The Ancient Roots of Role-Playing: Edward III's Medieval LARP
Today, everyone knows someone who’s played Humans versus Zombies. You, dear reader, have probably played it yourself. But did you know that when you run around your college campus with a yellow bandana and a Nerf gun, you are participating in a centuries-old tradition that an English king once used to start a war?
The term “Live-Action Role-Play,” or LARP, was coined some time in the 20th century to describe a form of play that combines childlike make-believe with increasingly rigid and stylized rules. Alongside tabletop games, LARPs are considered the analogue predecessors of the first rudimentary videogames, and were also heavily influenced by the concurrent popularity of Lord of the Rings and other contemporary medieval-themed fantasy. Hence LARP participants’ proclivity for incorporating foam swords and cardboard armor into their play.
In 1344, King Edward III of England held an event that a 21st-century LARPer would find more than a little familiar. He held a tournament, a common enough event in the later years of the Middle Ages. But at this one, the participating knights and ladies all role played as characters from the stories of King Arthur.
Edward surely grew up listening to the ever-growing canon of stories surrounding King Arthur. Evidence suggests that he was literate, as was expected of kings by then, and according to the royal library’s records he had a thick tome full of Arthur and his knights’ chivalrous exploits. Edward III’s love of jousting is also well-documented; apparently there was no occasion too small to commemorate with a tournament, because in February 1342 he held one for betrothal of his three-year-old son.
Edward surely wasn’t the first to fit the trappings of the King Arthur stories over a war game; he’s just the best recorded. But Edward was doing more than playing a boyish fantasy when he commissioned the Round Table at Windsor and held his joust in 1344. He was also making a calculated political move. In their scrupulously researched book Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor by Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown, the authors write:
Let’s look at the game itself. As with most of medieval storytelling, it was almost entirely performative, so what records we have of it were made after the fact, probably by scribes or historians who didn’t participate in the festivities themselves, who may not even have witnessed them. Surely the players and designers had little to no thought of recording their rules and deeds, as oral storytelling and memory was the popular mode of communication. Besides, the rules of one game didn’t have to hold for the next, so long as the basic idea held, just as Lancelot could go on nearly any adventure in any story so long as he always made it back in time to rescue Guinevere from the fire.
That’s what made medieval conceptions of narrative and storytelling so easily adaptable into games: just as with today’s RPGs, there was no single fixed storyline. Instead, stories passed from person to person in the form of character archetypes, chivalrous codes, themes and places. There was always a man named Arthur, and he always became a king, but the manner of his ascent, his personality and his friends changed with each retelling, just as every playthrough of Mass Effect will see Commander Shepard saving the galaxy in a different way.
In other words, the medieval conception of storytelling was not unlike playing a game, or at least an interactive narrative. Just take away the virtual interface and replace it with the slower but just as powerful network called collective memory and word-of-mouth.
The narratives were unfixed, often literally unwritten (for a few decades more, at least), and that left the possibility for play. The imagery of Johan Huizinga’s “Magic Circle” of gamespace is rarely more apt than in Edward III’s grand LARP about the Arthurian Round Table. By combining story and sport into the image of the legendary Round Table, Edward inscribed a literal Magic Circle in which he and his knights could play. But Edward didn’t want the game to end with the joust. To borrow Johan Huizinga’s term again, the King needed an imperfect magic circle to make a real one: a real-life Round Table.
What makes Edward’s round table at Windsor so interesting isn’t just that it’s the best-recorded instance of medieval LARPing. Edward’s purpose in holding it was more than just to have fun. The king wanted to recommence that favorite royal pastime: war with France. But after several years of unsuccessful conflict–a period that would later be known as the start of the Hundred Years’ War–Edward III didn’t have the money or the support of Parliament. So he decided to appeal to the people. The Windsor festivities were intended to inspire the kingdom’s would-be knights. In 1344, the concepts of nationalism or patriotism were still half-formed or nonexistent, but the identity of the British isles as “England,” as one country and one people with a shared history and a shared pride, was beginning to emerge over the old medieval loyalties to fief and tribe. By evoking King Arthur, a figure that every inhabitant of the British Isles had claimed as a predecessor since the Dark Ages, Edward III was trying to appeal to a national English identity.
You’ve probably heard of the Knights of the Garter. The order was born from Edward III’s King Arthur games in 1344. Edward was trying to cultivate a community, a medieval “it-crowd” that would attract foreign knights as well as British ones to his banner and his battles. And it worked. In 1346 Edward invaded France again. In what is considered the greatest offensive of the Hundred Years’ War, his troops landed in Normandy and marched across France to take the cities of Caen, Crécy and Calais.
Using games to stir patriotic fervor, to recruit for a war…It sounds so medieval, doesn’t it? We like to think of games as separate from reality, as a means of escaping the ambiguous rules and goals of “real life” for the ordered and tangible ones of a play-space. But modern parallels to Edward III’s game are not impossible to find. In 2002 the U.S. government released an online FPS called America’s Army, a game that they hoped would increase recruitment levels as well as general enthusiasm for American military exploits.
Live Action Role Play is not a twentieth century invention. And games are rarely just games–fiction and shared play have a powerful effect on players’ real world identities. The Magic Circle is never leak-proof, and some people have taken advantage of its porousness to effect political and social change. In 1344, Edward III of England took the story of King Arthur and fashioned rules from it. From those rules, he then created a space for play. And in that play-space, he cultivated a movement that resulted in a war, and stoked the flames of a national British identity.
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor by Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga. London: Roy Publishers, 1950.