09 May 2014

Medieval "Facts" Most Players Believe

Yeah, we know – or have a dim awareness, in any event – that gamers are misinformed, if not badly wrong, about many aspects of low-tech life.  And that's understandable.  People grab dice and come up to the table to play a fun game, not to become experts in medieval European culture.

Still, for those of you who appreciate verisimilitude – and if you've come this far in my blog without rolling your eyes and stalking off, you're likely among them – here are a few examples of what gamers get wrong.

Taverns: The standard fantasy RPG tavern is a large, large place.  It’s full of travelers, the common room seats a hundred or so, and there are several floors of guest accommodations above: it really marries our 21st century expectations of a large modern restaurant with the Marriott or Hilton. 

This just isn’t often the case in the medieval period.  Taverns seldom had much in the way of short-term accommodations – separate “hostelries” did that, which were basically glorified boarding houses.  Deep into the 19th century, most were relatively small, neighborhood places that might seat a couple dozen people and had very limited wares: you ate a chunk of bread and whatever was in the stew pot, and you drank the house beer or ale, or an overpriced bottle of wine, and that was where you and your neighbors often went for dinner.  With a deep unwillingness to waste food that couldn't readily be preserved in any event, the tavernkeeper would have the grub on hand she expected to use, and a large group of travelers would have her either frantically dicing potatoes from the root cellar into the cauldron or scrambling to the neighbors for extras ... which would come to the travelers at a large markup.

In early modern England, due to unforeseen consequences of a law, any homeowner could open a "beerhouse" out of his or her home, upon paying two guineas for a license.  The law was repealed twenty years ago, but the remaining license holders were grandfathered, and there are still a couple spots left where the neighborhood "tavern" is no larger than a sitting room, with a couple kegs of booze around.  I read an article on one that was even done on the honor system, more out of tradition than anything else -- the elderly lady whose family ran it for a couple centuries died ten years ago, and her non-resident granddaughter and heir still lets the community keep it up.  This sort of informal arrangement was common in medieval times, and there were shopowners who'd set up a barrel of brew in the evening, put out a few stools, and played barkeep for a couple hours.

Literacy: Gamers badly underestimate medieval literacy rates.  In the countryside, sure – people in medieval Europe were 90% illiterate and up.  In the towns, however, 50% literacy wasn’t at all uncommon, and the totals went up with the artisan classes and higher.  The two key elements were Gutenberg and the Reformation, during and after which the ability to read the Bible was considered crucial.  (Writing, however, was another matter, and many a Renaissance peasant could read but not write.)  In other areas, especially in China, literacy was also prized and relatively common.

The whole fighting-men-don't-need-to-read-that's-for-clerks riff is an inaccurate, modern-day revisionist view of the western European Middle Ages much beloved of Hollywood and fiction.  What, the western Europe that included cosmopolitan Italy and Spain?  The one where noble-born trouveres were filling France with tales, poems and song?  The one where young nobles were raised to have numerous "accomplishments" – to know how to dance, write poetry, play a musical instrument?  Not really a bunch of unwashed barbarians, folks.

Off-the-rack: This didn’t really exist; if you wanted clothes, weapons and the like, they were made to order, and took about that much time.  Artisans would have sample displays of their wares – say, for instance, a silversmith with a row of spoons, each with a different decorative pattern – for buyers to choose between.  They also often had waiting lists, so that new custom-fitted suit of armor?  Yeah, you might be cooling your heels in town a couple months there.  The armourer needs to finish the three jazerans for the men-at-arms of the countess – the one whose patronage he's had for five years now, and hopes to have for many years after the pushy adventurers he's never seen before are long gone.

Food and drink: “Iron rations” and “waterskins” are staples of character sheets, and it’s presumed that PCs do well on them for long adventures.

First off is salted meats. That's great for shipboard and military life, where you have dedicated cooking teams with cauldrons and the ability to boil out the meat for an half hour or more, which is about what salted meat takes to become edible. Most adventurers don't carry cauldrons around and often have limited supplies of fresh water needful for boiling or soaking.  (Smoked or jerked meats are more of a pain in the neck to produce, considerably more of a pain in the neck to produce in bulk, and don’t keep nearly as long.)  I once took a bite out of a piece of salt cod, to see if it was really inedible without boiling.  Trust me -- * gag cough gag * -- it is.

Second is hardtack. This is really ironhard, and requires soaking or pounding to make it at all edible; pull it out of your backpack and take a bite, and you’ll chip teeth. It keeps forever – there was a bit in the paper last year about a researcher eating some preserved hardtack made for the US Army during the Civil War – but it really doesn't save all that much in the way of space over buying a loaf from a farmwife every day of march, and the older it gets, the more it gets infested with weevils.  This’ll do adventurers no harm, but the players might be a bit creeped out.

