What is a Paladin? | Know Your Fantasy

Hey, folks,
Time to crack open a new series idea I have been batting around for a while now. I’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons and
Dragons lately, and have always been a fan of fantasy. One of the things I was curious about though,
is where some of these concepts that show up over and over again in fantasy come from. So, to kick off the series, let’s find out
what a Paladin is. I’m Tristan Johnson, and this is Step Back
History. For those not down with fantasy games, the
Paladins are portrayed as holy warriors. A knight who wields a big hammer and holy
magic. So, it might not surprise you the Paladins
were knights. Their name comes from the Latin word Palatine,
which in the Roman empire was a word for a government official. Paladin was the name for members of the round
table for the legendary king Charlemagne. Ok, so Charlemagne was an important figure
in European history. The collapse of the Roman Empire shattered
Europe. Charlemagne is famous for conquering enough
land to claim he could be the new emperor of a Catholic Roman Empire. The pope crowned him, and he became the Holy
Roman Emperor. Today, he’s considered a founding figure
for western Europe, especially for France and Germany. So Charlemagne is quite a big figure in western
Christianity. His knights then were also considered important
for the whole Christianity thing. There are a lot of legends written about these
Paladins, some true, but many many more likely fiction. The first use of the word is in reference
to not companions of Charlemagne, but one of his Vassals named Roland. We don’t know much about him, except he
was a lord who died in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. This battle was an important one. The Franks fought against Basques in a pass
in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Franks lost and is one of Charlemagne’s
only defeats. However, they consider it an epic defeat,
like a medieval Alamo, and it cemented Roland and his Paladins as legends. It’s all written down in a 12th-century
book called the Song of Roland, one of the oldest pieces of French literature in existence. The Paladins then had fictional stories told
about their exploits in a number of events. Some would were based on other famous 8th
century exploits of the Frankish Empire, such as their clash with the Umayyad Al-Andalus
documented in a book called the Marca Hispania. This was a period in which most of Spain was
the territory of Muslims from the kingdom of Al-Andalus, and so the Paladins gained
even more of a reputation as bold warriors for the Christian cause. These stories then ballooned into a cast of
characters, known as the twelve peers, or the twelve Paladins of Roland. There’s Oliver; Rolands best friend, Gérin,
Gérier, Grandonie, Bérengier, Otton, Samson, Engelier, Ivon, Ivoire, Anséis, and Girard. The names and membership of the twelve peers
changed at different points, but the number did stay at twelve. It’s an important number in Christian symbology. During the Italian Renaissance, the stories
of the Paladins were a craze. The Italian versions of William Shakespeare
Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosta wrote plays, and books, and poems about the
Paladins. Their list of Paladins turned Oliver into
a rival of Roland, a couple were Muslims who converted to Christianity, a sorcerer, the
Duke of Bavaria, and Ganelon the Betrayer. The character of Ganelon appears in the famous
Dante’s Inferno. This would be the peak for Paladin stories. Charlemagne stories went into decline, probably
due to the whole Protestant thing, and the term Paladin began to become a word for any
chivalrous hero. The English borrowed these stories and made
their own famous king with a round table of knights. Yeah, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round
table are based on Charlemagne and the Paladins. In the 19th century, poets, artists and authors
wrote a lot of new material about King Arthur and his knights, but Charlemagne didn’t
get the same attention, which gave King Arthur the fame, and the Paladins relative obscurity. I should mention J.R.R. Tolkien found out about this and was shocked
to find English mythology was of all things FRENCH. His Middle-Earth work was a way to build an
original English mythology. Stories about the Carolingian knights have
faded into obscurity, but Paladins still exist as a term for chivalrous knights. Paladins are in every fantasy video game today,
however, thanks to Dungeons and Dragons. The D&D Paladin is a holy warrior, playing
up all those legends about great heroic knights of chivalry, but also with touches from the
image of the Crusader and Knights Templar. One such addition is the hammer. Often depiction of Paladins in fantasy includes
hammers. This comes from the crusades, when priests
joining in would use a mace or hammer instead of a sword, supposedly because they couldn’t
draw blood. I tried to look up how true this was, but
couldn’t get it verified. So the fantasy Paladin comes from early medieval
knights who fought for the holiest emperor in Christian history, who then had many fictional
tales told about them through the centuries. Mix that with the image of Christian crusaders,
templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic knights and you have the modern day Paladin. Oh, I should mention I pitched the idea for
this series to Patrick from the channel Name Explains. If you click on the thingy or look in the
description, you’ll find out why they call Hobbits halflings in Dungeons and Dragons. Also, I’d love to return to this series. What fantasy staple do you want me to investigate
next? Tell me down in the comments. Make sure to subscribe and push the bell notification
so my videos roll high initiative! I’d like to thank all of these chivalrous
knights, especially Sir Kerry the Bold and Lady Don the indomitable. You’re making this all possible. Now, grab another Diet Pepsi, and roll a history
check for the next, Step Back.

