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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 1 - Holy Rollers

by Aeon
May 23, 2001  

Fantasy role-playing games have come a long way in the past three decades, but of the few things that have remained relatively unchanged through all that time, the cleric is perhaps the most predominant.

My own first encounter with the priestly class came by way of the red boxed Basic Dungeons & Dragons set in the early 1980s, which featured an introductory solo adventure in which you got to play a cleric. The word "cleric" was new to me, but I had heard the word "clergy" before, and I was thus able to surmise the meaning of the word "cleric." I guessed it had something to do with religion, but what I got was a pseudo-fighter in chain mail armor, wielding a mace and turning undead as she cast curative spells and doled out blunt trauma damage all around. What on earth did this have to do with religion?


By definition, a cleric is a person who has been received into the ranks of a religious hierarchy, a group of individuals who, "by divine right," are members of an order that is distinct from the laity. Which is to say, simply, that clerics tend to non-clerics, because non-clerics can't tend to each other. This may have something to do with the origin of the word itself; "cleric" comes from the Latin "clerus", which in turn comes from the Greek "kleros", which means "lot." Not "lot" as in quantity, but "lot" as in "one's lot in life." In short, the cleric is given a different lot in life than the people around him. He is not ordinary; he is a cleric.

This separation is quite clear in the case of the medieval Christian priest, from whence we get much of what goes into our role-playing cleric's framework. The priest held a very special place in the Church, being the only one who could administer sacraments. His position made him exempt from many laws (he was subject to a "higher law"), and he was generally perceived as having a higher status than those around him, being one of the "oratores" (those who pray, as opposed to "laborares," those who work, or "bellatores," those who fight). Of the three categories, the priest held the highest status, because he was closest to God.

In the Christian sense, a "cleric" can mean any member of the clergy: not only a priest, but also a monk, nun, brother, and so on and so forth. In addition, members of military religious orders (such as the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights) were also considered clerics (although RPGs usually have the "holy knight" category locked up with the paladin, so we won't discuss them here).

For all "real life" clerics, a number of obligations and limitations applied, some of which have carried through into the role-playing cleric: they must wear appropriate clothing and costume; they have limitations on how much money they can earn, save and spend; they have restrictions on their behavior, including areas such as sex, gambling, drinking, carrying weapons, etc.; and they must obey their superiors within the clergy. The penalty for breaking these, or other, restrictions is also similar to that of the role-playing game cleric--the loss of clerical privileges.

Somehow, despite the fact that religion plays such a large role in everyday life, the concept of the "cleric" is still not very widely known outside of role-playing circles. Modern society's religious people are known as priests and rabbis, pastors and fathers, with the occasional friar or monk thrown in for good measure. You can go months, even years, before seeing the word "cleric" in print, or hearing it spoken aloud. In fact, I'd venture a guess that the most common use of the word is found in RPGs, a true bit of irony if ever there was one considering that it is often members of the clergy (the real clerics) who are the loudest critics of role-playing games.

From the early '70s to today, the cleric has been more or less omnipresent in the role-playing realm. Just about every FRPG nowadays has a "cleric" or "priest" class, and you can't play Everquest without running into a hundred or so half-naked female elven clerics, chosen mostly for their clothing (or lack thereof), but also because of the particular mix of powers they possess.

And yet despite their overwhelming presence, there's an utter lack of history surrounding the concept of the cleric. Your wizards come from legendary characters like Merlin, and your paladins from knights like Percival and Galahad, and your rogues and rangers from scoundrels like Robin Hood. But from whence come the clerics?

The RPG Cleric

To truly understand what clerics were, it will be helpful to take a look at what they are today:

1. The cleric is medic. Healer. Life-giver. Doctor and medicine man, EMT and surgeon rolled into one. Good clerics, at least. Evil clerics seem to get short shrift, their healing powers stripped, replaced with the power to cause harm and disease. No wonder the forces of evil are always getting decimated when confronting the armies of good--their clerics can't even use band-aids.

