Historians’ commentary

Here we explore some of the decisions and choices we made in making the game, especially in relation to historical sources and content. See the very bottom of this page for an explanatory note of what this is all about.

Aberdeen Council Registers, vols 1-8. Photo courtesy Vicky Gray Armstrong.

History and Transparency

The philosophy behind this game’s use of history is that good history is not really about claims to accuracy, but about transparency.

Given that the past cannot be reconstructed and experienced exactly as it was, but only interpreted through fragmentary survival of historical evidence, the key to good historical practice is transparency from the historian about how they have used and interpreted their sources. We believe this also applies to historical games, and that there is greater value in being open about the historical process (in this case the historical process in the context of microbudget game development), and inviting people inside it, than claiming to offer a facsimile of the past.

Did plague really strike Aberdeen?

Yes, and there was a significant outbreak in 1514-1515

Plague refers to bubonic plague, well known as the Black Death which struck Western Europe dramatically in 1347-1351. Serious intermittent plague outbreaks continued for some 300 years, and often coincided with other infectious diseases, including pneumonic plague.

In 1498 Edinburgh’s council took actions to protect the town against plague, and in 1499 Aberdeen enacted its own preventative legislation. In August 1500 a ship from Danzig (Gdańsk) arrived in Aberdeen with sick travellers. This led to an outbreak sufficiently disruptive that council records were not kept between the end of August and the end of January, except to note the election in October of the town officers (which was done outdoors). In 1501 measures were taken to restrict entrance to Aberdeen from the nearby village of Futty (Footdee), and further steps were taken in 1506. A major outbreak hit Scotland in 1513 and Aberdeen suffered badly in 1514-1515. At this time, the town council recalled the statutes it had made in the time of ‘the laist deid’ (the last death) in 1500 (see Aberdeen City Archives, Council Registers, vol. 9, p. 367). Further serious outbreaks occurred in the 1540s and 1640s. For further reading, see:

Detail from Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke (d. 1509), in St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn. Image from Wikimedia Commons
‘Ane Breve Description’ of the Pest by Maister Gilbert Skeyne, Doctoure in Medicine (Edinburgh, 1568). National Library of Scotland.
Illustration of a hospital setting, from Hortus Sanitatis (Mainz, 1491, printed by Jakob Meydenbach). Aberdeen University Library, Inc. 3.

History of medicine and public health

Disease and medicine are central themes throughout the story of Strange Sickness

While the idea for the game grew out of more general research on Aberdeen’s civic history, the particular episodes of plague and civic action against disease covered in the game emerged so vividly from the records that we thought they would make for an excellent focus for a short narrative game. As such, Strange Sickness very much concerns medical history, but as historians we did not come to it from the direction of the history of medicine. As far as possible we have tried to base the game story on evidence drawn directly from Aberdeen’s records, particularly those concerning the town’s responses to plague from 1498 to 1515. Nevertheless, to create a story with characters and functioning game mechanics we needed to depict a wider context than that detailed by these particular records.

For instance, Gilbert Skeyne’s medical treatise from 1568, served as a useful source of inspiration (for more on Skeyne and his Ane breue descriptioun of the pest, see this resource from the National Library of Scotland). Despite publication in Edinburgh some five decades after the end of the period covered by the game, Skeyne’s treatise was helpful because it is linked to Aberdeen – it was written there while the author was Professor of Medicine (Mediciner) at King’s College  – and because it is based on medical ideas that were also in circulation during the period of the game. Skeyne’s work provided the inspiration for moments in the game such as the mediciner’s plague remedy and the reference to the spa well with medicinal qualities, which are discussed by Skeyne. 

We also depended on modern studies of the theory and practice of medicine in this period, particularly in relation to public health. The work of Karen Jillings, who has written widely on plague and medicine in medieval and early modern Aberdeen, was of particular importance. The project also consulted with Marie-Louise Leonard, an expert on public health in Early Modern Italy, on general questions about medical history.

