A Brief Introduction to the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages are a fascinating time. This was a period that lasted for over one thousand years! The Western Roman Empire had come to its inevitable end during the 5th century Anno Domini (AD), and for a couple of centuries, Europe plunged into a cultural, economic, and military decline. Or did it? At least, that’s what 19th-century historiography and historians wrote. A sort of historical myth that still lives in popular culture in the world of today- is that people who lived during the Middle Ages lived a life of ignorance, despair, servitude, never-ending war, plagues, famines, and a cultural blackout. This perception is still ingrained into us, perpetuated by the schooling system, despite the fact that most of western Europe quickly regained its footing as early as the 8th and even 9th centuries, the Franks, led by the famous Charles Martel stopped the Omayahd invaders at the Battle of Poitiers, putting an end to the Arab threat from beyond the Pyrenees. Charlemagne expanded the Frankish influence way beyond its initial borders and was recognized by Pope Leo as Emperor, effectively bridging the political institutions of the Frankish Kingdom to those of Rome, effectively legitimizing it as the continuation of the Roman Empire, only now it was Holy.
The Middle (or Medieval) ages usually refer exclusively to the European continent for a couple of reasons and the answer to that question lies in the nomenclature. The “middle” stands for the period of time elapsed between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Modern Age (Age of Discovery, Age of Sail). Since the Western Roman Empire was located in Europe and the Europeans were the ones to kickstart the intercontinental navigations around the globe, to apply the concept of “Middle Ages” somewhere else in the globe is not only wrong but extremely anachronistic. This description stuck as clear to understand yet not thoroughly explained the operatorial concept, usually referring to the thousand years in-between the fall of the Roman Civilization in the West and the rise of European Naval Power during the early 1400s.
Europe was mostly composed of extremely fragmented local populaces, where any kind of central power had a very difficult time emerging and it wouldn’t be until the 1500s (with a couple exceptions), that some smaller (and geographically delimited) nations would start to take the shape we are more or less accustomed to this day and age. It’s important to preface that while the term “Middle Ages” as an operational concept is great to contextualize anyone in a certain time frame, it’s important to have in mind that to this very day historians can’t agree on how and why to define the characteristics of what separates a “medieval” state of being or a “modern” one. Are the criteria merely chronological? Or social? Maybe military? Or maybe is it related to the advent of centralized power? What about the cultural landscape?
On the cultural side of things, the Carolingian Renaissance exists as a testament to the will of those pushing forwards the carts of literature, arts, and architecture. Later, during the first years of the first millennium, another wave of technological discoveries led to the creation of a continent-wide network of universities that sought to understand nature as a manifestation of God’s creation. These first forays into the studies of natural sciences by men of faith would act as a precursor to what would become known as the Renassaince. So there was never, an actual- cultural transition.
What about the maritime expansion? This means it could be geographical and economical. If so, Portugal and Spain sailed the seas much sooner than England while being at a severely military and economical disadvantage and it wouldn’t be until the XIX that Italy had its first forrays outside of Europe and established its first colonies, so does that mean Italy, where the Renassaince emerged, was a medieval state until it first expanded overseas? Speaking of which, if it comes down to cultural reasons, what to make of other locations in Eastern Europe where the Rennaissance had very little to no influence but continued to match its western counterparts equally in technological terms? Or was the Plague, the Black Death, the great equalizer? Some even claim the Fall of Constantinople as the event that marks the end of the Era. Between one event and the other, there are more than one hundred years of lives, events, wars… While the exercise of studying and attempting to ascertain the time frame for the Medieval Ages is interesting and worth discussing, the reality of it is: That there was never a moment when people instantly transitioned from one state of being in the “Dark Ages” to the Renaissance. Like all things in Human History, the process was gradual and unnoticeable and it wouldn’t be a couple of centuries past that historians could reflect and start to piece together the pieces and see certain patterns that permeated most aspects of European culture.