2. The cleric is undead chaser. Vampire slayer, holy guardian against the foul beasts returning from the grave. Skeletons, zombies and ghouls quake in their tracks when the cleric comes romping along, holy symbol held high. Of course, evil clerics have more necromantic powers, being able to entice the undead to do their bidding, or to bring them back from the dead in the first place. Which sort of makes up for that whole "no healing" thing, but not quite. Everyone knows that skeletons are just cannon fodder.

3. The cleric is a compromise. Half fighter, half wizard; the first true multi-class character. Want to cast spells AND wear armor? Want to be able to inflict damage and heal it as well? Then the priest is your best bet. Why wouldn't you want to play a cleric? They get all the best stuff. The support of their deity, divine magic, weapons and armor, and to top it all off they get to stay at the back of the party, out of combat, since nobody wants their medic getting killed. After all: no cleric, no healing spells.

It's quite easy to see how these three facts fit into role-playing games. If there's combat, you'll need healing. If there are undead (and there always are), you'll need an undead slayer. And if there are big, burly "tanks" up front wearing heavy armor, and unarmored spell-casters cowering in the rear flanks, there will always be a need for a happy medium. A medium that's becoming far less rare as time goes on, and the power of the cleric grows and grows as RPGs march onwards into the future.

But enough of the future; what of the past, and the historical cleric? Did clerics ever really wander around the countryside with warriors and wizards, spreading the faith, doing good deeds, healing the dying and destroying the undead? Let's take a peek.

Life and Death

First there's the most obvious target--the whole "turning undead" thing. Obviously, nowhere in history do we find priests wandering around in dank catacombs, driving the legions of the undead before them; this is a role-playing invention borrowed from Gothic literature like "Dracula." But even a cursory glance at the history of the real cleric makes it clear that even this facet of our priestly gem is not without a historical foundation.

Clerics have always been a conduit of sorts to the life beyond our present life, a connection to something divine. By being in touch with the afterlife, therefore, the cleric has always been associated with death as well. Clerics modern and ancient participated in rituals associated with both birth and death, the creation of new life and its end. From Baptism to Last Rites, from human sacrifice to appease the gods, to rain dances designed to bring new life to the earth, the cleric's grasp on life and death is quite firm.

Little wonder, then, that the cleric is oft considered to be the one to turn to when the lines between life and death turn grey with ash, and fears of the dead walking the earth come back to haunt us. Fears which are almost wholly to be blamed on peasant superstitions from the Middle Ages. To be certain, the ancient Greeks had Hades, where spirits roamed aimlessly or were punished for their sins, long before Christian clerics preached about the Apocalypse while the Black Plague boiled across Europe. But the undead were most prevalent in Eastern Europe, where legends of vampires arose partly due to plague deaths, and partly due to the infamous Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracul, or Dracula).

From the start, vampires could be warded off via various apotropaics, in the guise of charms, herbs, talismans and symbols. Even the ancient Romans and Druids believed that the spirits of the dead could return to walk the land, and only elaborate costumes, lighted bonfires and religious celebration could keep them at bay. But since the most well-known and prevalent symbol of the time belonged to the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches (in that area of the world), it's little wonder that the holy symbol (and, specifically, the crucifix), and those who wore it, were given the power to keep the undead at bay. It wasn't long before the vampire was turned into an agent of Satan, lending even more credence to the belief that religious symbols could drive the undead creatures away.

Of course, the cleric's association with death, and thus undeath, also suggests an association with life, and healing. After all, a cleric who can do nothing but administer Last Rites will soon run out of followers, since they'll all be dying from their wounds. It makes sense for the cleric to also have the power to heal and, when healing fails, to resurrect. But while legends of miraculous healing powers have hovered around real life clerics throughout history (especially those now classified as "saints"), the role-playing game cleric's association with healing actually has very little basis in fact.

There were certainly clerics who understood and practiced medicine to some degree, particularly very early on in the "Dark Ages." But those monks who were associated with the healing arts were prohibited from practicing medicine in 1130 C.E., due mostly in part to a restriction on any member of the clergy shedding blood. Need to stitch up a wound? Apply a leech? Sorry, but that involved surgery, which involved blood, and that was a no-no. Thus, any "medic" who engaged in surgical or healing practices involving the shedding of blood could not be a proper cleric.

