No More Excuses: “It’s The Middle Ages, Yo!”

Azeroth, getting its Medieval on, complete with tons of metal and steam powered cogs that do nothing. ((WoW's TinkerTown, done up in rusty orange and gunmetal grey, complete with lots of pipes, trusses, and massive gears. Just what you'd expect from the Middle Ages!))

Recently Static Nonsense related their adventure with webcomic author Ryan Sohmer and an ableist comic he wrote for his well read LFG Comic. Static Nonsense submitted a polite letter to Mr. Sohmer and received the following reply from him:

Hey bud-

 

I do apreciate the feedback and can understand your feelings.

 

Still, I stand by my work. Not to make offense in any way, but that the world of LFG is set in it’s own one, not ours, where we constantly strive to be politically correct. This is the language they would use in the middle ages, and I try to keep it in that time frame.

 

I hope that made some sense.

One can already hear the furious scratching of pencils against bingo sheets, but today we’re focusing on one fallacy from this letter: the bit about the Middle Ages. Several of us who are veterans of many arguments about problematic nonsense in fantasy video games and other media are quite familiar with this line of reasoning. When I or friends of mine have pointed out Dragon Age’s whiteness as a problem, many of us were immediately met with cries of “but it’s supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” Let me explain why this is patently ridiculous using my usual flawless logic.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, using their logic.

I have heard this used about World of Warcraft’s setting of Azeroth more than once, and it was indeed this setting to which Sohmer was hearkening when he implored Static Nonsense to stop being so PC and accept that cheers like “Woo! Woo! Woo!” and Lord of the Rings references were commonplace in Earth’s European Middle Ages. Let’s also not forget that warlocks are real, and so are undead, and Elves, and Gnomes, and Trolls… what? Read a history book and open up to the Medieval bit! Arthas will be there, right between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror.

Snark aside, there’s nothing wrong with a good LotR reference or a little woo woo in a fantasy comic, or RPG, or novel, or what have you. But do not then insult my intelligence and defend something prejudiced with a veneer of “Uhh, Middle Ages!” If you made an excuse for a joke based on a modern movie, you can easily excise unnecessary bigoted nonsense.

This goes for any number of video games as well. Dragon Age’s Ferelden had absolutely no reason to be mostly white. At all. While the setting was inspired by Earth’s Medieval England, it wasn’t the same place. Dragon Age is not a game of historical re-enactment. It is a fantasy game. If we use the world of fantasy to liberate our creativity and add dragons, phantoms, goblins, sorcerers, and unicorns to our stories, what exactly is tying your hands in changing certain elements of social relations? Nothing except yourself.

World of Warcraft is an even bigger example of the fallacies inherent to this thinking. Leaving aside all other moral arguments, the simplest way to defeat an Azerothian Medieval-Baiter is to simply send them to Ironforge’s Tinker Town and ask them to explain. Check and mate. The simple reality is that these games are not based on Earth’s European Medieval period save in a highly loose way that is confined to some clothing styles, the use of castles, and certain Arthurian and Tolkienesque tropes. But these things do not a society make. To use fantasy as an excuse for dragons, but not use its power to envision different racial, gender, or sexual relations is highly questionable. That list is hardly an exhaustive one. The example that began this entire discussion was about clichés and stereotypes concerning people with disabilities and how they’re often relegated to being the butt of jokes and little else- something I as a trans woman empathise with quite easily. Nothing inherent to fantasy makes any of that necessary.

The highly selective application of “the Middle Ages” excuse is simply another exercise in the denial of one’s own responsibility. “My hands are tied, the setting is supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” This does not wash unless you’re doing a precise historical re-enactment, which no fantasy game, movie, or book has done. Why? Because they aren’t about the Middle Ages. They’re about their own settings and histories. When you create a fantasy world you are not bound to create a world with regressed social relations. If you assert that prejudice is required for verisimilitude in a fantasy world simply because it’s fantasy, that is a prejudiced statement. Period.

This is not to say that we can’t have fantasy worlds that have societal prejudice as cultural textures, obviously, but when good writers do this, they effect complex explorations of those prejudices. The authors may well have no problem giving you a good and detailed explanation for why certain prejudices exist in their world and why exploring their impact on the storyline they created is interesting, and what it can teach. They do not blubber about how their setting is like the Middle Ages.

