There is no more important aspect to successfully roleplaying a character in a medieval fantasy setting than the player’s understanding of the conditions that prevailed historically, both in regards to the social realities and the technological accomplishments. Once the player has these things under his belt, he will be ready to play any sort of character that appeals to him in a medieval-based fantasy setting with exceptional insight and skill, to the envy of all the other players and the pride of his GM.
The Medieval Mind
Every player should have enough basic knowledge of the medieval period in which “Swords & Sorcery” genré roleplaying games are ostensibly set to know how their characters should view and relate to their surroundings. There are essential parts of the medieval psyche that the player should be aware of in order to understand the sorts of people with whom his character is dealing from day to day after being brought into play, and with whom he is expected to know how to fit in, even if only from time to time between adventuring in the (sometimes) free and trackless wilderness. The player needs to understand not only how people of the medieval era looked at the world and related to it and each other, but why they did what they did when they did so, so he may use it as a guide to roleplaying his own character. This can make the whole process much richer and more enjoyable.
This passage is designed to address that need.
The point of view provided by a character’s race is very important to characterization as the foundation on which the character’s opinions and beliefs should be based, BUT the racial point of view alone is not enough. The racial points of view should be used as a window through which the dominant attitudes and practices of the medieval fantasy environment presented here should be viewed, approached, evaluated and either used or made conspicuous by their absence.
To the people of the historic medieval world, the Spirit World and magick are REAL, and what is called “superstition” in the modern world reigns as FACT in their minds. More often than not it is right and provides a means for the common folk to deal with Spirit and magick as it actually does touch their lives from day to day. It might be said that the Veil between worlds is thinner in the gameworld than it is in this modern era, as it very likely was historically, when the dead were restless and spirits sighted in broad daylight by those who had the talent for it. When the common folk see extraordinary things it is natural for them to question whether what they are seeing belongs to the realm of Flesh or that of Spirit. This principle is well portrayed in both the films “Lady Hawke” and “The 13th Warrior”. In the first, in the scene where Philipe the Mouse breaks back into the chamber he has just been chased from by the healer-monk, Imperius, where he has taken a hawk impaled with a crossbow bolt, Philipe finds the beautiful Isabeau D’Anjou impaled with the very same crossbow bolt. “Are you Flesh, or are you Spirit?” he asks, trembling. In the second, a young boy arrives by ship at a Viking village and stands silently, patiently waiting, on the prow of the ship for quite some time until the residents have satisfied themselves that he is Flesh so they may welcome him and not some tricksome Spirit, as they explain to their Arab visitor who questions them about the situation.
In the historic medieval mind, the line between worlds is sometimes blurred. Spirits may walk the earth alongside mortals, and almost anything can be a sign or portent of things to come, especially dreams. If a knife is dropped, a man is coming to call, if a fork, it is a woman, and if a spoon, it is a child. If a bird flies into the house, it is a bad sign, and should it be a wren a death in the house is coming (usually in the family, but not necessarily). Two birds can mean happiness and good luck, however, especially if they are seen to be building a nest in the house or under the eaves outside.
The medieval fantasy world really IS as magickal and mysterious as the medieval texts that have survived down through the ages indicate that the people of the period believed it to be, BUT this is subject to whatever the GM’s game world concept is, naturally. His is the final say. It may be significantly less, more like the modern era in that regard, OR even beyond that known from the histories. Ancient curses can hound family and village, shire or even a whole realm, and the spirits of the dead do return to demand justice. Simple charms, real and sham, are peddled in every market to ward away pain, sickness, the Evil Eye, and every misfortune, or bring luck, wealth, influence with the mighty, easy birthings in childbed where so many women die, healthy children where they commonly fall prey to disease so easily, bountiful crops, and so on.
The medieval fantasy game world is a magickal place, full of supernatural significance and spiritual, intuitive connections that the people of the modern world have long since abandoned. Trouble comes in three’s, but the third try is the charm for success. A local spate of ill-luck or bad weather may, indeed, come on the heels of a stranger or with the arrival of a group of foreigners – unless they can remedy the troubles or the bad weather clears up again shortly, in which case they may be a god-send. The errors of the fathers can become a curse to haunt later generations, marking, crippling, or even killing children, or the gods or lesser spirits such as færies can simply prevent the conception of children that the parents do not deserve to have, or grant one by miraculous intervention to parents who do deserve them. In the fantasy world of the game, these are not merely superstitions, but facts of life that have been witnessed in the past. The “fairytales” might be considered more in the nature of historic tales, often cautionary in nature.