The world at that time was filled with all sorts of healers: doctors, surgeons, physicians, apothecaries, phlebotomists, leeches, barbers... each word meant something different, implied a different range of knowledge of the healing arts. Many were educated people, though some picked up their healing knowledge from relatives or friends. But what they all had in common was a lack of organization. There was no official Medical school, no red cross to be worn. Medicine was played loose and fast, catch-as-catch-can. And it was closely intertwined with philosophy, magic (aka "science") and morality, both among the early monks and the later lay persons who practiced it. In short, most medics of the time (and particularly the monastic ones) were often more concerned with the moral causes of illness and disease than the actual physiological reasons. Needless to say, this made them all pretty poor excuses for healers.

It also made for an interesting situation, in which any case of true healing was considered a miracle of sorts. In Bede's History of the English Church, we hear a story of John of Hextam, a bishop who discovered a young mute boy with scabs about his head and face. By taking the time to teach the boy to read and speak (restoring his speech, which was never really lost), and calling a local physician to clear up his complexion, John performed a "miraculous cure." With stories like these, it's little wonder that some medieval clerics would become associated with divine cures and healing powers. But in actual truth, not only did clerics not possess miraculous curative capabilities, but their lack of medical knowledge and inability to practice any sort of true medicine made them, overall, pretty poor healers of physical ailments.

The Militant Cleric

But if our medieval cleric couldn't truly heal, could he at least do harm? What of the cleric and his weapons? Depending on which flavor of RPG you favor, your priest of choice may have a wide array of weapons to choose from. But the most popular (mis)conception of the cleric has her restricted to wielding only mace, flail, sling stone and quarterstaff. The reason? A cleric was not allowed to carry a sword into battle, but could carry a mace and other blunt weapons.


The main argument in support of the mace being a cleric's main weapon is that the weapon doesn't draw blood, and canonical laws forbade the drawing of blood. But anyone who studies a mace or a flail for longer than five seconds will realize that these weapons draw quite a bit of blood. The mace, for instance, was used to crush skulls through armor, and was usually fitted with nasty spikes and flanges designed to cause even more damage. Certainly not a clean, bloodless way to kill. And don't get me started on the flail and morning star; big spiky balls aren't going to draw blood? Right. Pull the other one (check out this image and tell me they won't make you bleed).

Yes, it is true that there were some bishops and clerics who wandered into battle with maces. But then, so did the mounted knights, armored footsoldiers and agile archers around them; the mace was never the exclusive weapon of the cleric. Neither was the mace an invention of the Middle Ages, as some are wont to believe; in truth, the mace has been around from the fourth millennium BCE through the Middle Ages, a period of some 5,000 years. Well before canonical law, and well before the concept of the cleric, people were bashing each other with maces of bronze and stone.

This is to say nothing of the fact that clerics were technically forbidden to carry arms of any sort. Not only was "turning the other cheek" the official policy, but it was written into ecclesiastical law. Depending on who you asked, clerics could be allowed to wear armor and carry shields, and technically if they were given the OK by the pope they could carry weapons and defend themselves with deadly force. But in practice, you didn't typically get clerics marching into battle with maces and shields, bashing in the skulls of non-believers.

But why, then, has the mace been so closely tied to the cleric? Perhaps because the mace, even in medieval times, was considered more than a weapon. As early as the 13th Century, the mace became quite ceremonial, with the king's bodyguard carrying one symbolic reasons. As time went on, the "mace-as-symbol" became more common, even appearing in religious processions (albeit in different forms, a la the infamous "holy water sprinkler" that has appeared in some RPGs). Today, it can be found everywhere from universities to the U.S. Congress. The real answer, then, has less to do with blood and more to do with symbolism. And a cleric is nothing without symbols. Particularly when one is, for example, leading a crusade.

