The Medieval World: Conditions of Daily Life

This work is a compilation of a wide spectrum of aspects of the medieval world and medieval life gathered under the impetus of a dedication to pursuing research that most people in this busy modern age simply don’t have the time, patience, or general inclination to embark upon by themselves. Most of the pertinent information is boiled down and condensed for the sake of clarity and convenience. While some of the information presented may be deemed by a few to be rather esoteric or superfluous in nature on first reading, further exposure reveals it to actually embody the basics for understanding the medieval environment in such a way that it becomes more compatible with the aims and purposes of a roleplaying game.

Here, all the little details of the medieval gameworld in which the character was born and grew up are provided, and it behooves the player to be familiar with the experiences and practices to which the characters have been exposed throughout their lives up to the time when they are brought into active game-play. This adds a dimension and richness to one’s roleplay that benefits the whole game for all involved. Where the player is dealing with a GM who is using this information as the basis for his fantasy world, it becomes an indispensable primer for roleplaying in that world, an aid to getting used to the practices and inside the heads of the medieval people who will populate the gameworld, with whom the players’ characters must blend (to a certain extent).

This is covered in the first part, “The Medieval Mind”.

Conditions of Daily Life sheds light on the most common blind spots or complete misinterpretations or cross-period amalgamations in most peoples’ concepts of the medieval era that commonly get transferred directly into most GM’s medieval fantasy gameworlds. Now some of these blind spots or misinterpretations or cross-period amalgamations can make for an interesting gameworld, BUT the GM should use such things with knowledge aforethought so he can anticipate their impact on the other medieval standards drawn from the historic records in order that his world have a sense of internal consistency to aid and reinforce the players in suspending their disbelief.

The only liberty that has been taken in compiling this work is the fact that the usually much narrower definition of the “period of the game” for purposes of defining the “medieval era” discussed in this book, which observes a general cut-off point of 1348, on the eve before the great devastation of the Black Death, is occasionally broadened due to the fact that a few developments or social practices that are commonly associated with the medieval period actually did not come into being until the eve of the Renaissance or later. These are included due to the need to show the developments that often followed certain practices or innovations. Because many of these things have little real impact of the essential “feudal” nature of the hierarchically stratified medieval society or the basic “medieval-ness” of the genré for the purposes of tabletop gaming, AND due to the fact that in most peoples’ minds they belong together, they are included BUT identified as clearly as may be so as not to cause confusion with the historic record, with dates to provide a “long view” perspective.

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.

 

Conditions of Daily Life

Every player should have enough basic knowledge of the medieval period of the game to know what to expect their characters to see when they take a look at the gameworld around them in certain common circumstances. The players should know that, as in the modern world, their characters can tell the general class or wealth of the neighborhoods through which they walk by the size of the buildings and the materials of which they are built, and of the houses in which they find themselves more specifically by the quality and types of materials used to build, decorate and furnish them. So, the player should be able to recognize the statements the GM is trying to make about the characters’ surroundings when he gives a description. Out in the streets, the character will be able to tell, in general, the class and station or wealth of those he sees and meets by how well-dressed they are, or what trade in certain instances due to a traditional mode of dress, so the player should know to ask after the dress of NPC’s the PC meets if the GM neglects to mention it. This will allow him to address them in the proper manner, with deference and respect where it is needed in order to avoid some fatal social error which might result in making on of the wealthy and powerful angry at him.

As the months and seasons pass in the gameworld, the character should know just what it is all those farmers out in the fields are doing as he rides past; what sort of schedule the tenants will expect of him as a landlord (as applicable); why in late summer and early autumn he will have trouble finding a clerk or scribe or parchment or paper; why livestock prices soar after November; what times of day and on what days the streets are clogged with crowds in the towns; why the market(s) or shops are all closed around noon; why he must go hunt down the individual shops after lunch for his needs, as opposed to taking a more convenient stroll around the local market (assuming it is market day). In this regard, this work is a wonderful resource for the GM to add depth to his gameworld. There are a number of mistakes commonly made in regards to creating and travelling through a medieval gameworld. They are addressed in the following text for the benefit of player and GM alike.

