Thinking Medieval - Seeking Endarkenment

In his hilarious and angry review of one of my favorite books, Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror", Patrick Stuart has some choice words for 14th century nobility, starting with the title; "A Bunch Of Fucking Idiots". Here are a few more quotes.
[Enguerrand de Coucy] is mainly a hero by virtue of not being an insanely stupid flaky deluded murderous narcissist. Although he is murderous, and a bit of a narcissist, but hes not insanely stupid or flaky and in fourteenth century Europe that puts him in about the top 5% of dudes with swords. 
...the entirety of the ruling class subscribes to an insane Chivalric cult which, not only do most of them not really follow, but, even when they do follow it, it doesn't work... 
Lists of insanity like the one above, are not rare in 'Distant Mirror'.
Over and over, in the classic arm-waving despair of someone encountering Tuchman's idol-demolishing, beautiful, brutal, and sharp writing, Patrick resorts to "insanity" as an explanation for excesses and failures of the 14th century nobility.

Sadly, he's wrong.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

What Is Insanity?

The best we can come up with for a definition is "abnormal mental or behavioral modes". It's not insane to cut down a tree, drag it into your house, and cover it with candles, provided you do it near Christmas and not in June. It's not insane to to pray; it might be insane to pray to Barbra Streisand. The community defines "normal", with a bit of wiggle room.

Here's an early modern example, right when the world seemed to start to make sense. It might seem insane to us that George Spencer, a troublesome one-eye old servant in Connecticut, was tried and executed in 1642 for the crime of bestiality after a one-eyed pig was born in his village. It might also seem insane that both the pig and his own retracted confession were called as the two witnesses required to convict him. But by the standards of the community and the times, the only insane person was that godless trouble-making pig-fucker, George Spencer.

The Nature of the World

We live in an enlightened era. Our mental toolboxes are full to bursting with evidence-based reasoning, with precedent, with doubt, and with logic. We hold many truths to be self evident. We stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and we think this plain of shoulders is ground level.

If you want to think medieval, chuck your entire toolbox out the window and start from scratch. You need to un-learn rationality, un-learn concepts you've been steeped in since childhood. It's the opposite of a koan. Seek endarkenment.

Part 1: Forget

-Science. Almost all of it. 
-Medicine too. First aid you can keep, but everything else must be swept away.
-Equality. A dangerous, almost unthinkable concept in practice. A fine ideal, when paired with religion, but not one you have to worry about.
-Matter. Forget that stone and flesh are made of the same kind of thing (atoms). Think of each thing as a distinct entity, not as a changed form of an existing substance. 
-Weather. It's scary and unpredictable now, and we have radar and satellites.
-Foreigners. I can read about far-away places in a book or look up a street-view picture of a city on the other side of the world. I live in a multicultural city. I'm not so much tolerant as apathetic, but that's good enough (and might even be better; tolerance implies tension). Anyway, forget all that. Ignorance and fear all around.
-The Theory of the Mind. Forget the subconscious. Forget hormones and the effect of diet, head wounds, and sleep.
-Progress. The medieval thinker knows there is a better world; they'll go there after death, probably. Don't worry about this one, and certainly don't try to change it. 

Part 2: Remember

Do you remember elementary school? Do you remember how important your school supplies were? Do you remember the almost magical power of a marker, or a pair of scissors, or a shiny new pencil case, or a lunchbox? How deeply an insult could wound?

Take that feeling of importance and apply it to everything.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Practical Applications

One of the first things you learn as a player in an RPG is the separation between in-character actions and believe, and out-of-character actions and beliefs. Most players get pretty good at it.

Most GMs forget that they need to do it too.

I call this "Rational Kobold Syndrome." The GM is a sensible person with a good vocabulary, and therefore all NPCs are sensible people with good vocabularies. Rationalism is a very modern invention, but it's so prevalent that it can be difficult to escape. But if every NPC behaves as sensibly and clearly as someone with knowledge of the subconscious, the nature of emotions, the rule of law, and the consequences of their actions, games can get pretty boring. All NPCs become one guy wearing different hats. You can use silly voices... but silly voices won't help you build a world.