It would be sheer folly to attempt to cover the entirety of the Crusades here, but it will certainly serve our purposes to focus on the cleric who can probably be credited with kicking the whole thing off--Peter the Hermit. Blessed with charisma to spare (but apparently not a great deal of wisdom), Peter rallied a ramshackle army of some 15,000 untrained and unruly peasants and decided, along with a knight known as Walter the Penniless, to forge ahead of the main army that was being gathered in preparation for the "First Crusade." Some of them were in it for land, some for wealth, and some of the monks and priests among their crew were mainly interested in the valuable religious relics to be found in the holy land. Greed, not holy responsibility, was the driving force here.

Perhaps that, then, is why it was a travesty from the start. Peter's "Peasants' Crusade" rolled through eastern Europe, demanding food and shelter from those living there; a great many of them were actually killed by their fellow Christians for just that reason. By the time they arrived in Asia Minor, they were in utter disarray. Rumors told of pillaging and looting, of infanticide and torture and cannibalism. Only one truth will ever be known: Peter's group was massacred by the Turks shortly after their arrival in enemy territory.

The moral of the story? Not only are clerics not necessarily good fighters, but they're not necessarily the most moral warriors either.

The Crusades, and the legends surrounding them, bring us many glimpses of clerics, but perhaps the most well-known of them all is Friar Tuck, cohort of Robin Hood and his Merry Men (associated with the Crusades in a peripheral manner because Richard The Lionheart went off crusading and left the evil King John in charge of England, and Nottingham). You know Friar Tuck, of course. Fat, balding and merry, wielding a quarterstaff and bashing soldiers on the head as he preached about the glory of heaven and beer. Now there was a cleric. Too bad he was a work of fiction, right?

Well, not quite.

Friar Tuck appears in Robin Hood stories as early as 1475, but it's clear that he's a made-up character there because the stories were set in the era of Richard I, and there were no friars in England at that time. This is to say nothing of the ridiculousness of Friar Tuck's actions. Real friars, whether Dominican or Franciscan, lived under a vow of extreme poverty and owned nothing at all, not even the simple brown or grey robe they wore on their backs. Forced to beg for their food, they rejected wealth as empty and violence as abhorrent. Even St. Francis himself, who was trained in combat and served in an army for a time, rejected everything when he became a cleric. Friar Tuck, if he was indeed a true Friar, would certainly not have done the things the stories say he did.

But moving backwards in time, we get a little closer to the truth; the first appearance of Friar Tuck is apparently in an official royal document from 1417 demanding the arrest of an outlaw known as "Frere Tuk" who was wanted for robbery, murder, poaching and general mayhem. The name itself was just a cover, of course; "Friar Tuck," along with Maid Marian, were mere characters in the May Games prevalent in the time (archetypes of archetypes, in a sense). The real Friar Tuck, it turns out, was probably a man named Robert Stafford... chaplain of Lindfield, Sussex. A real cleric pretending to be a false cleric. Sometimes truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Mightier Than The Sword

So clerics didn't really turn undead. They didn't really heal, and they didn't really carry weapons or armor. In all, that makes them pretty poor excuses for adventuring sorts. What then, did they do? What were they good at, and what good were they?

The most obvious answer to that question is one of religion, but leaving it at that is a cop out. Clerics provided much more than preaching; they were, as alluded to earlier, a conduit, a way of reaching a divine realm that most people felt far removed from. In that sense, the cleric provided a community with a moral and, in many cases, an organizational center, something to rally around and support. Villages were built around churches and temples, the place of worship also becoming a meeting place when the community needed to come together. Religion, and the cleric, became the glue that held communities together, helping them survive the darkest days of their lives. In Viking culture, the priests called Godar were also powerful chieftains, serving the Norse gods as they, in turn, were served by their people. Clerics were not just part of their community; they were what held it together. In short, they made great leaders.

Clerics also gave their societies something that we all take for granted--time. Take a careful study of astronomical and astrological matters, the rising and setting of the sun, and you've got yourself a system of time measurement. Throw in a carefully structured system of religious festivals, days of worship and numerous feasts, and you've got yourself a calendar. People no longer live from day to day, from sunrise to sunrise. Now they've got things to look forward to. Sunday, day of worship. Wednesday, Uncle Joe's birthday. And so on. And the medieval Christian cleric was certainly not alone in this regard; from ancient Greece to the druids, it was typically those looking towards heaven who noticed the stars in between, and took careful note of them. Even Julius Caesar himself praised the druids for their "knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy."

