Roleplaying in a historical setting

Copyright Julien Buseyne © 2008

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"And that is a very good point, because the greater the blanks are, the easier it is to adapt facts to the game needs."

Translated from French to English by Marion Leprętre, Sophie Buseyne and Julien Buseyne.


This article is the first of a series gathering information, suggestions and advice for the practice of role-playing in a historical setting. We will focus on Middle Ages, and more particularly on the Early Middle Age to begin with.

Let us be clear: our purpose is not to perform historical reconstruction, but to play in a historical setting. The reader should keep that in mind.


Most of us are used to playing in imaginary settings, whether they are futurist, heroic-fantasy, cyberpunk or dark ones. People seldom play in a setting close to historical facts although "original" creations are often directly extracted from ancient imagery. Up to a certain point, we may also consider some futurist worlds as a transposition of fantastic themes into a world of high-technology.

Whatever, what we do is only to transpose our modern conceptions in universes in which the presence of magic and the level of technology are the only changes from what we know.

And still, haven't you ever dreamt of embodying one of these intrepid 10th century Danes? Would you like to have your players live the fights and political dealings induced by the propagation of Islam? Could you face Attila and his Huns marauding on the remains of the Western Roman Empire?

That's exactly what we propose you do. Without risking your neck.

Warning: the myth of historical exactitude

Before going further, let's exorcize an old demon. Historical exactitude is a myth. We ignore how our ancestors really did live, we ignore all about whole parts of their culture and life. The few things with which we create theories about their day-to-day lives are their laws, their writings, and the few objects unearthed from time to time. And that's a very good point, because the greater the blanks are, the easier it is to adapt facts to the game needs.

Playing in a historical setting.

General remarks

The medieval historical setting is close to the heroic fantasy setting in many aspects. After all, we may believe that the difference resides in the following : what was imaginary in one of them is reality in the other one. There are yet other differences, and not the least, between these two game settings.

Even if you investigate thoroughly and for a long time, you'll never find an Evil Lord in our history (even Vlad Tepes had a good streak in him) and the rather over-simple conceptions in certain scenarios (haphazardly, Good and Evil) would be hard to swallow. The recourse to violence is also very ticklish, even at the 5th century, a period of troubles if ever there was one. As a matter of fact, there will always be someone to avenge a death, and that someone probably will have friends.

There were indeed companies of adventurers during the Middle Ages, wandering on the roads in search of honour and glory, but they seldom rescued a princess (her father had an army of lawful and efficient people for that) and one can take for granted that saving the world, or even a kingdom, was not their priority. Nevertheless, most noble families pride themselves on having a prime ancestor (preferably daring, ardent and bragging) who had conquered a domain, either by the sword or through a marriage, sometimes forced by a raid and rape method.

The medieval world is a world of much moving about, commerce and discussion, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea. It experienced, during a thousand years, many population migrations, the edification and fall of several empires and a properly astonishing array of dynasties. It experienced too amazing developments in science and technology as well as in ideas. These events leave enough room for well rounded up adventures.

Indeed, one cannot rescue a princess, nor slaughter orcs, nor slay intriguing wizards atop their towers and even less annihilate an umpteenth Evil Lord... But one can participate in the plots and fights between the two Frankish queens, Fredegund and Brynhild; wander on the roads and be conceded a domain by gaining the authorities gratitude or seize land by force majeure and become a local lord; sail the seas and rivers on a knörr to insure one's family prosperity; defend one's domain against a greedy neighbour... The opportunities for adventures will be never-ending.

The place of magic

Magic is a vast subject that only begins to be explored seriously. The Salic Law already refers to witches and their cauldrons (and even before this, references to magical practices abound during antiquity). They are also called poisoners. The Church stigmatizes them very early. After all, they are women and they're leading activities on the fringe of society. Paradoxically, they are then left in peace most of the time until the middle of the 15th century. We could also write about alchemists, kabbalists, persian magicians; in fact, we will sooner or later. More pragmatically, one can also find allusions in numerous texts to thousands of little everyday actions: to rub with oil the hands of a warrior fallen in combat, to drop water under the catafalque of a dead man during the corpse leaving, to give a medallion to a newborn, to knead bread on a woman's bare skin, to nail a wolf's paw on the door of a sheepfold and so on.

