Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric

AOdo_bayeux_tapestry_detailh, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.

I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’

The ‘using blunt weapons to avoid shedding blood’ issue is one of the big non-myths of D&D: everyone knows it’s rubbish, to the point that debunking it is like an annoying QI fan telling everyone, ‘you know, we don’t really use only 10% of our brain…’

Still, I couldn’t write an article about the D&D Cleric without mentioning it… so here we are: Some-Things-That-D&D-Got-Right-And-One-Thing-They-Got-Sort-Of-Right-But-Not-In-The-Way-They-Intended.

‘Blunt’ Weapons

That clerics have gone to war is beyond debate: the Bayeux Tapestry portrays Odo, brother of William the Conqueror, commanding troops and

laying about him with a club. The Song of Roland casts Turpin as facing the advancing armies of Saracens in a very much armed capacity. Likewise, the Bishop-Prince of Dorpat, Hermann, fought the Eastern Orthodox forces on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, in what is now Estonia. Again, this Bishop was certainly a warrior and led his troops into battle.

Likewise, there was a resolution of the Fourth Lateran Council from 1215 that forbade priests from shedding blood… but it is much more concerned with preventing them from presiding over trials by ordeal, practicing surgery, or ordering certain kinds of execution than dictating what weapons they can use.

The critical issue between the mace-wielding Cleric of D&D and the sword wielding warrior priest of the Middle Ages lies in the way that D&D separates its holy warriors: orders of Christian knights such as the Hospitalers, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights (Hermann of Dorpat led a group known as The Livonian Brothers of the Sword) would, in D&D, be firmly classed as Paladins, whereas in real life they were considered members of a monastic order.

This is important because it means that the sorts of characters the party Cleric would be based upon in Medieval society would be the gentry — educated, landed commoners — and therefore not the sorts of medieval citizens likely to own a sword. Swords were the Ferraris of the Medieval weapon scene: owning them (except during one of the periods when metal prices plummeted) would have been prohibitively expensive, and under some versions of the Common Law it would have been illegal unless you were a wealthy, landed commoner (which a Cleric technically wouldn’t be, regardless of the wealth of their job or monastery — the legal fiction of poverty was a hot topic in Medieval Europe).

These ‘poor’ clergy would still need a weapon that could deal with assailants in heavy armour — thereby requiring the use of a mace. As armour became progressively heavier through the Middle Ages many warriors who either could not afford a sword, or weren’t entitled to carry one, turned to the mace in order to protect themselves.

So, in short, yes: warrior priests in the Middle Ages would have carried maces into battle, but it was because they were middle class rather than because they were forbidden to spill blood.

Healing Miracles Amongst the Saints
There are myths aplenty of priests and Saints healing the fortunate. In one story at the shrine of St. Sebastiano_Ricci_-_St_Anthony_of_Padua_Healing_a_Youth_-_WGA19414Cyprian and St. John, priests healed a pilgrim who had cut his own throat – exactly the kind of traumatic wound that D&D parties would need healing several times a day. Likewise, when a man named Massus broke his arm in Spain of 1304 doctors failed miserably to set the bone, leaving him paralysed until a friendly clergyman invoked St. Rainier of Arezzo – at which point the bone popped and cracked back shape.

Of course, the medieval healer-cleric would have material components, and a D&D Cleric should probably have medical training. Monastic chroniclers and those at shrines very often use contemporary medical terms for their supplicants’ illnesses: a boy in 12th century Angers’s illness was recorded under the correct medical term of anguina, and a Scottish supplicant from the life of St. Cuthbert’s huge groinal carbuncle was recorded as a bonum malagnum before the saint healed it. This arsenal of magical healing would often come from either being at an appropriate healing shrine, or a collection of relics that could be used to draw down the power of healing saints.

There were mostly two kinds of relics: body parts and contact relics. Body parts were the most powerful. The head of John the Baptist was said to have exhibited a battery of spiritual powers after being found in a cave by two monks. Likewise, the Anglo-Saxon monk Oderic Vitalis (about whom we’re going to have a whole blog post at some point) describes when the body of St. Nicholas was moved to the Italian town of Bari in 1087, and one of the men involved kept one of the Saint’s ribs up his sleeve, taking it to a shrine near Bayeux where he was a monk. All parts of the fallen saint were said to have continued producing healing miracles, with some arm bones being encased in sheaths of metal for increased portability.