What does ‘Strange Sickness’ mean?

Why did we choose it as the title for the game? (For a fuller version of the following, with references, see this post on the aberdeenregisters.org blog )

An entry from the Aberdeen council registers in 1507 refers to ‘the strange sickness of Naples’. The disease of Naples was a widely-used term for syphilis, which was also known as the ‘Great Pox’. Earlier entries suggest the term ‘strange sickness’ had broader applicability. Certainly, one use of the term from 1497 seems to refer to a venereal disease, coming as it does on the same day as an entry outlining cruel punishments imposed on ‘licht’ (‘immoral’) women, probably referring to sex workers. However, an entry from 1498 suggests the term was used more generally, at least at this stage. It records an ordinance of the town for the inhabitants to close the gates at the back of their properties and build up their back walls in order to keep the town safe from ‘the pestilence and ale vthir Strang Seknes’ (‘the pestilence and all other strange sickness’). The phrasing here suggests pestilence (i.e. plague) was regarded as ‘strange sickness’ along with other types of disease. Other entries from 1500 and 1506 clearly include plague under the umbrella of ‘strange sickness’.

If ‘strange sickness’ was a general term, encompassing plague, syphilis and possibly other diseases, what does it tell us about their shared characteristics? ‘Sickness’ is clear enough, but strange is a little more ambiguous. In Older Scots ‘strange’ as an adjective could mean, much as does in modern English, unusual or unfamiliar. It could also mean exceptional and, more specifically, alien or foreign.

Certainly, in the late 1490s, syphilis was an unfamiliar disease, and Karen Jillings has argued that Aberdeen was ‘the first government body in the British Isles to tackle the Great Pox.’ Aberdonians may have been well aware of plague at this time, at least in theory, but it too is likely to have been unfamiliar in terms of personal experience for most, with no evidence of the disease in the town for generations. Both diseases could also have been regarded as ‘strange’ in the sense of foreign or alien, with the Aberdeen records referring to France as the source of syphilis and the fears of plague sparked by the arrival of a ship from Danzig. They both too could have been regarded as exceptional in their severity. The usage ‘strange sickness’ in late-medieval Aberdeen may capture all of these meanings, and it speaks to the role of uncertainty in the human experience of disease and infection.

‘Statut for the kepin of the tone fra strange seknes’ (1506). Aberdeen Council Register vol. 8, p. 582 (detail).
Aberdeen Council Register vol. 8, p. 582.


The burgh records are written in Middle Scots and Latin but the game narrative and dialogue use Modern English

One of the first things players may notice is that we’ve written the game in Modern English. We chose to do this to maximise accessibility, but we also chose to include some words taken directly from Middle Scots in the English text. Middle Scots was the vernacular language spoken in Aberdeen in the time of the game. Latin was also used for religious, legal and educational matters. Gaelic isn’t evident in the burgh records, except in some personal names and place names. ‘Doric’ is the dialect of Modern Scots spoken in the Northeast today, but it is a later descendant of the Scots language spoken in the time of the game.

The glossary

The historical records behind the game mean plenty of historical words and details, so we wanted to give players a way to unlock glossary terms as they encounter them in the story

We wanted to include short descriptions and definitions of certain keywords and historical terms used in the game. We’ve kept these entries brief, so the glossary is an important tool to keep the story moving along while also providing some context to players. Rather than making it an external reference tool, we decided to have the main character ‘voice’ the glossary as a first-person guide as players move through the game. You might find it helpful to check the glossary when faced with choices, like deciding what line to throw in a ‘flyte’ (a word-battle in verse) with other characters.

James Gordon, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, image from Wikimedia Commons

The map

The game map is based on a real map

The game’s map is based on one of the earliest plans of Aberdeen, made by Parson James Gordon of Rothiemay in 1661. Of course, this is around 150 years after the period covered in the game. However, it is the earliest such image available and it is from well before the major changes to Aberdeen’s cityscape which occurred in the period of industrialisation, such as the destruction of St Katherine’s Hill and the building of Union Street. It therefore presents the town in roughly the same shape it had in c. 1500.