Man in the Middle Age, whatever the century, believes in magic: sympathetic magic, divination, spells, charms, amulets and potions. He also believes in spirits, fantastic beasts (Narwhal horns were sold as being those of Unicorns), in miracles, evil spells and prodigies. He believes in it in the same way that soldiers of World War One when they went to fight with an icon of the Virgin in their equipment, believed that She would protect them. These beliefs are not universal: some bought love philtres whereas others laughed at the potion merchants and even more at the buyers.

Magic is here, in the backdrop. What we must do is define the importance that should be given to it in the game. The absolute rule is that magic remains convenient, but nevertheless difficult to use, and with subtle effects: no fire balls, no earthquakes. Its effects generally pass for accidents or coincidences.

Here is a list of suggestions:

ˇ Magic is a reality and is indeed pretty powerful. Secrets are transmitted by word of mouth, although sometimes imprudent people dare to write treatises. This attracts the eye of the authorities. The most common magic is the one requiring precise rituals. Invariably, its power is limited (only one effect per ritual or spell). Various types of magic exist.

ˇ Magic is above all a matter of religion. Some laymen manage to use it but only the divine or infernal powers may grant a mortal the capacity to use magic safely. The powers that are then awarded to him are consistent but their use is subject to strict rules.

ˇ Magic is only a superstition. All is but harsh reality although many are convinced of the contrary.

ˇ Not only does magic exists, but fantastic beasts do as well. The Church fights actively, but usually in secret, to eradicate these abominations. Its motivations may vary, as its members do not necessarily agree.

One can imagine many variants or even other approaches. The point is to keep the whole thing coherent. Generally speaking, there is one kind of magic for each folk that constitutes the corpus of its occult practices. The religious beliefs adopted by this folk will be grafted onto this corpus.

The game master

The game master who wants to play a game in a historical setting must prepare himself properly. First of all, it is necessary to choose a precise epoch and to stick to it. Then, one must read, get documentation, understand what has preceded and influenced this period and what it evolved into. Become informed on society, technology, religion, mores. Building a campaign setting is not a matter of just opening an encyclopaedia and copying what you need from it. It is also necessary to choose a narrative style, and given that our knowledge is lacking in some areas (and sometimes contradictory), filling in the blanks.

To choose one's sources.

The Internet is the origin of numerous misapprehensions (or even of revisionism tainted with nationalism, if not worse). It is therefore unsuitable to use this means as a primary source of information. Nevertheless, well written and documented websites can sometimes be found. If such a website presents a bibliography, try to read some of these works.

The Internet's main value comes from the fact that as long as one knows what to search for, ancient literary resources or iconographical sources can be easily found. One may, for instance, obtain very accurate results by searching <a href="">illuminations and miniatures from the Maciejowski Bible</a>.

If iconographical sources are not that much of a problem, contemporary texts of the chosen epoch pose the problem of their language. To read a 15th century German fetchbuch (fightbook) in its native tongue indeed requires a thorough knowledge of this language. Unless you really are passionate, we can but advise you against slaving away at exploiting this kind of document: you'll learn more and faster by referring to a specialist's publications. Translations exist, but they may be hard to find.

As you'll necessarily come to printed works sooner or later, the best idea is to ask a specialized librarian for advice. Begin with a reference synthesis work (there always exists such a work, though not necessarily written in English), then deepen your knowledge with more specialized works: society, religion, science and technologies. Such works often figure in the bibliography of all good generalist books. If you are lucky, they won't be out of print. Consider that several weeks shall be necessary to get your mind clear enough on a given culture and epoch. You don't need to become an expert, you just need to know what you are doing.

Fill in the blanks

To play in a historical setting supposes that the players possess a minimum knowledge of the chosen epoch. A campaign book giving all the indispensable information to the players is very convenient. It's at this point that you will fill in the blanks. While redacting the "book", you'll realise that you lack many things: monetary system, everyday life, clothing... lots and lots of details you hadn't even thought about and which will appear so evidently crucial at this time. And if they don't, trust your players to remind you of them. The only means to face this situation is to draw up a list of all the questions needing an answer. You'll then only have to find these answers by consulting your sources. What cannot be answered by that means shall be imagined, keeping in mind the game setting coherence.

Of course, we'll strive to propose game resources on a regular basis to lower the amount of work necessary to create your campaign book.

