The World is Your Setting Guide

At the moment I’m involved in running Anarchy, a LARP set during the 1135-1153 civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. As I’ve found running Ars Magica, the advantage of running a historical RPG – in whatever format – is that there’s stacks of material out there you can use for reference material. Here’s an overview of some of the materials I and others on the GM team have found useful as resources.

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

This doesn’t quite have as wide a scope as the title might imply – it specifically focuses on life in medieval England and France in the span of 1050-1300 – but if you are looking for a general overview of that place and time, this isn’t bad. The emphasis is less on reciting the sequence of historical events so much as it’s to offer an overview of what everyday life was like in the era. Usefully divided into subject-specific chapters, it offers a solid foundation and a useful jumping-off point for deeper inquiry.

Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury

This is a brief and highly readable summary of the history of the period we were looking at. It wasn’t perfect – it’s arguably a bit pro-Stephen, though where the line exists between being partisan and treating Stephen fairly lies is hard to judge. Nonetheless, it’s useful with this sort of project to have a main reference you go to to set a baseline before you incorporate other features or make alterations, and for that purpose it’s pretty good.

The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II: 871-1216

As an academic reference work, this obviously has a bit of a price tag on it, but I’ve found it fascinating. It gives an overview of the development of English law ranging from the Anglo-Saxon era all the way to the end of King John’s reign. John Hudson, who wrote this volume, writes in an extremely accessible style, arising from the necessity of making law intelligible to historians and history intelligible to interested lawyers, so this is really handy if you want to depict the legal procedures and norms of a particular era within the time period covered.

If you want a book which, whilst still quite detailed, is substantially easier to digest (and easier on the wallet), John Hudson’s The Formation of the English Common Law might be a good option. Covering the span of time from Alfred the Great to Magna Carta, it’s quite good at teasing out how the law developed over that period of time. Whilst this subject can seem quite dry, it also opens a window onto how people generally saw their relationship with the law and their rulers, and thus is a bit of a snapshot of society in general, and so is particularly useful if you want to think about how society changed over the time period in question (and change it very definitely did). Such considerations are really important if you want to avoid treating the medieval period as just one big generic blob of time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

As a historical document, this is available in various translations into modern English; I’ve got the one that is translated and edited by Michael Swanton, who provides all the different variant texts of the different chronicles presented in a nice clear way, and also extensively annotates them to help unpack matters which the monks writing entries don’t explain very well, offer additional insight, and point out outright errors or propaganda. The time period covered in detail ranges from the coming of the Saxons to Britain to nearly a century after the Norman Conquest, including the events of the Anarchy. What it lacks in precision, neutrality and accuracy it more than makes up for in flavour.

The Domesday Book

A rather dry prospect if you attempt to read it cover to cover, this is another text which is mostly handy for inspiration – just dip into it anywhere and you get a snapshot of just how much individual character William the Conqueror’s surveyors managed to capture of each manor and holding in England.

The Bible

If you are running a historical game set in a time period and a culture where Christianity is a significant force, then you’re going to want its base text, of course. For actual quoting purposes I like to use the New English Bible from 1970 which I picked up second hand – it casts the text in modern English, distinguishes neatly between text that seems to have been intended as poetry or song and text that seems to flow better as prose, though it isn’t especially gender-inclusive and uses a default “he” to a greater extent than the original text necessarily mandates.

However, any edition of the Bible is a dense old text to look stuff up in, which is why it’s nice that some of my co-referees got me the Illustrated Family Bible from DK. This thick, handsome book boils down a surprisingly large number of Biblical stories into easily-understood two-page spreads, with useful sidebars providing additional historical context. This is very handy to look up the broad brushstrokes of an idea in before you look up the full-fat text in your Bible of choice.

The History of the Kings of England (by Geoffrey of Monmouth)

This is absolutely wackydoodles, so it’s perfect either for emphasising how confused medieval scholarship could get or for mining for a mythic history of Britain that didn’t happen.

Heresies of the High Middle Ages (ed. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans)

This is a translation into modern English of various first-hand sources on the subject, ranging from Church condemnations of heresies to heretical texts themselves. (Cathar fans note: this has got the full text of the Book of the Two Principles which was quite significant to Cathar theology.)


8 thoughts on “The World is Your Setting Guide

  1. Andrew

    That period was a big part of my MA so, on the off-chance anybody is interested, I’d also recommend a few other primary sources: William of Malmesbury’s “Historia Novella” (covering the early year’s of Stephen’s reign), the anonymous “Gesta Stefani” (covering Stephen’s whole reign, except where the manuscript is missing), and William of Newburgh’s “Historia rerum Anglicarum”. The latter is worth it just for his thunderous denunciation of Geoffrey of Monmouth for lying his head off, and various well-told folk tales.

    1. We have been getting a ton of mileage out of Gesta Stephani. Now that you’ve alerted me to William of Newburgh, I kind of want to look into him too.

      1. Andrew

        He’s very readable, and while he takes his history more seriously than Geoffrey of Monmouth he still has the knack of telling a good tale. In addition, you’re right that Jim Bradbury does seem pro-Stephen, although (as you also say), it’s a fine line.

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