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 Continue reading “Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric”

The Leper’s Plot: Rehearsal for the Witch Trials

LeprosoriumIn 1321 a strange hysteria gripped Southern France and parts of Spain. By 1320 a series of attacks called ‘The Cowherd’s Crusade’ (emulating a much more widespread series of attacks dubbed ‘The Shepherds Crusade’) had already targetted Leprosaria all over Southern France. The lieutenant of Sauventerre-de-Guyenne had already recorded in public records that he’d had to forbid the torching of a leprosarium at Sauvanterre, while the chronicle of Raymonde-Bernarde de La Motte, the Bishop of Bazas, stated that some of the pasgoureaux who were hanged had claimed to have found barrels of rotting bread while pillaging the leprosarium of a certain town (perhaps Mas d’Agenais.)

The lepers, it was said, had planned to use the bread in the preparation of some poison that would contaminate the wells. This is an uncommon libel this early in the 14th Century. One factor that might have precipitated the violence was that the Bishop of Dax had all lepers in his diocese arrested in December 1320. The Bishop was trying to preserve his jurisdiction over lepers from encroachments by the sire d’Albret. The latter had burned a leper accused of an unstipulated crime, one in which the lepers were implicated.

The ensuing kerfuffle over jurisdiction involved a number of ducal, episcopal and papal officials. Such widespread rumours of accusations could have contributed to the charges brought against the lepers in the spring of 1321.
Continue reading “The Leper’s Plot: Rehearsal for the Witch Trials”

The Tempestuous, Folly-Filled Reign of Edward II

King_Edward_II_of_EnglandNo one could accuse the reign of Edward II of being dull. Coming to the throne in 1307, one of his earliest actions was to declare the Knights Templar as heretics and sodomites ( and of possessing a talking brass head ).

He’d already been a fairly controversial Prince of Wales. His father, had ripped out a handful of Edward’s hair after the young prince had tried to persuade the Plantagenet king that Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, should be created the Count of Ponthieu. Instead, Edward’s father (Edward I) banished the knight, enraged at “…the undue intimacy which the young Lord Edward had adopted towards him.”

Despite declaring the Knights Templar as sexual deviants, there has always been a suspicion that Edward II was a homosexual himself, perhaps explaining the addition of ‘Soddomy’ to what was otherwise a fairly standard set of misbehaviour accusations.

What can be said is that Edward had a politically and socially unhealthy fascination with Piers Gaveston. His first act upon becoming King was to recall Gaveston from banishment, and upon marrying Princess Isabella of France he immediately gave the most pleasing (and valuable) jewells to Gaveston as gifts.

In fact, one of the biggest indictments of Edward is that whether he was straight or gay, he was an idiot. After offending the twelve year old Princess of France (and her father, Philip IV) he engaged in openly mocking his most powerful barons, calling the Earl of Warwick the ‘Black Hound of Arden’ and ignoring affairs of state to shower gifts and clothes on Gaveston, who he’d created as the Earl of Cornwall (even at the time, their love was rumoured to be more than friendship, although I do think that if Edward had been a better governor, fewer of his subjects would have cared.)

After a series of humiliations that included Edward abandoning her at Tynemouth Abbey (or so wrote a Monk of St. Albans, John de Trokelow), Isabella began to turn against her neglectful husband.

She wasn’t alone: the reason that Edward had abandoned her in 1312 was because he was being chased by an army of dissatisfied Barons, who captured and executed Gaveston (this didn’t teach Edward, he just took a new favourite in Hugh Despencer).

By 1321, Isabella had joined forces with her lover, Roger Mortimer (whose direct descendant is the modern explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes) to lead a rebellion against Edward and the hated Despensers, which resulted in his imprisoning at Berkeley Castle, where, on the 11th of Octorber he was quietly put to death.

The manner of his death is somewhat disputed: local lore in Berkeley is that he was killed with a red-hot poker shoved up his backside, and that the people of Berkeley could hear his screams for miles around, although contemporary chroniclers said that he died of either suffocation or strangulation.


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The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.

CannibalsWhy would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.

Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.

It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.

Pope Boniface VIII even released a Papal Bull in 1299 against the barbaric practise of French nobles who were having themselves dismembered and interred in several different sites. Surely, such things can only go to illustrate the terrible decadence of the French? Continue reading “The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.”