For those who are already well-read on the subject, this chapter is NOT intended to provide any new, earth-shattering revelations, just an overview of the general conditions for those who lack the time or inclination to seek out and gather together such information.

 

The Groaning Board :

Medieval Food & Diet

The foods of the period of the game are recognizable, by and large, by the modern reader, but some may have been forgotten and others may not still be prepared as of old, while still others might be shunned in this modern day. Many of the recipes of the period are very intricate and complicated. Many complications arose in the kitchen from trying to balance the humors in the food to the needs of the guests according to the medical theory of the period. Roasting, baking and stewing are all known well today, but during the medieval period they had a number of other interesting preparations, such as the blackmanger (“blah-MANJ”), a custard-like meat dish of chicken pounded into a paste, blended with rice that had been boiled in almond milk, seasoned with sugar, and cooked until very think, finally garnished with sautéed almonds and anise. Mortrews is another such preparation of pounded meat or fish, mixed with breadcrumbs, stock broth, eggs, and then poached to make a sort of dumpling.

Pounded meat will be very popular with the people medieval gameworld, as otherwise, much of the meat will be tough and stringy to start with, and commonly smoked or salted to keep, especially that which will be eaten in the winter. Due to the fact that most (common) people will not be able to afford to slaughter their animals until they have outlived their other uses, , and chickens and geese are kept about half wild, their meat is all stringy and tough. Thus, much of the meat will be boiled. Fish, eels, poultry, and blood meats will be commonly made up into pies, pasties and fritters.

Sop-in-wine is another interesting dish, a mixture of wine and almond milk, ginger, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and mace, poured over a piece of the best white bread.

The people of the period of the game ate much more of the parts of the animals they slaughtered than do most mainstream modern folk, as well, from entrails, blood, and brains, to making gelatin from hooves, blood sausages and puddings, and the scrapple still popular in some parts of the US today. They also ate many creatures which modern folk no longer bother with, and even more which most modern folk would simply abhor. The feasts that the PC’s may encounter during the course of the game may include such beasts as peacocks, swans, cranes, larks, partridge, woodcock, and plover, as well as suckling pigs, the famous holiday boar’s head, and the obligatory venison, fresh from the forest. Doves and pigeons (squab) are a mainstay among the clergy and nobility, for whom they are reserved and protected in the same manner as deer, belonging to the lords of the manors. As many as 700 pigeons might be consumed on a single manor in a year, and there will be hardly a manor to be found without its tall dovecote.

The common folk have their chickens and capons, rabbits, or the larger hares, ducks, geese, mutton, pork and beef on occasion, though the last two are the most expensive. Starlings, curlew, gulls, herons, bitterns, storks, cormorants, and even vultures are known to the peoples’ dinner tables as well, and just about every kind of fish is eaten. Herring is about the most common, salmon, sardines, mackerel, haddock, stockfish (cod), and tuna (fresh, salted, and dried) are also eaten regularly, as well as such things as porpoises, seals, dogfish, and whale. Lamprey, freshwater eels, and perch are normally reserved for the dinner tables of clergy and nobility, also.

No house is without its own little garden, sometimes not so little by modern standards, space permitting. Vegetables, flowers and herbs are all thrown in together willy-nilly, with little regard for type. . Lettuce, shallots, beets and scallions are all common to household gardens everywhere, as are cabbage, onions, leeks, sorrel, and mountain spinach. Turnips are considered commoners’ fare, and so are found in the gardens of free commoners and the landbound commoners.

