The stock fantasy world of role-playing is, we usually think, basically like medieval Europe. There are castles, swords, peasants; various set pieces. But what do these worlds of abundant cash, swords for hire, open-minded villagers, and "mage guilds" really have to do with the middle ages?
More often than not, what we really have is not the middle ages modified to be heroic and fantastic. Rather, we have the window dressings from the Disney Castle thrown over an otherwise modern world. In other words, two things are very wrong:
- The deeper structures of these worlds, in society, technology, learning, and so on, are very anachronistic.
- Even the window dressings are really borrowed from Hollywood pop medievalism.
Is this all so terrible? Can we not just enjoy a little silly swords and sorcery action? Sure, we can. But let's not do so in ignorance, imagining that this is historical. And let's also have the option of running a really historically-minded game. Let's know the difference, and consciously choose what we want.
I want to explore some of the most common and glaring "problems" with the standard fantasy genre's worlds, in terms of their deviations from history.
Big caveats must be born in mind. First, I suspect all my readers will know what I mean when I say "stock fantasy." There is a kind of world, promulgated especially by D&D but also many fantasy novels, with nods towards Tolkien. Certainly, there have been more and less historical fantasy settings, and not every error I identify has been ubiquitous. But I want to address what I often see gamers doing.
Second, as any historian will tell you, we must be very careful about generalizing about "the" middle ages. Any subject we might want to discuss depends on the year, the place, and the part of society. I'll try to say things that at least fairly broadly applicable, or explain real-world variation where it's important. Regardless, our knowledge of the Middle Ages is limited, and always based on fragmentary evidence.
Third, I'm but one person and not a professional medievalist. I have an undergraduate degree partly devoted to medieval studies, and have had continued personal interest. I think I can therefore claim more knowledge than the average person; even the average gamer. Where I'm wrong, or have overstated something, please inform me -- if you have evidence -- and I'll attempt to rectify the error.