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  • EPOCH

Eating Your Enemies in the Middle Ages and Today

Polina Ignatova | Linköping University


In the indie video game Undertale (2015), one of the bosses is the head of the Royal Guards named Undyne the Undying. The first few times Undyne shows up in the game she is fully clad in medieval-style armour. Later, when the player engages in a fight against Undyne, she appears without her helmet. Even though one can now see fins on the sides of her head, it is still not obvious that Undyne is an anthropomorphic fish. So, the player gets another cue. During the fight, a dialogue box appears saying ‘smells like sushi’. For those who like sushi, this is a nice smell, and therefore this note serves both to reveal Undyne’s nature and to create an endearing image of her, as Undyne ends up being one of the game’s main characters. At the same time, the notion ‘smells like sushi’ compares Undyne to an edible product made of her species, suggesting that Undyne herself can be eaten. The game introduces a multitude of monsters for the player to deal with, including sentient vegetables, sentient mushrooms, and a few anthropomorphic animals: insects, amphibians, birds, cats, and dogs. The topic of consuming another game character is raised only when the protagonist engages in a fight with a vegetable and a fish, leading one to assume that fish are close to vegetables in their nature.


A pixelated image of a computer game character wearing their armour
Figure 1 Undyne wearing her armour. Via Undertale Wiki.
A computerised image of a computer game character wearing their armour with no helmet.
Figure 2 Undyne without her helmet. Via Undertale Wiki.

Fish knights and their vegetative qualities are not new at all. A colourful description of Undyne’s ancestors comes from a fourteenth-century French chivalric romance Perceforest. A knight named Betidés finds himself stranded on a deserted wintery island. There he discovers a bunch of unusual fish coming out of the water to the shore. These fish have four legs, fur, and resemble terrestrial animals – oxen, sheep, deer, and even bears! Starving Betidés slaughters several ‘fish beasts’, and immediately gets attacked by four new fish coming out of the sea. These fish walk on two legs but are only the size of hunting dogs. They look like miniature knights fused with their armour. Their heads are shaped like helmets and are tipped with long horns which the fish use as swords; they also have shields integrated into their backs. Upon defeating the four fish knights, Betidés removes this shield from one of them and feasts on the fish’s sweet white flesh.


The Catholic Church allowed the consumption of fish during fasts when eating flesh was forbidden. In the thirteenth century, a prominent medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas explained that ‘fishes are merely bodies having in them something of a soul, whilst land animals, from the higher perfection of their life, are, as it were, living souls with bodies subject to them’. Anthropomorphic or not – just like in the case of Undyne – for medieval individuals, fish was a vegetable.

A sea calf as imagined by a medieval artist.
Figure 3 A sea calf as imagined by a medieval artist, British Library MS 11390 'Der naturen bloeme' or 'The Flower of Nature'.
A manuscript detailing a sea ram
Figure 4 A sea ram, British Library MS 11390 'Der naturen bloeme' or 'The Flower of Nature'.
A manuscript detailing a sea stag
Figure 5 A sea stag, British Library MS 11390 'Der naturen bloeme' or 'The Flower of Nature'.

The events that follow make Betidés reassess his relationship with non-human creatures. Over the next three days, fish knights – in a truly Lovecraftian fashion – keep coming from the sea in endless hoards to attack Betidés. When the latter is about to die, the fighting is interrupted by the fish king, who challenges Betidés to a single combat. As neither of them can overcome the other, the two recognise each other’s awesomeness and become friends. Knowing Betidés’s diet, the fish king slays one of his knights and offers his body to Betidés. This time, Betidés refuses. From now on, Betidés spends his days on the mysterious island engaging in friendly tournaments with the fish knights – it can be assumed that Betidés is teaching them new combat techniques, as we are told that the fish knights cannot block cutting strokes and manage to ward off only thrusts. For Betidés, fish are now friends and not food.

Knights growing out of fish backs
Figure 6 Knights growing out of fish backs, British Library Royal MS 2 B VII Queen Mary Psalter.

The plot of Undertale has many parallels with Betidés’s story. Like Betidés, the protagonist controlled by the player finds himself in a strange realm populated by monsters. Throughout the game, the player learns that the monsters were confined to the underground after they had lost in a war against humans, whom they consequently view as enemies. The game also connects hit points to the concept of a SOUL: ‘the very culmination’ of one’s being. It is explained that human SOULs are stronger than monsters’, as the former can even linger after death (echoing medieval ideas that non-humans do not have an afterlife). The player is given a choice of either fighting and killing the hostile monsters or trying to appease and befriend them. The first option is known among fans as the ‘genocide route’. The second is known as the ‘pacifist route’, where monsters eventually acknowledge that the human protagonist is worthy of compassion and should not be killed. Like the piscine knights of Perceforest, Undyne is the royal guard whose job is to protect the others from the human intruder. During the fight, Undyne demonstrates chivalric behaviour by explaining to the player how to operate a new fighting mode. If the player chooses to escape from Undyne instead of fighting, they later befriend the warrior fish and engage in a friendly training combat with her.