For those GM’s who take an interest in spiritual matters, which historically were pivotal to the minds and hearts of the people of the period, religious attitudes and practices can have a huge impact on roleplay. Impious swearing and unredressed transgressions against the Virtues and the forces of Good, straying into the realm of the Vices and the Shadow of Evil (howsoever the GM may choose to express these ideals), might damn a soul to having to purge a great spiritual weight on death as surely as bearing false witness and breaking a sworn oath, in addition to getting the malefactor hauled off to ecclesiastical court to be tried and punished by the Church. More facts of life for the truly medieval fantasy gameworld.
To roleplay well in a medieval setting, the player must be able to throw out all notions of social equality, and the separation of Church and State with it. The Golden Chain connects all, great and small, man and beast, heaven and earth. But that Golden Chain stretches from the Eternal Kingdom of Glorious Light to the Pits of Darkness and the Uttermost Night (howsoever the GM may choose to express these ideals), and every man, woman, and child, whether noble, clergy, or commoner, from the greatest castle or sprawling town to the meanest hovel and the furthest fields and mountains, all form links in the Chain. Everyone has their right and proper place in the Chain of Being, and should stick to it. Those who rock the boat tend to offend the sensibilities of decent, pious folk both high and low.
Because the Church is the final authority on matters spiritual, the highest authority regarding the final kingdom beyond the imperfect mortal world, the Crown and the Miter rule in what is often an uneasy alliance, each jealously guarding their own prerogatives. Kings bicker with the prelates who taught them that they rule by Divine Right. They are anointed by the Church and invested with the sacred symbols of authority – the crown, the rod or scepter, and the orb.
“For the meaning of the crown is this, that the crown is round, and as in a round thing there is no beginning nor end, it signifies [the Light], the True [Eternal Light], Who has no beginning and will have no end; and because it signifies [Light] it has been placed upon the king’s head, where the understanding is; and therefore he should remember [the Light Eternal] and be resolved to gain, with the crown he has taken, the crown of heavenly glory, which is an everlasting kingdom.
And the scepter signifies justice, which he should practice in all things; as the scepter is long and strong, and like a rod that beats and punishes, so does justice punish, to prevent the wicked from doing evil and to improve the condition of the good.
And the orb signifies that, as he holds it in his hand, so should he hold his dominions in his hand and power and, as [the Light] has entrusted them to him, he should defend and rule and govern them with truth and justice and mercy, and should not consent that any man, either for himself or for another, should do them any injury.”
Don Ramon Muntaner (1328)
The kings care not that the symbols of power were the only tools that the Church had to convince their tribal chieftain forbears of their responsibilities in governing and the dispensing of justice, to get them to begin to rise above their barbaric origins. The crown they wear is even reminiscent of the link they form in the Golden Chain, and the kings have the blessed healing in their touch as proof of their divine right. The kings care not for history, their kingdoms are their own to rule, not their ancestors’. They are the ultimate lords temporal, not the Church. The church is the keeper of souls, watchman of morals and the hound of conscience and bulwark against the failings of men. The Church’s bishops hold the shepherd’s crook (crozier), but the king holds the rod (scepter) of justice and the sword of war.
A medieval fantasy gameworld that is true to the spirit of the era can NOT in truth be said to be a fair place, and only sometimes even an equitable place, much less so even than our modern world in some instances – unless one can enlist the aid of a powerful patron for defense or to redress a wrong and put things right again. The concept of equality among men is not even ludicrous – it is so fantastic a fallacy to the people of the medieval period of the game that it is simply inconceivable, unthinkable to NPC’s, and so it should also be to PC’s. Any talk of that sort will most likely get a character thrown into Bedlam (St. Mary’s Bethlehem) with the other lunatics, “Goddes prisoneres”. That is, UNLESS this has been made an exception to the period standard of the gameworld, part of the fantasy the GM has added.