Suggested game setting


The setting spans from year 378 AD (Adrianopolis Battle: Saphrax, Alateus and Fritigern lead the Goths and Alani to victory, crushing the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire and killing Valens, the emperor) to the dawn of the 12th century (the catholic church completes its reforms, enforcing celibacy onto clerics and monogamy onto the rest of the population, feudal society comes to maturity).

It begins with the transition from Antiquity to Middle Ages (the beginning of the great German migrations) and finishes with the end of the German migrations in Europe and Mediterranean sea (first and second crusades). It may be cut up into various periods, concerning different folks and overlapping one another (for example, the Scandinavian Viking period occurred during the Frankish Carolingian and Capetian periods).

Obviously, events occurring during those periods do not occur in a "segmented" fashion and do influence one another. Thus do not focus solely on a given folk but to try and have a vision encompassing the "wholeness" of the epoch and match it to the passing of time. It shall be more interesting for your players and will allow you to write storylines and adventures that will profit from the wealth of history.

It is a habit for Anglo-Saxon historians to give this period the name of "Dark Ages" in order to put the emphasis on the backward leap in society, technology and laws that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire. If this is true for the British islands, it is not for most of Europe. Indeed, Rome fell, and with it the trading circuits. However as soon as the 6th century, the constant fighting that ravaged Europe began to calm down. Slavery in the Roman fashion, where slaves are not even animals, disappears, progressively replaced by slavery in the German fashion (slaves are human beings and have rights). In the end, slavery just disappears. Fields are cultivated again, cities are rebuilt and start thriving again. The dust of Rome's downfall is settling, allowing Europe to be reborn after three centuries of constant fights and economic failure.


A nearly 700 years long era is, historically speaking, too long to be detailed properly. We shall focus on two epochs: the 6th century and the 8th century.

6th century

The 6th century is full of fights. Fights between Germans, fights between Germans and Byzantium, even fights within the very boundaries of this epoch's kingdoms. It is also a period during which the "Roman", German and Indo-iranian people that inhabit Western Europe begin to create what shall become the roots of the Europe we actually know. It is indeed an epoch of mutations and deep changes. All this offers a rich playing field for original stories.

8th century

The 8th century is a period of intense strife, witnessing the struggle between the Muslim wave and Frankish and Byzantine ambitions. It is also troubled by the first events that will lead to the Viking era. Under the rule of the Pipinids, culminating with Carloman, the franks enter the Carolingian period and build the basis upon which modern Europe shall be founded. The first consequences are the strengthening of the Roman laws and a loss of rights and freedom for women (who will endure a long descent to social hell until the beginning of the 20th century). Roman fashions and habits (or what 8th century men believed them to be) are back, to such a point that some historians call this short period the "first Renaissance". The conflict spans all of Europe and Mediterranean and struggle, be they at the court, in the streets or on the battlefield, political, cultural or armed, is everywhere. Just some more grist for the storyline mill.

Geographical limits

The game setting is limited to Europe, Northern Africa and the part of Asia under Byzantine domination or on the sea front of the Mediterranean.


Many peoples will be introduced in this section of these articles: we give you an overview of them to provide game masters with search elements and an idea of the range available. We will give you further details about them later. We do not talk about the origins or history of these people here and we only indicate their geographical location. This list is not complete. Most of the gaps are related to Asia and Africa.

It is important to acknowledge that tribes coming from Germany or from the steppes of eastern Europe and Asia are populations that do not write their history. They have an oral culture, even if they know about writing. As such, they are prehistoric populations. We will discuss this topic later.

By default all the characters are Common Men as described in the RMSS or RMFRP core rule book.

The Germans

The Germans are the great winners of the 5th century turmoil. At the dawn of the 6th century, they rule Western Europe and North Africa where they have split the Western Roman Empire.

They are not a united people but a constellation of tribes gathered in federations that tend to become nations. Belonging to the German people is a question of culture and of language more than a question of law and of territory, the German identity is very subtle to define. It is very common indeed for the tribes to split to emigrate, to melt into a confederation and end up losing their individuality to create a new tribal unit.

There are nevertheless three major groups among the Germans: the North Germanic branch, the West Germanic branch and the East Germanic branch. These are mostly language divisions, but we can find in each of these branches shared cultural and religious elements.