Comments 71

  • warlocks

  • I'm not sure, but I think the term 'book' is problematic when describing the song of Roland and other medieval literary works of that kind and period.
    I think the concept of a book as a solitary defined literary work is a much more modern concept.
    I've heard of works described as books in the medieval period, for example, Gregory of Tours History of the Franks is usually referred to as a book.
    but I always Knew the song of Roland as a poem, maybe because it was usually sung rather than read.
    maybe I'm totally wrong, I'm hardly a medieval expert so I might be spewing nonsense, and these are relatively not very important semantics, but these are my two cents on the matter.

    p.s 2:24 I never heard of a literary work called "Marca Espania"
    I found a book called Marca Hispanica written by 'Pierre de Marca' but he was is a Jesuits historian who lived in 16th century.
    so I obviously I found the wrong book, I'd love for more info on the literary work you were talking about?

  • Do elves!

  • talking about the history of the Wizard or why Thieve's guilds are an absurd notion (and why a thieve's lodge could be better) might be good.

  • Please explain the origins of drwaf myths

  • I always assumed the mace is of Norman origin. On the Bayeux Tapestry you can see important figures (like William) carring wooden maces as badges of office. Maybe it even came down from the Romans, whose centurions carried a special wooden cane?

  • Hey! Always curious why gnomes are considering intelligent in most fantasy

  • I tried to find out anything about the whole "priests can't touch blood, and thus they used blunt weapons" thing a while back, but the earliest reference to it that I could find, and which seemed like the earliest one anyone could find, dates back to the 19th century, and it uses a painting as evidence, where a priest uses a flail. But there were priests and holy men who went to the holy land carrying swords, there are contemporary depictions of that, which seem to indicate that the whole thing is just a myth. One that was created in the 19th century, and then popularized by Gygax & Arneson. They might even have re-invented the myth, as it's unclear if it would have been likely for them to even have known of the earlier references, and used it more as an excuse for game balance than as a well though out fluff reason.

    Also, hitting someone with a mace will draw blood. So you're not safe from that even if you just use blunt weapons.

  • "What's a Paladin?" And cue Spoony's rage.

  • Clerics, wizards, and dwarves are three I'd like to see.

  • No mention of Paladin from Have Gun–Will Travel? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Have_Gun_%E2%80%93_Will_Travel

  • I'm excited for this series. As for what to cover next — Beholders, Mind-Flayers, Liches one of those may be fun. Also, I'm interested in a breakdown of the pantheon! Especially St. Cuthbert who feels so out of place. XD

  • You should try necromancers or geomancers next. Way back when I did research on them and was pretty surprised as to their origins. Bears little resemblance to their modern day fantasy stereotype.

  • Ooh, careful about the Arthur legends. Though much of it is indeed brought from (and should really be set in) France, plenty of stories and characters are hella-old 'pagan' themes/personages wearing christian makeup. Same thing happened with Irish mythology, and I'd bet Norse culture got the same deal too, though I'm not familiar enough with it to say for sure.

  • Gotta put Liches on that list.

    Great idea for a series.

  • I was always super confused about Charlemagne's identity, only after your quick rundown I realised that he was in deed the same person as "Karl der Große" [Karl the great]…. Both eye opening and incredibly embarrassing, especially since I loved Karolinger myths as a child :/ .. How come the English use his french name?