Some flowers are also used in the kitchen – the petals of lavender, lilies, marigolds and peonies are often used as bright garnishes over the tops of stews, soups, and sauced dishes. Violets are minced into salads and cooked in broths, while roses and primroses are stewed in desserts. Parsley is used for green coloring in foods, dandelion or saffron for yellow, alkanet for red, mallow, roses, blue turnsole, and violets are all used. Daisies, cowslips and germander all brighten the gardens. Those aromatic herbs and flowers that are not used in the kitchen (as well as many that are) are also scattered on the floors amidst the rushes in the common chambers and halls and carried in small satchels to sweeten the air.

Seasoning is an art in itself, and the people of the medieval gameworld are VERY fond of their spices. They like the food sharp, hot and spicy. Pepper, mustard and garlic are among the favorites, although the first two are rather expensive. Agrimony, balm, basil, borage, chamomile, coriander, costmary, garden cress, dittany, fennel, sweet fennel, hyssop, mallow, marjoram, mint, purslain, rosemary, rue, savory, winter savory, tansy and thyme make up the great majority of herbs that can be found in the household gardens and hanging in bundles from the drying racks in the kitchens. Many herbs are grown not only for their use in cooking, but also for their value as home remedies.

Herbs are planted liberally, but the spice cupboard has a lock on it to guard its very dear contents. Even the wives of the wealthy townsmen may hoard only a few threads of precious saffron, worth many times its own weight in gold. Ginger root, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg and mace and several other spices from the mysterious Far East are almost as expensive and just as carefully guarded. Such spices as mace, cumin, cannel, and cloves are not so steep, but still dear enough to be spices for the wealthy. Pepper and mustard are just affordable to the well-to-do, and salt is relatively cheap, unless it is the finely ground true white salt. Honey is produced in most rural places, but in rather small quantities, so it is still rather costly at market. The sugar most commonly seen among those who can afford it comes in a hard loaf that must be pounded and ground, and is more expensive than honey. True white ground sugar is the most expensive sweetener. Sweetened dishes of any kind are rare on the tables in commoners’ houses, generally only affordable for use in holiday dishes.

Those who have the space may also raise a few fruit trees, apple, pear and medlar are all town garden favorites, as are currant and raspberry bushes, and grape arbors are common where the temperamental vines will consent to grow. Plum trees, peach, cherry, and also quince can also be found in the home gardens or manor and castle orchards.

To add variety to the table, the housewife or household cook may buy something a little different from the market.

Bread, the Staff and staple of Life , comes in many different grades, depending on the quality and type of grain used to make it. The finest white bread has the texture of modern croissant and is called wastelSimnel bread (also artocopi, or Lords Bread) is really just a denser, more moist biscuit made from the same flour for a higher price, followed by cocket bread, mancherin or manchet (or Noble Bread) and pandemayne (or Daily Bread). Pretzels are also available, an invention of a monk who twisted the dough into the shape of a monk’s arms properly crossed in prayer to help instruct the services, large and soft, rather than the small, crisp sort that come in a bag. Then there are the brown breads : rye, bran, and maslin or mixtilio (mixed wheat/rye flour), and the rough brown loaves of bis or trete. The poorest sort of bread is called horse bread, made from peas, beans, oats, or similar poor serf’s feed, also used to feed horses. The breads are all sold at a standard price, only the size of the is allowed to vary, its proper weight set by statute every year according to the harvest and the prevailing price of grain.

The commoners generally have plenty of bread, except when the wheat crop is bad. They do not lack for cheeses or curds, oatmeal cakes or porridge. Thick soups and stews full of vegetables are common fare among the rural commoners and the landbound. Meat, although generally reserved for feast days and holiday dishes, is not all that rare. Fish such as herring is very common, and in October and November everyone feasts on the meat from the slaughtering in anticipation of winter. What is not eaten then is salted down or smoked for the winter.

