On the uneasy relationship between medievalists and the people who love medieval games

Historians in the News

I had a fat chance of finding a Dungeons & Dragons game in Kalamazoo, they told me. It was a harebrained quest. But it was a quest, at least, and that seemed appropriate.

In early May, I set out for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, the world's premier annual gathering of scholars who study the middle ages. The congress is probably the best place to hear the latest research on early vernacular Bibles and Norse myths, but my goal was to find a fantasy role-playing game.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had spoken to some youngish scholars who said they found their way to medieval studies via an adolescence spent playing D&D, the iconic role-playing game. I spoke to scholars at elite universities and scholars at sleepy institutions; to associate professors, adjuncts, and graduate students; to men and women. All of them had cast spells, slain goblins, and rolled the many-sided dice of Dungeons & Dragons.

They still seemed to love pondering the kinship between fantasy and the Middle Ages. But when I asked some of them whether I might find a role-playing game at the congress, their academic superegos kicked in.

"If you locate a D&D game, I will be extremely surprised," one of them, Jeff Sypeck, a medievalist blogger, wrote me in an e-mail message. "I can't imagine that such a pastime would be viewed fondly at Kalamazoo."

That response revealed something interesting and awkward: the uneasy coexistence of academic medievalists and the burgeoning subcultures of recreational medievalism (Quasi medievalism? Pseudo-medievalism? Neo-medievalism? The terms vary according to levels of interest or contempt). ....

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