Why every medieval historian should play Minecraft

by Katie Hawks

If you’re a medievalist who games, you’ll be thinking high level things about the interpretation of Vikings in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, or medievalism and the soundtrack of Witcher 3. If you’re a medievalist who doesn’t game, all this is an alien planet. But computer games can be interesting for us all. We medievalists must be mindful of how medieval history is represented or even exploited in games, but we can ourselves use games both to draw people into medieval history and to educate them about it (without them even realising).

The subject of my research, Merton Priory, has disappeared entirely above ground. The only thing that remains, apart from a bit of precinct wall, is the chapter house, and even then only its foundations. Merton is in south London; a victim of 20th-century sprawl, it’s not known for its medieval relics. How to show local people that this was the site of one of the largest and most important monasteries when they can’t see anything and, besides, they don’t know what a monastery was, presents something of a challenge. Virtual reality is an obvious solution. Step forward Minecraft, which is to the children of today what Lego was to my generation. In fact, Minecraft is best thought of as virtual Lego (and in a weird imitation game, you can now buy Minecraft Lego). If you haven’t heard of it, not just your nose but your whole head must have been truly trapped in a manuscript.

Recreating a heritage site in Minecraft is not an original idea. English Heritage has embraced it wholeheartedly. But EH used professional (adult) developers to recreate its buildings.  This is a missed opportunity – an opportunity to involve another sort of expert Minecraft developer who could do with learning a bit of medieval history: the child. This is something that teachers and parents at Haslingfield Primary School and in the town of Selby realised, and I hope using children to recreate past-scapes is something that more and more heritage organisations, teachers and researchers will do. If your research interest is even vaguely associated with a site, I thoroughly recommend hijacking a class or (as I did) kidnapping a couple of adolescent computer boffins.

a) What Minecraft can teach children about the medieval world

The main architect of Merton in Minecraft is Thomas, who started it aged 13 and finished a year later. Building a medieval monastery has to be one of the better lockdown pastimes. Since nothing exists of Merton, we had to rely on the records and the plans drawn up by the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and on various documentary sources like the priory’s cartulary. Thomas was also taken to various cathedrals by his enthusiastic father and probably now knows more about Early English architecture than he ever wanted to. I myself had little to do with designing the church and cloister, other than choosing the Early English period (13th century) because you can’t make round Norman arches in Minecraft blocks. Thomas had his first go at handling historical and archaeological evidence, and came up with a rather fine set of buildings.

Merton Priory cloisters

He was surprised when I asked him to remove the pews (which we’re used to in post-Victorian times) at the bareness of the nave and of the dormitory; there were a few other details which we discussed and he implemented. ‘Where was the library?’, he asked. Like pews, we have a post-medieval view of the library as a book-lined room; as children of the printing era, we expect libraries to be several times larger than medieval book collections actually were. The idea of books being relatively rare and precious enough to be stored in secure chests was another surprise to him.

Whereas the claustral complex was relatively straightforward to reconstruct, the guest complex was not. This area has not been excavated (being underneath warehouses, a market and a gas main), and it took me a month of solid research (don’t tell my supervisor) to work out even vaguely what might have been there and what it might have looked like. Using my guidance, Thomas looked at vernacular architecture and at excavations and reconstructions of other sites. His brother William dealt with the mysterious Building 10.

Building 10

I showed him just the location, the dimensions and the description – but not the interpretation. Building 10, the size of a garage, was between the fishponds and the infirmary kitchen. It had a pit or tank in it, about a cubic metre. William decided it was a medieval fridge, but he left a question mark on the label.

In a classroom, one could have a good debate about the function of buildings and about using different sites and their relative merits as analogies, as well as a discussion about interpretation and authenticity. Authenticity is an issue in Minecraft because of its essential blocky nature and its in-built pallets of materials and things. For example, there are no doves in Minecraft with which to fill your dovecote. Grey parrots are the closest available bird. Ingenuity is needed – latrines can be effected using cauldrons, and altars are topped with carpets; torches were attached to walls with invisible frames.

Parrot pigeons
Torches

Set up in the right way, Minecraft can give valuable lessons to children about handling evidence, the relation of architecture and landscape to people and events, and even a sense of chronology. Merton in Minecraft has been installed in the chapter house (a small museum). But children playing it don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at, so there’s an accompanying glossary on a big poster. Hopefully they will be interested enough by the Minecraft world to want to look at it, and hopefully, too, by the time their teacher says ‘today we’re going to study monasteries’, they’ll be able to tell the teacher all about prayers, scribes, blood-letting and the monastic hospitality industry.

b) What Minecraft can teach the medievalist about the medieval world

We know a lot about claustral complexes and a lot less about the other buildings in a monastic precinct – the guest houses, almonries and gatehouses. We tend, therefore, to give priority to the sacred space and see monastic hospitality as a secondary, lesser function. But, as one thesis argued, hospitality was as fundamental to monasteries as spirituality. A building to the west of the priory had been identified as a guesthouse during its demolition in 1914.

Guesthouse

Working backwards from the number of guests at any one time, this cannot have been the only one. What was this building, anyway? All that we know about is an ornate porch. A ground-floor hall? A self-contained porch or gateway, leading to an upper-floor hall? With adjacent chamber blocks? (It must be said that archaeologists and buildings historians can’t agree on floors and halls.) I came out of researching this with a fresh view of the monastic complex, and a fuller view of regulars’ lives.

There were other parts of the monastery that I’d not really thought about before – the sacristy and the treasury, for example. I found myself disagreeing with the site archaeologist about the location of the sacristy, which I think was in the south transept (a common arrangement), but he thinks is south of the chapter house. The treasury was probably on the first floor, somewhere between the church and the dormitory, in a place where canons would frequently be walking past and incidentally keeping an eye on it. Locating and understanding these rooms relied on the friendliness of scholars and their willingness to share research, itself a nice experience: never be afraid to ask an expert.

Thomas’ question about the library led me on to a load of research on the location and hierarchy of books in monasteries that has now made its way into my thesis. So, unexpectedly, has research about guesthouses and gatehouses – a nice reminder that we don’t know what we’re looking for until we find it.

In the 1970s, some archaeologists working on early medieval English sites decided to reconstruct a house. They built it, looked at it, decided it was wrong, and built a second. Their buildings multiplied and became the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. In case you don’t want to get your hatchet out, Minecraft is an excellent armchair solution to experimental archaeology. If your research is anything to do with a site or building, it’s really worth a Minecraft reconstruction – you’ll be thinking really deeply about the site, and various things will leap out at you that you’ve never considered before. And if you’re thinking at all about outreach or how to engage the next generations of medievalists, setting up a Minecraft project is low-hanging but tasty fruit.

I’m now thinking about recreating Merton in the 12th century – how to do it without too many Norman arches – and also Merton in 1538, as it was being demolished. These would both be interesting reconstructions. As for Thomas, when he isn’t studying for his GCSEs (including History), he can be found building a version of Tudor London – on a mountain side. Hello, counterfactual history.

Bird’s-eye view of Merton Priory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s