Posted in Medievalists.net
March 27, 2022

Assassin’s Creed and the Middle Ages


By Matthew J. Theriault

“‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’ The wisdom of our Creed is revealed through these words.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

This is the main maxim of the Assassins as depicted in the Ubisoft developed series Assassin’s Creed, but it’s more apt as a description of the games than as the guiding principle of the secret society which serves as their protagonists. Nothing from history as we know it is the full truth in the canon of the series. What is true according to common knowledge – that the Order of Assassins was an Islamic sect whose operations were limited to the Middle East in the High Middle Ages – is in the game’s world a fictitious façade. In Assassin’s Creed the Order was an agnostic global brotherhood with origins in Ptolemaic Egypt and operating continuously for centuries into the present period.

This premise allows for everything to be permitted. Though the setting of the series started in Outremer during the Third Crusade, it is free to explore any place and time in human history or prehistory. The games have explored relatively grounded settings such as the Peloponnesian War, Victorian London, and the American and French Revolutions. But because everything is permitted, they’ve also gone to Hades, Elysium, Atlantis, Asgard, Jötunheim, and Valhalla. Despite these digressions into hidden histories and mythological settings, where the games decide to depict actual history, they do so with reverence and relative accuracy.

Every mainline installment in the Assassin’s Creed series has been a third-person action-adventure game, the camera close behind your character as he traverses increasing vast open worlds. The action takes place in real-time, with fluid movement for both combat and exploration. Traversal is inspired by parkour, with the Assassins able to climb almost any surface, from the side of a building to a sheer cliffside – and then get back down with the series’ signature “leap of faith” wherein the protagonist performs a trust fall from hundreds of feet high – always walking away unscathed thanks to a fortuitously placed pile of leaves or hay.

After fans and sales alike began to feel the fatigue of its annual installments, the series saw a soft relaunch in 2017 with Assassin’s Creed Origins, beginning a biannual release schedule for the new trilogy. Responding to the critical and commercial success of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Origins and its sequels switched genres, increasingly incorporating elements of role-playing games, replete with stats, character levels, and lots of loot. This has allowed for greater character customization, limited at first to weapons and armor in Origins, but by the most recent release, Valhalla, players could change up their character’s hair, beard, tattoos, and even dialogue.

The central conceit behind the franchise is the Animus, a device that allows users to experience genetic memories passed down to them by their ancestors. Thus the modern-day Assassins, belonging to an unbroken line dating back to before the Roman Empire, are able to acquire the skills and knowledge of their forefathers’ hundreds of branches high on their family tree. The same Animus technology is employed by their perennial adversaries, the Templars. These are identified with the real world Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. In the games’ fictional history, their order was not founded in Jerusalem in 1119 A.D., but rather under the auspices of Alfred the Great in Wessex circa 878. Per many modern conspiracy theories, it survived its formal dissolution in the early fourteenth century and persists into modern times.

Of these ancestors, only two depicted in the main series lived during the medieval era, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad and Eivor, the protagonists of the first and latest games in the franchise, respectively. Altaïr is a Syrian assassin first introduced in the original Assassin’s Creed on Xbox 360 in 2007. The game is set in 1191, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Third Crusade. In an early mission, Altaïr’s violation of its three tenets first introduced players to the titular Assassin’s Creed:

  1. Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent
  2. Hide in plain sight
  3. Never compromise the Brotherhood

Altaïr’s redemption and restoration back into the Brotherhood is predicated on his successful assassination of nine high-ranking targets, setting the formula for the first few games in the series, whose gameplay focus was much more on sneaking and stealth than fighting in open battlefields, as embraced by recent entries. This was partially a limitation of the Xbox 360’s hardware, which would not have been capable of rendering scores of combatants.

Altaïr’s journeys take him across the Holy Land to three notable cities: Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Though these are really only something of a sketch, future titles in the series would make the settings just as much of a character and just as faithful in their recreation as the historical individuals which populate them. So much so that the recent trilogy introduced a subseries known as Discovery Tour. Created for the classroom, these products allow teachers and students to move through the open worlds created for Assassin’s Creed Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla. Stripped away are the game’s story and combat, replaced with guided tours, serving as virtual museums.

