Diversity, historical accuracy and Chivalry & Sorcery

Common factoids (things that look like facts but aren’t) about the Middle Ages are that people of colour didn’t exist in medieval Europe, that women didn’t fight (or do much other than be wives or nuns), and that homosexuality was universally condemned.

The far right try to weaponise these factoids. They try to sell a narrative – they want their recruits, and innocent bystanders, to believe the medieval period was some sort of historical haven for straight white men. They object to the idea of North Africans or women fighters (probably less than 1% of the population of medieval England, though no demographics exist), yet have no problems routinely playing male knights (certainly less than 1% of the population of medieval England). Knights, however, are part of the modern mythology of the Middle Ages, and African pilgrims are not.

Presented with evidence to the contrary, gamers who’ve fallen victim to these lies often cry that there are no exceptions, or that exceptions are so rare that they shouldn’t be present in a game. After all, they say, if you want such characters, you can add them.

In Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve made sure we list historical examples of women fighters and look at women business owners. We look at evidence for and examples of Africans in medieval Europe. We mention medieval attitudes to homosexuality, and the gay scene of the 11th and 12th centuries.

After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if someone doesn’t want diverse characters in their games, they’re free to leave them out.

There are several reasons for this approach.

The first is historical accuracy. The medieval period was more diverse than people who gather their history from films and fictional TV shows realise. We want to undercut the factoids and get to the truth, to show those people who claim their prejudices are historically accurate that they are mistaken.

The Mediterranean and the Near East were trade and cultural crossroads since pre-history, and that continued right through the Middle Ages. The medieval period saw a widening and opening of trade and travel – the Genoese merchant Marco Polo travelled to China via the Silk Road in the late 13th century. The Morrocan qadi Ibn Battutah travelled through Africa, Arabia, India, Central Asia, China and parts of Europe in the early 14th century, and the Chinese admiral Zheng He led a series of voyages that took him as far as East Africa in the early 15th century. Beyond these high-profile expeditions, many more diplomatic and trade missions between cultures and countries took place. Archaeological evidence, including DNA and isotope analysis, confirms the presence of Africans in medieval England (and in earlier and later periods).

Martin Jan Mansen’s detailed map of medieval trade routes.

Numerous women fighters are recorded in medieval documents. They were exceptions, true, but they were there, and some of them seem to have had significant training. Agnes Hotot won a joust against her father’s rival in the 14th century, implying that either she was almost unbelievably lucky or had practised jousting. The 11th century Norman noblewoman Isabel of Conches routinely wore armour as she led her troops in battle against her rival Heloise; the monk-historian Orderic Vitalis praised her for her honour, charisma and boldness.

The woman fighter Walpurgis defeats the Priest in the 13th -century fighting manual Royal Armouries I.33

We’ve made sure to list these and other historical women fighters in the core rulebook, and to note the women who ran businesses and mercantile operations.

In this edition we’ve included Islam and Judaism as core religions alongside Christianity, those sections written by Muslim and Jewish writers (Omnia Al Desoukie and Michael Schemaille).

A second reason, related to the first, is to avoid erasure. Yes, we could have chosen not to mention people of colour, or gay people, and leave it to individual groups to do their own research. This is the approach taken in earlier editions of Chivalry & Sorcery, the first of which was published in 1977 and the most recent was published in 2000. That was pretty much the default approach back then, but frankly it isn’t good enough now.

Erasure operates insidiously. As Nisi Shawl and Chnthia Ward note in their excellent Writing the Other, the dominant paradigm of Western culture is white, straight and male. Unless we actively mention women, people of colour, and the gay experience, we default to the dominant paradigm. We’re asking people who want to step out of that paradigm to do extra work.

And that brings us to inclusion. We game in diverse groups, and we want our players to enjoy out game, to see themselves represented, to find a place for themselves within it. Gaming – including Chivalry & Sorcery – is for everyone.

Historical accuracy is double-edged, however. It would be hypocritical to acknowledge medieval diversity without acknowledging medieval prejudice. What’s more, it would he another form of erasure: erasing the victims.

As with medieval diversity, medieval prejudices may surprise people. There was little racial prejudice, but there was significant religious prejudice. Anti-semitism was rife, driven by blood libels and crusading fanaticism, and massacres and pogroms took place throughout the period. After the Third Lateran Council of 1179, homosexuality was no longer tolerated, and punishments became more severe as the Middle Ages progressed. And society remained deeply patriarchal.

Game groups are, of course, free to ignore these prejudices. We strongly advise those groups wishing to explore them, or even have them as a backdrop, to discuss it and make sure everyone is comfortable with including them. The free PDF Consent in Gaming, by Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain and published by Monte Cooke Games, is an excellent guide to such discussions and in-game techniques.

Further reading

John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980, revised editon 2015).

RI Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (first edition 1987, second edition 2006)

Bernard Hamilton, The Crusades and North-East Africa, in John & Morton (eds), Crusading and Warfare in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2014)

The Public Medievalist blog has an excellent series on Race and Racism in the Middle Ages and another on Gender, Sexism and the Middle Ages

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