Have you ever noticed a recurring word that’s used commonly among various geeky things? It could be a piece of terminology you see only in roleplaying games, or perhaps a word that has been appropriated and changed for use in fantasy or sci-fi settings. I come across a few of these, and I always wonder where they come from, so here I’m going to explore them with Geek Etymology!
To start with I thought it would be appropriate for me to look into the origins and evolution of the word ‘Paladin’. As most of my friends will tell you, I usually end up playing a paladin or similar character in RPGs, and I also go for a paladin style in other games such as Magic: The Gathering. To be honest it is probably this word alone that got me to think of looking into the origins of words used in RPGs and other geeky stuff, but once I started to look around I found many others that warrant some research.
Before we look into the past of the paladin, let’s see what it means to us today. Although there are some other minor uses, the primary way we see the term used is to describe a fantasy character, either in a narrative sense, or a mechanical sense as the character’s ‘class’. They are usually characterized as a holy warrior who fights for the forces of good against evil, usually heavily armoured, wielding a shield and some holy magic and healing ability. As of today you’ll find the word most closely linked to Dungeons & Dragons, but also plenty of other RPGs which were influenced by D&D, as well as many Videogames.
So in terms of gaming, our clear starting point for the use of this word is D&D, but how did the original creators interpret or change the meaning of the word for their game? Well we can go and take a look! The first mention of a paladin is very early in the life of RPGs with it coming along in the first ever supplement for D&D called Greyhawk which was published in 1975 and introduced a few extra class options into the game. Paladin characters this early on were actually fighters who needed a high charisma score of 17 and a Lawful alignment, and could then choose to be a Paladin character from the start. Paladins are first referred to as being good guys here when it says…
“always doing lawful deeds, for any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.”
It is also in this supplement where they are first referred to as healers and anti-evil…
“The paladin has a number of very powerful aids in his continual seeking for good: He can “lay on his hands” to cure wounds or diseases in others… Paladins of 8th level and above dispel evil simply by ordering it hence, and they detect all evil at a range of 6ft”
Furthermore, they are ruled as being charitable, chivalrous and religious…
“They will give away all treasure that they win, save that which is necessary to maintain themselves, their men, and a modest castle. Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions”
On top of all this, they are also described as being able to obtain horses, giving the perception that they are seen as equestrian warriors similar to Knights.
As we can see, the original D&D descriptions seem to still hold true to our current idea of what a paladin should be, and you could even say that these descriptions are what codified the paladin when it comes to gaming. But what comes before this? where did they get these ideas, and even the word from? Well seeing as D&D is a Medieval inspired fantasy setting, the most logical decision would be to look into the Medieval period. A lot of the characteristics of the D&D paladin can be closely compared to that of a member of one of the holy knightly orders that came about during the crusades. In fact I believe that it is particularly this where the healing aspect comes from, as the Order of St. John was an order of knights which became known as the ‘Hospitaller Knights’ due to their work in healing and caring for sick or injured crusaders and pilgrims at the time, as well as having a militant side. On top of this, for the most part these knightly orders were seen as particularly holy, as they did not answer to a king or lord directly, but were in service to the Papacy and therefore God.
While this may explain some of the characteristics of the fantasy paladin, we don’t actually see the word coming from these knights. For that, we have to got further back into history, particularly to the 8th Century AD in Francia at the time of Charlemagne’s rule. There was said to be 12 elite warriors and the closest companions to the King. Although their being referred to as paladins (or palatin in Old French) comes from mostly fictional writing, most prominently the 11th-12th Century Song of Roland, where they are said to have died in battle against the Saracens in Spain. From these sources we see links to the later crusading knights which may have been conflated when taken as inspiration for D&D. The French palatin became paladin in English and can be seen in some later 16th Century writing.
So is this as far back as we can go? that’s the origin right? Well, while this is the most probable inspiration for the first paladins of D&D, the root of the word can still be followed. In the early Medieval period Roman Latin was still heavily used, especially in writing and in government. Also, the time of Charlemagne is seen as the time of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, and thus there were many ideas taken from the Roman period. So it is likely that the Palatin were inspired by the Scholae Palatinae, who were an elite military guard unit of the Roman Emporer, most commonly associated with Constantine The Great. The Scholae Palatinae, which translates to ‘Palatine Schools’, took their name from the Palatina which was essentially a term for earlier Roman government officials. They in turn were named this way due to mostly being based at the Palatine Hill, which is the central of the seven hills of Rome, and where Imperial palaces were built since the time of Augustus. This is where the etymological root for the word ‘palace’ itself is, so it interestingly is related to ‘paladin’ despite being completely dissociated now. If we want to follow this trail to it’s conclusion then according to Livy the Palatine Hill itself got its name from the Arcadian settlement of Pallantium, but it could also have been from palātum which is linked to the modern word ‘palate’ and could have meanings related to a roof, or to the heavens, and to judgement. There are also links here to the Etruscan word for the sky.
Now that we’ve gone as far as we can with the roots of the word, let’s go back to the main point, where the paladin was brought out of history for D&D. Although this brought the word into greater use, there is by no means a gap in its history between the Medieval period and 1975. The term would continue to be used to refer to close advisors of leaders in some cases (such as seen below), as well as to refer to especially chivalrous and holy knights, in some cases referring to Arthurian knights of the round table, of which the myths may be linked to the 12 paladins of Charlemagne. Despite the term for Knight and Paladin being entirely separate and coming about in different circumstances, with the knight originally explicitly referring to a mounted warrior, the Paladin and Knight both have strong links to the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne’s dynasty, and so the two appear to have been conflated. Perhaps this is what led to the decision in D&D to have Paladins have a greater capacity to be a mounted class, something that has since continued up to the current D&D 5th edition for Paladins.