  • Bold stance on old Charlie being French versus German.

  • Interesting. I just got back into D&D too. I haven't played since I was a kid but my family expressed an interest in playing so, we did. D&D got complicated as all hell since I've been away. We just kind of made up our own rules.

  • The Paladin is considered a Core class and has been since a portion of D&D's history starting at the 2nd edition. I knew quite a bit about all this already, having come across most of this stuff last year. The Fighter, Cleric, and Wizard are the oldest classes of the game, all being part of the early second addition with the Cleric being the only class to not have its name and basic mechanics undergo dramatic change since the first edition of D&D. Those could be the next set of videos in the series. But there's something I think needs to be addressed before going further, Character classes as a name and concept. Classic D&D and games like it, like the ever popular World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings online, have you choosing what a race and class. This doesn't seem like much on the surface but you have to remember these games have their classic settings in a fictionalized medieval world some kind. The same kind of period in our real world history where people were identified by clear societal classes that part of the whole system of how things worked. Taking this into account, calling the character templates players choose as signifiers in the game make things a bit murkier. The idea behind the Player Characters is that they exist outside the system in some way, hence the immense level of freedom they enjoy in most of the environments they find themselves in, but calling the archetypes players take on Classes have the unintended effect of saying no matter where the characters go they will always be part of the system and never apart from it.

    Granted, I didn't start thinking about this until recently but it's still something to consider before moving forward with the series. Why is the term Class used for potential archetypes in the game and not something a bit less socially restrictive? This terminology has been with us so long that that literally nobody has come forward and asked why the term is used. So, before the series moves forward maybe addressing classes as a practice both in the gaming world and historically should be addresed first.

  • Charlemagne, Paladins, Astolfo ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

  • Why was James Harden holding a hammer?

  • Loved it!

  • Where did you get that Boiardo was "the italian Shakespeare"? He was very important to italian literature, but nothing like Shakespeare to english. And please research pronunciation better: you made Ludovico Ariosto become Ludovica, a female name, and his last name Ariosta…
    Other than that it was good video, though!

  • Can you do a video explaining why elves see themselves often as the master race and where this trope of elvish supremacy came from?

  • Do dragons! Where do they come from?

  • How about golems?

  • I'm actually interested in druids and bards. I've heard the there are still people around who claim to practice those respective arts.

  • Anyone with European ancestry is most likely to be related to Charlemagne.

  • LOT OF KUDOS for naming Boiardo and Ariosto. Their poems could be thought as precursors of the shonen manga/anime genre, with a lot of incredible feats, unrealistic geography and labyrinthine plot. I don't know if good enlish translations exist, tho (they're VERY long).

  • I would think that bashing someone's head in with a mace would produce a not insignificant amount of blood.

  • Great idea! I never really played D&D, maybe once a long, long time, but interesting addition to your channel to learn about the origin of fantasy concepts!

  • I'd love to see rangers going back to yeoman and ancient archers (the ones that could fire several arrows in succession).

  • :DDDD this series looks rad

  • "…so my videos roll high initiative" <-GENIUS

  • The myth about warrior priests (who were real) not using bladed weapons is entirely false and was actually started by DnD. It was simple lore blurb that people assumed had to have been based on something historic, when it wasn't. Actual groups of warrior priests, monks and even one pope engaged in combat in many different capacities.

  • Have you ever wondered about the origins of common races, classes, and monsters from fantasy? Check out this series looking into them! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2q27ciXwn7M&list=PLnpoOo7lhNnEK7of8Qua8mrfYsR61GflN

  • Being dispatched with a mace is typically far more messy than as with a blade.

  • Assassins.

  • You have Roland so where's moog?

  • This is pretty cool, I always assumed that Paladins were only based on the Christian Crusades. Its really cool to know that there is much more behind it.

  • Wait, so you do a whole video talking about the historical origins of paladins, and how that ties into D&D, but completely skip the crucial intermediary step of Poul Anderson's novel Three Hearts and Three Lions? The book, based on Matter of France (aka all the fictional stories about Charlemagne) that Gary Gygax read, and is to this day still listed in the PHB as "recommended reading"? For shame.