The different German peoples are briefly introduced below, we will give more details about some of them later.

The North Germanic branch: the northern Germans

Danish, Swedish and Norwegians: these folks did not migrate with the other Germans but remained on their territories and developed a culture and a flourishing economy. Their expansion phase, known as the Viking era, begins in the 8th century and ends at the dawn of the 12th century.

The West Germanic branch: the western germans

Franks (frank: "dauntless" or "freemen"): the Chamavi, Catti, Ampsivarii, Bructeri, Cherusci, Tubanti, Tenctii and Usipi leagues.

Alamanni (All mannen: "all the men"): Hermunduri, Juthungi, Bucinobantes, Lentienses, Quadi, Marcomanni, Semnoni, Armalausi and Teutones leagues.

Bavarian (Baiowarioz: Bohemian men): this folk was first settled in Bohemia, on the remains of the Boii Celts territory, it then came to settle North of the Alps and gave its name to Bavaria. They soon submit to the Franks of whom they will remain clients until they mingle into the Holy Roman Empire.

Suebi (Quadi and Marcomanni league): Suebi are tribal element federations coming from the Alamanni. We do not know what made them split up.

Lombards (Longobards: long beards, formerly Winili: warriors): The Lombards are a tribe from the Baltic shore that eventually settles in Northern Italy.

Saxons (Seax holders?): A part of them settles in Britain, the other stays in their land of origin.

Angles (angli: Angeln folk): This folk move to the island of Britain, the kingdom of England took its name from them.

Frisians: folk living on the shores of today's Holland, the Frisians were making their living by piracy, fishing and trading. A part of this folk moves to Britain with the Angles and the Saxon folk.

Jutes: folk coming from the Jutland, a part of them moves to Britain.

Warni: folk living in the Rhine delta.

Thuringii: league mainly made of Warni and Angles but also of Jutes, Frisians and Saxons. Basina, Queen of Thuringia is possibly the mother of Clovis, which means that the Thuringii belong to the Frankish influence sphere. French historians formerly called them Thuringian Franks.

Eastern Germans

Ostrogoths (gaut: semen scatterers, men; bright men): Once called Greutungen (steppes folk), they dwelt in what is now Ukraine before submitting to the Huns and then becoming federates of the Roman Empire. They eventually claim Italy as their kingdom under the reign of Theodoric the Great.

Visigoths (Wise men): formerly called Thervingi (woods folk), they occupy Dacia from where they are turned back by the Huns. They end up establishing a kingdom in Spain.

Vandals: made of two tribes : the Silingi and the Hasdingi, this folk comes from the Baltic sea shores and settles on the Danube banks. From there, under the pressure of the Huns, they join the Alani and the Suebi to invade Gaul. They successively plunder Gaul, Spain and North Africa before settling in Carthage where they start a Mediterranean empire. This folk is defeated by the Byzantines during the 6th century and exiled to Galatia.

Burgundes (folk from the island of Burgundarholm): coming from Scandinavia, this folk end up settling in Sapaudia and spread its domain until Burgundy takes shape with Geneva as a capital city.

Skires: this folk, of which a part was still living in the present Lithuania until the 13th century, takes Italy and deposes the last Western Roman Emperor under the command of Odoacer. It is then wiped out by the Ostrogoths.

Heruli: this folk settled on the Danube banks and of whom Odoacer, the Roman Empire destroyer, was a leader, is progressively dissolved until it completely loses its identity.

Rugians: this folk is split in two. A part of it settles in the Byzantine Empire to serve it, the other builds a little kingdom in Noricum.

Gepids: this folk leaves the Vistula banks to slowly migrate between the Danube and the Carpathian mountains.

Folks of the steppes

The great Eurasian steppes are the place where many nomadic or partly sedentary tribes live. During the 6th and the 8th century, some of these folks reached as far as Central Europe, where they played a part in the conflicts that occurred there. We can define two groups: the nomads coming from Asia and the Indo-Iranian nomads. It is interesting to note that none of these folks ever settled South of the Danube or West of the Rhine for a long time without losing their cultural identity.

Indo-Iranians nomads

Alani: Indo-Iranian folk originally living between the Don river and the Azov sea, they split in several groups under the pressure of the Huns to settle in North Africa, around Orleans, in the Valley of the Rhone and the present Ossetia. In the West, they lose any cultural identity during the 6th century.