It is important for all roleplayers to understand that the Chain of Being in the medieval fantasy environment is VITAL. It provides the general populace with a sense of security and social stability, although at the same time it blinds them to the modern point of view regarding personal freedom. They do not miss what they never had. The suffering of war and even near anarchy will be a thing of personal memory to the older generations which whom every character will be acquainted, framed in lurid tales to frighten children of the consequences of a weak hand at the tiller of the nation, heard at the knee of both grandparents and parents.
The local men in the lord’s service out patrolling the district, or the call of the Hue and Cry in pursuing a malefactor to which all able-bodied men must respond, the men serving feudal duty with arms on the Watch or standing gate or wall duty in town or castle, all are viewed no differently than our modern police – though treated much more kindly on average, as long as those men don’t let their positions go to their heads. These and such practices as the curfew and the practice of hosting are the visible evidence the people need to see of the right rule of law. These are their assurance that suspicious characters will be detained and questioned and that the disreputable folk with be sent on their way and not allowed to trouble “decent folk”, despite appearing as the worst sort of military dictatorship and fascism to most modern eyes.
Coming out of such lawless times as the Dark Ages, the law must be seen at work. Just as importantly, however, the feudal order and its designated reeves, bailiffs and factors, all its agents, are an expression of the Chain of Being taught by the Church, which reinforces its value and necessity still further in the eyes of the people. The right and proper order of the world descends from On High, thus, the status quo has a divine origin and purpose and as such must be not only preserved but defended. Those who violate the Chain and defy the conditions of their birth, the most basic conventions of society, are either blessed by the Light with rising fortunes (usually working within the accepted social structure and channels) or are scandalous pariahs and outlaws who choose to stand outside the natural order. The latter frighten and consequently anger the common folk as a violation of the King’s Peace and Right Rule, the peace they all work so hard to maintain, but as an irreligious affront to the Light and a violation of Divine Law, an offense to both Throne and Altar.
Nobles are born to land, wealth, and privilege, which equate power, and may or may not adhere to the Chivalric ideal, or may do so only when dealing with their own kind, but easy self-confidence (sometimes becoming arrogance and self-absorption) and the sure knowledge of their right to rule run in the blood. They are the smallest part of the population, ranging between 1% and 3% of the total. Land is power, for the medieval world runs on an agrarian economy, and the nobles hold the largest portion of the land. The king of England in the medieval period had in his own hand roughly 17% of all the land in every shire in the kingdom (on average, sometimes more, sometimes less, especially in the shires where large tracts are given to the maintenance of the Church). Over 90% of the commoners are farmers or husbandmen (herders) or engage in farming or keep livestock in addition to some other trade. Some of those are in the towns, but the residents of the towns only comprise about 10% of the overall population of the realm, historically. In the towns, the bureaucrats and merchants gather the craftsmen around them and form great manufactories of goods for export throughout the kingdom or for foreign export abroad. The trades arrange themselves in guilds to protect themselves their livings and their interests from the other factions in the towns, specifically the wealthy merchants, but more accurately against those from other districts or regions of their own realm and most especially against aliens from other lands. Their charters of rights must still be negotiated and purchased from the local ruling noble or the Crown (the latter is favored for it releases the town from feudal duties to their lord), so they are still tied to the feudal power structure despite enjoying some freedom from its usual constraints.
Playing a character of noble birth is not just a role full of privileges and extensive family resources, it is also a role full of social responsibility. While the position can command respect, the noble character must also show by his actions, his demeanor and comportment that he is worthy of that respect. The honor of the family name and the noble estate must be upheld. It is the place of the nobility to defend, care for, and provide for the needs of the people in their house and those who reside on their estates or scattered holdings, help their families get ahead when it is possible, and to dispense charity and largesse to those in need where ever they may go, as much as is practical.
