A while back I wrote about how the advantage of running a game set in the real world is that there’s ample setting information to use, and offered examples of sources I’d found useful in working on Anarchy, the historical LARP I co-run that’s set during the 12th Century civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in England. I’ve decided it’d be nice to keep that going, and turn it into an occasional series providing profiles of useful source material for designers and referees of historical games.
Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England by Sharon K. Elkins
Running games set in historical time periods when the culture was overtly and unapologetically patriarchal can be tricky. If you simply ignore this and present a setting where that sexism doesn’t exist (or doesn’t apply to the PCs) this can make the game more appealing if your players feel like they deal with enough sexism in everyday life and want to play a game where they don’t have to think about it; at the same time, this does mean that if you are very keen to explore history through the game, that motivation is compromised. It also means you are specifically passing up the chance to tell stories specifically addressing themes of prejudice and gender and so on.
On the other hand, if you go with “we’re running a game where the society in question has the sort of assumptions about gender roles and sexism that it historically had”, there’s always the risk of that degenerating into sidelining the role of women in the setting entirely, particularly if you frame the game around male-dominated activities for the era and if you gloss over the existence of exceptional women who bucked the biases of their era – or who did notable things within the scope of those biases and informed by them.
This was a Christmas present from some of the other Anarchy referees, and I’ve found it helpful in looking up interesting anecdotes and stories of nuns, hermit women, anchoresses, rulers of priories and abbeys, and other women who dedicated themselves to a religious life in the time period in question. There is also a lot of detail on institutions that included such women, circumstances around their foundation, controversies around their governance, and so on. (Some of this may also be applicable to bodies of monks as well as nuns in the era, whilst other aspects are particular to nuns.)
It’s an academically-oriented piece which is a bit heavy going and would probably be a bad fit if your campaign is more historical-flavoured than full-fat historical, but if you’re running something like Chivalry & Sorcery or Maelstrom Domesday and going with the sort of campaign where rich historical detail is part of the appeal, it may be worth a look if you want inspiration for women existing within a sphere (the Church) where it’s easy to just assume it’s all men.
The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot
Reginald Scot was a 16th Century debunker; perturbed by the uptick of witchcraft trials in Elizabeth I’s reign, he put this book out in 1584 in which he put forth the view that the Malleus Maleficarum‘s claims about witchcraft were nothing more than “popish” superstition and nonsense, that witches could not possibly have many of the powers supposedly attributed to them, and that many witchcraft trials were mere harassment of confused elderly and vulnerable people, often poor and very often women.
That isn’t to say he always argues from the same logical grounds that we would; for instance, he makes the case that witches cannot cause storms and thunder and rainfall and whatnot because there’s Biblical reason to believe that only God can do that (and that indeed an apparent power over the weather was a sign that Christ was the Lord), and therefore the Devil could give to witches powers which were God’s alone.
Then again, his Biblical objections to the witch trials also strike on salient points – like how the whole thing about how “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” may be a mistranslation from the Hebrew and it should instead read “thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”. He goes on to say that if a supposed witch has killed someone by poison, then there’s already a good law to convict her by – namely, murder – so accusing her of witchcraft and allowing all sorts of nefarious characters to testify against her who’d be given no credence in cases built on other charges is pointless (Along those lines, Scot points out that a lot of the ills that witches supposedly do are already covered by other laws, and if ultimately they commit idolatrous worship or are apostates from Christianity there are already laws against those things.)
At the same time, the book also provides interesting documentation of various historical stage magic tricks, intended to put an end to the idea that these were accomplished through real magic, and the book is therefore an important early text explaining how some tricks were accomplished. There’s also a brief grimoire-like rundown of demonology, in the context of a section largely dedicated to accusing “popish” clergy and monastics of being the main practitioners of such.
Though it’s a bit of a tricky read due to its archaic language, The Discoverie of Witchcraft is such a deep resource of period material that it would be worth a look to anyone running, say, an Elizabethan-era Maelstrom game, or Clockwork & Chivalry, if they wanted an example of how then-current thinkers might raise objections to witch trials – or how Elizabethan conjurors and street magicians might have plied their trade. (For that matter, it could also provide potential inspiration for WFRP, since WFRP has a highly Renaissance-era atmosphere to it.)