Working with a map dated 150 years after our period, and fitting it to the needs of the game’s design, involved some compromises. As far as possible we situated the game’s locations at the site of their real-world equivalents circa 1500. So, for instance, the tolbooth is on its historical site, the same spot where its successor is situated today, though the building has changed significantly since the period of the game. Many of the game locations are not tied to specific places. In these cases, the game locations were situated in historically plausible places on the map but they were also, as far as possible, spaced out from the other locations so they were not all too closely bunched together. Eagle-eyed local historians of Aberdeen may notice that the ‘Windmillhill’ site (with a picture of a windmill, near the Gallowgate) suggests the existence of a windmill on this site in this period when in fact the earliest evidence of a windmill there is from some time after the period of the game. We chose to keep this site as ‘Windmillhill’ despite the anachronism, because it helped to distinguish it from the other potential plague house sites in this part of the game.

Diversity and inclusion for characters

Medieval Scotland was home to people of colour

Diversity is an important issue in gaming. In Strange Sickness we considered how the game might address the topic in an honest way for the period it explores. Historical records show that people of colour lived in late medieval Scotland. Indeed it is probable that people who might today identify as Black, Asian or of minority ethnicity travelled to medieval Aberdeen, and it is possible that some lived there, but there is no firm evidence one way or the other. In fact, we know that two ladies-in-waiting in the household of Lady Margaret, daughter of James IV, were African women who came to be known in Scotland as Ellen and Margaret, and were called ‘the Moorish lasses’. The circumstances of how these young women came to Scotland are not recorded. Although it is probable they came unwillingly, at the royal court they lived their lives as free members of elite society. The attention given to these women in records and writing of the time – including in a racist poem by William Dunbar – suggests that the presence of Black people was nevertheless thought by some to be remarkable. The game thus includes characters drawn with features that may be described (in modern terms) as ‘White/Scottish/British’ ethnic, and includes two characters drawn with Black ethnic features among the courtiers in the entourage of Queen Margaret during her visit to Aberdeen. Our hope is that players will be interested to learn about the ‘moorish lassies’ at the court of James IV, and to ask questions about race and ethnicity in medieval and renaissance Europe, which has been a subject of ground-breaking studies and essay collections in recent years.

Detail of Aberdeen Council Register, vol. 8, p. 1206, listing women brewsters

Gender roles for characters

The Aberdeen burgh records are one of the best sources for the lives of women in medieval Scotland

The gender roles we chose for game characters are based in historical context. It won’t come as a surprise that the historical context of medieval Scotland was shaped by patriarchal social, cultural and political structures. Still, this did not mean women were without agency. Players may be surprised to find women like Maggie running her own tavern, or to learn about women’s lives from Canny’s stories, or the tales told by characters encountered in other locations. In medieval and early modern Scottish towns like Aberdeen women were active figures in the economy, and regular litigants in the burgh courts – and for this reason town records are vital sources for the history of women. For further reading, see for example: Cathryn Spence, Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scotland (Manchester, 2016). For a fascinating series of blogs on gender, sexism and the middle ages, see The Public Medievalist.

The clerk’s notes

The clerk’s notes contain a mixture of extracts from the real burgh records, and notes taken by the clerk to assist the player

In the game players will encounter the clerk’s notes – the book into which the town’s common clerk jots down key hints and notes from locations visited. (For the main character, the clerk acts like a sort of medieval Siri or Alexa!) The clerk writes these things down among the working notes he keeps about town council business. His job is to write up his notes more formally in the council registers (called the common books at the time). Thus these notes include little windows onto rules and decisions made by the council or by certain courts, about individual people, economic affairs, and everyday life.

Real names or fictional names?