I grew up loving and admiring fantasy, and a lot of my writing hitherto has explored how the conceptual possibilities opened up by fantasy have been profoundly liberating. It is insulting to me and plenty of other fantasy fans to tell us that some of our favoured settings are based on the Middle Ages and that’s why we have to accept problematic nonsense within them. Look, I’m a geek. I’ve got the D&D manuals to prove it, and I can quote and cite- page and paragraph- thousands of little ways that various fantasy settings are not Medieval. Come up with a better argument or be honest about the fact that you just like resorting to cheap jokes and stereotypes.

It’d save us all a lot of trouble.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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27 Responses to No More Excuses: “It’s The Middle Ages, Yo!”

  1. Nothing constructive to say; I just loved this article.

    • Kimadactyl says:

      Me too. Totally great.

      What do you think of the reverse – sci fi being used as the primary setting for sexuality/social norms not allowed in other places?

      • Rakaziel says:

        It surely happens a lot and it is a good thing that it is at least accepted there by now. I guess one of the reasons is that people, naturally, when they think about a better world they envision it as the future or an alternate history.

        Fantasy in general is more comparable to fairy tales, a world that is exiting to adventure in rather than a word you would realistically want to live in. Fantasy, from my experience, often has very little original world building outside of the parts needed for the exciting adventure or wondourous jounrey and even there most parts get recycled. Many fantasy writers may copy from the middle age without thinking much about it, simply because it already delivers a template, they know most of their audience does not care about the societies in the book and they know that having a middle age background, while it may not improve sales, will pose no risk to reduce them since the average fantasy reader will feel “at home” in the setting just by habit. A new world they need to think themselves into is something rather the scifi audiences seek. It is sad and it is wasted potential, but it is true, at least from my observation.
        A bit of romanticism may also be involved, idealizing the middle age is a trope of the romantic as a period of literature.

  2. Rakaziel says:

    Well written article with good arguments, I could not agree more.

    I guess most fantasy writers simply assume, and the sales might back it up, that the average fantasy reader cares more about the adventure and the wonders they will see on their journey than about the rest of the fantasy world. And they take the middle age as template because the readers will already feel “at home” in the setting by habit. Like most food contains vanillin nowadays. So it is risk free as far as the sales are concerned. Some writers are world architects but many simply cook up something spicy for a living and guess the reader will not care about the stale aftertaste.

    “It’s the middle ages” is better translated with “I wanted to take no risks and I took the lazy option and now I want to justify it so that it does not look cheap.”

    When people think about worlds they may actually want to live in and possible societies to explore, they rather look for science fiction and alternate history.

    • Laurentius says:

      Right, but do they really know anything about medieval society ( like it was something totally stable, everywhere the same etc. for thousand years, spare me…) except maybe: there were kings, knights and church, eh?

      • Rakaziel says:

        I doubt it. Guess most take their middle age templates from other fantasy books and games, maybe from the museum and maybe from historcal novels, which may or may not be well researched. A few may actually read studies and documentations but I guess they are a very small share of the writers.

  3. Laurentius says:

    Oh I agree though I mostly go from opposite direction. I studied history, I have dozens book about medieval Europe I’ve read even more of them. To use this fascinating history for an excuse for stupid web comic or decent but generally plain world of video game (DA) makes me want to go for a throat.

  4. Trodamus says:

    Sci-fi either lends itself to an optimistic view, where “norms” have been pushed and pulled, or cynical ones where humanity itself is a marginalized group. Either way, really. That’s not to say some ideas don’t sound a bit wonky; Joel Shepherd’s Cassandra Kresnov novels make mention of a lesbian woman going through a multi-year, artificially-induced “heterosexual cycle” which might have been more horrifying if it hadn’t been limited in explanation and never mentioned again since.

    Likewise, I’ve seen complaints about inclusive medieval nonsense, since it’s somehow hard to believe that humanity’s demographics would be so mixed, and gender relations seemingly miles beyond even what we have today; when you throw in a scientific understanding from where humanity’s different prejudices come from, these complains do gain some merit, but obviously it just isn’t the type of world the author felt like making, so why talk about what makes “sense?” Especially if it’s not serving some greater purpose in the story anyway.

    So I guess this just a different way of underlining that it is all authorial intent.

