition Monster Manual and concluded that D&D was much less ‘European’ than might be supposed. Of the 215 monsters I looked at, around half, maybe more, originated elsewhere, and many, perhaps a third, were an invention of the game itself.
I see this claim online fairly frequently: that D&D is at its heart a medieval European fantasy. So, having looked at what we might call the geographic origins of the game, I thought I would have a closer look at its historical sources. Is it as medieval as people think?
As with last week, a few provisos. It bears repeating: this is a blog post, not scholarship. It is not going to be exhaustive. It is not going to be rigorously scientific. Please unclench before you take me to task. In terms of my own academic background, I have a reasonably good degree in Old and Middle English literature from a reasonably good university, but I do not claim to be an expert and would be more than happy to take on board constructive criticism. For my own sanity, I will be focusing again on the core rulebooks of 5th edition D&D, specifically the Player’s Handbook. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think the edition matters that much: the mechanics may be different, but when it comes to the fundamentals, there’s a huge degree of crossover. But hey, if you disagree, I’ll read your blog on it.
The term ‘medieval’ is fraught with problems. It is often erroneously depicted almost as a kind of ‘dark age’ between classical civilization and the Renaissance – a ‘Middle Age’ – and this is horribly unfair. And what a huge generalization, too: this is a period of almost 1,000 years! Focusing on a ‘middle period’ between the fall of Rome and the (European) Renaissance also encourages us to adopt an unhelpfully eurocentric lens. There was a medieval world outside Europe, and Europe engaged with it.
For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the time period from around the end of the 5th century to the end of the 15th century. But even this is arbitrary. People didn’t go to bed one night in the Middle Ages and wake up in the Renaissance.
I’m going to focus on three main chapters: races, classes (which, by extension, considers spell lists to some extent), and equipment.
I excluded Player’s Handbook races from my post last week on the basis that none of the peoples therein are featured in the 5th edition Monster Manual. Some commenters on Reddit pointed out that dwarves and elves (and so half-elves, too) are European in origin, which is quite true. Both are found in Old and Middle English, in medieval German, and in Old Norse, and are therefore perfectly medieval. Tieflings, too, are more medieval than you might think. The name itself is an invention for D&D, constructed from German tief and -ling (‘deep’ and ‘offspring’), but the concept of humans with demonic ancestry is found in medieval stories. Merlin, in some stories, is considered a cambion. I would give this one a pass.
Halflings, however, are more dubious. They are clearly based primarily on Tolkien’s hobbits, and hobbits were more or less a creation of Tolkien himself. The same goes for orcs (and therefore half-orcs). While they are mentioned in Beowulf, the word used there, orcneas, probably meant something closer to ‘evil spirits’. Tolkien himself said that he revived the word ‘only because of its phonetic suitability’: his orcs, and therefore the orcs of D&D, are not particularly medieval at all.
What about gnomes? Sorry: not medieval at all. The original Latin term term, gnomus, originates in Paracelsus in the 16th century, and the word is first attested in English in the early 18th century. Renaissance at best. Their characterization as cunning inventors is probably Victorian.
Overall, then, the ancestries of D&D are pretty medieval in origin, and always have been. Of course, once you go beyond the core rulebooks, this breaks down considerably (viz leonin, tortles, and aarakocra, among many, many others).
Let’s get one thing out the way. None of the D&D classes are realistic. Not one. Not the barbarian, not the fighter, not the rogue. They are a product of fantasy. All of them. By 20th level, they are essentially superheroes. Trying to compare them to real-life medieval figures is a dead end.
However: we can examine the extent to which they resemble medieval fiction. Are wizards much like the ‘magicians’ of medieval romance, for example? Or was Merlin more of a druid or a warlock? How much are bards like the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Those sorts of questions.
- The concept of an uncivilized or primitive warrior can be found the world and throughout history, but the D&D barbarian is clearly based primarily on Conan the Barbarian and pulp. That said, the barbarian’s rage feature evokes the berserkr of Old Norse sagas and poetry.
