Let me just start with an admission. I've played a lot of Skyrim. An utterly embarrassing amount. The last time I was back home, I fell ill and played Skyrim for about three days straight. As you can imagine, this kind of resulted in me losing touch with reality for a while. When I did finally leave the house, I actually tried to 'check my inventory' to see how much cash I had. True story. It was really weird.
Luckily, Skyrim is different enough from actual boring reality to mean it didn't take long for me to readjust to this terrible non-dragon and bandit filled world. However, according to Kotaku, the world of the Elder Scrolls and Skyrim might actually be pretty historically accurate. Well, if you ignore all the magic, ghosts and monsters, that is.
A Medieval history teacher, known only as RedHeadPeak, has recently been creating a series of posts in which he selects some of the more and less historically accurate aspects of Skyrim. Here are some of them:
The Execution Scene
As is customary with all Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim starts with your character in chains. However, whereas you're usually deposited in a prison cell to rot, the people of Skyrim prefer to do justice in a swifter fashion and instead cart you straight off to your impending execution.
Although RedHeadPeak accepts the scene is generally accurate in relation to how executions were carried out, he does take some issue with the choice of method. Hanging was almost always the preferred type of execution, especially with lesser, petty criminals.
Lords and highborn individuals could probably request to be beheaded - it is after all a quicker, painless and just more badass way to go - but for horse thieves and their ilk, the gallows awaited.
Why was this? Well, beheads are actually not that effective, despite how they're often portrayed. You need to train an executioner (it's actually quite difficult to cut off someone's head cleanly), it's slower and more time consuming (you can only do one person at a time) and it also leaves a lot of gore to clean up. Hanging, on the other hand, doesn't require any specifically trained personnel, can be set up quickly, and can be done en masse. You can also leave the dead hanging there as a message to others. Lovely.
Did Wolves Really Roam The Countryside?
If you leave any of Skyrim's major conurbations, it usually doesn't take long before you are beset by packs of feral wolves.
Nowadays, wolf attacks on humans are generally unheard of, with the animals now avoiding all unnecessary contact with mankind. However, in the medieval period, wolves were a constant menace, especially for small towns and villages in Northern Europe.
Human food scrapes and cattle were an incredibly enticing target for wolves, who often lingered on the outskirts of small villages. It was such a problem that "wolf hunter" was a fairly common job, while children in Anglo-Saxon England were often used to tend flocks and literally 'cry wolf' when they saw one approach. Wolves have now been generally wiped out of most of Northern Europe and are completely extinct in Britain.
There Are Too Many Books
Nowadays, we're constantly looking for distractions to fill our time, from reading to surfing the net to tending to virtual farms on Facebook. Unfortunately, for medieval folk, there were usually very real farms to tend to, which didn't leave much time for leisurely reading.
Therefore, although books are an incredibly common sight in Skyrim, you'd be hard-pressed to find a book in an average Middle Age dwelling. It wasn't just a lack of time either. The vast majority of normal peasants were illiterate, while making paper and transcribing books was a lengthy and expensive process. In this sense, books were often priceless status symbols reserved for the gentry and clergy. This process was eased with the invention of the printing press, however this didn't occur In Europe until roughly 1450.
The Elder Scrolls games are sometimes criticised for featuring a relatively unsophisticated approach to combat. You basically approach the enemy and repeated whack him until he obligingly falls over (at this point you loot him of literally everything he has).
This certainly isn't how Hollywood has shown us how medieval knights and swordsmen fought. There's often lots of clashing steel, twirling, and pirouetting. However, if you tried this in a real medieval battle, you'd probably be laughed off the field - if not immediately disembowelled.
As it turns out, medieval - and especially Viking combat - was relatively similar to that of Skyrim. Individual combat was often short, with the focus very heavily on attack. You basically did just whale on your opponent until you scored a hit. Check out these two Viking combat specialists to see what I mean:
Now, of course, most weaponry in Skyrim is pretty unrealistic. Although there are instances of finely crafted swords and the alike in reality, these were usually reserved for ceremonial purposes or simply for showing off to foreign kings. In battle, most people relied on rugged, and tried and tested, weapons.
RedPeakHead draws particular attention to Skyrim's 'Iron Warhammer', which he claims is a fairly accurate - if perhaps slightly too large - representation of the weapon. Having a smaller war hammer is actually an advantage, as it is swifter, while the smaller surface area actually gives more of a punch.
The early shields in the game are also relatively accurate, since they are made of wood. Metal was rarely used to construct shields, primarily because it transfers the shock of the blow to the arm, whereas wood absorbs it more. Furthermore, wood is surprisingly resilient and a cheaper alternative than metal. Although later shields in the game are made purely of metal, the early shields the player comes across are relatively historically accurate.
However, perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Skyrim's weaponry is the severe lack of spears, which were the most popular and prevalent weapon across the world until the arrival of reliable firearms. Spears were cheap, incredibly easy to use and versatile, meaning entire armies could be quickly outfitted with them. Once you'd told some slack-jawed peasant to use the pointy end, you basically had a relatively effective fighting force.
Spears do not feature in Skyrim at all, which is odd considering their historical popularity. Of course, this probably has more to do with technical issues than anything else. Whereas most the weapons - swords, axes, maces etc - use the same animations, spears would require their own, which is just more work.
RedHeadPeak goes into much more detail about Skyrim and its historical (in)accuracies. Check out the rest of his blog here.