  5. Mirai says:

    Yeah it always bothers me that sexism, homophobia, abelism etc are all acceptable by the merit that it was that way a long time ago. Call me really out there here but I thought in fictional worlds you put things in you wanted to be in there?

    If your world is sexist there better be a reason other than “well it was that way in our world, so, I dunno.”

    • Kimiko says:

      Exactly. Fantasy stories are not written by medieval writers, nor are they written for a medieval audience. They’re written in this century by 21st century authors for a 21st century audience. Ableism/racism/sexism/etc. are inexcusable in these circumstances. Both you and your audience know better.

  6. PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

    Can I just say that I absolutely LOVE you for writing this? Like….SO SRS. *gives you 2 internets ftw* You put into words the very thoughts that have been running through my mind every time I see some jerk put up the excuse of why inclusivity should never be in video games.

    The recipe for the conversation is always the same:

    1. Someone asks why there’s no people of color/size diversity/sexual diversity/orientation diversity in video games.

    2. Insert random person(s) making fun of person #1 for even asking the question.

    3. Insert random person giving the tired excuse that said thing is based on Middle Age England, and so that’s why we always see white, cis, hetero, thin people as the standard.

    4. Insert another person saying how they don’t want PCness in their fantasy games.

    5. Insert a few people who agree with #1, only to be made fun of by 2, 3 and 4.

    6. Insert person who is part of one of the groups mentioned by #1 who says that they have no problem not being represented, so therefore anyone else who is a part of those groups mentioned by #1 and complains about being underrepresented are just uppity complainers who need to shut up and take it.

    7. Insert excuse about how the groups mentioned in #1 “don’t sell” because they aren’t the “targeted audience.”

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    And after all is said and done, we get generic white male # 1579987655 in the next installation of games we play.

  7. franzferdinand2 says:

    These kinds of things also bug me because I actually got a masters in Medieval History. What most gamers think of as “The Middle Ages” is mostly a Disneyland mashup of pop-culture along with a few greatest hits style things (a thing gamers generally kind of know: the Inquisition, a thing gamers don’t generally know: the Diet of Worms).

    I guess my perceptions are also colored because I specifically worked with the history of emotions, and the gendered aspects of Medieval life, but a lot of people don’t realize that life and gender roles then weren’t as static as we tend to think they were.

    • Niya says:

      It’s true. It’s not even “The Middle Ages”, it’s the romanticized version of that, in addition to the piles of other fantastical elements. =)

    • Julian Morrison says:

      I’d be curious to hear from a pro, can you elaborate on what you said about gender roles?

    • At least one fantasy novel I read made a reference to the Diet of Worms; although, it was Discworld which generally does put a bit more effort into learning the tropes. Also it was mostly making fun of the name.

      Also I am told castles and plate armor are both relatively late medieval developments, which are things fantasy seems to like using a lot.

      Would also like some elaboration on the gender roles thing. I am pretty certain things weren’t what they are now, especially regarding disabilites (because, guess what, utilitarianism and capitalism and all those things that favor a pretty narrow conception of ability are relatively recent developments) but I don’t know any of the specifics.

      • franzferdinand2 says:

        I’d like to point out that being an adjunct teaching online courses at a community college puts me far from being a pro.

        Specifically, a lot of the gender roles I looked at had to do with what are called emotional communities or emotional contexts. A lot of what was considered masculine at the time is substantially different, especially when compared to modern conflation of masculinity with reason. A good example is the fact that in the medieval period men were expected to be emotional (in the proper contexts). If someone close to you died, you were thought of as less of a man if you didn’t weep.

        There’s also a lot of research concerning a history of honor, and the way that it also applied to women. Long story short: women (at least in certain parts of Northern Italy), were able to have and defend their honor, although not often on their own behalf.

        A lot of my specific research dealt specifically with hagiographies, and when it came to issues of sanctity and holiness, female saints were written about pretty much identically to male saints.

        The other thing to remember in all of this is that all of this generally only refers to noblewomen, as very few sources deal with peasants of any gender.

        If you want to read more, I’d recommend Barbara Rosenwein (pretty much wrote the book on emotional history) or Joan W. Scott (one of the first to really push gendered history). They’re both good, although there’s a lot of theory in them.

