There were no borders in the Middle Ages

That’s what Matthew Gabriele says, anyways, in this week’s Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewgabriele/2018/11/05/no-borders-middle-ages/#3dd90d0752e4). Really? I have a feeling that people definitely knew where their territory began and where it ended, and they defended those vociferously. That is true of most humans, including the Native Americans. People defended their lands against encroachment where necessary, but Gabriele is no doubt right that trade and immigration had far less barriers back then.

We’ve learned recently that the Middle Ages were more diverse than previously thought. Somehow, the typical vision of the medieval period used to be a lot of white folks who were mostly differentiated by their culture (British, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Spanish, etc.). But those areas were conquered long before by the Romans, whose empire was made up of many ethnicities. For example, Persian cataphracts and other troops were sent to man Hadrian’s Wall, which by the way, also seems pretty clearly intended to be a border.  

So what does all this mean for medieval role-playing? Well, first, most rpgs are pseudo-medieval. There are all sorts of ways they are NOT medieval, including magic that works, heroes who can fight a platoon by themselves, and all sorts of mythical beasts. Where they ARE medieval, or mostly medieval, is in their technological level (usually pre-gunpowder, because as we learned in Enter the Dragon, “any damn fool can pull a trigger”). Later period tournament armor shows up in many as the armor worn by fantasy knights roaming the treasure-laden caverns of the world, but dedicated rpgers and wargamers try to keep the technology correct, as much as the presence of magic will allow. And that means that the careers of the people can be copied from medieval censuses, which is a great help. Medieval architecture is used, though that doesn’t seem entirely likely given the change in context given magic, heroes, and monsters. 

But areas are defended largely at the city level, unless there is some great empire (i.e. Rome) that is constantly expanding. So player characters can cross most boundaries easily. It is when they try to get into a city that they meet their first barriers, the city guards. And once in the city, they discover the strange and quirky laws that each city creates over time. Those provide lots of ways for travelers to run afoul of the law, even if they are trying to avoid criminal behavior (unlikely in gamers, but it is known to happen). So I guess that’s our takeaway from Gabriele’s article.

About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
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2 Responses to There were no borders in the Middle Ages

  1. Yep, traveller tax is a great way to prevent undesirables from entering your nice “clean” city. Which is why all those shanty towns are on the outer walls so that’s where you find the best food and alcohol, the dodgiest of arcane and illicit goods, oh and the most thievery.

    • lostdelights says:

      Exactly. Mages also find that cities are reluctant to let their bound demons and faeries in, so there is often an inn dedicated to mages (and their servants) outside of the city. In smaller towns, the mage is often stuck camping outside town. And since villagers often fear mages for their dealings with demons, it can be risky to be separated from the warriors.

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