Drink varies with station, and also with nationality. The gentleman generally drinks wine at his table, but the wines are young compared to what modern folk drink, less than a year old for lack of a good method for sealing the casks to put it up to age, unless it comes from the Middle East or Greece in sealed amphorae. After about a year, young western wines tend to go sour and start to get moldy. Wine is often served mulled for holidays or with dessert, hot and laced with honey, cinnamon, cloves, and/or ginger, like a number of the beverages described in the previous passage on “Taverns, Alehouses & Pubs”, sometimes to mask the wine’s poor quality. Monks commonly favor mead or methaglin. Beer and ale are the drinks of the common folk, though drunk exceptionally young compared to modern beer. The average common family will drink a gallon of beer a day. These tend to spoil within about five days of brewing for lack of refrigeration, and they are not made with hops as are modern beers. Ciders of various fresh fruits are also had at table, apple being the most common, followed by perry, made from pears. Milk is also seen on the commoners’ tables. Water is not trusted, and with good reason, it is believed to be unhealthy and downright dangerous. Given the state of sewage disposal and the runoff of livestock pens and riverside meadows used for grazing which all runs into the common water sources (the rivers), that belief is well-founded.

Wine will be the drink of choice for the French cultures, except for the Norman French who favor hard apple cider. The hard cider of the Normans is considered by those of other lands to be the special curse they bear. The Anglo-Saxons preferred mead by comparison, methaglin, bragget, all honey wines – but they also had a drink made of sweetened vinegar! The English culture chosen for the purposes of the game will like their beer, however, though some will retain the old Norman taste for hard cider. Honey wines will pass in and out of fashion along with nostalgia for the old Anglo-Saxon culture, literature, music, art, themes, dress, and the like.

Two or three courses in a meal are common at supper, the first two of the same sorts of foods, the last a light dessert course of nuts, cheeses and fruit. Among the wealthy, clergy, and nobility, the supper is commonly two or more light dishes like salad and/or soup or stew, and two meat dishes followed by a dessert course for which sweet wafer pastry might be served, accompanied by spiced wine. . The king’s table might be graced by three meat dishes on a common day, although will certainly be quite elaborate, as befits the king’s station.

Monks normally eat one meal each day, but in the summers a light supper in the evening is also allowed. The monks of the English culture which is the focus of the game demand that they be allowed to break their fasts in the morning on bread and ale, according to their native custom, and they do, indeed, do so. Their afternoon dinners are normally supposed to consist of bread, cheese and egg dishes, beans, vegetables, cereals, and fish. Oysters as well as fish are staples on fast days, and are cheap, to boot. Gluttony is the darling sin of the monks. Gradually accumulating great wealth in gifts and benefices  of land over the years, their lifestyles too often depart from their spiritual aims. They may sometimes enjoy dining on as many as 15 dishes or more in a single meal. Some customarily see 13 dishes set before them at every meal, all decked out in sumptuous sauces and washed down with beer, claret, new wine, mead, or mulberry wine, only to be censured for their excesses by their superiors of the clergy.

 

Society & Custom:

Weapons of War

All formal weapons forged for war will generally be forbidden to be carried or worn except to those born to the noble class or free men serving as professional Warriors currently in service to a patron in need of a personal guard (merchant transporting goods, wealthy traveller, etc.), to a chartered town, a lord, or the Crown, or a member of the Fyrd (militia of the commonalty) when mustering in time of war.

Thus, not every NPC encountered who wears a sword will be a knight, but the idea that the sword is an exclusively “knightly” weapon is not entirely wrong. Throughout medieval Europe, swords were the chief weapon of knights, nobles, and mounted men-at-arms (mercenaries), who by schedule of the Assize of Arms it is clear were also well-to-do men. The “bastard sword” and the “great sword” among swords of the “combination” type will specifically be considered the symbol of the nobility and knights. No common soldier could normally afford any sword larger than a common (“long-”) sword or falchion, and no knight or lord would allow him to carry a bastard sword or great sword even as a spoil of war, but would expect such weapons to be brought to him to be redeemed for a fair price, exchanged for coin at the close of a battle.