While several of Altaïr’s targets were wholly original characters, a number were historical individuals, with whose lives Ubisoft took creative liberties to fit within the fiction. These include Garnier de Nablus, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller; Sibrand, Grand Master of the Knights Teutonic; and William of Montferrat, the father of King Conrad I of Jerusalem. His final target is Robert IV de Sablé, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Altaïr confronts in the camp of no less a personage than Richard the Lionheart. Living up to his nom de guerre, Cœur de Lion suggests a trial by combat, with Altaïr slaying Sablé. Beyond Altaïr’s initial contract killings, he also comes into conflict with Rashid al-Din Sinan, the historical leader of the real-life Assassins, though in the game known only as Al Mualim (“the Mentor”).

Conspicuously absent is Saladin, sultan of Syria and Egypt, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the most notable Muslim leader from the Crusades. He is mentioned, but never directly depicted, despite dying circa the same time as the other historical individuals who Altaïr assassinates (date of death being a seemingly significant factor for Ubisoft in selecting which persons from history are included in the games as targets). This is perhaps due to Western historians’ hagiographical coloring of his character for centuries. Edward Gibbon observed in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “In a fanatic age, himself a fanatic, the genuine virtues of Saladin commanded the esteem of the Christians; the emperor of Germany gloried in his friendship; the Greek emperor solicited his alliance; and the conquest of Jerusalem diffused, and perhaps magnified, his fame both in the East and West.”

This idealization and idolization has continued into the present period, ranging from his pious depiction in Civilization VI to Ridley Scott’s obsequious portrayal of the sultan in The Kingdom of Heaven. Given such, it is perhaps preferable that Ubisoft decided to sidestep his inclusion instead of lathering on more undue and undeserving veneration. Historian Rodney Stark notes in God’s Battalions, “Jerusalem was an exception to Saladin’s usual butchery of his enemies… In most other instances Saladin was quite unchivalrous. Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitillars and then sat back and enjoyed watching the executions of the rest of them.” Rodney corroborates this by means of Saladin’s secretary, Imad ed-Din: “[Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison… Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his diad; the unbelievers showed black despair.”

Saladin’s sidelining comes despite the game’s disclaimer, displayed prominently at the start of every installment since the first, stating, “Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and backgrounds.” This is pure sleight-of-hand. While the dastardly cabal which Altaïr decimates ostensibly includes Christians and Muslims alike, what unites them is that their religious stations are often pretenses for craven pursuits of power. The insincere religiosity of the Templars is contrasted with the sincere irreligiosity of the Assassins, whose agnostic atheism is equated with empiricism and rationality. This dichotomy of faith versus science, religion versus reason, is delivered with all the nuance and subtlety of a stoned freshman after a single semester of Intro to Philosophy.

Religious adherents in general – and Christian characters in particular – are portrayed with palpably more sympathy in the other medieval era installment, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The game and its expansions span a wide swath of the northwestern world, including Ireland, Norway, Paris, and Vinland, but it is set primarily in East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex – the four remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms circa the reign of Alfred the Great. As such, for the first time since the series’ inception, a deeply divided religious landscape is once again the stage on which the action takes place.

This time around, however, the dynamic is not Muslim inhabitants versus invading Christian Crusaders, but rather Christian Anglo-Saxon inhabitants versus the invading pagans of the Great Heathen Army. It is to the latter that the protagonist Eivor belongs. Nor is this a cover for his agnosticism as an assassin; indeed, despite the game’s title, Eivor is never inducted into the Hidden Ones, as the Assassins were called at the time. Instead, he is a typical Viking, expressing casual credulity in the Norse pantheon (with his beliefs reinforced through the events of the game, as he is the reincarnation of the real Odin, and relieves his former life in the form of dreams and visions). As a heathen Viking, Eivor regularly engages in raids on abbeys and monasteries, stealing off with their precious plunder (though not slaughtering the brethren). But this Raid mechanic, far from valorizing the Vikings and villainizing the monks, as one would expect given the perspective of the protagonist, presents the Christians entirely as victims in these encounters.

