Eric Lis

One of the fun things about medieval fantasy is that characters often don't know very much about biology, and can get into a great deal of trouble by trying to correct this.

One of the classic tropes of our games is that of the mage or other knowledge-seeker who gets into trouble through scientific research. I say trope of our games, but it's unquestionably one of the fundamental stories of literature, from Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll on down to modern masterpieces such as Sharktopus. The public has this somewhat unfair image of those who advance the march of human knowledge as being irresponsible and endlessly getting themselves into trouble by pursuing things Man Was Not Meant to Know. In actual fact, it's quite rare that a real-world scientist gets themselves into a situation that would make for a halfway decent horror movie (they usually get themselves embroiled more into a rather slow-paced legal drama). Still, in just about every long-term campaign I've ever played in -- and, to take my share of responsibility, most of those that I've run -- some brilliant, curious, slightly irresponsible researcher goes off in search of new knowledge and either creates, unleashes, revives, or otherwise triggers a crisis. In medieval fantasy, the guilty party tends to be a wizard, since they're the ones we think of as being the scientists of the era, as well as being the ones with both the skills and the inclination to reshape reality on a whim, but the rise of the Pathfinder system in recent years has opened the door for alchemists and other classes to take on their share of the blame. You don't have to be a wizard to get yourself into trouble through the quest for knowledge, though, and your research doesn't even have to be magical in nature. Especially in medieval fantasy settings, where the law is often openly based on religious authority (as opposed to today, when there's usually at least a token attempt to hide this fact), it's easy to get yourself into a great deal of trouble, not by warping reality, but simply by asking the wrong question.

Consider anatomy. I don't mean for that to sound dirty, but if that's the direction your thoughts go, take your time and get back to this when you're ready.

For most of human history, there was one obvious way for people to learn about anatomy: look at the body. The easiest way to study the body is, of course, to look at living bodies, who can give you permission, but the problem with living people is that it's very difficult to study their insides. As Douglas Adams once observed, if you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat, and humans present much the same problem. As such, for most of human history, there have been people who collected dead bodies and cut them up to learn what they look like on the inside. Unfortunately for would-be anatomists, just as there have always been people fascinated by opening up the human body, there have also always been those disgusted by the idea. Throughout much of human history, for ethical, cultural, or religious reasons, different parts of the world have had laws against human dissection, and the eras which medieval fantasy games tend to be based on often had limitations, if not outright prohibitions. Here are two examples which illustrate some of the ways in which dissection was limited, and the ways it affected medical knowledge.

In Medieval Europe, the exact laws regarding dissections, and researchers' reactions to those laws, varied tremendously by country and time period. For most of  Europe's history, dissection for the advancement of medical knowledge was permitted, if and only if it was done under the auspices of one of the main medical regulatory bodies of the time. Schools or researchers not associated with one of these guilds couldn't legally perform dissections... although we know from historical documents that they still performed illegal ones. Bodies often had to come from particular sources, and for many years, England only allowed dissection of criminals. The rules which allowed dissection contributed to a tremendous increase in scientific knowledge about the body and how it worked, and this facilitated the training of better healers. It also led to an actual black market on cadavers, and even the famous Burke and Hare murders, when there weren't enough cadavers to meet the demand. Just like most advances in science, allowing dissection simultaneously increased our knowledge while also providing the impetus for new and interesting crimes to be invented.

Europe forms the basis for most medieval fantasy games, but Skirmisher's own campaign setting of Kos is based more closely on ancient Greece. Ancient Greece and Rome were together a formative era in the evolution of medical science, and names such as Galen and Hippocrates are still some of the most important ones in medical history (in part because we ethnocentrically tend to forget about the contributions of Arabic physicians, but still, the Greeks produced some important men). In both of these civilizations, few physicians were able to dissect actual human bodies. In Rome, it was actually illegal to do so, whereas in Greece, it was merely frowned upon. The scholars of the day were restricted to studying the bodies of animals, and while this allowed them to form many useful observations about human anatomy and physiology, it also explains much of what they got wrong. My personal favourite example is that of the appendix. Appendicitis is one of the most common diseases in Western society and also one of the few that are portrayed both commonly and reasonably accurately in popular culture, but in Roman times, no one really understood it and, despite reasonably advanced surgical techniques, physicians were terrible at treating it. The reason? The physicians of the day drew their knowledge of human anatomy from studying monkeys and other human-like animals, most of whom had no organ analogous to the human appendix, and as such, generations of physicians had been taught there was no such organ.

All of this can have a number of implications for a game. NPCs who want to study bodies may hire characters to obtain cadavers for them... legally or otherwise. PCs with a scholarly bent may themselves need bodies to study or experiment on. Characters may be hired to find and stop someone performing illegal dissections, leading to a moral quandary if the dissector is motivated by good intentions. And of course, in perfectly good literary tradition, sometimes the person stealing bodies really is just a mad scientist... players do like their classic tropes, after all. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on September 8, 2013. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system