The knowledge extended further than astrological matters, however. Because they are absorbed in study of religious matters, clerics from all cultures are typically the most educated people in their respective regions. And knowledge is nothing if not power. The druids, for example, were not only clerics, but scientists, physicians, mathematicians, musicians, poets, legislators, judges, and teachers. The Christian clerics who dominated the medieval era after them were also well-respected for their knowledge, which they were more than willing to pass on to others. The Dominicans, in particular, were renowned as teachers as well as preachers, and were for a long time regarded as the predominant intellectual group of their time.

The ability to write and record history is another of the cleric's many overlooked abilities. Literacy rates were generally much higher in the clergy than in the general population, giving clerics of all sorts (and especially monks) the ability to record history as they saw it, keeping it safe for all time.

Glen Cook's "Black Company" novel offers a fine example of a cleric named Croaker (called, at one point, "esteemed master of the arts cleric and medical") who, aside from fighting and tending to wounds, also acts as the Company's scribe and historian. The truth wasn't so far from this fiction; if it wasn't for Christian monks, we probably wouldn't know anything at all about the druids, or even about vampires; it was the former who recorded much of the mythology of the latter two. Without a British cleric named Gildas, we wouldn't have a history of the fall and conquest of Britain. And without Geoffrey of Monmouth, we probably wouldn't know a darn thing about that guy named King Arthur, or his noble knights of the Round Table, or his wizard advisor named Merlin.

Of course, not everything clerics wrote down was necessarily true; some of it was certainly written for entertainment value, which is the final facet of the cleric that's oft swallowed up by other archetypes. Clerics weren't all about doom and gloom; they brought a glimmer of hope and happiness into the lives of their laity. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, more than one cleric exchanges stories with his fellow travelers to lighten the mood. The real Franciscan monks were often considered artists, troubadors and poets, spreading the word of God through simplicity and song. And obviously, almost every cleric is prepared to lead his congregation in song; who needs a bard to lift your spirits when you've got a hotline to the heavens on your side?

You Get Me Closer To God

The historical clerics, then, were not heavily armored, mace-wielding, undead-turning, magical healing warriors with holy symbols stamped on their shields. They were, at their best, devout worshipers who spread the word about their faith, tried to convert nonbelievers, and tended to the spiritual, physical and intellectual needs of their fellows. At their worst, they were either half-crazed warmongers out for blood, or selfish thieves out for themselves. Some traveled the countryside on pilgrimages or missions, others stayed within their communities and helped keep order, and still others locked themselves in dank caves and copied scrolls for years and years and years. In short, clerics represented the entire gamut of human personality. Lawful and chaotic, good and evil, most of them worshiping different versions of the same god.

Although they may not have turned out to be quite what history shows us they really were, clerics are obviously an essential part of fantasy role-playing games because fantasy inevitably involves religion, and religion involves gods, and touching gods is pretty scary stuff. Clerics act like holy 10-foot poles: they let you poke at the divine from a distance without getting burned by the light. At the same time, they keep you close to a safe, structured center while the world spins into anarchy around you. Come plague, come invasion, come hell or high water, the cleric's going to be the one keeping everyone calm while the non-believers are screaming outside the gates as the flood waters rise.

In all cases, for better or worse, clerics provided those around them with a reason to act in specific (and hopefully moral) ways, and, at times, a reason to wander down to the next country over and crack some skulls. They offered purpose, they brought unity, they encouraged dignity and respect, and they inspired millions to lay down their lives for a belief. They may not have raised a hand in anger, but they didn't need to, because they had armies to do it for them. And in the end, that's exponentially more powerful than wandering around in a dungeon, cracking skulls and stitching up wounds.

For more information on some real historical clerics, try searching for the following names in your favorite search engine:

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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