by Wanderer Werewolf
©2007 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Allow me to begin this article with an apology, both to my beloved readers and to my long-suffering editor. For financial reasons, I have recently been forced to move in with my sister and sell the house my mother left me. As you can well imagine, this has delayed my columns horribly; now, however, I should finally be able to settle in and write. (Provided I can get some time to work on my computer. My niece is rather fond of Flash games and my nephew is fond of me.)

   The topic, as those with long memories might recall, is the Medieval Era. How it’s usually represented, what it was really like, and how to use it in stories and role-playing games. Of course, this is much too broad a topic for any single article (at least without devoting the whole issue to it), so we’ll be dealing with only one topic at a time over the next few issues.
   We’ll start with the peasantry. After all, we’ve seen them in everything from Robin Hood: Men in Tights to Ivanhoe. By now, everyone knows what to expect of a medieval peasant: Superstitious, filthy, downtrodden serfs laboring under the beating sun. Dressed in rags and living in a hovel. A truly miserable specimen, bound to his lord’s service for the rest of his life.
   Unfortunately, most of that picture is wrong, the product of Renaissance ego and Victorian pride. The good news is that the truth is, as ever, a little more interesting.


   To begin with, peasants weren’t filthy. Until the Black Plague arrived, bathhouses were one of the most common (and profitable) businesses anywhere, a leftover from the Roman fondness for public baths. Even if you lived in a town too small for a bathhouse, a well-placed spring-fed pool made for a perfect spring and summer bathing experience, especially for a young man or woman on the make. (In the winter, of course, water was taken inside and heated, then poured into tubs.)
   In fact, bathing was more than just a necessity (and necessity it was, according to the writers of the time); it was as much a social occasion as the baths of Japan are today. Upper-class women wore their jewels and styled their hair for the baths. Lovers would meet at the baths for an assignation. Business associates would hammer out deals in the water. Even wedding feasts could be served on floating tables.
   In the end, people were spending so much time at the baths (Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took an average of six baths a day) that the Church began complaining about it. Surviving sermons and letters speak of workmen lazing in the baths, parishioners late for church, and the many sins invited by excessive bathing. (Sloth and Venery topped the list—and if you have to ask what Venery is, try its descendant: Venereal.) For this reason, monks were restricted to no more than two baths a week.
   The age of the bathhouse came to an end for two reasons, though, and neither one was the Church. In the first place, wood was becoming increasingly scarce around the bathhouses; it takes a lot of wood to heat a gallon of water, after all. Since coal produced noxious fumes, the lack of lumber meant an increase in bathhouse prices. And, as the robber-baron John Jacob Astor was later to say: “Serve the classes, live with the masses. Serve the masses, live with the classes.” The bathhouses were soon priced out of existence, as the nobility and emerging middle class could afford to have their own bathtubs at home.
   The second factor was simple and terrifying: The Black Plague. It was plainly a communicable disease, after all; the natural response on the part of the population, peasant and prince alike, was to isolate themselves from those who might be carrying the plague. That meant no more public bathing; thus, no more bathhouses.


   While the medieval peasant was certainly no fashion plate, he was hardly wearing rags. Pictures and descriptions that have survived the ages tell us the serf’s clothing consisted of:
   A blouse of cloth or skin fastened by a leather belt round the waist
   An overcoat or mantle of thick woolen material, which fell from his shoulders to half-way down his legs
   Shoes or large boots
   Short woolen trousers
   A belt sheath for his personal knife, a hat when needed—usually a skullcap or other simple head covering such as a liripipe—gloves when necessary… these were the accessories of the serf. Moreover, those peasants who had a little money could get old clothes the nobility had either sold or thrown away from the old-clothes shops. (Much like the thrift stores of today.)
   Colors for the peasant’s clothing tended to the earth-tones, of course, but this hardly justifies the common depiction of them in brown, mud-colored attire. Reds and blues were common, and often worn together. One serf, pictured in 14th-century paintings (and reproduced every year for Belgium’s medieval-style parade in June) wears red pants, a red undershirt, a white smock and a blue overshirt. Combined with a burgundy cap and brown leather shoes, the effect isn’t pleasing to everyone, but it’s not bad. Hunters, of course, wore green to blend in with their surroundings. Thus: Hunter Green, the earliest form of camouflage for humans.
   Uniforms were, as always, the exception. Formal wear was black, being the cheapest dye available. Doctors wore black exclusively for their work, as did priests. Students wore hoods, which also served as pockets for carrying their books. And formal garb of any sort tended to be a robe or gown (much like the ones that survive today in graduation ceremonies.) Actors, of course, were dressed like any other peasant… it didn’t pay well back then.


