The Byte-Sized Middle Ages

I came across a fascinating paper by Courtney Booker (first published in 2004) which describes how modern minds have a somewhat distorted view of the Middle Ages. Rather than internalizing the pervasive religiosity which defined the Medieval era, we seem to have a view of the time as being driven by a sort of secular chivalry.

What makes it particularly apropos for my purposes is that it traces the responsibility for this popular attitude regarding the Middle Ages through Tolkien, then to Gygax and Arneson’s D&D (citing heavily from Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds), early computer games such as “Adventure”, and finally through Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings (which were quite current at the time the paper was originally published). Ms. Booker takes the de rigueur side-trips through James Dallas Egbert III, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s (even citing my favorite radio evangelist and over-the-phone exorcist, Bob Larson), and B.A.D.D. Her final conclusion is that:

…the popular conception of the Middle Ages is now largely Tolkienesque, it is a conception that will be increasingly based on Jackson’s high-definition “CGI” of Tolkien’s novel, with all the baggage—the history, possibilities, and constraints—that CGI brings with it.

It’s a fascinating thesis, albeit one that will quickly become dated when the next big pseudo-Medieval fantasy epic hits the big screen to replace Jackson’s films in the collective imagination, but it’s a great read, if you’re used to the academic style.

Thanks to for pointing this out! (Currently gracing my blog roll, to the left.)

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

12 thoughts on “The Byte-Sized Middle Ages

  1. Are there any "big pseudo-Medieval fantasy epic" in the works (besides the Hobbit)? For all the success of Lord of the Rings, you'd expect some studio to try and cash in on it.

    I guess there was the newer Conan movie, but we saw how that did.

  2. Well, "Snow White and the Huntsman" just opened, and that might qualify (although I don't think it counts as being as epic as LotR).

    But no, other than the two Hobbit movies, no real big fantasy films on the horizon that I can think of.

  3. Actually, I'd go slightly further and add that not only is our understanding just Tolkeinien, but it's also a mash of Victorian ideas and just flat out invented beliefs that we learned as children out of history books that resemble reality only slightly.

    I'd also say that the religiosity of the time period is somewhat overblown as, for the most part, the average Joe on the street was probably about as religious as the average Joe today. Did religion play a larger role? Yes, but I don't think it bordered on theocracy as I've so often heard claimed. By idiots, but claimed nonetheless.

  4. Yeah, I was just about to mention I've been reading Game of Thrones (due to the popularity of the television show), and can vouch that religion seems to be a minor afterthought it what would otherwise seem to be a "medieval style" epic.

  5. This is smart; good to understand where the assumptions of your entertainment come from. But all I can conclude is playing a game set in a real medieval world would go something like this:

    HOD: Ay Nodkin, seest thou thaet howle in thae ground?
    NODKIN: Aye, shaul we not gow in, for thear we mayhap finde treasoor?
    HOD: Nay, for all such howles are of the Defyl.
    NODKIN: Thou art ryght; let us pray naw.

  6. @Roger: I dunno about that, Hârn can be pretty damn entertaining. Ever read any of the Brother Cadfael books? There's stuff to be done in a real historical setting.

  7. If you're interested in how we perceive the Middle Ages you should check out the book Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages. Despite the title, the book really isn't an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages. It explores how the Middle Ages are depicted in modern pop culture, the heterogeneity of the period, and how various influences affect our perceptions of the period. The first three chapters are good at getting the reader to think about what the concept of the words medieval and Middle Ages really mean.

    Link for book at Amazon:

  8. Is it right to ignore "Black Death" starring Sean Bean? There was a lot of medieval relgious perspectives in that movie. It wasn't a happy-go-lucky movie but it was pretty well done.

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