Knaves represent a large portion of the socially disenfranchised. In many ways, the signeurial life can be hard, especially for those on the bottom of the ladder. This is why all the criminal trades are associated with the lower classes on the trade rosters, or the lowest ranks of those in a given class. Knaves are made of those who have been pushed too hard into a corner where they generally have nothing left to lose. A single bad harvest can mean beggary, and most prefer to follow the example of the lords of the land, simply taking what they needed rather than starving, the only avenue they can see to not only survive but perhaps prospering. They are always on the lookout for an angle to play, for leverage to turn a coin, any aid they offer is most often of the nature of “enlightened self interest”, aiding others because it will aid him in the end. Knaves are opportunists, and some take that to an extreme.
There are two main approaches to the Knave trades, one in which the character maintains a lawful existence and conducts his nefarious activities undercover, and the other where the character is a fugitive fleeing the law, or already declared outlaw. Many of dubious or enigmatic reputation prefer to forsake their homes before their crimes can be discovered and the law catch on to them, simply has dropping out of lawful public life to live in the society of outlaws and the disenfranchised ruffians, “thieves, slayers of men, adulterers, and criminals of all kinds”, rootless lordless wanderers like players, mountebanks, acrobats, and other common wandering performers, godless for the Church forsakes them as well. Without the specter of religion hanging over them, most Knaves as well as their associates the Rogues feel a freedom to adopt the morality that best suits the moment and the situation. Those who want their word valued often only allow that morality to bind them in certain circumstances.
There are a number of different activities that a Knave may engage in that provide him with that identity. These are noted on the rosters from which the trades are chosen: Highwayman, Roberdsman, Draughlatch, CutPurse, Forger-Scrivener, Forger-Artisan, Forger-Smith, Horsethief, Trickster.
Violence is an accepted part of life, and for those who live by it, a simple fact of life whose religious and spiritual ramifications offered little, if any, deterrent. The Warrior-Knave simply takes what he wants, or stops his targets and offers them a simple choice between their moveables and their lives. That is the Warrior-Knave’s way, the Highwayman.
In the case of Warriors who turn Highwayman, it is not unusual to jump back and forth from outlawry to the good graces of the law and the Crown by serving on campaign and rendering good service in return for pardon, then turning back to brigandage after the party is over to keep bread on the table until the government has need of him again. This especially if he is a Horseman, even moreso if he is of gentle (knightly) blood. This works best for those of particularly high reputation or skill and use in battle and those with good social connections and leadership skills. This will facilitate their use as commissioners for gathering troops about them to bring to the campaign.
Eustace Folville was one of 7 brothers (eldest heir seems to have been able to keep his hands clean of these affairs), sons of the lord of the Manor of Ashby-Folville in Leicestershire and Teigh in Rutland. was very straightforward, like most of his kind.
Warrior-Knave serving with horse makes a Highwayman able to ride off at a hurried pace from the victims he robs and perhaps also kills. Such characters might vacillate between knavery and service at war for his bread, and a short slice of the career of one such follows to give an idea how that looked historically.
There were, however, other more sophisticated Knaves, the ones versed in the arts of subterfuge, the Tricksters. By the 1300’s, the period of the game, outlaws, criminals, vagrant peasants in search of work, all masqueraded as pilgrims on all the highways and by-ways of Christendom, with their scrip and gown and hat and staff and written testamoniales. It was an effective means for begging alms, but there were more lucrative scams for the bold Trickster.
Anywhere there is a brisk trade in goods for money, thus an accompanying steady flow of coin, the nimble-fingered Trickster can use sleight-of-hand to hoodwink their victims in changing great monies for small, and back again. False ingots might be sold for true, chains and coins that may be only gilt sold for true silver or gold, paste and glass in place of diamonds, rubies and other precious gems, made by some Knave/Forger-Smith. In the steady flow of commerce, counterfeiters always take a risk, as well. Counterfeiting is treason, carrying a death penalty, and no benefit of clergy may be claimed in such cases. One of the most common methods was coin clipping or shaving legal coins to make them slightly under-weight, then minting new coins, sometimes badly debased, from the clippings. More dangerous even than counterfeiting coin is the counterfeiting of the king’s seal. Some silver- or goldsmiths were bold enough to cut a new matrix to make a counterfeit impression, or take the seals from legitimate writs and recycle them on forged documents of many sorts.