In his recent The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginning of England 400-1066, Marc Morris offered two explanations as to why Vikings such as Eivor would’ve engaged in raiding: “This has lead to a more recent argument that they wanted this wealth in order to participate in the politics of their homelands, which were becoming increasingly competitive, resembling the kind of race for status and power that had categorized the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms almost two centuries earlier. A more straightforward explanation is that Scandanavians started seizing this wealth because it was theirs for the taking… If they had preyed on monasteries like Lindisfarne, it was undoubtedly because they were soft, isolated targets, located conveniently on the coast, almost begging to be relieved of their rich possessions; but it was also because attacking them was a way of striking an ideological blow against their Christian oppressors.”

The game accepts the first premise, that the political situation had indeed grown more competitive in Norway. It starts with the wholesale slaughter of Eivor’s clan, including his (the player can select whether to play as a male or female Eivor. Though Ubisoft has indicated that the canonical Eivor is female, my personal playthrough was with a male Eivor, and unscientific polling seems to indicate that was the same selection of the overwhelming majority of players, so this article assumes a male Eivor) father and mother. Though Eivor becomes the ward of King Styrbjorn Sigvaldisson, the king soon casts his crown at the feet of Harold Fairhair as part of the latter’s unification of Norway, a means of curbing the internecine clan wars. It is for that reason that Eivor’s adoptive brother, Sigurd Styrbjornsson, deprived the princely inheritance of a throne, leads an exodus to follow after the Great Heathen Army and start a new settlement in England’s East Midlands.

This sets the stage for Valhalla’s Settlement mechanic. Eivor, like the Norse and Dane invaders of tenth-century England, is no mere pirate. True to history, he and his clan are looking to put down their axes and warhammers and pick up some plowshares; to trade longships for dry land and longhouses. Thus the Raids and Settlement mechanics create a gameplay loop representative of a range of Norse experiences in England: raiding abbeys and monasteries nets Eivor’s Raven Clan resources with which they can build out their Settlement of Ravensthrope. This, in turn, allows Eivor to construct buildings such as barracks, allowing him to house and recruit jomsvikings to accompany him on further raids.

This leads back to Morris’ conclusion that the Vikings raided because it was easy. Taking to Twitter, he took umbrage with the game’s depiction of such, facetiously tweeting, “I am so hyped for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, in which Vikings travel through time to besiege late medieval English castles.” His criticism is warranted, though it bears mentioning that the Raiding mechanic otherwise fits his description of “soft, isolated targets, located conveniently on the coast.” Though all of the monasteries depicted in the game have an anachronistic number of guards defending them, the game is hardly Elden Ring; even with a satisfying amount of resistance, Eivor and the Raven clan are able to slice through the Christian clergymen quite easily.

Contra Morris, however, raiding in Valhalla is never depicted as an ideological blow against the Christians qua Christians. Indeed, though the raids are fun in themselves and essential to simulating the Viking experience in abstract, they create a ludo-narrative dissonance with the character of Eivor as he’s otherwise portrayed throughout the game. Eivor’s driving motivation throughout the main campaign is to have the various political players throughout England – Christian Saxons and pagan Danes alike – recognize the Raven clan’s claim to the land around Ravensthorpe. Towards this end he makes strategic alliances with factions of both faiths and acts as a unifying figure at points. During an excursion to East Anglia, Eivor ensured the marriage of the Norse shieldmaiden Valdis to the Anglo-Saxon Oswald, allowing the thegn to take his place in history as a client king of the Danes.

Valdis herself is a fictitious cousin of real Halfdan Ragnarsson. He and several other of the Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok take center stage in many of Eivor’s episodes. Though Bjorn Ironside and Sigard Snake-in-the-Eye are said to be dead by the events of Valhalla, their brothers Ubba and Ivarr the Boneless feature prominently throughout the narrative, the latter easily among the most memorable characters in the game. If their inclusion in Crusader Kings III can be called “simulation,” the aptest descriptor for encountering them in Valhalla is “realization.” They are not a mere set of stats and behaviors suggestive of the historical realities, but fully fleshed-out characters come to life in a modern-day version of a saga.

Ivarr’s most memorable moment in the game comes as he performs a blood-eagle, a torturous method of execution with which he is associated through Þáttr af Ragnars sonum (The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons). Eivor and Odin look on as Ivarr – blood-thirsty and battle-drunk – slices down the spine, peels back the skin, separates the ribs, and rips out the lungs of Rhodri ap Merfyn, the foe alive and suffering through most of the ordeal, the One-Eyed one watching with approval. This precipitates a holmgang between Eivor and Ivarr. In a flavorful moment of player agency, you can choose as Ivarr lays dying after the duel whether to place his weapon in his hand as he does, granting him entry into Valhalla, or to keep it from him and consign the killer to Hel.