- The bard is pretty medieval, taking inspiration from characters such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Will Scarlet, and Taliesin, as well as the Viking skalds. The spell list doesn’t really fit with the way magic is conceptualized in medieval stories, though, and it would probably be pretty limited and rather boring if it did.
- It’s hard to say where clerics come from exactly. OD&D was pretty brief, saying in essence that they were a mix of ‘fighting-men and magic-users’. While they bear some resemblance to medieval crusaders like the Knights Templar, their ability to turn undead is more reminiscent of B-movie vampire-hunters like Van Helsing.
- Real-life druids were religious leaders in ancient Celtic cultures. While they appear as sorcerers in some medieval Irish and Welsh stories (most notably the Táin Bó Cúailnge), they were essentially extinct by the time Christianization was complete. Still, their signature wild shape feature recalls the shapeshifting abilities of Merlin, so in some ways they fit the mould of a medieval magician rather well. They wouldn’t have wielded scimitars or worshipped trees, though.
- Fighters get a pass for being medieval, but only because they are so completely generic. Warriors are more or less universal.
- The monk class was probably created either by Dave Arneson, one of the co-creators of D&D, or Brian Blume, one of the early game designers and a huge fan of kung fu. Gary Gygax also claimed that the class was inspired by The Destroyer (the Remo Williams series). Shaolin monks certainly practised martial arts in the Sui and Tang dynasties, but from the 8th century to the 15th – ie, most of the European Middle Ages – there is no evidence of Shaolin monks participating in combat.
- The paladin class is largely based on the character of Holger Carlson in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which in itself is drawn on the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne. The knight-errant is very much a figure of medieval romance: historically accurate, no, but culturally of its time? Very much so.
- The ranger is based on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Like fighters, though, hunters and woodsmen are fairly universal. Artemis and Orion would fit the bill, as would Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, two medieval legends. The spellcasting, though: that’s D&D through and through.
- Regarding the rogue (then ‘thief’), Gygax stressed the influence of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack. The 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook gave examples of thieves such as Reynard the Fox, Puck, and Ali Baba. And thieves, like warriors, are essentially universal.
- The sorcerer was new to 3rd edition D&D, where it was essentially a variant wizard (previously called ‘mages’ or just ‘magic-users’). It was felt that the latest fantasy fiction made Vancian magic seem outdated. Regardless, neither wizards nor sorcerers have much in common with the magicians of medieval romance. Merlin’s powers revolve primarily around shapeshifting and prophecy, for example, not fireballs and magic missiles. Medieval in name only.
- Finally, what about the newest of the core classes, the warlock? The pact of the fey is in some ways closer to the medieval concept of magic than either the sorcerer or the wizard. Infernal pacts, too, are thematically appropriate, as witches and warlocks were feared for their deals with the devil, and as I mentioned above, Merlin himself was depicted as a cambion in some stories. Eldritch blast, though, is again rather flashy for medieval magic, and the Great Old One stuff is clearly Lovecraftian in flavour.
How medieval is this, on average? I would argue ‘somewhat medieval’ at best. Sure, you could construct a fairly ‘medieval’ party with a fighter, a rogue, and a paladin, with maybe a druid or a ranger thrown in, but that’s being selective. You could just easily create a party consisting of a monk, a wizard or a sorcerer, and a bard or a cleric, and it wouldn’t be particularly medieval at all.
I’m going to skip Chapter 4 (Personality and Background) and move onto Equipment.
Arms, Armour, and Equipment
Am I going to dissect every item in the Player’s Handbook to evaluate how medieval it is? Hell no, because that would be about as interesting for me as it would be for you. Generally speaking, the D&D equipment list is pretty medieval. However, a few highlights:
- Studded leather is not a historical term. Gygax was presumably thinking of brigandine or jack of plate. Chainmail, too, is something of a neologism, and this armour would have been called a hauberk, a byrnie, or simply ‘mail’.
- Full plate arrived pretty late in the medieval period and was really more of a Renaissance armour. Its association with ‘knights in shining armour’ is largely the result of 16th-century jousting armour.