Names come from forenames and surnames used in the records, but they are (mostly) made up

Strange Sickness is a fictional story and we decided, for the most part, not to name any of the principal characters after any particular person actually found in the burgh records. The needs of story and game meant that the opinions, words and emotions of characters would need to be shown. Given that these are often invisible in surviving sources it seemed unfair to ascribe them to real persons. That said, the characters are based on real people, or plausibly real people. The character names were created from combinations of commonly occurring names in the Aberdeen records (such as ‘James’ and ‘Rutherford’). William Dunbar, the famous poet, is an exception to this rule, given that he is one of the few people from Scotland in this era to leave behind a substantial body of writing which tells us something about his thoughts and feelings. The study of past naming practices is a fascinating area. Here is a link to a helpful overview and a recent collection of essays on the topic.

James’ book on the lives of the bishops

This is based on a real book, written by Hector Boece

The game character James Rutherford has an ambition to write a book on the lives of the bishops of Aberdeen. This is based on a real book written by Aberdonian scholar Hector Boece, The Lives of the Bishops of Murthlac and Aberdeen, published in Paris in 1522. Boece had studied at the universities of St Andrews and Paris and was the first principal of the University of Aberdeen. A short feature on a first edition copy of this book may be found at the website of The Edward Worth Library, Dublin. A modern edition of the book was published as Hectoris Boetii murthlacensium et aberdonensium episcoporum vitae, ed. James Moir (Aberdeen, 1894) and an online copy may be found at this link.

Hector Boece (d. 1536), original portrait held by University of Aberdeen. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Robert Collison: burgess, councillor and student?

The main character is a young man who is variously a burgess, member of the burgh council, and a university student. Was this typical?

Most burgesses were admitted to the freedom of the burgh (and often simultaneously to the merchant guild) when they set up their own households. This sometimes happened at the point of marriage, and a number of burgesses and guild members were admitted because they had wed the daughter of a guild member. Members of the burgh council were elected annually. By contrast, most university students were in their teenage years at this time. So, a young man like the character Robert Collison would most probably have already undertaken his studies prior to embarking on a career following in his father’s footsteps, and becoming involved in town government. For the sake of the story, we chose to blur these lines. For further reading see the Introduction to Elizabeth Gemmill (ed.), Aberdeen Guild Court Records 1437-1468 (Edinburgh, 2005), at pp. 8-19.

A note on the historians’ commentary

The commentaries on this page provide a bridge between the world of the game and the historical sources on which it is built. That bridge is intended to make clear the process that we as historians have undergone to adapt what we have learned from these sources into the game, so that players who are interested can understand the game’s relationship to history and explore that history further if they wish.

The choices about how to represent history in the game went through a process of adaptation dictated by the demands of game development and the pressures of our limited resources. At the heart of the process was the ideal of transparency and traceability rather than an attempt to create a facsimile of the past which, as anyone who has worked with historical sources knows, is not possible. So, providing a window onto the historian’s process and the interpretation of sources, much like the use of references in academic articles, is key to this ideal. In the Kickstarter campaign for Strange Sickness, we said:

The relationship of game content to the historical sources will be highlighted by a simple referencing system, allowing users to distinguish easily between content that is directly based on historical sources and content that is necessarily more imaginative to fit within the game structure and narrative. The game will also be supplemented with historical background information through which users can follow links to the original sources and learn more.

In practice, the demands of making a complete game (including technical challenges and time constraints) meant that the referencing system originally planned wasn’t possible. We also concluded that most players won’t want to know the provenance of all the information in the game, and we did not want to break the flow of the game by having players frequently jump out of the game world to consult this information.

Therefore, in addition to the glossary which provides context in the game world from the protagonist’s perspective, we decided that the best approach was to write historians’ commentaries on key points and themes on adapting historical records for the game, and to host these commentaries on a separate website (but with links at the start and end of the game). A further advantage of this approach is that, if there is enough demand, we can expand and include more commentaries over time without altering the game.