Peter Alexander Kerkhof, an assistant professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, has a lot to say about how pigs are portrayed in videogames with medieval settings. Our polygonal porkers of the past are too pudgy, too stumpy, too pink, and too naked. At least that’s what Kerkhof wrote in an article for the Leiden Medievalists Blog (opens in new tab) back in August of 2021.
Let’s back up. As humans domesticate living things, they change over time to reflect the features we selectively breed them for. The giant ears of corn we turn into soda here in America were bred from wild maize, which had far less abundant yields. Sweet, adorable little pugs with their squashed faces and crippling breathing problems are descendants of the noble wolves who guarded our prehistoric campsites. Some thanks, huh.
Kerkhof, through studying the period, has access to a large body of evidence showing the character of pigs in medieval Europe and how they differ from modern sows. Namely, they were leaner, hairier, and rangier, with tusks like wild boar. Medieval pigs were also more free-range than modern ones, with only breeding sows and piglets kept on the farm, while the rest wandered the forest and fields nearby.
Lest you think this interpretation resides solely on the output of medieval artists, who were very bad at cats (opens in new tab), Kerkhof has an extensive bibliography that cites animal remains and various kingdoms’ law codes alongside contemporary art and descriptions of the animal.
Kerkhof paints a compelling picture of the hogs of old. And yet, the developers of today are completely failing us in the depiction of those oinkers. Assassin’s Creed, A Plague Tale, The Witcher, everywhere you look it’s pink, pot bellied piggies in pens. All our commitment to realism, and this is what it gets us.
Jokes aside, Kerkhof’s article is an illuminating read. More than a castigation of game devs, it’s a reminder of how utterly alien the past is. Language, morality, science, even our understanding of the passage of time was so different even just two hundred years ago, why should pigs be spared the abyss of eons?
It’s probably fine if medieval games keep getting pigs “wrong,” though I’ll be curious to see how Pentiment (opens in new tab) handles its oinkers. As my girlfriend pointed out to me, we should always make room in our hearts for the pink-bellied grunters of today. It’s the least we owe them after the centuries-long genetic engineering project to turn them into the perfect snack.