Part of their duty is discharged in keeping a retinue, a group of servants and retainers to take care of household tasks and needs for them – seeing to their horses, cooking, cleaning and laundry, guarding their personal safety when in public, and the like. The greater one’s noble rank, the larger the retinue he is expected to keep and travel with. Among the other gentlemen and gentlewomen of the noble families without titles and perhaps even without lands to provide for their maintenance, much must be obtained on the sufferance of the titled sibling or parent, so specific rank is often difficult to discern except in the case of titled nobility (count, earl, duke, etc.). The fact remains, however, that those who wish to be accounted as a part of the noble class to which they claim membership do NOT perform labor by their own hands. They do not fetch water, wash their own laundry, cook their own meals or wash dishes after, make their own beds, pack carry, or unpack their own bags, or any similar domestic chores. That is what the household staff is there for, why they support them, clothe them, feed them, and see to their other needs, such as medicine and Physickers when they are sick or barbers when they are hurt, or obtaining marriages for their maids, or attending to the special favors that their families may need to grow and prosper. Nobles do not handle their own money, either, as it would be too demeaning for them to be seen haggling like some common fishwife in the market. That is what servants, agents, factors and ‘men of business’ are for. Nobles are rarely without their personal secretaries and/or valets, and those attendants will always carry their purse for them and handle money matters for them, chaffering and haggling as needed to ensure their master or mistress is not taken advantage of. Simple knights bachelor need not have any such servants, and many cannot afford to keep even one, and gentlemen and women of noble blood without titles often are in the same situation, although only the knight may fill that need by taking on a squire, even though he may have to comb the ranks of impoverished gentry to find one. The impoverished gentleman can improve his prospects by seeking a knight to take him on as a squire – if he also has the right to be knighted still. That right generally falls only to the eldest son.
Those of gentle and noble birth must also dress in what is considered an appropriate fashion. They cannot expect proper courtesy and deference unless they exhibit their rank by their dress. Appearing in noble guise, the noble character will always be approached as the spokesperson of any group or party of people of which he is a part. When more than one is present, he who is the most richly dressed will be assumed to be in charge. On the other hand, when the speaker is a commoner, and especially when he is of “base” or landbound class, the noble PC(s) must be prepared NOT to be addressed, but those in the party of like class to be addressed, instead. The noble must be prepared to be spoken of as if he is not present at all, and also to ignore such going’s-on. This is done as a polite fiction to preserve the illusion of his privacy and also as an expression of his dignity, so that he not be disturbed if the men of his household suite do not warrant the intrusion to be worthy of his personal attention. The noble may always step in and take the matter up in person if he doesn’t feel that his man is handling the matter as he would wish, or call him aside and find out the details and then advise the man of his wishes.
If he is determined to ignore the matter but still curious, he can always inquire of his man about the nature of the matter after it is disposed of.
Nobles can have outrageous foibles and be great fun to play, however, even driving their staffs to distraction. Their household staff can be very useful to split up and send off in getting several minor tasks completed simultaneously, leaving the nobleman and his companions free to attend to those tasks that are considered more important and requiring special attention while they wait for the return/reports of the servants. With one or more nobles in the party, the rest of the characters can stand as factors, agents, or courtiers, even household retainers, or even household officers in charge of the lesser staff. It is very common to have one’s Steward and/or Chamberlain and/or Marshal along when travelling, and very convenient to have one’s Huntsman and Chef along. Indeed, the Marshal may well also BE the Huntsman. The domestic staff can make the PC’s lives much more pleasant and comfortable from day to day, especially when out on the road (even if carrying all the comforts of home along with them does slow the party’s rate of speed a bit).
Life and society in the medieval world moves at a slower, agrarian pace. This can be one of the more relaxing qualities of the game, particularly for those players who have high-stress and hectic office jobs in the Real World. Of course, there is NO rule that says a quiet pastoral setting cannot also include life-or-death struggles and chases at break-neck speeds to beat the Bad Guys, if that is what is desired. Playing noble characters can be a chore for some players, mostly those who are not fond of large parties of characters. Having a noble PC in the party can swell the adventuring troupe from 4 or 5 to 10 or 15 people in the blink of an eye, unless the noble is not fussy about his comfort and can get by with just a groom and a valet. Nonetheless, extra bodies mean extra horses, and pack-mules, extra provisions, beans, peas, and oats to keep the beasts’ energy up for the work they have to do, and also fodder, if the party is travelling either early or late in the year.