   Peasant houses were hardly hovels. While turf houses, literally made of dirt, were known to exist (in Norway, for example), they were usually for keeping animals or gardening; people generally lived in wattle-and-daub structures.
   In the simplest wattle-and-daub, thin, limber lengths of wood—i.e., the wattles—are woven around a ring of support poles. The wall is then sealed with a mixture of sand and clay not unlike the adobe of the American southwest (daub). With only a little additional effort, square and rectangular houses can be made with panels of wattle in a wooden framework.
   Roofs were generally thatch; dried grasses carefully stacked atop the roof beams in bundles. The end result is a charming roof that lasts a long time. In fact, some medieval thatch is still in place today! Contrary to what you might think, thatch isn’t really all that flammable; it generally absorbs moisture from the rain, causing the bundles to swell and seal the roof all the tighter. The exception, of course, is near the chimney, where the thatch dries out completely. It still doesn’t catch easily, mind… but once it does catch, the bundled fibers are very hard to put out completely.
   Windows tended to be small, as much because of the material as to keep in the heat. For security, they were closed at night with shutters that were as solid as the front door. (Medieval burglars generally tunneled in through the walls; it was easier than getting through the door or the shutters.) An artisan’s front window would double as a shop counter, with horizontal shutters opening to form an awning and a countertop. (A style found as far back as the ruins of Pompeii.)
   Doors were latched, but not locked; locks were more expensive than what a peasant would be keeping behind them, after all. Typically, the latch string (which lifted a simple latch within) would be left hanging out, so that you could lift the latch on returning home. When inside, pulling in the string would effectively lock the door.
   Toilets get the shortest portion: They were just chamber pots or ‘honey jars’. Unlike the cityfolk, however, peasants could compost the results, removing a lot of the stink for which the cities of the Middle Ages were famous. Archaeological excavations of toilets dating back to the Vikings reveal something interesting, however: While toilet paper had yet to be invented (paper was much too expensive), the ‘bog wipe’ was already present and accounted for. People wiped with everything from moss (Vikings) to straw (monks) to the leaves of the mullein plant (soft, but not very absorbent, and the common among peasants). The most common of all was the simplest; squares or rectangles of cloth, not unlike the baby wipes of the modern day.
   The flooring was packed earth, which isn’t quite the same thing as a dirt floor. Packed down tight, it was as hard as cement. For everyday use, it was covered up with woven mats made of river grass called ‘rushes’. For company, the rushes were removed and the floor swept with a broom made of twigs… the very broom that appears in early depictions of witches.


   Of course, it’s hard to say much regarding what superstitions were actually current back in the day. Much like now, different people had different beliefs, and generalizations could be dangerous.
   Still, in the twelfth century, the Bishop of Exeter felt it necessary to issue an updated list of penances for his priests to assign for various offenses of witchcraft. For example:

   If anyone pays respect to soothsayers, augurs, enchanters, or makes use of philters, let him be anathema.
   Whoever by any magic turns aside a judgment of God, shall do penance for two years.
   He who is a magician for the sake of love and does not bring it to success shall do penance for two years, If he does, five years. If adultery results, ten years…


   He who casts into a granary or storehouse a bow or any such thing for the devils which they call fauns to play with, that they may bring more [grain], shall do penance for fifteen days.
   He who in visiting a sick man draws any inference of good or evil from the moving of a stone in going or returning shall do penance for ten days.
   He who believes that
[a man or a woman] can be transformed into the shape of a wolf shall do penance for ten days.

   On the one hand, it’s pretty obvious that the Church was trying to stamp out pagan influences; the fauns are from Roman mythology, after all. On the other hand, it’s also obvious that the Church considered these matters had some fact in them, otherwise there’d be no punishment listed for turning aside a judgment of God.
   So perhaps it isn’t so much a matter of superstitious peasantry, as such, but, rather, a superstitious everyone.
   Still, notice the usage of magic in the list; the medieval peasant saw magic as a tool, like his plow or his knife. A charm or prayer that could help him—or hurt his enemy; these are human beings, after all—would be used.


   Contrary to popular belief, peasants weren’t completely without rights. To begin with, peasants could be divided into serfs and freemen:
   Serfs held land without paying rent to the lord in money. Instead, they had to pay in work.
   Freemen held land by paying for the privilege, and could follow any profession they wished.
   While serfs had to have their lord’s permission to travel, for example, freemen had no such restriction. After all, serfs were effectively moving their whole livelihood on every trip.
   Freemen had their own court, called a halimote, which handled ‘low justice’, the legal proceedings of the villagers. It would have twelve villagers (including one who would report court proceedings to the local lord) and would handle disputes at the village level. (For disputes between villages, or if you wished to appeal a decision, you went to the local lord. Of course, you had to handle the travel yourself.) You could even start a court case against someone of the noble class… but since that was ‘high justice’, it went straight to the nearest lord of higher rank than both participants.
   Serfs admittedly got the short end of the stick in some regards. As their own physical labor was their rent, they were effectively bound to the land. In essence, they became as much a holding as the land itself.
   This is particularly obvious when you consider wars: Campaigns between lords were usually fought to control villages, and thus villagers whose work would increase the lord’s assets. Villages close to the edge of a lord’s lands changed hands with amazing regularity, and no small number of casualties among the local loyalists.
   Now, now does all this play into the hands of the RPG player and GM? Aside from the setting adjustments, consider:
   Captured villages in the hands of other lords (or, in classic literature, the hands of monsters or wizards) are a wonderful jumping-off point for adventures and backstories. In one swift move, a character can be cut off from friends, family and loved ones.
   The baths are always a good starting point for adventures. (They certainly were in medieval writings.) An interesting change from the “You all meet in a tavern” idea… especially since it strips the characters of all their dignity—er, equipment. Throw in the chance of an amorous dalliance, and the possibilities can be both amazing and complicated.
   Charms, in a fantasy campaign, put magic within the reach of the common man. Nothing world-shaking, certainly—but using a tool for something other than its intended purpose can be dangerous. (One medieval legend has a gypsy using a milk-stealing charm on a man and draining his blood.)

   Next time, we’ll move up the ladder to knights and the nobility. Be warned: The bad guy doesn’t always wear black…

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