        For historians who dealt with peasants and some gender (usually found out through evidence coming from trial records) there’s Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, and Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre.

        • Oh, yeah, the emotional stuff actually comes across in some fantasy. Like, Tolkien. Which makes it especially egregious when people use a “BUT MIDDLE AGES!” argument to defend their misogyny.

        • Laurentius says:

          I second Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou -fascinating book.

  8. Niya says:

    *nods* Well said.

    Gosh, this reminds me about the frustrations I have about Perfect World, Final Fantasy XI, and others… A male and female character can get married, and in PWI, a male character can carry a female character around, but a male cannot carry another male, a female cannot carry a female, and a female cannot carry a male. Why the heck not?

    Blah! As you say, if we can have magic, dragons and heroes that save the world, why do we all have to be straight gender stereotypical beings >_<

  9. Ohma says:

    Another interesting way in which the midevlol defense doesn’t add up is that non-white people were totally present in Europe. Now yeah, it was easier to never see anyone not from your village but we’re inevitably talking about Adventurers who ostensibly cover their world’s equivalent of Europe in their travels. If one were to do the same thing in the middle ages one would encounter a significantly more diverse range of people than you’d find in nearly any modern RPG. Even the decidedly anglocentric environs of Middle Earth were closer to being authentic than a bunch of Canadians with faux english accents.

  10. Toitle says:

    I don’t know who’s worse-the douchebag fantasy fans who believe that their personal fantasy of gender/sex/race/etc relations totally existed in the past and everything was perfect when we had them, or the douchebag sci-fi fans who declare that their ideal of gender/sex/race/etc will exist in the future and with their superior (straight, white, cis, etc) dudebrains they will bring about that future and everyone else will be their gleeful servants.

    Though I guess it’s not much of a contest, since when they’re not the exact same people, they might as well be.

  11. Jargo says:

    thx for this very interesting article. most of the time when i hear the “medieval” argument i hear it from persons how have no problems when the in their “medieval” world female fighters wear chain-mail bikinis.

    actually i would really like to play a game in a real medieval setting, with all its superstition, oppression and stagnation. it could have the same depressing effect like watching the TV show “Mad Men”, to see where western society comes from and what changed for good and what sadly didn’t changed at all.

  12. Charlie says:

    Love the article and just wanted to add… every once in a while a piece of fiction taking place IN England during the middle ages adds people of other races and no one bats an eye.

    Take the new Merlin series. Guenevere is BLACK for crying out loud and no one, not one single solitary person in that world is ever surprised by that. Because it’s made up and the author gets to decide that no one worries about Gwen’s race.

    Additionally people who use the “it’s based on Europe” argument always seem to think no one ever left their homeland for any reason during the dark ages. There was a ridiculous amount of trade and commerce and heck even war (Hello Azeem from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves).

  13. Nothing to add, just enjoyed the read.

  14. Heynonny says:

    So in LFG Ryan Sohmer uses language that’s not politically correct because it’s the middle ages, huh? I wonder what the argument would be for the disgustingly sexist stuff in his other webcomic, Least I Could Do?
    Here are a couple examples. They’re a few years old because I heard about these at the time and don’t actually read the comic.
    http://leasticoulddo.com/comic/20071003 – He tries to “have sex with” his girlfriend while she’s sleeping, and she barely even reacts negatively.
    http://leasticoulddo.com/comic/20071005 – He’s angry that she dared to say no.
    http://leasticoulddo.com/comic/20070904 – Prostitution is funny?

  15. mim says:

    I also hade to add, sometimes the medieval setting makes these prejudices *more* suspicious, not less. Just take Dragon age, where every larger human city has a port, and people of color are dominant in states that are important trade partners or often show up for diplomatic reasons such as Rivani and the Qunari (in the first game anyway). Why would they no be there? Similarily, the magic inherent in fantasy makes the cis and able dominance even more problematic – they should be able to change the body shape of someone who isn’t happy with theirs, and prosthetics shouldn’t be a problem, not to mention that most settings are places of war: crippling injuries should be everywhere.

    On another note, this reminds me of the debate that rose around Wade and Herren in DAO, which had the opposite problem – to account their stereotypical behaviour, the writers supported them with camp behaviour in real life, thus relying on a sub culture that wouldn’t be around until the 17th century. They really do set their prejudice over the implications of the settings

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