Digital Religion: How medieval is that church, anyway?

Jason Pitruzello
December 3, 2012

It’s been another profitable year for multimedia medievalism. The video game industry released a number of titles that sold well in 2012, along with the profitable release of additional content for existing titles. While we could have an interesting discussion about the industry in general, I thought I’d talk about how “the other half” live in neomedieval games. I’m talking about religious institutions, of course. When most people think of medievalism (even without our fancy academic vocabulary), they tend to focus on swords, sorcery, and aristocratic titles. The Church, theology, and monastic life are usually far less prominent, often reduced to window dressing. How many games have religious institutions reduced to “people who heal with supernatural powers” or “institution that calls for clichéd religious conflict while wearing funny clothes”? Yet, for all the clichés and tropes that abound, there are some practical issues that are often overlooked with religious institutions found in medievalism. How does the religious institution fund its activities? How does it recruit members? How does it practice politics? And how does it influence culture?

This is not merely a question of historical accuracy; even a fictional religion with a fictional religious hierarchy needs to be able to meet the basic needs of its members and adherents. After all, even cloistered nuns need to eat, even before we talk about the power plays involved in the election of various Popes or the obligations peasants owed church property in medieval England. Along these lines, I was thinking about how one could rate a religious institution in medievalism and see just how medieval it really is, without discussing the actual theology involved. A kind of structural approach, if you will, rather than comparing the theology of a fictional religion to the real theology of various religious traditions in the Middle Ages.

Some criteria I was brainstorming that might be applicable to a Western European/Roman Catholic flavored medievalism:

  1. Land or property ownership: Does the institution own property that generates revenue. Lots of religious institutions own land for their places of worship, but the generation of revenue to support the institution seems to me to be a fairly medieval way of operating. How many monks were supported in their prayer by a bequest from an aristocratic lord who donated the revenue from a piece of property?
  2. Legal power: Does the religious institution have the legal authority to judge and punish its own crimes? Does it enjoy any kind of immunity from secular legal authorities? Does it operate with the sanction of secular rulers?
  3. The sale of goods/services: Does the institution, as a matter of policy, sell or rent relics, sacraments, indulgences, prayers, or honorary positions?
  4.  Religious Warfare: Does the institution advocate warfare on theological grounds?  Does it couch warfare in terms of one religious tradition versus another?
  5. Heresy: Does the institution use violence or military force against heretics? Does it refuse to tolerate divergent theologies?
  6. Visibility: Is the institution a ubiquitous figure throughout a culture? Even if the common people do not understand the theology or recognize sub sects, do they easily recognize and show respect to members of the institution?
  7. Obligations to the people: Does the institution meet some kind of need of those outside the institution? Does it provide religious services of some sort, including days and places of worship?
  8. Secular interference: Is the religious institution powerful enough/important enough that secular political figures attempt to influence the selection of leadership within the institution?
  9. Training and recruitment: How does the institution perpetuate itself every generation?

Just to try out the criteria, I thought I’d use Star Wars: The Old Republic as a test case. Some of my colleagues have published on medievalism in the Old Republic setting before, but SW:TOR is the latest incarnation of such well received games like Knights of the Old Republic and The Sith Lords. Like it or not, Star Wars and its canon participates in medievalism with eagermess and aplomb. Given the money to be made, we should not be surprised.

A bit of background before I begin. SW:TOR is in a setting that is around 4,000 years before the events depicted in the famous films. It features all the common tropes you would expect from Star Wars, including Jedi Knights, smugglers, evil Sith Lords, glowing swords, and a religious tradition involving The Force. Relevant to our discussion are the two main religious institutions of the game: the Sith Empire and the Jedi Order. The Jedi are the putative “good guys” while the Sith are the putative “bad guys.” Both religious institutions have their respective iconography. Jedi tend to wear softer, earth-toned clothing with swords (called lightsabers) that glow a friendly blue or green, while the Sith tend to wear black or dark purple clothing with lightsabers that glow a bright red. The architecture of Sith buildings tends towards dark, grey cathedrals with the red emblem of the Empire adorning all faces, while Jedi buildings (the few they have) are bright and cheery with round contours. And just in case you weren’t sure if the Sith are supposed to be the “bad guys,” their use of the Dark Side of the Force tends to disfigure their faces, turning their eyes red or yellow, turning their skin gray (regardless of species or ethnicity), and giving their faces what appear to be varicose veins. Jedi tend to have a healthy flesh color (when human), have normal eye colors, and have no varicose veins in their faces (probably all that exercise they get).

We could go into a lengthy discussion of theological differences, but we’re here to talk about institutions and structures. In SW:TOR, how do the Sith and Jedi stack up as medievalisms?