Contact relics were items that had been near the saint, or were perishable parts of the saint that could not be used for miraculous purposes more than once. Hair is one such contact relic, as would be scraps of clothing, dust from a saint’s tomb, scrapings from the chains a saint was imprisoned with (like the chains of St. Peter), and oil from the lamps at a saint’s crypt. We see this sort of relic at the tomb of St. Nicetius, near Lyons in 590, where pilgrims were allowed to take wax from seals, dust, scrapings of stone, and threads from the tomb covering. During St. Bernard’s preaching tour of Milan in 1135 worshippers in the crowd were permitted to pluck hairs from his robe for their power in later remedies.

Other powerful relics, in true D&D style, could also be items of property associated with the saint: clothes and items of office such as staves. We see this in the list of relics taken to Ghent in 944, where the Gallic saint, St. Wanderegisilus, was represented by his chasuble robe, hood, belt, ecclesiastical vestments, and robe. Reliance on such relics was so great that the cloak of St. Gerard of Monza was kept in a local hospital, where it was used for women suffering difficulties in childbirth.

Not only that, but it would be a mistake to assume that Lazarus was the only resurrection in the bible. Libertinus of Fondi, abbot of an Italian monastery in the sixth century, successfully used a relic of his predecessor Honorius to resurrect a dead baby. St. Peter Martyr was attributed with twelve resurrections during his lifetime, including an accidental drowning, a suicide, and five stillborn babies – exactly the sorts of things that your average good aligned D&D cleric would do once they were high level enough to cast Raise Dead.

Turn Undead
exorcismSome of this will be retreading old ground, since I’ve already covered a few things in my article Saints vs Demons, but in medieval tales, both the power of holy men and the sign of the cross is a potent weapon against the undead.

William Durande, the Bishop of Mende in the late 13th century wrote “The devil greatly fears this sign and dreads to approach the place which gleams with the sign of the cross”, and many medieval shrouds were stitched with crosses and sanctified to protect the dead from demons who would animate a corpse. Claude Lecouteux has even suggested that crosses on Latin tombs of the Early Middle Ages acted as a security measure to prevent their occupants from leaving if they rose.

For the power of the cross used in a sudden attack, we can examine the 15th century Bylands manuscript. In this collection of ghost stories, a tailor named Snawbal (Snowball?) is attacked by a ghost in the form of a flaming crow. In the manuscript the tailor defends himself by making the sign of the cross and appealing to the spirit in the name of God not to bring him any harm. The spirit is flung, in visible pain, far away into the night and cannot harm the tailor even when they meet again.

My personal favourite examples of Clerics turning undead come from the sagas of Medieval Iceland. In The Book of Flat Island the sound of Church bells causes a ghost attacking Thorstein to flee, and the revenant of Agdi is imprisoned by a cross in his burial mound combined with a cross at the door of the household he was haunting.

In the same book, Lecouteux tells us that the new Christian kings of Iceland engaged in a systematic opening of the barrows and the destruction/displacement of the undead living there: the character Thorhold sees several mounds opened and the revenants living inside exposed to prayer and deadly sunlight. I can almost hear the voice of a Dungeon Master saying, “We can give you little work, brave adventurers, but we will reward you greatly if you can protect us from grave-dwellers of Gallows Hill…”


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3 thoughts on “Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric”

  1. Jon, I’ve been really enjoying your blog. I really appreciate how you bring to light aspects of Medieval culture that survive in D&D or that could be easily incorporated. However in the case of clerics, I think you left out one critical detail. That being the miracle-workers of legend and hagiography were not warriors. Turpin and other knight-clergyman of legend worked no miracles whatsoever beyond those afforded their ordination as priests, bishops, or archbishops. The military saints who were credited with miracles (and not just martyrs) did so only after they had renounced their military career. Furthermore, in my research I could not find a single literary character that could be considered a true D&D paladin, i.e. laying on hands and casting spells. It greatly pains me to say this as I had hoped that somewhere in the literary record of our ancestors, there would be some legend, fairy tale, or hagiography describing a heavily armored miracle worker, but I have found none. Despite extensive research, I cannot find any examples. Do you have any?

    Therefore, it is in my opinion that the Medieval cleric (regardless of religion) should be identical to the wizard, swapping summon familiar with turn undead. Players who want to play a knight-saint can change class from fighter to cleric (AD&D) or multiclass the two classes (3rd edition or later). Those who wish to play a paladin can play a Lawful/Good fighter and acquire a level or two as needed from the cleric class. I would go so far as to rename the cleric class as the “saint” class.

    However, to recast the D&D cleric as a saint would fundamentally change the party model of fighter, cleric, wizard, and rogue as the saint could not take front rank unless the player multiclassed their saint with a fighter. But then again, in a Medieval D&D setting, would a cleric (saint) really be in the same party with a wizard? “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

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