In the marketplace, the pillory, the cart, and heavy fines (called being “mulcted”) were usually sufficient to punish dishonest merchants and shopkeeps. Such punishments were very public and the loss in reputation carried an immediate loss in business and income. The greater the commerce and populations in the towns, the greater the abuses and the harsher the laws against them. Dishonest yet charming vintners, cornmerchants, butchers and bakers had and (in game) have no compunctions against offering soured wines, mouldy grain, rotten meat and unwholesome loaves and many others shorting their clients in many different measures. There is a common marketplace joke of the time that arises from a corrupt vendor selling prepared foods and a local who asks for a break on the price in consideration of his long patronage. On hearing this, the merchant expresses his amazement, “What? And you are still alive?!” This is very telling.
One scam used by the Trickster to suck in prospective victims in the marketplace after the fashion of a highwayman or brigand was to wander around with a cup, platter, or other measure full of peas, beans, barley, oats, grain or other goods seeking buyers from elsewhere (unsuspecting) looking to buy. Upon concluding the chaffering over the deal and having reached an agreement to buy, the Trickster seller offered to show the visiting merchant the rest of the stock to verify the quality and quantity of the goods. Having conducted the merchant to an out-of-the-way bin, he holds the lid open for the goods to be inspected. When the victim steps up on the pediment and leans over to look inside, the Trickster sweeps the buyer’s feet out from under him and pushes him into the bin, pulling the lid down on top of him. The Trickster proceeds to holds him prisoner until he has ransomed himself. The Trickster may indeed be skilled as a Merchant (in game terms), but more likely is nothing more than a Knave with a convincing con. The occasional ‘Evening Cheaps” make such abuses even easier to perpetrate, one reason for their shady reputations and the authorities restricting them and policing them so closely.
Confidence men, or Tricksters, were very common in the period of the game, but not just in the marketplace.
March 7, 1354 the wife of Roland Smalecombe was approached by Gervase Worthy, William Kele, and Geoffrey Ipswich who told her that although they now were Christians, they had previously been pagans and possessed knowledge of magick. The men professed to know a way to double the lady’s valuables if she would bring them forth. Excited at the prospect, she gathered all her gold and silver trinkets and handed them over. The men placed them in a bag and put them in an iron strongbox. She kept the box and Gervase took charge of the key and instructed her to have 3 Masses a day celebrated for 9 days (all mystical numbers). On the 10th day the men would return. During the indictment process, she fell ill and died. The men were said to have extorted c. 200M from honest Devon folk. Good folk all, despite being easily tempted into the Vice of Greed.
Another successful scam was for a man in a position of authority – the factor or agent of a wealthy notable, influential magnate, or priest, whether bona fide or imposter (false testamoniales being a common enough abuse) – to offer to use his position and influence with his lord and master to further the interests of those he could convince of the benefit of his intervention. This is a natural con for the Trickster also versed in the ways of the Courtier.
Master Robert Colynson was a priest banished from Cambridge University who was accused by Ralph Lord Cromwell of having extorted money on the strength of promises he never intended to keep. In 1450 (out of period but valuable for showing how pernicious and pervasive the practices remained) he had gone to the Prioress of Swine Abbey purporting to be a representative of cardinal Kemp and extracting 20s. 8d. from the nuns on the strength of a promise to obtain absolution for them from the Papal Court in Rome. He obtained a goodly sum from another woman for a mass to be said at Scala Coeli which would forever free her soul of pain, rather than spending the money on entering an abbey as she had wished.
He was never tried in ecclesiastical court as he should have been, even retained his rectorship of Chelsfield in Kent the whole while, and was presented to the bishopric of Ross in Ireland by the Pope in March 1460!! He must have been able to spin quite a convincing tale to his superiors, but then again the clergy were famous for closing ranks against outsiders, crying “benefit of clergy” at law. None could prosecute their misdeeds but the Church itself … if it had a mind to.
Another common game of the Trickster’s Knavery is the masquerading as a wealthy merchant or magnate who is known to be elsewhere in the realm or out of the country. The difficulty here is avoiding those who are truly friendly with that person but, as long as that can be accomplished, the benefits and privileges to be gained are considerable. It is considered an honor for those lower on the social ladder to be allowed to entertain such a person, a privilege to be able to say that so exalted a person wears or uses one’s wares.