Before being allowed through the gates of any town or castle, everyone wishing to be let in will be challenged, stopped and questioned, asked for their names, their origins, and their business within, why they should be allowed to pass, unless they are locals already known to the guards. These questions must be answered to the guards’ satisfaction or the would-be entrants will be detained and questioned further while the guards’ superior is called for to make a judgement as to whether they should be admitted or to take them in front of a magistrate and required to provide pledges for their good conduct, especially if their answers have been vague and evasive, raising the guards’ suspicions. Should they have any letters of introduction addressed to citizen(s), fraternity(-ies), or guild(s) of the town or to resident(s) or officers of the castle proving their stated business, they should be in hand on arriving at the gate and offered for inspection. If they are presenting themselves as itinerant craftsmen, their bona fides will be requested if they are not offered. Security is the guards’ job, after all, and their heads are on the block (so to speak) if they should allow a criminal or other dangerous or undesirable person to pass within. As stated previously, this is NOT fascist to the people of the period. These men are the agents of the establishment and the law, symbols of the commitment of the lords and/or municipalities to maintaining peace, law, and order. The people know well how dangerous and life-threatening lawlessness can be, so these men are a blessing and a comfort, so long as they do not let their positions go to their heads.

Within the walls of most medieval towns and cities, the wearing of swords will generally be forbidden for everyone, sometimes even the nobility, as well – at least during times of peace. It will be common practice for all folk bearing weapons entering a castle, fortified town or city, military fort or citadel, manor, palace or other such stronghold or place where the law and the King’s Peace are most strongly enforced, to surrender their weapons (except for the customary dagger or knife) to the guards at the gatehouse to be stored in the armory there, in the keeping of the constable, castellan, or seneschal. In return for the weapon, half of a chit or tallystick will be issued to the owner, the other half being hung on the weapon to identify it when the character presents its mate for redemption on departing that place.

In the shires and hundreds, the constable will come and get the weapons when he hears of them, if he is not sought out to surrender them.

The weapons and armor required of a man due to the Assize of Arms is kept at home, as his personal property, to be stored as he likes (generally at his home), but it must be maintained and will be inspected by the local constable once or twice per year to ensure it is in battle-worthy condition.

This weapon restriction doesn’t apply as stringently to the “common” swords like back-swords, estocs, short swords, braquemarts, falchions, etc. (GM’s discretion), except in those areas in which there is a constant and strong presence of the royal government and its officers of the peace, or of the local nobleman and his retainers, those areas where the law is strongly and consistently enforced. Otherwise, examples of the permissible length of daggers and sometimes also swords that may be carried inside city walls without fear of penalty or reprisal will often be mounted in prominent locations usually on churches or in city halls immediately adjacent to the marketplaces in the towns, along with the standardized measures for trade and commerce.

Those who are allowed to keep their weapons may be let by with the show of a “warrior’s knot” on their (sheathed) larger weapons. This is a leather thong tying the weapon into its scabbard, which must then be untied before the weapon can be drawn and used. This makes drawing the weapon more difficult and time consuming, which lessens the number of rash uses of weapons in quarrels. Those who have not prepared their weapons in this way will be instructed to do so.

A general exception to the ban against wearing weapons, however, will be observed in the cases of travellers (merchants, the general FREE citizenry, even those on pilgrimage) due to the constant and widely acknowledged dangers of travel by land and sea, in districts or waters where there is danger of brigands, pirates, and outlaws, especially in areas or regions beyond the regular reach of the feudal officers who maintain the peace.

Even students of Oxford University, all clerics normally forbidden arms, were allowed to arm themselves for travelling due to the widely acknowledged danger of the road.

Free commoners carrying bows or slings will not be questioned out on the roads, but they will be expected to surrender them when it is appropriate to ensuring the peace in civilized places. Quarterstaves will simply be considered to be walking sticks by most, and will only be asked for by the paranoid and over-zealous (GM’s discretion).

Farm implements mounted with steel edges for use in war will still be considered farm implements, however. Farm tools can be freely carried about by both free and un-free in the manner of an itinerant farm worker without raising any suspicion at all, except when those people are brandishing their tools and raising a ruckus in groups of three or more (by the letter of the law falling within the definition of a “riot”).

