You Can Say That Again: Medieval Language in Story Games

Published by: Atlas Staff
Many Atlas Games products call on players to tell a story of some kind, whether it's backstory for a horrible turn of events in Gloomor bringing tales of the magical and mysterious to life in one of our roleplaying games.

The language we use can make those stories more immersive. This is especially true for games played in another historical period. Whether you're in Ars Magica's Mythic Europe or a fairytale of your own construction in Once Upon a Time, medieval terms might be just the thing to spice up your next game.

Costumes at your typical Renaissance festival include elements from the Middle Ages to modern fantasy; our game Ren Fairepokes fun at these fashion inconsistencies. But what you hear at a Renaissance festival is usually Renaissance or Elizabethan (Shakespearean) language, so rest assured that your “milords” and “prithees” fit with the advertised time period.

Medieval language is something different, though. Fortuantely, there are excellent sources for medieval vocabulary on- and offline. The Scriptorium has an excellent glossary that includes technical terms for armor and castle-building, as well as many terms for everyday life, such as:
  • fletcher: if you know someone with this last name, their medieval ancestors made arrows.
  • enceinte: the area inside a castle's protective wall; this word is also the modern French word for "pregnant" (another kind of protective wall around a valuable area, if you think about it).
  • gallon: a unit of liquid measurement with different amounts for water, wine, and beer.
  • hide: a portion of land that can sustain one farmer's family for a year, about 140 acres.
  • motte: a mound of earth built around a structure for defense; not to be confused with a moat, which is a ditch that may be empty or filled with water.
  • scrivener: a person who could write new compositions, such as letters or legal documents; a scribe, however, only copied other works, and may even be illiterate.
And if your adventures in Mythic Europe get a little raunchy from time to time, this chart offers many helpful metaphors for the world's oldest pastime. You can be sure people in the mid-14th century did as much swiving and japingas their descendants do today. However, the best hope for some privacy in the Middle Ages was often outdoors, as evoked by giving someone a green gown, which refers to the grass stains often sustained by open-air lovers.Novels like Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and Hild by Nicola Griffith also bring the medieval world to life through period language and vivid descriptions.

Even if you find the words too difficult to work into your games and stories, you may learn a thing or two about modern words and phrases. For instance, a baby's bassinet is named for an armored helmet whose visor looks similar to the little hood that pulls up on the crib. And the fighting pell, a post used as a swordfighting practice dummy, gives us a way to tackle a problem: pell-mell.