Of course, you have to get your players to buy into the medieval mindset as well. This is usually fairly easy; generic self-interested tomb-robbing can be easily modified by the use of taxes as an introduction to the benefits of feudalism. Consent is important. If your players want heroics and Good vs Evil, don't do any of this stuff (or use it for Evil, if you'd like).

We Hold These Truths To Be Medieval

Nobody is Equal
The world is hierarchical. People of different estates and statuses are widely seen to be "of a different substance." Peasants, seen by the nobility, are closer to hounds than the noble's peers. The person of the monarch was literally sacred - divine matter. Even today, people who meet a celebrity or a monarch express wonder at the oddest and most mundane details, as if some part of them had expected the object of such idolization to be more-than-mortal. Also, men and women were made of completely different substances. The idea of a law that applies equally or fairly to everyone was neither acceptable nor practical. Justice is a modern conceit. All relationships are horizontal and unsymmetrical.

You Are Not Free To Think
Neither speech nor assembly nor the commonest transactions of life are free. There are laws for everything, and if there are no laws there are customs, and if there are no customs people will be reactionary and suspicious anyway.

Words Are Real

In a time of press releases and well-practiced lies and non-statements, words have become just another kind of noise. The medieval world could be shaken by a speech, forever changed by a book, split by theological controversies over a line of text or the intonation of a hymn or the date of a holiday. An oath meant something, and breaking it was a serious issue. This certainly did not prevent oaths from being sworn and broken as needed, but it did mean they were not shattered thoughtlessly, and not without social consequence.

Spend, Do Not Earn
Displays of magnificence were not only convenient, they were mandatory. Misers were spurned and mocked. Today we value a person by the money they have, but to the medieval mind, it was the money you spent and how you spent it that elevated your status. The Church glittered. Cathedrals were pieces of heaven brought to rest upon the earth. The nobles ate extraordinary dishes and wore imported silk, and the rising merchants strove to imitate them. The peasants might be annoyed by the idleness and corruption of the nobility, but few ever expressed wonder at the cost of their everyday behavior, only at cost wasted on pointless wars or lost causes. A crown of diamonds could silence any peasant in awe. To the First and Second Estates, earning money by labour or personal action was degrading; gifts were common and welcomed.

Patrick says "the ruling class are living like Kardashians" and he's exactly right. The Kardashians seem to be reviled because they are talentless, unproductive, and ignorant - all flaws to a modern viewer, all virtues to a medieval one. We prize our working celebrities and revile our idle ones; if you want to think medieval, flip that idea on its head.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

It's People All The Way Down

If you are building a medieval setting, leave out the cosmic goods and diabolical evils. History is not like the stories we tell about the past. Everything is a shade of grey (that might, from a modern perspective, tend towards "slate" than "winter dawn"). It's a mess. Instead of good vs evil, think of people on the following axes:

Pious vs Impious
A very nuanced scale. Publicly pious, privately debauched? Devout but in conflict with the Church? Impious, but generous to the Church and the poor when feeling guilty? Or just plain ignorant?

Cruel vs Kind
"Cruel" starts off a fair distance from what what we'd consider acceptable and only gets worse. At a minimum, assume bear-baiting is fun family outing. Cruelty to subordinates, human or animal, was both natural and expected. Excessive cruelty - maiming sibling, torturing the innocent for sport, etc. - was rare enough to be remarked upon. Anything below that usually wasn't noteworthy.

Impulsive vs Controlled
Astonishingly impulsive behavior, up to and including "stabbing your only son for contradicting you" or "bragging about your plot in public", was the norm. Equipped with the toolkit of rationality, most GMs make NPCs Machiavellian schemers or idiots, without considering the wide range of possibilities impulsive behavior creates. Control of one's passions, or their release in specific ways, was demanded by the Church and the nobility, but, as with any other attempt to regulate human behavior, often failed in practice.

Foresight vs Desire
"Seeing things other than they are" is the prime source of all the troubles in the world, but "what they are" is not always easy to see. With the benefit of a rational toolkit, we can slap our heads and groan at follies repeated over and over, wave our arms in the air and cry at botched invasions, impossible crusades, aborted rescues, kingdoms of delusion, and all the accompanying misery. But at the time, and with the tools of the time, foresight was not so easy. Remember, future historians will groan at you.