Undertale’s premise is exploring what might happen if you could talk to the enemies in the game instead of just fighting them. The game thus challenges the notions of what constitutes ‘humanity’ and ‘monstrosity’, as monsters can appear humane and humans monstrous. Approaching Betidés’s story in the manner of Undertale by focusing on the monsters’ point of view allows us to understand the changing position of Betidés in the eyes of the fish folk.


Like Undertale’s protagonist, initially Betidés is viewed as an irrational and dangerous creature. The metaphor used to describe the fish knights who come after Betidés – ‘as large as hunting dogs’ – suggests that Betidés is viewed by the fish as a wild beast to be chased. Clad in armour, Betidés resembles a fish knight but is not one of them. In comparison to the anthropomorphic fish, his body is gigantic, and in contrast to them, he can stay out of water indefinitely. Most disturbingly, despite being a knight himself, Betidés demonstrates bestial rather than chivalric behaviour by gorging on the piscine knight’s flesh. Perhaps Betidés is something else only pretending to be a knight.

A tapestry style painting detailing a multitude of species of fish
Figure 7 The multitude of fish from the Bestiary Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 151.

For the fish knights, helmets, swords, and shields are parts and extensions of their bodies. Therefore, from their point of view, Betidés’s armour fulfils the prosthetic function of replacing his missing body parts. This relationship between organic and inorganic is best understood with reference to another ‘anthropomorphic’ fish featured in modern culture. One of the supporting characters in the comic series The Umbrella Academy (2007–2019), and its Netflix adaptation (2019–2024), named A.J. Carmichael is a goldfish that moves around in a human-shaped aquarium. Carmichael’s bodysuit enables him to speak, making the fish appear human-like. In the Netflix series after the bodysuit is destroyed Carmichael lives on in a fishbowl like an ordinary fish. Although Carmichael can still spell out messages using pebbles, his humanness is gone together with his costume. Having reversed back to being a mute beast, Carmichael ends up being swallowed by one of the characters. Just like Carmichael pretends to be human by wearing a bodysuit, in the eyes of the fish, Betidés pretends to be a knight by wearing a knight’s costume. The sweet white flesh of the fish knight slain and consumed by Betidés refers to his own nickname – the White Knight – inviting us to think about Betidés’s own nature. Without his prosthetic armour, Betidés is nothing but white flesh and as helpless as Carmichael without his bodysuit.

An image of A. J. Carmichael, who has a human body and a fish bowl (including a gold fish) for a head.
Figure 8 A. J. Carmichael in 'The Umbrella Academy' Netflix Adaptation, via Umbrella Academy Wiki.

The hunt for Betidés is interrupted by the fish king only after he demonstrates his chivalric qualities: bravery, steadfastness, and advanced combat techniques. The one-to-one combat between Betidés and the fish king further re-affirms to the latter that he is dealing with a knight, rather than a beast. For the fish folk, Betidés’s refusal to consume their fellow, offered to him by the king, further signifies Betidés’s journey from inability to control his impulses to being guided by reason. It could be said that Betidés has progressed from being beast-like to becoming human. However, these notions are not helpful in the context of this story. Actually, Betidés has progressed from being human to becoming fish-like.


Historians like finding medieval tropes in modern culture. Going in the reverse direction and analysing a medieval narrative in the context of video games and television reveals that the story of Betidés represents a curious attempt by a medieval narrator to engage with more-than-human experiences. The story of Betidés is not only about the shifting human perception of the non-human sentience (and edibility) but also about how the non-humans perceive a human, who has entered their realm. Environmental histories address the question of how people in the past conceptualised their perception of the non-human. Perceforest’s narrator has offered us a glance at how past individuals explored their position in relation to the non-humans, challenging the very meanings of the concepts of ‘beastness’ and ‘humanity’.


 

Further Reading:

  • Bynum C. Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1988)

  • K. Steel and P. McCracken, ‘The Animal Turn: Into the Sea with the Fish-Knights of Perceforest’, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2011), 2, 88 – 100

  • N. Bryant (trans.), Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain (Cambridge, 2011)

  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York, 1947).

Dr Polina Ignatova is a postdoctoral researcher at Linköping University (Sweden). Her research focusses on the creation, acquisition, and dissemination of environmental knowledge in the Middle Ages and today. She is also Executive Editor at Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research and Environmental History Series Editor at the Trivent.


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