Taifali: Indo-Iranian folk close to the Alani, the Taifali are federated to the Empire from the 4th century. They settled in various towns in Gaul and in Spain where they keep their identity until the middle of the 6th century.

Sarmatians: the Sarmatians are an ancient Indo-European folk related to the Scythians to whom they were often associated. In the fifth century the Sarmatians find themselves federated to the Romans in Gaul and in Britain, as vassals of the Huns or as an independent folk. In the 8th century, there is no longer a distinct Sarmatian group in Europe.

Asian nomads

Huns: folk made of a mix of populations coming from the steppes or from Central Europe, the Huns are not a threat any longer in the 6th century. However, their shadow still lingers in memories.

Avars: Asian folk who came to settle in Central Europe in the 6th century, the Avars own an Empire that goes from the Baltic sea to the Volga river and the Elbe river and from the Lusatia to the Don river. The Western branch of the Avars was exterminated in 822, their eastern branch remains independent until 1856 when it accepts Russian rule.

Britain Islands folks

Scots: Celtic folk coming from the North-east of Ireland, the Scots use piracy before settling into the island of Britain.

Gaels: this name defines the Irish populations that are not Scots. Used to piracy and raiding on Britain's shores, they try to settle there in the 6th century but are pushed away. In the 8th century they become acquainted with (and start fighting them as well) the Norse who settle on the island shores.

Picts: folk whose origin remains uncertain and who, according to the chronicles, received this name from the Romans because they painted their own body. Dwelling in the north of the British isles, they eventually merge with the Scots in the 9th century to create the kingdom of Scotland.

British-Romans: old Romano-Celt confederation, the British-Romans are the indigenous inhabitants of the Island of Britain. Opposed to the other populations of the islands, they gradually withdraw to present Wales and Cornwall. A part of them move to Armorica (nowadays Brittany) from the 5th century.

North African folk

Berbers: a group of tribes from North Africa living west of Libya. Descendants of the Numidians, this folk are quite autonomous all along their history, most of all due to the fact that a lot of them were nomadic or half-nomadic. In the 6th century, they first submit to the Vandals and then to the Byzantines (except in present-day Morocco), in the 8th century they submit to the Arabs.

Arabic folk

Arabs: this term defines all the Semitic tribes, Bedouins or not, coming from the Arabian peninsula. In the 6th century, these folks occupy most of the Arabian peninsula. In the 8th century, the great rise of Islam from the Hijra leads them as far as Persia and Europe. It will take crushing defeats against the Franks and the Byzantines (to whom they nonetheless take most of their empire) to hold up this momentum.

Levant folks

The Levant folks are, during the high middle ages, the heirs of the Phoenician tradition highly influenced by several centuries of Persian, then Greek and finally Roman occupation. In the 6th century, they submit to Byzantium, in the 8th century they fall to Arab rule.


Byzantium spread its empire to many peoples: Germans, Thracians, Greeks, Sicilians, Levantines, Egyptians, Isaurians, Persians... roughly describing this people would require a full article. We will get there sooner or later.

Roman folks

The Western Roman empire had spread its rule to many folks: Belgians, Gauls, Aquitanians, Greeks, Celtiberians, Lusitanians, Britons, Sardis, Scordisci, Hebrews (after the diaspora), Veneti... in the 6th century the identity of these folks is erased (this strikingly except the Hebrews). However some of them, like the Arverni, still cause trouble. We will speak about these people area by area.


It is important to remember that, more than ever, it is the education received as a teenager that will determine a character's profession. Therefore a warrior is a character whose adolescence was spent learning how to fight. That is why, even in the byzantine army, most of the fighters are civilians. A sage also is a person who received a full academic training that predisposes him to become a bishop, a treasury agent or a poet; this does not necessarily means that all the bishops, all the treasury agents and all the poets are sages.

Only some professions of the realm of arms are playable.


The Fighter is a war professional: aristocrat, professional soldier, mercenary. According to his culture, the warrior can or cannot have a civilian activity. They are the elite in the armed forces of a kingdom or of an empire and, as such, they are watched over by the powerful ones.


The rogue can either be a war professional specialised in quick coups de mains, or one of these characters who lives from plundering and looting at the border of their country, or ambushing their enemies: Saxon looter, Frankish scara, Roman praeventores, moor rider.