An alternate application of this principle is the creation of a completely fictitious persona of exalted position, especially a foreigner. Again, the trick is avoiding those who are in a position to be acquainted with any such personage of that rank, especially those hailing from the same supposed district or country of origin. A lucrative twist on this is the Trickster Masquerading as a merchant who forms a limited association with a colleague for a trip to a town with their goods to sell, lodging together at a convenient inn once they arrive, only to rob both of them alike and have his accomplices secretly remove all the goods from his partner and himself to a safe place, Afterwards he goes with his erstwhile partner and lodges complaint with authorities demanding restitution, so he may be paid twice for the same act of Knavery, first by the town and second by keeping his cheated partner’s goods.
A connection with the Merchant trade is mentioned above, but is not required for the Trickster. As long as he can effectively use his Player and Presence skill to appear to Haggle (parameters rehearsed ahead of time for the scam he has in mind) and count (basic math), the rest of his skills will carry him through in cheating his victims.
Not so “glamorous” or colorful as the Trickster but by far more common are the Forger-Scrivener, Roberdsmen, Draughlatches, and Cutpurses.
The Forger-Scrivener often hides in plain sight, working independently as a professional scribe hanging out a shingle writing correspondence for others, or working in a commercial writing office with others under a master doing much the same work, or as a clerk for some merchant or great merchant banking house, or as a private household secretary for some wealthy business man or nobleman. It is the uses to which he puts his skills when there are none about to betray his efforts that put him at risk of the law. After dark he may be entertaining the visits of an entirely different and darker sort of clientele.
False writs and warrants could be a great source of income. In 1332, an associate of the Coterels, Roger le Sauvage, sent a letter by Henry Wynkeburn, his ‘official bearer’, to William Amyas, the second richest man in the town of Nottingham (having stood as its mayor several times). Enclosed with the letter was half of an indented bill for £20. The letter threatened laying waste to all the man’s property outside the city walls if the bearer of the other half of the indented bill was not paid the money upon his arrival.
A great deal of creative use was made of fake documents and seals in the period, made by Forger-Scriveners. In 1324, a chaplain by name of Philip Burden purchased two writs of the sort normally used to establish legal possession of property (a close writ of novel disseisin and a writ patent agreeing with it) from Chancery. Forging two writs against several enemies, Philip took the seals from the Chancery writs and attached them to the forgeries. At trial, it was suggested that Philip belonged to a gang that had a copy of the royal stamp and specialized in deriving coin and real estate by producing faked credentials or instructions, and by serving false writs on the citizens. In game terms, he provided the gang with Forger-Scrivener services.
Roberdsmen are robbers plain and simple, muggers who jump their victims in lonely parks and dark alleys to take their valuables at the point of a poignard. They are no more afraid to kill than any Brigand or Highwayman, though generally less bold and not so well skilled in the arts of battle, relying more on stealth and surprise.
Draughlatches case the homes and halls of the wealthy, the merchant houses and warehouses and guild houses and crafthalls and manses and palaces to carefully choose the best time to pick the locks and carry off the best they can find – at least those things they believe they can also find a fence to take or make arrangements to get processed into another more salable form. They have been known to scale the walls of wealthy homes to steal the lead gutters and drainpipes, or the flashing from the roofs themselves, for resale. This is facilitated by the fact that such wealthy folk commonly have more than one house and move between them, carting the furnishings from one to the next. They have the most varied portfolio of skills, from moving silently to climbing to picking locks and finding traps to disarm.
Cutpurses are just as stealthy, but they are specialists whose purpose is far more limited. They are out to lighten the loads of the wealthy folk in the crowded streets and marketplaces they frequent. Their skills are aimed at misdirection, light-fingeredly cutting purses and by sleight-of-hand making them disappear. They are well-practiced at moving through busy street traffic. Mountebanks and the skills of the Mountebank are their natural allies.
Horsethieves are by no means limited to horses, though when they can get them they are the Knave’s first choice because they are so very valuable. Because the best of horseflesh are the province of the nobility alone for warfare, their breeding is of great importance and they can run £100 sterling per head and more. Failing a supply to acquire horseflesh, cattle and sheep do quite well. Such poaching of livestock is most common in marcher feofdoms and other border regions, but certainly not limited to them, and quite common in the great grazing districts given to husbandry. The losses of livestock to a single border lord (Marcher Lord or Marquis) could amount to £5,000 to £6,000 sterling in a single year. Even a first time conviction for horse thieving is a hanging offense.