Since we are here to talk about video games, and most would rather indulge us in the military exploits of times gone by, I’ll mainly focus on that aspect. Last month I finished reading Charles Oman’s The Art of Warfare in the Middle Ages. For a book that’s over a century old, it surprised me by how accurate his conclusions were, especially by inferring them through the interpretation of the small number of historical sources. Most of his ideas hold well to today’s cross-examination. He argues that the usage of the horsemen came to fruition way before the age of chivalry in western Europe, solidifying itself first in Constantinople, with the writing of Strategikon signifying the first attempt of theorizing and reorganizing warfare in the light of a post-Roman reality: “the old ingenuity was preserved and the armories of Constantinople were filled with killing machine whose lethal efficacy scared everybody, both East and West. The testudo, the onager, and the ballista- all of those instruments were widely known as well in the 10th century as they were in the 1st […] The reasons for the Byzantine dominance can only be explained by science and discipline, in-depth knowledge of both strategy and tactical advantages that only a professional army could muster […].” He finishes the chapter by mentioning that it wouldn’t be until the 4th Crusade that the armies of Constantinople would be defeated by the raw power of the western knight. I love how he argues that warfare was a much more organic affair than most posterior authors would have us believe, that each and every nation had its way of waging war. Militarily, all the continent was engulfed in both large wars and petty conflicts and it would be Europe to helm the greatest technological advances in the macabre field of warfare, even going as far as to birth the first manuals focusing exclusively on the employment of more militarized concepts such as mobility vs armor vs firepower (anachronistic term, but it fits), notions all militaries still use to this day and age. military thinkers and historians (such as Oman) would go on to theorize how warfare is a repeating cycle of those concepts, meaning that one is going to outclass the others due to a number of competing factors, mainly technological and economic, a sort of rock-paper-scissors system that keeps changing and evolving, but instead of rocks, papers and scissors its using longbows, helmets, swords, bayonets, machineguns, long-range intercontinental missile, and new-generation aircraft. Videogames have implemented this system to great effect. War is ever-changing, it is just during some periods it changes faster.
Medieval warfare was, in all honesty, a far cry from the grandiose battles of the Ancient (or Classical) Period. Poorly armed warbands of a couple thousand, more often than not, a couple hundred, led by a dozen knights would do small incursions into neighboring lands to plunder what they could. Of course, this unfortunate reality wouldn’t make for an interesting game and/or spectacle. It wasn’t until the late to lower medieval ages that armies would turn semi-professional, with formal training and discipline hammered into the men, and a sense of collective interest and nationality instilled into their ideals. Make no mistake, poor peasants, small business owners, and craftsmen had absolutely no interest in the petty affairs of Dukes, Barons, and Kings. It wasn’t rare for them to boycott and expose violent behaviors in some parts of Europe. Having studied extensively the historical records of medieval “Cortes”, everybody agrees that the urban and countryside militia had a very prominent role in medieval society. The Portuguese Cortes are, for the lack of a better term, a solemn occasion hosted by the King where he calls upon the noblemen, clergymen, and representatives of the common folk to voice their concerns, troubles, and problems, and after deliberation, would issue a statement that would then be turned into law. Why does this matter for warfare? Simple, because it allows us to establish a deep connection between the urban militias and the reigning king at the time.
To correct an injustice made by professional historians, this article is supposed to tackle games that truly do their best to accurately portray the realities of medieval life and warfare. Taking on the massive enterprise of replicating what went down in centuries gone by is a far more difficult (and different) task than more recent conflicts and realities.
Criteria and Genres
Historical Accuracy and Authenticity– More than anything else accurate or at least authentic representation of the historical events. Plausible “what if” scenarios are welcome and okay, but mix and mash halberds and Vikings in the same timeline and the threshold has been crossed.
Relevancy to today’s gaming scene – Not all games are created equal, and some stand the test of time way better than others. Some classics will feature, and some will be absent. In those specific cases, more modern alternatives will be showcased, should they exist. Fortunately, for the traditional wing that still thrives in the scene, this list is going to feature all the mainstream classics.
Mechanical Importance – A game is only as good as the challenges it presents and the mechanics with which one can interact with it and make an impact upon. Most importantly, how well do those mechanics come together to make the specific challenges of Medieval Politics and Warfare come to life, be it during the first skirmishes of the barbarian invasion of the Early Middle Ages or the complex politics of the Late.
Genre – Games can fall under several categories at the same time and most of these distinctions are so surface level that discussing them won’t even make sense. What’s important is that this list will feature a bit of everything. In my first ULTIMATE list, the games were limited to one entry per franchise, however, if I was to do that here, the list would be very, very short.
Time Period – With such a large chronological expanse – over 1000 years – games will opt to portray some periods better than others, so I’ll make sure to stamp which of the three periods it does better in every game on the list: Early Middle Ages (From the fall of the Roman Empire to 900ad to 1000 ad); High Middle Ages (1000ad to 1300ad); Late Middle Ages (1300ad to 1500ad) – these dates are rough estimates and your mileage may vary.