  1. Land/Property ownership: The Jedi Order seems to own some land. They have a large temple on the capital of the Republic (which was destroyed in the last war), along with some facilities on Tython. By and large, though, the Jedi just have a few buildings where they meet and train. As far as I can tell, they do not generate any revenue from their lands, and the individual Jedi tend to live like itinerant friars. The Sith Empire, on the other hand, gives individual Sith Lords substantial property. Whole planets are owned or controlled by Sith Lords. Sith Lords also own slaves. In fact, Sith Lords own so much revenue generating land that they fight one another for scarce resources when the higher members of the institution do not move to prevent such warfare. An individual Sith Lord might be able to command entire economies.
  2. Legal Power: Jedi are an extra-legal institution. They have ties to the military of the Republic, but they have no official power to arrest others or compel them to behave in certain ways. The Jedi Order does have the power to police its own members, however. It may punish or even kill members who are guilty of crimes. But outside the confines of the institution, it only wields a small amount of legal power. The Sith Empire, on the other hand, gives considerable power to Sith Lords. Many civilians live in fear of the Sith; furthermore, the Sith equivalent to canon law disputes between Sith Lords (such as the conflict between Lord Kallig and Darth Thanaton) often spill over into the lives of those outside the Sith hierarchy. Sith Lords are also normally immune to prosecution or legal censure from non-Sith. The Sith police themselves with substantial violence (canon law disputes tend to be resolved with battles to the death, making the Sith a bit more exciting than Occam and Aquinas), but those outside the hierarchy of the Sith have very little ability to legally deal with the Sith.
  3. Sale of goods and services: The Jedi Order seems to have no visible means of support. It sells nothing to anyone. In fact, playing SW:TOR as a Jedi Knight, one can’t help but wonder how the Order is able to finance the construction of lightsabers or even feed its own trainees. The Sith do not sell anything, either. But since the Sith have planets dedicated to their support, they have a visible means of support that the Jedi do not.
  4. Religious Warfare: Both the Jedi and the Sith frame conflict across the galaxy in theological terms.  Each group sees the other as an abomination to be wiped out. While the Jedi normally preach non-violence and forgiveness, they are more than willing to engage in warfare against the hated Sith. For their part, the Sith see the extermination of the Jedi as a right and proper goal of warfare. The wars discussed in SW:TOR all have this religious dimension to them.
  5. Heresy: Both the Sith and Jedi have little tolerance for heresy. While the Jedi Order is more willing to try and bring a heretic back to the light, neither religious organization hesitates to use violence to resolve problems of heresy. Both Jedi and Sith use censorship to suppress heresy as well, as each organization buries the secrets of heretics far away from where its members might find them.
  6. Visibility: Both organizations are highly visible. While no one “worships” The Force in the same way that medieval Christians worship, everyone in both cultures recognize and shows deference to Jedi and Sith. Their iconography makes them easy to spot, and everyone knows the kinds of powers and abilities these people have.
  7. Obligations to the people: Neither the Jedi nor the Sith have obligations to the people. Because people in the fiction of Star Wars do not worship The Force as such, there are few needs for them to meet. The Jedi sometimes practice healing, but their abilities with medicine are no better than doctors using the high-tech gadgets of the galaxy.
  8. Secular interference: There is little secular interference in the affairs of the Jedi Order. Since they wield little power, there is less need for the Republic military or intelligence services to keep tabs on them. The Sith, on the other hand, are so embedded in the affairs of the Empire (it is called the Sith Empire, after all), that secular interference is normal. While the Imperial military and Imperial Intelligence would not dream of actually interfering in the election of Sith Lords to the Dark Council (kind of like the College of Cardinals with saber duels and supernatural powers), they do spend considerable time keeping tabs on influential Sith Lords. And when Sith Lords threaten the interests of the Empire, they are dealt with accordingly. Darth Jadus and Darth Malgus are both the subject of espionage and outright military action when they threaten the stability of the Empire (Jadus through terrorism, Malgus through an attempted coup and treason). Furthermore, the Minister of Intelligence will often complain to the player that Imperial Intelligence can’t do more to check the power of the Sith. These secular institutions see themselves in nationalist and patriotic terms, and they find the Sith Lords to be troublesome meddlers that are tolerated because of how powerful they are.
  9. Recruitment and training: SW:TOR does not really discuss the training or recruitment of either Jedi or Sith in any significant detail. There are vague references to the Jedi Order training too many students too quickly to replace losses from recent conflicts, causing a general decline in the quality of members (not unlike the medieval Church replacing clergy lost in the Black Death). For their part, the Sith seem to train many students, but the process kills most of the apprentices.  However, unlike the Jedi Order, the Sith tend to pass on positions of economic or political influence to their apprentices when they die (a fairly common occurrence given the lethality of political infighting). Maybe one out of a hundred students might survive training and apprenticeship, but that one apprentice could inherit the position of a Sith who has power equivalent to a Cardinal or head of a monastic order.

It seems like both organizations have some similarities to the medieval church, but the Sith are far more medieval than the Jedi. The Sith Empire, with its meshing of the Sith hierarchy to the bureaucratic institutions of the Empire shares far more in common with the medieval church of Western Europe, say 8th Century or later, than it does with contemporary political institutions. It is structurally medieval, even if the theology is in no way really connected to medieval Christian thought.

What do you, my distinguished colleagues, think about this kind of systematizing approach? I’m sure I’ve left out all kinds of criteria that might be employed, but does an approach like this have any kind of attraction to those who study medievalism in general, or digital medievalisms in particular? And what does it say about medievalism when the “bad guys” are the one with a more medieval religious hierarchy than the “good guys”?