Common belt-knives or daggers may be carried by anyone at all, and generally will not be collected when other weapons are demanded, unless a character is being stripped of weapons in the course of taking him prisoner. When one is being “dressed down” for shackling at the time of arrest, his hat, gloves, cloak, jerkin, tunic or doublet and dagger or belt-knife are all taken to symbolize the loss of honor and status.

However, ALL persons, including even the nobles (regardless of rank), are barred from carrying their swords into an open market on a market day, into any enclosure in which a faire is being held, or into any court where there is a magistrate sitting, or into any church. This does not mean it didn’t happen, it simply means that there are legal repercussions for doing so.

Due to gradual social changes which commenced during the 1400’s and later, it became more and more acceptable for civilians and noblemen alike to carry the lighter and thinner successors of the sword, the rapier (cut-and-thrust swords, back swords, estocs, etc.), as an everyday weapon for self-defense in public, until they became an essential accessory to the apparel of ALL men who wished to be viewed as “gentlemen”.

When not on duty, a warrior’s war harness will normally be left hanging in his lord’s armory or town or castle garrison, unless he is travelling, as described previously, unless it is the Warrior’s own personal property. When the war harness is issued by the lord, the sheriff, king’s marshal, etc., it is not his property and must be returned to the armory when he is not using it in service.

A weaponsmith will not even undertake the making of any true sword for a character nor a merchant accept payment without first being convinced by the character’s assurances that he is entitled to bear it or is purchasing it for one who has that right, including rich, noble attire, retainer(s) and fine, noble manners. Adventurers will have to take care to follow these rules when in populated places. They will be impossible to circumvent in common, honorable society except by deceit or with the aid of others of equally questionable character.

As a general rule, any character of the Villein, Bordar, or most particularly the Serf class will be unable to buy any weapon other than a common knife or dagger designed for war (or metal armor either, for that matter) from any honest smith or merchant, unless he invests at least 6s. 3d. in a suit of clothing befitting a man of the free or “middle” classes with which to dupe him. Honest merchants or craftsmen may still discover the ruse or become suspicious of the character’s true social class due to his speech, attitude, or manners, spoiling the sale. The details will have to be worked out with the GM. The Presence skill of Silver Tongue and Player/Trickster skills may allow the character fool a merchant to buy from on the sly.

On the other hand, it was never by any means an exclusive right of the knights and nobles to wear and fight in armor. Not every piece of armor was once worn by a knight, nor can every person depicted in an artwork wearing armor be identified as a knight. A person in armor should more correctly be referred to as a “man-at-arms” or “man in armor”. Foot soldiers such as mercenaries, or groups of retainers comprising peasants, and burgesses or burghers of the towns, as well, also participated in battle in time of war or civil unrest, and protected themselves accordingly with armor of varying quality and extent, according to their means and the Assize of Arms. Indeed, the free burgesses of most medieval and Renaissance cities (of age 16to 60, and above a stipulated wealth or income according to the Assize of Arms) will be expected — with the force of law — to acquire and keep their own arms and armor. This will not necessarily be a complete suit of armor, but will consist of at least a helmet, a body defense in the form of a mail shirt, fabric or padded armor, or breastplate, as well as a weapon such as a spear, pike, bow, or crossbow, perhaps with a horse, according to each citizen’s material means and the requirements of the Assize. In times of war, these militia forces, called the “Fyrd”, will be required to defend the city or to set forth to render military service for feudal overlords, king and country, or allied cities.

During the 15th century, as some wealthy and powerful cities became more independent and confident, even the free burgesses in some independent towns organized their own tournaments for which, of course, they would also have worn armor.

For members of the commonalty to go about “armed” – wearing a garment of armor greater than single thickness, particularly enhanced padding and especially any of the metal or rigid armors – is considered just as suspicious an action as carrying a weapon to any authorities encountered, particularly for anyone known to be of the landbound class.