May 24

A GM Reads: Monasteriales Indicia


The new year brought a new reading challenge for me. The plan was to read my way around Europe with a selection of YA novels. However, finding the books proved very problematic, so I began a new version of the Reading Around book reviews.


I now focus upon what a GM can take from the books I read. I lift out characters, events, creatures, plots or themes from each book. As a GM, you still need to read the book to gain the most benefit, but each review should have something for the GM.


My latest book is Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, edited by Debby Banham. This slim text is published by Anglo-Saxon Books. The website describes it as follows:


The Monasteriales Indicia is one of very few texts which let us see how life was really lived in monasteries in the early Middle Ages. Written in Old English and preserved in a manuscript of the mid-eleventh century, it consists of 127 signs used by Anglo-Saxon monks during the times when the Benedictine Rule forbade them to speak. These indicate the foods the monks ate, the clothes they wore, and the books they used in church and chapter, as well as the tools they used in their daily life, and persons they might meet both in the monastery and outside.

The text is printed here with a parallel translation. The introduction gives a summary of the background, both historical and textual, as well as a brief look at the later evidence for monastic sign language in England. Extensive notes provide the reader with details of textual relationships, explore problems of interpretation, and set out the historical implications of the text.


Read more at Anglo-Saxon Books


I love reading history books, especially about the early-medieval period, and earlier. Fantasy RPGs are enhanced by weaving into the setting a strong thread of historical facts. Small details from a history book can really bring a setting, or a culture, to life.


For the GM

Here are two ways in which you can weave this monastic sign language into your game. Firstly, it must be noted that the book deals with European monks, who lived in cloistered communities focused on worship and helping the poor. These are not the kung-fu monks of Asian history. See Gamers 2 for more on this debate.


My first takeaway from Monasteriales Indicia is simply the concept of a monastic sign language. This is such a cool concept, and adds a lot of colour to the monks in your setting. Now they can set themselves apart from other factions in the church, or culture, by having this secret language. The real sign language focused on the needs of monastic living, but there is no reason you could not expand this to cover broader communication. The concept of Thieves Cant as a secret language has its roots in AD&D. Monasteriales Indicia proves clerics can also enjoy a secret language.


The other lesson from Monasteriales Indicia is to justify simple sign language for any class. Paladins, mercenaries and all manner of military groups could adopt the monastic signs for use on the battlefield. What feels like a modern system of communication has roots back to the year 1000 CE, or perhaps earlier.



Happy Reading



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