The thief is a character living on the edge of law whether it is for himself or under the protection of someone powerful. It is mainly a city and political animal; always available for bad deeds or rotten tricks, he relies more on his eloquence and his discretion than on the use of weapons to stay alive. Burglars, sicarii, impostors, pickpockets, spies... these shady characters can be found in all levels of society, in the poverty of backstreets and around the tables of powerful people.


In the complex social ladder of the Middle Ages, the common people comprises craftsmen, hunters, farmers, boatmen, breeders, public writers... if they are not slaves, these people pay taxes and owe a military service to their leader. The layman then has a trade that brings him food and he can also use weapons, more or less skilfully. Every character who is not an aristocrat will more than likely be a layman.


The outrider lives at the borders and in the broad wild areas. He spent all his childhood in these places and he knows how to live there better than anyone. This profession is best for the nomadic peoples or for the settled inhabitants of the steppes, even though exceptions are possible, at the discretion of the game master.


The sage is a character who has received an education and training related to literature and arts. This type of training is most of the time only accessible to the aristocracy but a character from a lower background can access it under a few conditions. The sages often are bishops, administrators, judges, poets, writers or story-tellers. They still can fight if needed.


The priest is a character trained for ecclesiastical life. Rhetoric, theology, rites and literature are his favourite areas of interest. He has few prospects except for a religious career.


Among the cultures offered by the Races and Cultures supplement, only the underground cultures are not accessible. The others can be played. Each culture will be detailed in future articles.


General type

The urban culture of the Roman empire has survived and overtaken the rural or nomadic aristocratic culture of the immigrants. If the first was mainly based on money trading, the second ones are mostly cultures of barter (both for goods and services). The proportions of the exchange types made vary a lot according to the times and the cultures and our purpose is not to rebuild the economic system of this time. We therefore leave to the game master the choice of the small details.

To make things easier, we consider that the whole of Europe uses the Roman monetary system. Most of the currency exchanges are made with gold solidi and silver siliqua. The time that interests us is too troubled to see the rising of complex economic mechanisms. We will simply consider that money is only used for long distance exchanges, for taxes and trade in urban areas. The monetary system prevails in cities and in the highly built up areas. Elsewhere and in aristocratic relations, trading in kind and in service dominate.

The monetary system is used as a standard to the trading in kind. Some prices (a man's life, weaponry, compensations) are fixed in currency by the law but the payment can be made in kind. The coins that are used the most are the siliqua but in some areas only the gold currency remains.

Local type

At the local level, the economic model can vary according to specific situations and be completely different to the general ideal. It is up to the game master to choose if he wants to apply the general economic model to all the places visited by the players or if he wants to create specificities (a local authority stamping its own currency, for instance).


The personal law principle has been substituted for the Roman universal law principle, which remains in the areas controlled by Byzantium. Everyone is judged according to the law by his status: a Roman is judged according to the Roman right, a barbarian is judged according to the law of his folk (which undergoes a progressive romanization), a cleric according to the canon law. If a lawsuit opposes two persons from different folks or status, they first have to agree on which law to use. A trial occurs only if both litigants come freely in front of the judges.

Judges don't try to enforce the law at all cost but strive to maintain public order, violence being a recurrent problem since the 3rd century AD. They use written law only when an agreement can't be reached, otherwise judges seek to reconcile both litigants. In order to reach this goal, they sometimes submit them to ordeals (for example: the first to grab a ring in a cauldron of boiling water wins the case) or order a judicial duel ; the two litigants, faced with the choice between injury (or even death) or reconciliation were expected to choose the second option.

Muslims did apply Islamic law as a universal one, thus following the Roman and Byzantine tradition.


Religion is a key part of the unfolding of events during the Middle Ages. Faith is an important part of a person's, a folk's or a kingdom's identity. The inhabitants of a country may well refuse to be lorded over by rulers that don't share their faith. A ruler that comes to an agreement or an alliance with a folk or a kingdom that does not follow the same faith as his is in for troubles with clergy, nobility and commoners. Christians and Muslims were notably far more intolerant than pagans. Men and women of this time are often quite sincere about their faith, even though the (mis)interpretation of holy writings often allowed for dreadful acts. Some saints (like Saint Columbanus) even had a tendency to speak one way and act another. All in all, most people really cared for their immortal soul's fate.


