Rome to Your RPG: History of Paladins

Covered in metal, painted with symbols of religion and country, all while brandishing dangerously edged weapons or massive clubs. What better way to parade justice or the strength of an authority? Paladins, Knights, and Clerics share a lot of commonalities in history and, over time, the three have blended a lot in fantasy fiction. How did this happen? Where did the Paladin come from?

Knights vs Paladins

We can find the word “knight” used to describe people of modern day, and does not necessarily refer to a plate armored person with a sword and shield. We’re familiar with the word “knight” in our times, but the armored figures started out simply as riding on horses and doing the will of their lords. Thus, they were originally called “chevaliers”. Although, it is these chevaliers that exercised a sentiment common to the strong-arms that would grow into paladins. It helps to know where the word “knight” comes from, as it emphasizes that sentiment.

A knight swearing fealty to David I of Scotland

During medieval times, knights were servants and not always seen as heroic. Feudalism, the social system of the times, organized who served whom by oaths of fealty. In general terms, Lords were at the top, having power over serfs, who were the general working class. There were many social ranks of people to ensure that order was kept between the lords and serfs, on of which was the knight. If it came to violence or physical enforcement, the lord would call upon their knights to defend or enact their wishes.

Hence, the root word of knight, “Knecht”, means a male servant.

Any person with enough money could hire a knight, much like an armed bodyguard or form of security. Knights serving Rome, however, would have been a tremendous honor, and quite the social status too. As a knight of Rome, it would have felt like serving more than just a nobleman, but serving the world at large. In fact, Rome was so large that it must have been blessed by the Gods, for how else did they become so powerful? The myths and tales of Rome’s origin are plentiful, but one of note here are the hills of Rome.

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Paladin’s Birthplace: The Hills of Rome

The founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, grew up at the seven hills, making them the focal point of Roman history. The hills of Rome are so pivotal to human history, that we still use words inspired by them today. The Capitoline, for example, is the origin of “Capital” – the focal location of a country. Indeed, the seven hills were the focal point of Roman history.

Seven Hills of Rome

The Palatine Hill is where some of the largest and most decorated Roman buildings and temples were built. Knights who served Rome and enforced the wishes of the city served the Palaces and the Gods whose temples were built there too. Not only were these knights serving the people of Rome, they served Gods. Hence, those serving as knights to the Palatine were Paladins.

But how did the term come from this hill in Rome to general use?

From Rome to the World

Paladins watch as Charlemagne grants the sword Durandal to Roland.

Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Franks, sought to fight Muslim advances in France, meeting their armies at Roncevaux Pass, a path leading through the Pyrenees mountain range which borders France and Spain. To ensure Charlemagne had the best chance in battle, he took with him the Twelve Peers: Knights who were sworn to Rome, the emperor, and their Kingdom. Mind you, they weren’t called knights at the time, they sworn the oath, sworn to Charlemagne. Therefore, as they are serving Charlemagne and his palace, they were Charlemagne’s Paladins.

While there are many key figures in this story, one will later grow into a modern day heroic Paladin: Ogier the Dane. Originally, Ogier reblled against Charlemagne, getting lost in a blood feud. Charlemagne eventually found Ogier and placed him in captivity for many years. Ogier was treated well, educated, and fed, which persuaded him to help Charlemagne defend his castle when it was invaded by a large Saracen army. Ogier did so, defeating a supposed giant named Brehus. This solidified Ogier’s alliance with Charlemagne and his empire at large. This tale of conversion – gaining allegiance from a rebel – is a common theme with Roman tales, which orders of knights will explore to share.

Monastic Orders

Since the Battle for Roncevaux Pass, many more monastic orders would form. Some famous orders include the Knight’s Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Order.

In fact, these monastic orders contributed to the development of banking and hospitals: places where knights could redeem coin or find help for their health. They could extend these services to the general people, providing coin, care, justice, and more.

Flag of the Knights Hospitaller (Order of St. John) – Later adapted to the country of Switzerland. In 1864, the Geneva convention would use the inverted symbol to indicate medical staffing and hospitals.

I believe we might find the inspiration for “Laying on Hands” here, as it has always been a strong religious gesture to be able to heal the sick with just the touch of a hand. Just as Jesus (and many other figures), a touch could heal you of your ailments, removing curses or disease.

Ogier the Dane – Father of the Fantasy Paladin

What links Charlemagne’s campaign to the fantasy of today? Ogier the Dane, who first made an appearance in the Song of Roland, the tale of Roncevaux Pass. Tales of Ogier traveled throughout Europe, all the way to Denmark, where his name was translated to Holger Danske. He brandished the sword Cortain (or “Cortana”), fighting for the people until he finally chose to wait in slumber.

It is said that Ogier is sleeping in the castle of Kronborg, Denmark. When the world needs him most, he will awaken and lead the world to prosperity, for the sake of God and good of all people. It sounds far too familiar to Arthur again, and I’m curious to compare the two, but what is more intriguing is that the two share a divine connection: knights in service to God and the kingdom of people.

Ogier the Dane, aka Holger Danske. Statue by Hans Peder Pedersen-Dan, at Castle Kronborg, Denmark.

Ogier was such an inspiration that authors would continue to speak of him for centuries to come. Throughout history, artists like Hans Christian Andersen and Hans Peder Pedersen-Dan would write tales and build sculptures of Ogier. In 1961, Poul Anderson wrote “Three Hearts and Three Lions” which told a story of a character in modern times being sent back in history, being turned into Ogier. This story inspired Gary Gygax, who would take these characteristics to form the modern fantasy Paladin for the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Not often do I find D&D directly integral to the history of these classes, but it is definitely clear here that this lineage of inspiration brings us to the prominent RPG, making it clear that something as simple as reading a book in your basement, then developing your own custom game, can have significant waves of inspiration for centuries to come.

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