Ever with their eyes to the value of things, Knaves are always looking for the next opportunity, and for that they have sharpened their eyes to automatically assess the class, station and probable wealth of those around them, and most especially to assess the value of various moveable goods. The Roberdsman is an excellent judge of clothing and accessories, and knows how to spot a fat purse, while the Cutpurse can practically weight a purse by eye. The Horsethief is best at assessing any livestock, not just horses. The Draughlatch is best at furnishings and decorative items or jewels, plate, and jewelry. Cutpurses are best at jewels, jewelry, and purses of coin. Forger-Scriveners are best with documents of all kinds, not only at assessing how much it cost to obtain the original, but how much to duplicate it, and also able to determine whether he has an original official document in front of him or a forgery. The Forger-Artisan and Forger-Smith have the same capacity to assess values for the goods they are trained to produce, and also to determine whether they have original goods with a true hallmark or a fake in front of him. Tricksters are all about assessing character in choosing their victims, first by assessing class, station and probable wealth, as above, then by brief observation judging how receptive the target’s character to manipulation for their purposes. Natural cynics above all other Knaves, Tricksters are sharpest in observation, excellent judges of character. It is very difficult to conceal emotional states and reactions or slide a lie past such a character.
A Knave’s AV for assessing anything is equal to his (TR) + (AWA att. mod.).
A dissolute lifestyle is common among both Rogues and Knaves. For most, as long as the money holds, there is nothing to do but eat and drink, gamble and whore about. Many can be found in the socializing among their fellows only when they have wealth to burn, showing the largesse so touted by the nobility and living just as high. When the money runs out, they disappear for a week or a month only to return, perhaps even on horseback, richly harnessed and caparisoned to start their debaucheries again.
Due to the fact that the character may be associating with other characters likely of other social backgrounds not necessarily of the streets and shadows, the Knave character may have to exercise great care in his association with the company of adventurers of which he is a member. Being in the position of the company purveyor would likely suit his talents best, but may require the assistance of one of the other party members, he simply must take care to whom he reveals the unlawful bent of his skills. The (Open) Player skills provided by certain Knave trades make living a double life much easier.
A Look at the Knaves’ Guild
The society of Knaves is presided over in general by the Rogues among them who have the social contacts to bring them together with the fences, who are often taverners and innkeeps who turn their establishments into illegal brothels and gambling dens by night. (The legal brothels are in fact stringently governed by the local bishop, and are always under the purview of the Church.) It is very common for the Rogues and Knaves of all different ilks to gather together in fraternities or societies that copied the structure of the craft and trade guilds.
Such societies of Rogues and Knaves is commonly marked by a certain jargon and other signs by which they recognize one another . The jargon is typically described as a patois commonly referred to as Thieves’ Cant. Of the ‘other signs’ no doubt they are comprised of a certain accessory(-ies) of clothing perhaps of a particular color, worn in a particular style, and perhaps a certain mode of address when meeting socially, accompanied perhaps with a subtle physical or manual signal.
The most highly organized and pervasive fraternity of thieves and petty criminals in the medieval world was found in France. Semi-legendary French Knave Francois Villon was a member of the infamous ‘Coquille’. The Coquille was a wide-ranging association with regional divisions all headed by a king, the King of the Coquille. By its name it is likely they were marked by the wearing of the lead seashell pin of those who had made the pilgrimage to Compostella in a particular location on their clothing. These were common enough among the general populace to raise no suspicions of its hidden meaning in this use. Villon was a Knave-Draughlatch and Poet from the University in Paris. He wrote seven Ballads of the Jargon which was the pastiche or argot of the Coquillards. It was a language comprised of slang, and as such constantly, if slowly, changing. It also consisted of words from other cultures, especially the Gitanos, or Gypsies. The word for bread might be changed in form to mean mouth, arms referred to as binders, a rich man as silver and the word for a lady’s shift corrupted to refer to a chambermaid, similar to the practice in the 1930’s and 40’s in America of referring to a woman as a “skirt”.
Because they keep company and secrets with men often wanted by the law, knowledge of their trade language is closely guarded. Most are unwilling to accept the responsibility for teaching the Cant to any not of the streets, for it is the same in the eyes of the street folk as accepting the student into the family of street, as one of their number. In these cases, the teacher becomes the sponsor of the student, responsible for him in the society of the street-folk. If a man turns “king’s approver” (stool pigeon) on those whose secrets he learns after being taught the language of the gutter, the one who taught him also stands to answer to those who escape the noose when they get their hands on him.
A Look at the Career of the Folvilles
January 19, 1326, present with his brothers Robert and Walter at the murder of a Baron of the Exchequer, Roger Bellers, by Ralph de la Zouche of Lubbersthorpe on the road from Melton Mowbray to Leicester.