The late Roman Empire witnessed the rise of Christianity as a major, then official, religion. When the Western Roman Empire crumbled on itself, the Church is the only imperial institution that survives. It even takes advantage of the situation, even though the new masters of western Europe are either pagans or heretics, because, without any administrator nor army to defend them, people expect their priests and bishops to negotiate with the new rulers for them. For the barbarian kings, faith is key to the population's heart. They first tolerate, then protect and at last convert to the Christian faith. Conversions occur several generations after the settlement of barbarians in the former Western Roman Empire, suggesting that it may well have been (partially) sincere.

During 6th century AD, the Christian church is divided between Rome for spiritual issues and Byzantium for worldly ones. The emperor intervenes in many religious debates for political reasons: he is well aware that religious decisions have an influence in the western barbarian kingdoms and uses this tool in an efficient way. He also needs his empire to be at peace and thus struggles to extinguish religious quarrels; these indeed often led to brawls that in turn led to more serious fights. Those interventions were sometimes brutal (a pope was held prisoner for several years, which did not please Gaulish clergy and Frankish kings).

In the 8th century AD, the Christian world has changed. Rome is now the centre of the catholic church. The struggle against paganism goes on but another faith, Islam, has appeared and progresses rapidly. The gap between Rome and its interpretations of the writings and the political needs of the Byzantine emperors widens, presaging the future schism. Rome's influence collapses in most of the Mediterranean and depends upon its hold over the catholic kingdoms to keep existing. Byzantium has lost most of its empire to the Muslims and struggles to recover from the blow. It is a period of decline and isolation that further strains the relations between the two cities.


The Muslim religion rises between the 6th and 7th century AD in the Arabic peninsula and then expands rapidly. A continuance of Hebrew and Christian faith, it nonetheless brings deep and significant differences in dogma that aggravates the conflicts provoked by the Arabic expansion.

Islam offers a social ladder that is possible to climb. This greater degree of freedom and opportunity easily seduces those that were stuck in the catholic (i.e. Roman) world, where one's fate was decided by birth.

Finally, Islam was far more tolerant than Christianity was. This policy allowed the Muslims to be easily accepted by the populations they conquered and resulted in relatively peaceful societies. Islam rooted itself in Europe in a few decades, catholic Europe needed 7 centuries of struggle to return it to Africa.

Pagans and idolatry

Paganism is the belief in a god that protects a country (a pagus). Pagan faith was already rapidly dwindling when the Western Roman Empire fell apart and Rome was quick to seize the opportunity to build its sanctuaries upon the ruins of pagan ones (like in Chartres, for example).

Idolatry is not linked to a place but to religious beliefs closer to what Christian faith is about. Gods from Greece, Rome or new ones like Sol Invictus were quickly absorbed or replaced by the Christian faith as they had been subject to attempts at Syncretism with the latter. However, some other gods offered a longer resistance.

Isis had been brought into the Roman Empire during the first century AD and was progressively accepted as a replacement for mother-goddesses all over the Empire. The cult of Mary in the catholic religion partially takes root in Isis' one. The famed "black virgins" that are still present in some churches in Europe are actually remnants of Isis idols. During the 6th century, the Isis cult is still alive. During the 8th century it is either dying or has disappeared. However, it is necessary to point out that the worship of motherly idols is still alive in western Germany, where some idols still receive fruits and flowers as offerings.

Germanic gods (Tiwaz, Wotan, Donner, Fraujaz => Tyr, Odin, Thor, Freyr) were worshipped until the end of the Viking era. By the 6th and 8th century, some western Germans still worshipped those gods (Franks, Alemani, Saxons). Those same folks also worshipped water spirits, Saxons and Thuringians indeed had a habit of sacrificing prisoners to sea or river spirits in order to appease them. We do not know for sure what kind of values were upheld by this religion since it was never accurately depicted, nor can we completely trust the writings about the north Germans since most of the texts (saga included) were written by Christian clerics.

Indo-Iranian beliefs are almost all lost. Georges Dumézil has found and written down remnants of a large body of legends and epic tales he received by word of mouth from Ossetian tale-tellers. Such findings link steppe people to the Arthurian epic. But this is material for a whole story and it is not possible to develop it here.