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For a Higher Cause


Clio is a very religious lady. She's gone off it a bit these past few years, but for the most part she's very devout. She was after all brought up that way. For as long as she can remember there's been a priest, a rabbi, an imam or some other holy man in every village she's been too. She can't quite understand how we get by without them these days.

"Who teaches people if there are no priests? Who baptises, marries and buries folk? Who looks after the poor and the ill?"

On days like this it can take quite some time to remind Clio about the benefits of secular social services. As far as she's concerned care for the poor, the sick and so forth is a religious duty. Most of her friends agree with her. For many of them the local bishop was the most powerful person in their world. The king was a far off, insubstantial figure. The bishop was a real, concrete presence who provided services both religious and tangible. Incurring his displeasure could bring immediate punishment.

In the Muslim world this was carried even further. The Qu'ran makes no distinction between church and state. Secular duties and religious ones were not distinguished. It was the duty of the authorities to see that 10% of all income went to charity but they performed this not as a religious duty, but because it was their job, as much a part of supervising their cities as it was to maintain the water supply.

Until recently the Church also provided one of the most reliable communications channels available. Royal servants, bureaucrats and officers came and went with each passing monarch or administrative fad. The church on the other hand was a monolithic institution. Every parish has a priest, every parish is part of a diocese overseen by a bishop. Above them are archbishops, responsible for entire countries. Above archbishops stand only the cardinals and finally the Pope, the spiritual ruler of Western Europe. The church also had a virtual monopoly on learning to read and write that lasted until around the 16th century. Other faiths carried with them similar power structures and their influence was similarly broad.

The church, the most permanent of institutions was locked in a perpetual relationship with the other great institution of the historical world, monarchy. The influence of religion on Kings has always been important. The ancient Greeks sought divine aid from the Oracle at Delphi, placing great political power in the hands of the priesthood. After the fall of Rome it came to be accepted that only the ceremony of annointment by a priest (or usually Archbishop) actually marked the coronation of a king.

Later on Kings claimed to be divinely appointed and in some senses above the decrees of mere priests. Pope Gregory the Great took and opposite line - the kings of the earth should be subject to the Pope. His ideas bore no fruit in his lifetime, but in later years his call for knights to turn their swords to the service of Christ provided potent rhetoric for the crusades.

Religious institutions made their power felt in more subtle ways than monarchs. They had huge influence over the minds of every day people. A king who was denounced from the pulpit was sure to be concerned - one who was excommunicated was staring at a political crisis. There were plenty of practical reasons for this - if you'd been excommunicated none of your subjects were obliged to serve you any more, any loans you had made were not going to be repaid and any rival claimants to your throne would be actively courting the support of the church for their coming campaign.

In 1066 William of Normandy made the most of his political influence to have the entirety of England excommunicated for refusing to acknowledge his claim to the throne. The Saxons mostly ignored this, but in Europe the Papal Bull provided adequate political cover for his blatant opportunism.

So what does all this mean to your players?

Well, if your game is set in a land where most people are religious then religion will be everpresent. Throughout history the church has regulated much of what we take to be government tasks. It set holidays, it upheld public morality, it levied its own taxes and provided 'social services'. In some cases it even provided a judicial process. Medieval Priests were only tried for crimes under Church law, and some offences committed by the laity - such as adultery - were likewise punishable by the church.

The Church is also a political power. If the players are in dispute with a local noble it pays them to know what the Church thinks of the issue. Perhaps a suitably large donation would be enough to have the church solve the problems on their behalf - or maybe they're on the verge of excommunication for daring to oppose one of the Church's allies.

In a religious society the church is present in every aspect of life. Don't let your players forget it.

Clio is complaining at me

"Religion isn't just about institutions you know. There's room for a few individuals in there as well. We'd have never given it all that time if it hadn't meant something to us."

And she's right. The reason religion counted for so much was because it mattered at the individual level. Everyone from kings to paupers believed. Not that they all behaved. All the evidence we have suggests that people are no worse behaved today than they were in the past. Its just that when people felt guilty they turned to the church, not Cosmopolitan.

The medieval Christian believed that everything he did was sinful - he was tainted by original sin. Only the sacrament of confession would save him from hell. Thus he confessed all his sins to the priests - in theory. In practice he would often hold things back, revealing them only on his death bed, or not at all. Alternatively a life changing experience, the threat of ruin, illness or family hardship might drive him to confess and repent. Men's' religious fervour waxed and waned over their lives, but it rarely died completely.

It could change though. Clio tells a good story about a group of Spanish monks. They lived in the Kingdom of Granada, under Muslim rule, but were permitted to continue as monks. When the Muslims were driven out by the Christian King Ferdinand they promptly converted to Islam and moved to North Africa - in order to keep their harem. Such converts were presumably not highly thought of in their new society, but they serve as an example that men from the past could have a mercenary attitude toward their faith. Neither could they abandon the notion of faith completely. Atheism may have been the most convenient option for the monks but to live without God (or any god) was unthinkable.

Varying ideas of religion make for interesting inter party dialogue. Make the players aware of the options open to them and see what they pick. Many medieval knights paid only lip service to God until their old age, when in order to make up for their sinful lives they entered monasteries and dedicated themselves to God.

Imagine such a man spending time with a peasant who saw the hand of God behind everything and felt that his every action was something to be ashamed of and judged for. Throw into the mix a priest of dubious virtue and you have an interesting group. Whatever the peasant thinks of the priest's behaviour he is still a priest, and as such has a direct connection to the God he so fears. The knight on the other hand might denouncethe priest for his behaviour. Who will the peasant side with?

Things like this add a depth to inter-party relationships that its hard to find in other ways.

So far this column has been fairly open ended. Next month I'll deal with a specific period and a specific task. How would I go about running a campaign during the medieval crusades? The environment certainly has a lot going for it, the clash of cultures, romance, adventure and more than a little religion.

Recommended Reading

Due to the space available this column has barely scratched the surface. Paganismm, the reformation, schisms and anti-popes will have to be dealt with elsewhere. The following books might help though....

  • Montaillou - Le Roy Laudrie (See how the Cathar Heresy influenced life in 16th century France and what the inquisition made of it. A fascinating book.)
  • The Cheese and the Worms - Carlo Ginzberg (An in depth investigation into the mind of a 'typical' renaissance man. Once again the Inquisition provide the evidence)

Martin Lloyd

Author's Note: It should be noted that this article is in no way an attack on any religious views or an attempt to put forward any religious viewpoint. It is a survey of what people believed and how religious organisations behaved.

What do you think?

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