August, all were outlawed when they could not be apprehended.
September, Eustace said to be involved in several robberies in Leicestershire.
4 of the brothers Folville indicted.
e. 1327, pardoned in celebration of Edward III’s new reign (a common practice)
1327-29 Eusatce involved in at least 3 murders, 2 rapes, and 3 robberies (outlawed?)
e. 1329 Eustace and 3 of his brothers were pardoned for their service in directing their energies against the rebellious Earl of Lancaster.
l. 1329 Eustace & family reported having stolen c. £200 sterling from some merchants of Leicester
1331, Eustace attacked in his own home
2 or more of his brothers were paid £20 sterling by a canon of the church at Sempringham and the cellarer of the Cistercian house at Haverholm to destroy a watermill belonging to someone they held a grudge against. They had a bit of trouble dealing with the Vice of Wrath, apparently.
January 14, 1332, The Folvilles gathered together with another well-known Midland gang, the Coterels to kidnap an infamous judge Sir Richard Wylughby, ‘by the clamour of the people’ guilty of accepting bribes and selling laws ‘as if they were oxen or cattle’. Together they shared a ransom of 1,300M (c. £867) at Markeaton Park (a park being a private forest chase). The owner of Markeaton Park was Sir Robert Tuchet, believed to be the chief patron of the Folvilles AND the Coterels.
They escaped and subsequently were again outlawed.
1333 pardoned for service in the Scottish War
1337 served on campaign in Scotland again
1338 served on campaign in Flanders, and knighted for his service during the campaign. (!!)
1346 involved in a robbery
In 1336, Richard de Snaweshill received a letter demanding that the holder of the vicarage of Burton Agnes be instantly dismissed or he would be subject to ‘such treatment at our hands as the Bishop of Exeter had at Cheap’. The said bishop, Stapleden, had been murdered in 1326 (clearly still a matter of great note 10 years later). In this instance the Knavery was to redress the injustice of a candidate Amvas himself would have preferred having been passed over in favor of a relation of a great lord he wished to remain friendly with. The brief went so far as to threaten not only Snaweshill, but the lord behind him to the tune of £1,000 in theft and property damages. It was signed by a man named Lionel, ‘The King of the Rout of Raveners’ at ‘the Castle of the North Wind in the Green Tower’ in ‘the first year of our reign’. Thus, a self-styled robber-lord, a Knave near the top of his career. Such associations or fraternities mirrored the guilds of craftsmen and merchants, and were just as common. The designation of the Green Tower in the castle seems to indicate co-owners of the castle. It is likely there were other masters of the guild in the other towers of the castle.
Roger de Wennesly was originally hired to hunt the Coterels down, but ended up joining their ranks – no doubt to enjoy a better standard of living and more freedom.
For money or military service, the Crown is very often willing to pardon the criminal. They have the potential to fight like animals on their masters’ behalf on the field, and are not missed should they be killed. In service they are referred to as “doggebolds”. Bold dogs in their masters’ service, dangerous as mastiffs. For similar service in their districts, the nobility and gentry often followed the royal example by retaining or employing ‘evil-doers’ in their households or on their estates, protecting and sheltering them.
There was a common practice of setting criminals to catch criminals, as well.
In 1335, Nicholas Coterel was actually made Bailiff for the High Peaks district for Queen Philippa, and within 2 years accused of interfering in a parliamentary subsidy (a tax for the benefit of the Crown, he had no clue what side his bread was buttered on), as well as great abuses of the powers of his office.
Similarly, Sir William de Chetulton and Sir John de Legh, outlaw associates of the Coterels, were pardoned and commissioned along with a well-known gang leader, James Stafford, to track down and capture 2 other robbers. In a matter of months they were in Nottingham gaol facing charges of attempted rape of the widow of Sir John de Oresby (a gentlewoman!!)
In 1336, the vartlets were pardoned and serving as arrayers for the Scottish War, recruiting archers in Cheshire and taking them to Berwickshire.
The Dominican friar John Bromyard wrote ‘No hounds were ever readier for the chase, no hungry falcon for the bird it has spied than are these who do whatsoever their great lords bid them, if he should want to beat or spoil or kill anyone.’
This should give both the GM and the player a good idea of the sorts of career opportunities are out there for the Knave who can find a patron he does not mind doing some dirty work for – presuming the Knave in question is built for a rough life, strong enough and resilient enough for battle.