Third is water itself.  Beer, ale and wine were as common in medieval Europe (as was tea in the East) as they were because drinking the untreated water was a sure road to cholera and other nasty diseases.  Unless you were filling your waterskins from a mountain stream, you were taking a big chance.  And even there ... my favorite camping guidebook has an anecdote from one of the authors of drinking from a cold, refreshing mountain stream in the Arizona desert, and happening to glance upstream to see some buzzards.  Investigating, he found a dead horse, smack in the middle of the stream, a couple hundred yards up from where he drank.

Fourthly – and something gamers usually slough off – food was routinely adulterated.  Hardtack needed to be baked at least twice, and often wasn't, which sharply reduced its shelf life and durability.  Bakers were often brought to trial, not so much for cutting their flour with sawdust, pipe clay or fuller's earth, but by doing it in such amounts as to be impossible to turn a blind eye.  Meats ... well, let's just say you'd need a strong stomach to read about all the things that were done to them.  The party relying on "iron" rations might well find, two weeks from civilization, that their rations are no good.

Finally, the diet just sucks.  No green stuff, no vitamins – a party eating nothing but that junk for a month is going to be less than 100% when it comes to fighting.

Travel times:  Thirty miles a day is a number used frequently in gaming books ... that being the short-term forced march capacity of a military unit in top condition, with a supply train, in good weather, over good modern roads or flat terrain, and not paying a whole lot of attention to flank security.  For adventurers, it's not true.  Horses don't, contrary to most beliefs, make long-distance overland travel go particularly faster – it's that riding on horses tires the travelers out a great deal less.

For another thing, medieval roads almost uniformly sucked.  Full of mud, filled with ruts and holes, indifferently maintained when they were maintained at all.  (Look, if your countryside is constantly plagued by orc bandits, do you think that the road crews are magically safe?)  Rivers didn't come with convenient bridges, spaced a few miles apart: they came with the occasional ferry, for which you might have to wait a good hour for the bargemen to finish their lunch on the other side and pole back, presuming you don't have to march ten miles out of your way upriver to the next one.  (And presuming you know where the next one is.)  Strong, large bridges are creations of large kingdoms with complete control over their lands, silver to burn, and the peace and stability to use it.  (The aforementioned orc bandits not existing, y'see.)

10-15 miles a day's considerably more realistic.

Guilds:  I touched on this in an earlier post, but your average gamer, raised in a largely meritocratic Western democracy, has a mental image of a medieval guild that more or less squares away with modern-day trade unions.  (It's okay.  The origins of the trade union movement, coming about in societies deeply hostile to unwashed craftsmen exerting economic power, sought legitimacy by claiming descent from those guilds.  They weren't historians either.)  This was not close to being the case.  Medieval guilds were part of the civic power structure, they were there to ensure that the guys already on top of the food chain stayed there, and they were notably hostile to threats to their power.  Membership was very restrictive, they got many laws passed to squish outsiders, and they had quite a few anti-competition/innovation rules to prevent journeymen from getting a leg up on the others; enforced hours of operation, hiring limits, a ban on new techniques.


  1. "medieval literacy... Gutenberg and the Reformation"

    Gutenberg and the Reformation aren't really medieval. Gutenberg was 1452, Luther started things off in 1517. The Dark or Early Middle Ages are roughly 500-1000, the High Middle Ages 1000-1300, and the Late Middle (or late medieval) 1300-1500. 1500+ would be Early Modern, with things like the printing press, discovery of America, and Reformation being much of the difference -- also, guns getting good enough that even high end plate was starting to phase out. (1300s lead you into the Black Death and Hundred Year's War.)

    Granted a lot of default fantasy "medieval" looks like "Renaissance without gunpowder".

    1. Those times are decidedly fiat, and historians have been arguing over them for centuries.

      That being said, exactly. "Fantasy medieval" isn't anything of the sort: "Renaissance without gunpowder" fits pretty well, if you tack on "... and with 19th century Age of Sail."

  2. RE: Travel times:
    From research and personal experience walking all over the place. I got the following.
    A baser travel of 16-24mi / day with 8 hours travel, 8 forage/set camp/rest, 8 sleep.
    This based on an average walking speed of 2-3 mph on agreeable terrain. steep inclines like hills or mountains, Dense foliage, or other types of broken terrain are going to halve that, or worse.

    1. Which presumes the aforementioned "agreeable terrain," along with agreeable weather and no delays at toll gates, ferry landings, etc.