On the up-side for noble characters, male or female (though moreso for the ladies), while they must have an escort, it can be comprised of other PC’s where the other players’ characters’ trades make it practical, and they need not have an entire entourage. If he or she must have an entourage because the height of their noble station demands it, it need not be over-large, especially when they have cause to travel speedily. It is not uncommon for the noble man or woman to leave their baggage train behind in order to take care of business and then meet them at another, designated location. At his or her own discretion, the noble can take only a handful of domestics, or as few as 2 or 3, to see to his or her physical needs, the cooking and cleaning and care of personal possessions, the care of any horses or other beasts. In a pinch, given sufficient cause, the gentleman or lady can take off cross-country with but a single attendant for safety’s sake, whether associate of household member, without any hearing of the event raising a single eyebrow. Some things “must needs” simply be done.
Despite the concentration on the special situation and responsibilities of the noble characters, the player should NOT get the idea that they are the only ones with social responsibilities, agents, and servants. EVERY character who has ample property and wealth, including wealthy merchants and members of the craft guilds in the towns, franklins in the countryside, and commoners who are otherwise blessed with bounty will be similarly expected to give charity where the need presents itself, and to share of their success and show their greater dignity by keeping servants to distance themselves from domestic tasks. No respectable PC travelling should be without his maid or groom and/or valet to help him with the domestic side of life, seeing that his mount is looked after, his personal effects and baggage are taken care of, and that he gets good value for his coin. In the regard of his purse, however, the wealthy commoner will not have as much trouble in participating in his own purchases. While nobles have nothing but contempt for such low practices as haggling and do not sully their hands with filthy lucre (money), those coming into their money from the common side of society through hard work and clever management of assets usually have no trouble handling their own money.
Most wealthy commoners care more about saving their silver than about impressing those beneath them with their largesse, or any peers who might be about. While the wealthy mimic high styles and make the best display they can of the wealth that they have, they usually leave the aping of the outrageous and immensely expensive customs of the nobles to the fancy courtiers and courtesans, the fops and other hangers-on who live off the nobility, constantly in their company and just as constantly in debt. This is one of the things that sets the noble by birth from the simply wealthy, where the commoners show their “common” roots. To this the nobles remark that “money cannot buy breeding – nobility is of the blood”. Those who find their way into successful marriage alliances with the nobility are those who learn to loosen their hold on the purse strings and adopt more noble habits.
The only real rights that the free commonalty have are to own property and peaceably conduct their own business, to travel as they please, whatever justice they can procure in the courts of the realm, and to dispose of themselves and their (moveable) property as they see fit both during life and after death, and their children as they wish to crafts or marriages as benefits the family the most. But the head of every house is also considered to be responsible for the actions of those in his household. If his spouse, children, or servants – even guests – behave badly or break the law, verbally or physically abuse a stranger or neighbor, the head of the house in which he is staying is responsible to produce him in court or answerable to stand in his stead before the law should he fail to do so. All nobles will be held similarly responsible not only for the actions of their family, but for those of the members of the households (staff and officers) and for that of their vassals.
The type of property mentioned above, “(moveable)”, is stated specifically here because of the fact that land in the period of the game passes by custom and law of Primogeniture regardless of any stipulations in the will that it go otherwise. This means that the eldest (surviving) male in the direct bloodline or closest to it inherits the real estate. All of it, less the dower portion and the “courtesy of England” (half the father’s estate) for her lifetime if his mother is still alive. In order for Primogeniture to be avoided, the owner must take some rather involved and strictly defined steps to see that it is disposed where it is intended prior to his demise (the creation of a “fee tail”, for example). This practice is a necessary expedient to maintain the stability of the feudal state in general, and is not merely a sexist insult. The owner of a piece of land must be able to defend it. Given the easy violence of the period and the many local conflicts and wars fought for petty reasons (to the modern way of thinking), the owner of a piece of land must be able to defend his honor and support his will and right of ownership against the claims and inroads of his neighbors upon his body by strength of arms, to lead his household knights (as applicable) and household men at the head of that defense. On the other hand, should an estate fall to one or more heiresses for failure of the male line (including any brothers and nephews), it is the feudal suzerain’s duty as liege-lord to secure for her (and each of her sisters, as applicable) a husband of at least equal dignity and wealth who can defend her land for her – and whose political sympathies echo his own, no doubt. When there are multiple heiresses, the estate is partitioned as evenly as may be between them and equal consideration given to all their marriages. This process is not necessarily made without some thought to the woman’s happiness, however. The Church would never have sanctified a marriage entered into unwillingly, regardless of the prejudiced prevailing modern opinion.