If Ivarr is the most memorable and iconic of the heathen Viking characters in Valhalla, his counterpart among the Christian Anglo-Saxons is none other than Alfred the Great. The cinematic teaser trailer which served as Valhalla’s announcement strongly suggested that Alfred would be the game’s antagonist, a vile villain in the vein of previous Christian leaders in the series, his religiosity a mere pretext for power and ambition. The gameplay too points the player towards this conclusion. One of Eivor’s tasks throughout the course of the game is to hunt down and assassinate members of a secret society known as The Order of the Ancients. Killing minor members reveals clues as to the identity of those higher up the hierarchy – slaying those at the bottom points to the identities of the five Maegesters, and ending them in turn points to the identity of the Grand Maegester.

However, one doesn’t have to wait a few hundred years for Sherlock Holmes to show up on the scene – killing one or two Maegesters eliminates all possible suspects other than Alfred alone. Astute players will rightly realize Alfred’s position in the Order long before Eivor does. Thus the entire time that Eivor and Alfred are working together, the player is anticipating a betrayal. When I was playing through the game, I thought the obviousness of the clues to be a fault with the game design. As Eivor uncovers that the shadowy cabal who worshipped their gods in the Temples of Mithras, the game seemed to telegraph that Alfred’s guise as a “Poor Fellow-Soldier of Christ” was clearly a cover for occult dealings done in secret.

The genius of the game is that it so deftly defies these expectations. Alfred is indeed revealed as the Grand Maegester of the Order of the Ancients, a position he inherited from his brother Æthelred. But because Alfred is sincere in his Christian faith, contra the cabal, he secretly employs Eivor to eliminate everyone on the member rolls.

Both the player and Eivor alike are ignorant of Alfred’s plans still by the time of the climactic final mission of the main campaign, the Battle of Chippenham. Having previously allied with many members of the Great Heathen Army, Eivor joins them in the assault during Twelfth Night, surprising and slaughtering the Saxons. It’s a satisfying fight in itself, but anticlimactic as the end of Eivor’s story. Only after what would have seemed to be the end of the game does Eivor get a mysterious summons:

“Eivor of the Raven Clan of Mercia, The Order of the Ancients is all but destroyed and your good works in England are all but complete. One heather yet remains, the Grand Maegester of this contemptible order. Should you wish to finish your work, come to Athelney… ~ A Poor Fellow-Soldier of Christ”

There, Eivor witnesses firsthand the apocryphal account of the king disguised as a kitchen-boy being chastised by the cowherd’s wife for allowing her cakes – which he had oft and much enjoyed – to burn, having failed to turn them over. According to the game, the thing that had distracted Alfred from his domestic duties that day was his discussion with Eivor, revealing his role in the Order of the Ancient and plans to refound from its ashes a new order for poor fellow soldiers of Christ-like himself. In the end, the game, like so many since Asser, concludes Alfred to have been Great indeed.

Winston Churchill, writing in The Birth of Britain, appraises Alfred so: “This sublime power to rise above the whole force of circumstance, to remain unbiased by the extremes of victory or defeat, to persevere in the teeth of disaster, to greet returning fortune with a cool eye, to have faith in men after repeated betrayals, raises Alfred far above the turmoils of barbaric wars to his pinnacle of deathless glory.”

Alfred and the Sons of Ragnar are but the best of the many historical characters that the player meets face-to-face and grows to know over the story. It is in interacting with them and a number of other real individuals from history that Valhalla feels less like playing a video game and more like being strapped into the Animus, fully immersing oneself in the genetic memories of one’s ancestors.

Matthew J. Theriault is a writer from New Jersey who has penned scripts for channels such as Wisecrack, Today I Found Out, and Highlight History, and has published articles in AiPT!, Critical Distance, The Federalist, and The Hub City Review. You can follow him on Instagram.

Click here to read more from Matthew J. Theriault

Medievalists.net March 27, 2022 at 09:43AM

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