- Overall, the weapons table is reasonably medieval. Like plate armour, though, the greatsword (which, confusingly, was probably referred to as a longsword) was really more of a Renaissance thing, the rapier even more so. The trident, conversely, was really a pre-medieval weapon, famously used in the hands of Roman gladiators. The hand crossbow is mostly a creation of fantasy.
- The biggest issue with the weapons table is not so much what is included but what is missing. One word: guns! This is a long-standing and enduring convention of ‘medieval’ fantasy, but it is still rather bizarre. Europeans had knowledge of gunpowder from as early as the 1200s, and handheld firearms were starting to be used from the 1300s, yet they are usually presented in D&D as an optional rule in the DMG. If you really want to be authentically medieval, then add guns.
- What about adventuring gear? This is a long old list, and much of it is fine, even for a purist. The biggest exception is probably the spyglass, as telescopes were not invented until the 17th century. The word backpack is anachronistic (20th century), but there would have been shoulderbags in the medieval period that fulfilled the same purpose.
- And musical instruments? Again, a pretty medieval list. The viol was maybe a bit late, more Renaissance, but that’s splitting hairs.
Overall, D&D’s approach to equipment is pretty medieval, if you overlook a few specific items and don’t ask too many questions about where the guns are.
From a medieval point of view, though, there’s one massively fundamental problem with the D&D approach to equipment, and it’s this: D&D is capitalist! Or at the very least, it is a cash-based economy where feudalism and manorialism are conspicuously absent. There is a great post on this at Blog of Holding. As Paul Hughes put it, D&D is in essence ‘a swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.’
The big question, then: is D&D medieval? My view: eh, not really. Sure, it has many, many medieval elements. But it is hardly purist, and some of the most iconic D&D elements like wizards, clerics, full plate, and greatswords, are not especially medieval at all. The game draws on pulp, classical mythology, Renaissance swashbuckling, and of course, modern fantasy fiction. Many of the monsters of D&D, as I wrote about last week, are not particularly medieval either.
Obsessing over D&D’s medievalism is a creative dead-end. It probably won’t lead to better fiction or better gameplay. It’s not particularly imaginative. In fact, it’s rather limiting. D&D is fantasy, not history, and this has always been the case. Even if the game’s roots lie in historical wargaming, the game we play now is something completely different.
Finally, it is interesting (and worrying) to reflect on where this call for medievalism comes from. There are gatekeepers on Reddit and Twitter who proclaim that monks have no place in D&D because they are not ‘medieval European’. I don’t see them calling to get rid of wizards, though, or the creatures from Greek mythology, or mummies, or zombies, or the hundreds of monsters that D&D has invented for the game. Why is that? Could it be that there is another, more troubling reason for singling out the only ‘Asian’ character class for criticism? And there are D&D players on Twitter who defend the use of racism and slavery in their games – ‘because it’s medieval’ – or get upset about the combat wheelchair, for the opposite reason. I don’t see them calling for the inclusion of firearms in the core rules. Neither are they proposing that we should adopt a feudal, manorial economy in our games instead of a free market based on gold pieces. Not with the same vociferousness, anyway. And they don’t have any problems with a knight in full plate mowing down orcs with a greatsword, even though it’s not much more medieval than a hobbit parachuting into battle while firing flintlock pistols.
As a hill to die on, it all looks a bit silly, not least because these calls for medieval realism are often founded on totally inaccurate assumptions about the realities of the medieval world. But one has to wonder whether it was ever really about ‘medievalism’ in the first place, or whether this has always been a figleaf for something much more concerning.
Medieval fantasy is inherently romanticized and backward-looking: it harks back to a mythical age of knights, castles, dragons and what have you. But it’s fantasy first. And if ‘medieval’ for you is a byword for a world which is white, male, ableist, and so on – if that’s important to you, if that defines your ‘fantasy’ – then you should maybe stop using medievalism as an excuse for your own prejudices. The game moves on. Maybe you should, too.
To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative. And if you like what I do, you can buy me a coffee here.