  • wasn't Beowulf refereed to as a Paladin in the original translation of that Epic? … the word just means, Hero?

  • Man, your Italian pronounciation is too awful for being someone who moves his hands around so much when he speaks. Come on, you're one of us in spirit. 😛

  • "I tried to look up how true this was but I couldn't verify"

    Why I love history

  • What about warlocks?
    That could be good for another episode.

  • When looking at maces it might help to look at it's impact on the body compared to swords. If a mace hits a limb, it would push it away, most likely breaking it. A sword would possibly cut through the limb. This bone crushing effect of a mace is better used on the head, where it would prove fatal generally.
    This also describes how the weapons would work against something like plate armour. Maces would be able to crush anywhere, causing damage. A sword would only be able to strike in a few places.
    So maces could be used to just disable people, but a broken bone was pretty fatal in those times, so I don't know if it really holds true

  • Long live the Hammerdin

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6av8Te5Tt0U hobbit video

  • I don't know how easy it would be to research but a video on druids would be really interesting. 🙂


  • What's a Paladin?

  • OK I have one for you… Gender switching…

  • Charlemagne didn't have a round table.

  • One Paladin of Charlemagne was gaining new found fame as you made this video.


  • I'm the Avatar. A Google search led me here. Thank you for the clarification!

  • Are Mages actually a thing? What about Elves? Warlocks?
    There are so many that seem so alien to the world I know I have doubts there are any real connections to that world.

  • You really know your stuff

  • Excellent commentary

  • You guys are all big nerds.

  • Just discovered your channel and I'm going through the "New to SB" playlist–great stuff here.

    Re: the Crusaders/Christian holy warriors/D&D clerics wielding blunt weapons thing: a couple years ago, I looked into this, and found a couple probable explanations. (Probably from some threads on the AskHistorians subreddit, and at least one gaming history site I can't recall.) The idea that ordained Christian clergy fought in medieval battles, but used blunt weapons to avoid spilling blood, dates back at least to the Victorian era, but is probably untrue.

    The main source for this assumption is the Bayeux Tapestry, where Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William the Conqueror's half-brother and second-in-command, is depicted in battle on horseback, wielding some sort of club. In fact, it's more likely the club is some kind of artistic shorthand for persons of high status: William the Conqueror is also depicted wielding a similar club on the same section of the Tapestry, and no one claims William was trying to avoid shedding blood.

    The notion would probably have been alien to a medieval warrior anyway–in the medieval period, maces and hammers were specialized anti-armour weapons used by knights and men-at-arms. Most steel armour was highly resistant to edged weaponry, but the blunt force impact of a mace or hammer could still be felt through mail or break open its rings, or crack its way through a steel breastplate. Many members of the militant religious orders during the Crusades like Templars and Hospitalers took holy vows, but still used lances and swords like their secular comrades.

    Moving on to the original cleric class in D&D: It had a few inspirations, including Peter Cushing's portrayal of vampire-hunter Van Helsing from the Hammer Horror Dracula films of the 70s, but also Bishop Odo and Bishop Turpin, the latter a historical figure often cast as one of Roland's paladins in Medieval French literature. Turpin's sword in the Song of Roland was named "Almace" and it might be the case that "Almace" was mistaken for "mace" by Gary Gygax's friends.

  • If you're talking the D&D Paladin you really need to talk about Pol(sic) Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. This book shaped the D&D Paladin far more the Roland et al.

  • like if u came here because the GAMES.

  • Good research!

  • Final Fantasy 4 is why I mainly play pallys in games.. although im loving the sorcerer class in D&D/Pathfinder

  • YES!!

    This is such a great idea for a video series. Thank you! So awesome man!

  • U just got my sub

  • What is a Berserker?

  • Came here because of angry birds epic, you really know your stuff

  • hey, did you miss the chance to mention Tristan? or did he not qualify?

  • Paladin are real just read the scholae Palatenae of Constatine era of roman empire

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