The Politics of the First Witches’ Sabbaths

Today, a standard component of the European myth of the witch is that witches are organized. They maintain heretical Satanic sects or covens and form a vast conspiracy to undermine the Christian order. From Faust to The Witch (2015), the idea is almost taken as a given. But it’s actually a pretty new concept. The […]

Earnest Pleas in Early Muslim Poetry

Khalifa ibn Khayyat was an Arab historian and religious scholar active in the 800s A.D. His history of the Umayyad and early Abbasid caliphates is one of the oldest to have survived. It records a lot more poetry than you see in Western histories. Most of these poems are put in the mouths of people […]

Professional NPCs from the Medieval Joke Book

Last month, we looked at some jokes from the earliest known printed joke book, the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini. This month we return to the Facetiae for more late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian jokes, each of which has at its heart a character who makes a great professional or tradesman NPC. Some readers of last […]

Tangling With the Night Watch

Societies, especially cities, have handled the enforcement of laws a lot of different ways in different places and times; the ubiquity of police in the 21st century can make it hard to imagine what other systems might even look like. One particularly gameable institution was the ‘night watch’. This system was found in a few […]

Lower-Class NPCs from the Medieval Joke Book

The earliest known printed joke book, the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, is a fabulous window into how this late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian saw his world. It’s also legitimately very funny. This week we’re going to look at seven jokes from the Facetiae, each of which has at its heart a character who makes a […]

Apostolic Succession, Donatism, and the Hidden Pope

We got a weird one this week, folks! This time, we’re going to look at the principle of apostolic succession in the Catholic Church, how it underpins the authority of the pope, how that triggered a revolt in the fourth century, how it impacted the Western Schism of 1378-1429 when there were three rival popes […]

Lord Thomas of Marle, the Wickedest Man of His Generation

Thomas of Marle (1073-1130 A.D.), the Lord of Coucy, was a Medieval French nobleman so evil that the King of France, the Catholic Church, and his own father all tried to destroy him. The era’s chaotic politics gave Thomas the opportunity to rampage across the landscape – and sometimes threw him a lifeline when the consequences […]

The Fall of Caliph Uthman

Uthman was the third caliph: the third religious and political successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Uthman’s rule was contentious, his downfall ugly. It’s a fascinating case study and a terrible tragedy. The last months of his reign saw at least three factions battling for control of his empire, but all the politics was done on […]

Ibn Battuta’s Maldivian Coup Plot

We’ve talked twice before about Ibn Battuta, the medieval Moroccan traveler. This time, we’re going to talk about his adventures in the Maldives, a paradisiacal tropical archipelago south of India. In the Maldives, Ibn Battuta got pressed into service as an Islamic judge, let his bad attitude get him into political trouble, and plotted a […]

The Heretic Vendetta

Last week, we talked about the village of Montaillou around and after the year 1300 in (what is today) southern France, and how it makes a great adventure site: full of heresy, political rivalry, and interpersonal drama. This week, we’re going to look at inter-household drama in Montaillou, focusing especially on the vendetta between the […]

Montaillou: The Spy-Infested Anthill Village

A lot of RPG adventures are set in villages. Today, I’ve got a real-world Medieval village that’s just screaming to be fictionalized and dropped into your campaign setting. As you’ll see, it’s got loads of baked-in plot hooks that transcend the Medieval genre! This is the village of Montaillou, in what is today France, in […]

Xuanzang and the Five Border Towers

In the chaotic years of the early 7th century, China’s new Tang dynasty closed the western border with Central Asia. But that didn’t deter Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk, from leaving China in search of knowledge and religious truth. In order to do that, though, he first had to sneak across the border. Xuanzang’s trek through […]

The Glass Delusion

The glass delusion was a weird pathology common in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance where the afflicted believed they were made of glass. It was also popular in literature, with some interesting changes to make it more suitable for fiction. The whole thing – history and fiction both – is super gameable! This post is […]

The Court of the Khan

This post is brought to you by beloved Patreon backer Colin Wixted. Thanks for helping keep the lights on! If you want to help keep this blog going alongside Colin, head over to the Patreon page – and thank you! The emperor, Möngke Khan, lived in an orda (tent city) larger and more splendid than […]

Emissary to the Mongols

The Catholic powers of Medieval Europe didn’t understand the sudden intrusion of the Mongol Empire into their sphere of influence. Nonetheless, nations must communicate with one another, even those they don’t understand. So it came to pass that in 1253 King Louis IX of France dispatched an envoy to the Mongol Empire. Ostensibly, this was […]