The rights of the landbound classes of the commonalty are even more restricted than those discussed above for the “freeman”, BUT slaves they are not. Status is still very important among the commoners of all social stations. Even the “great” (wealthy) men of the commons call the freemen of lesser wealth the “Great Common Rabble”, and the townsfolk look down on the simpler folk of the country. The commons of the countryside, and the villages surrounding the towns which supply their food, depend upon the land for their living and have no difficulty with this, as the townsfolk seem to. They are simple folk of simple means with simple lives, but this does not make them stupid. Their hearts are in the land. They may be narrow-minded and provincial in some matters, generally unlearned, sometimes selfish (for they have so little they can afford to lose), and thoughtless of most people or lands beyond the countryside they can see from their own fields or front doors, but they live very full lives, nonetheless.
There is a vitality in the coarseness of it.
The commoners are ALL covetous of the rights of their fathers and the customs handed down to them from times “beyond which no man’s memory runneth to the contrary” or “time out of mind”. They are few enough in number as to be treasured, enough so to seek redress against their lords’ trespasses against them in the lords’ own manor courts and win. They are careful of their rights and the liberties allowed their lords because those rights are so easily eroded. Custom may have the force of law, but ‘thrice makes a custom’. If the commoners allow any lord to trample or usurp any rights three times without extracting from him a written declaration that each occasion is NOT intended or to be taken as an instance establishing custom, it becomes the precedent for a custom, defensible as “common practice” in the courts thereafter.
Personal liberty and freedom of speech and travel is a foreign concept to the lower classes, which depend completely on the good, patient sufferance of their noble lords. This sufferance should never be presumed in advance, as it may just as easily fail to be forth-coming, which could land a character in a bit of hot water.
Commoners, whether landbound or free, should always stand aside to allow those of greater station to pass, especially nobles, doffing their hoods, caps or hats in respect, or tugging a forelock in the absence of any head covering. As mentioned, commoners do not address nobles directly unless the nobleman addresses them first. Servants and members of the household who need to speak with their lord wait a discreet distance away to be noticed and the reason for the intrusion explained.
Outsiders speak with the noble’s servants in order to gain an interview or audience, which the servant(s) will only allow if they deem the business worthy of the noble’s personal attention.
A man who accosts a nobleman in the streets for lack of any other opportunity but having a good cause may be considered a bold lad, to be rewarded for his courage by being allowed to have his say – if the noble is at leisure to do so and is of a disposition to allow himself to be so diverted. If he is in a hurry, the presumptuous interloper might be advised to approach the residence at a decent hour in the next few days. If the nobleman is being sincere, he will generally ask for a name and have a servant make a note to expect him, or have a servant handle the details entirely.
One who disturbs the nobleman when he is out and about his business in this way without good cause is like to be cursed as a scoundrel and a churl, likely to be shoved aside or even ridden over, and beaten by the noble’s servants for such impudence, impertinence, and general bad manners, especially if he appear to be of base (common) birth.
Medieval society runs mainly on privilege and patronage. Courtesy (“courtoisie”) and personal service represent the social grease that makes the wheels of interaction turn. Every social class and occupation depends on the good will of those that comprise the next link in the Chain, both above and below. Gaining the good will and occasional favor, if not the actual patronage, of those above is the only real means of advancement, or protection when harassed by enemies.
The dignity and honor of the upper classes and the right and proper roles to which each person should attend can be a touchy subject now and then. While those of higher station may be friendly with those of lower standing, they will rarely ever truly be friends unless they are acquainted from childhood. Even so, the illusion of amity will quickly evaporate when those of lower station start to presume too far and forget their places, and heavens forefend they make any sort of demands. Commoners in general may gripe from time to time about wages and taxes, as they have done and will do for time immemorial, but generally only among their own kind (lifelong locals), rarely if ever in front of strangers. There is no telling who a stranger may be working for or reporting to. One of the major roles of the nobility is to provide a grand display of wealth and shower their largesse upon the commoners, awing them and illustrating the blessings of their noble blood by sharing it generously – some only periodically but others more regularly, according to their natures. The commoners in turn claim their nobility possessively, as almost public property, particularly in the face of strangers and outsiders, even when those nobles are hard masters.