Even if a medieval person could rationally predict the outcome of an event (based on trivial evidence such as "it failed the last three times we tried it" or "but we outnumbered them last time" or "yes, but this time, they are on a hill"), their advice would often be overruled, ignored, or openly mocked. "Yes, but this time, we really mean it! It is fate! It is destiny! It is the will of God" could be the response to many objections. And they did really mean it. Effort, desire, and faith could overcome any obstacle... up until the obvious moment when they could not. For every Cassandra, 10,000 Trojans, and the Trojans are in charge.

The Ideal vs the Real
Chivalry was a glittering dream all members of the Second Estate sought to emulate, in fine words if not in bloody practice. From time to time, a few people managed to actually behave like story-book knights.The demands of theology forced people into agonized knots or left them cynical and weary, but among the greedy, the corrupt, and the debased, there were a few who remained not only obeyed but magnified their ideals. And most people were willing to die for an ideal they never displayed.

And from there, build your NPCs, with the usual horrible histories and details. Remember, people will always follow their drives, but medieval drives are sometimes different from modern ones, and sometimes absolutely identical. They were not insane (OK, well, yes, some of them clearly were). They were using a different set of tools to interact with the world. As Patrick says, "the engines of humanity haven't changed"


  1. The thing I always try to communicate to my students about the past is the scarcity of information. You have no accurate maps. You have no accurate statistics. Your history is a mass of legends and folktales. You can't move information around faster than a man on a horse can ride, so all your news it badly out of date by the time you get it. You move in a world of rumours and guesswork.

    Under such circumstances, 'give it a try and hope for the best' often shifts from being the last choice to being the *only* choice, and 'fuck it, let's just kill everyone' becomes an almost understandable response to a world of virtually fathomless mysteriousness, unpredictability, and threat...

    1. Exactly.

      "You know the creepy basement at your cousin's house that's full of furniture covered in sheets, weird barrels, and bad smells? You know how the lightswitch is way on the other side of the room so you've got to walk through, in pitch darkness, to try and find it? And you know how you always had one eye on the stairs just in case you had to run away from whatever horrible monster might live down there?

      Well medieval life is like that *all the time,* except there is no lightswitch, and there are no stairs."

  2. This is so great! So funny! Thank you Skerples.

  3. 'Rational Kobold Syndrome'! That is great. I have been guilty of that at times. Thanks for this.

  4. "We stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and we think this plain of shoulders is ground level." Great comment. I plan on quoting.

    1. "Crapping on the shoulders of giants"

  5. "Remember, future historians will groan at you."

    People who think they are on the right side of history often scare me for this reason. Our last President often used this phrase.
    People never think of themselves as evil at the time. The Nazis never thought of themselves as evil. They thought they were doing good just like a lot people in today's society. This is why I am always more afraid of the people defining the standards in society. Especially when those people defining the standards are violent or sympathetic to violence. The groups the popular media are telling me to be afraid of are not the groups defining the standards in today's world.

    1. Here are two very good essays on the topic:


    2. The articles you cite still miss the point. This article still imagines that the right and wrong of history was easy to discern at the time.

      100 years from now, people might look at the pro-choice movement with the same discuss we look at the KKK today. They may look at the millions of abortions and think how barbaric and stupid.

      Maybe the prevailing wisdom of today's civil rights or the environmental movements will be seen the same way we look at the witch trials of the past.

  6. "to the medieval mind, it was the money you spent and how you spent it that elevated your status" That's part of why I award exp for treasure spent instead of for treasure hauled out of a dungeon. In a more authentically medieval campaig it would be darned tricky to cover-up being a tombrobbing thief.

    1. Hence, taxes: https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.ca/2017/06/osr-death-taxes-and-death-taxes.html

      Why cover it up when you can go legit?

  7. I see you're well up on your Huizinga. The Waning of the Middle Ages pulls no punches about the impulsiveness and ostentation of the age.