Because the fabric of medieval society is primarily feudal in nature (stretched and distorted a little by the presence of Wizards and their ilk), or signeurial in the case of the rural manors, it is all based on personal relationships. The sense of family is much closer than most people experience in the modern world. Cousins in medieval society are considered much closer than they are today. First cousins should be considered the very next thing to actual siblings, and nieces and nephews, called “sister-child” and “brother-child”, are the closest relatives to one’s own children in the same manner, to be taken in and sheltered in times of need, to be hosted and entertained and made cheer for regularly and often. The fortunes of the family considered by the head of every household will always run at least that far. The head of the family will always plan for the fortunes not only of his own immediate children, but for his grandchildren if and when they come along. When one member of the family prospers, she or he can always expect to hear from all the relatives within that circle, expecting to somehow share in that good fortune, if only by the use of advantageous contacts associated with that prosperity, who may somehow enable them to improve their own positions – if only they can obtain the proper letters of introduction. In the same vein, to tangle with one man will always result in a quarrel with his entire family, so it is best to know just who one is dealing with before antagonizing them.
For the sake of his personal honor, a man who has any care for his reputation will pass cross words, or any sort of “rough speech” with a woman without over-whelming cause, and then only if he is a member of her family, is her husband, or is her family’s or husband’s feudal overlord. Only base churls and notorious men of evil character behave so, especially in public. The same will hold true for those offering violence to women, only the social stigma attached to such men is much more extreme. That right belongs only to her father before her marriage, and then exclusively to her husband once she is married. This is not suffered habitually, however. There are documented instances of women being rescued from abusive husbands after calling on their families for help, and also of siblings and husbands rescuing women from abusive parents.
It is important that the player understand how small the world is in the minds of medieval people, and in the same breath, how overwhelmingly large. The world of the nobles generally is defined by the shires in which their lordships lie, which they refer to as their “native country”. In the case of the greater nobles, the earls duke and marcher lords, the “native country” will be defined by a number of shires that are either continuous or clustered to define a particular geographic region. In the minds of the commonalty, any place that cannot be reached in a day’s walk (15 – 20 miles) will likely never be visited unless the person in question owns a horse (at least well-to-do), and unless family or friends or friends of the family await at the destination to put them up for the night so they can return the following day. Even the occasion of the yearly regional faire/market, great as it is, and the occasion of finishing the harvest each year may or may not be sufficient to draw the citizens far from home, depending on their wealth and their connections for accommodations. This still leaves the greater part of the population at home and staying within a rather narrow radius of their homes, their native villages and hamlets, thorpes and leighs. The local hundred may define a small region in which several are clustered, and this will be the “native country” of the rural commoners. Every place beyond that 10 or 20 mile radius or small group of villages will generally be considered not just far away, but foreign. These are the primary reasons for the GM being encouraged to start his game centered on a small locality, a single shire, and acquaint the PC’s with it well before slowly taking them outside it in their adventures.
The roads are dangerous, even when the vegetation is cut back on the verge according to the law to prevent the laying of ambushes close by. Prudent citizens do not camp out overnight on the verges unless they have sufficient strength in numbers, such as might be found on a pilgrimage route, as illustrated by the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or the camps of carters on the major cart routes, rivers and canals used by the merchants to ship their goods around the kingdom.
It is common for travellers bound for the same destination or even just sharing the same route for a time to band together for safety, and regular carrier-cart service will be available on the more populous stretches of major roads running between densely populated towns and districts, a common means of travel especially for women and children. This is the precursor of the coach and carriage services of the 18th century and the hansom cab and stagecoach services of the 19th century.
The fear of the unknown gives the people of the medieval gameworld a much narrower view and definition of the words “stranger” and “foreigner”. The residents of the village 5 or 10 miles away will be considered “strangers” unless they are relatives. If the villages are more closely clustered, especially if their cultivated fields butt up against one another, the standoffishness between them will be much eased. If any natural barrier such as a an escarpment, downs, a river, lake or stretch of forest stands between them they might as well be in the next shire, whether it is only a couple miles, or not. Those from other hundreds and especially those from other shires (provided the point of view is not from a village on the border of a shire) will be considered “foreign”, a rival to be competed against. After the practice of their noble masters, those of other shires will actually be described as coming from another “country”, to be guarded against in trade and politics. Those people coming from foreign countries, for outside the kingdom altogether, will be referred to as “aliens”, as they have been where appropriate in the text of this book. Aliens are subject to special rules about where they may stay and how long they may reside in the kingdom, discussed more fully in relation to the Merchant trade.
Those of the landbound classes who harbor strangers in their homes without notifying the neighbors stand to be fined in court, for doing so is actually illegal. Even when properly arranged, the practice is limited to only a stay of three days, although after those three days the neighbors are allowed to take them in for another three days in each house, and so on, provided the neighbors are willing. This does not apply to blood kin moving in permanently or for an extended stay, as in the case of taking care of a sick family member so the rest can attend to the work of the farm, or taking care of children on the death of a wife, or the like, although this must be advertised to the constable of the hundred and the neighbors and the visiting relative duly introduced around on arrival.
Regardless of who they are staying with, the local law must always be apprised of what strangers are where, when, for what business and for how long, much like a police-state, as mentioned. Those of other nationalities are the TRUE outsiders, however, with their foreign languages and dreadful accents when they speak the local tongue, and their even stranger habits and customs. Their presence in the realm, referred to as ‘trespassing’, is limited to no greater than 90 days, they are required to lodge with a native “host” who is required to keep track of their whereabouts, comings and goings, and the company they keep. That is what inns are for, and religious hospices. Most aliens visit for commerce, so the host is generally an innkeep in these cases, who commonly also dabbles in mercantile affairs and stands as the alien’s partner in commerce for the duration of his stay.
After dark when the Watches begin their work, or the weather turns nasty (especially in the winter), the rules of hospitality come into play.
Hosting & Hospitality
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, hospitality was a RIGHT of the traveller. The host was expected to make sure the needs of his guests were seen to, by decree of the gods. In Middle Eastern cultures, taking care of the strangers and foreigners living in their midst was simply a cultural norm. Celtic societies also valued the concept of hospitality, especially in terms of protection. A host who granted a person’s request for refuge (even if only for one night) was expected not only to provide food and shelter to his/her guest, but to make sure they did not come to harm while under their roof. This protection extended to verbal slights and insults, as well, attacks on honor as well as physical person, between residents and guests under the same roof as well as from those outside. Here again, the special status of the guest is considered a sacred right, a sacred duty of the host. Betraying the bond of trust and protection could result in a dire curse being visited on the whole house, the master, his family, and all the servants of his household and his fields and livestock, too. Doing so will drop the man’s reputation and the value of his honor straight into the dung heap, should it become known.
The bond between guest and host is established by eating salt under the roof, traditionally, but breaking bread together is also a means of creating the bond, and sometimes bread is broken and dipped in salt and shared with the host, washed down with a drink from the “guesting cup” offered by the host’s wife or eldest daughter. This would be accompanied by a verbal invitation to enter as a guest, taking place on the threshold of the house, but will vary from culture to culture, and in the period of the game will most commonly be observed in its complete form, as described, only among those who follow the Olde Ways. The serving of the guest cup could wait for a gathering in the great hall when there were many. The ceremonial serving of drink in the hall was an important duty expected of all noble Anglo-Saxon women in their halls, a jealously guarded privilege accorded to the highest-ranking women present on the occasion, among the Germanic peoples. The order in which each is served illustrates the order of precedence between the participants, their relative social ranks, with the king coming first, then the men of great rank in order, and finally the youngest and lowest ranking. The sharing of the cup creates and reinforces the bonds between the men, as well.
Members of the Clergy greet with the Kiss of Peace. While the principles and rules of hospitality remain in force in the period of the game, as explained, the ritual welcome is observed only informally, as a show of good manners. One greets travellers and visitors with a cup of something to wash the road dust from their tongues and an offer of a snack to quiet their stomachs if they are hungry and the means of getting cleaned up so they can sit down and break bread at the next mealtime together.
Those with roofs over their heads should always be mindful of those who are far from home and those who are not so fortunate as to have any such roof. The people of the medieval world have a strong tradition of charity to those in need, and that is constantly being reinforced by the Church. Those PC’s who have homes of their own, whether owned or rented, should be mindful of these practices and the obligations incumbent on them.