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From the board, What's a DM to Do?

Life in medieval times


From From Sunchaser, February 27, 2003 11:43 PM

What was life like back then? I know D&D has magic that makes life a bit easier than our real world medieval times were, but I want to introduce a little bit of realism into D&D.

For example, people must have been filthy. There was no running water, so they had to go get buckets of water from the well. I guess people bathed in the rivers in summer, but what about winter? I know in FR the city of Silverymood apparently has running water.

What about food? Did people store food in their house, or did they prepare each night's food from scratch? The wife goes down to the market each day to gather the ingrediants, and then trudges home to cook it for her family.

The size of families must have also been bigger. There was no birth control back then, and no TV either. I reckon most families must have had 5 or more kids. What did these children do?

How about hospitals? Where did the wounded and sick go? I reckon in D&D there would a cleric-type person in the town who would go around visitng the ill. But what happens when there is a plague or a battle or something, and there are hundreds of wounded or ill people? Where would they keep them all?

Transport? Did people walk most of the time? I'm not everyone could afford a horse or cart.

I can't think of anything else at the moment, but perhaps you've got some other ideas.

General Information

From Redcrow, February 28, 2003 12:27 AM

People didn't bathe very often, sometimes going for months at a time especially throughout the winter when a bath could mean death due to hypothermia. Its also why most marriages among commoners took place in the spring… it was the earliest point in the year when people could bathe.

Most people also only owned one good set of clothes. Children wore the equivalent of a woven potato sack with holes cut for arms and head until they stopped growing and would rarely have had shoes.

What about food? Did people store food in their house, or did they prepare each night's food from scratch? The wife goes down to the market each day to gather the ingrediants, and then trudges home to cook it for her family.

In a large town the wife of a tradesman might be able to afford to buy food at a market. However, the majority of people were farmers who lived in small hamlets and villages. These people worked together on communal farms owned by a local nobleman. In exchange for their work, they were allowed to eat from what food they cultivated and the rest (the majority) was sent to the nobleman for taxes.

Most homes consisted of a single large cauldron style cooking pot over a fire where they would toss in food from the farm occasionally and simply reheat it every evening for dinner. Of course, this method attracted all manner of bacteria and so disease spread easily. Its also where the old nursery rhyme “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old” comes from.

Meat of any kind was quite expensive to buy and so it was sometimes hung on a wall in the home to impress guests. That is where the expression “bringing home the bacon” comes from. The average persons diet consisted mostly of fruits and vegetables and whatever they could hunt. Of course, hunting was considered poaching if caught due to it being on the noblemans land.

The size of families must have also been bigger. There was no birth control back then, and no TV either. I reckon most families must have had 5 or more kids. What did these children do?

Families did tend to be larger. Unfortunately, children were susceptible to death from malnutrition as much as disease. Kids often worked right along side their parents as soon as they were able.

How about hospitals? Where did the wounded and sick go? I reckon in D&D there would a cleric-type person in the town who would go around visitng the ill. But what happens when there is a plague or a battle or something, and there are hundreds of wounded or ill people? Where would they keep them all?

A village was a communal place where everyone did their part and there was usually some type of healer or midwife to help care for the sick. In a town or city, if you could afford it, you would most likely visit a barber for illness as well as a haircut. The multi-colored pole outside a barbershop was a symbol of the barbers many abilities. Each color (red, white, blue) represented one thing the barber did. Although I can't remember what each color stood for, sorry.

Transport? Did people walk most of the time? I'm not everyone could afford a horse or cart.

Most people walked and it was uncommon for anyone to travel more than 20 miles from where they lived.

Also remember that illiteracy was prevalent everywhere. Few people could read or write even their own name.

Hope that helps.

General Information

From SilverPalm, February 28, 2003 12:33 AM

First off, there was no “science” until about 1575 AD or so. So anything that couldn't be explained as having “normal” causes was put in two categories: religion (God did it) and “magic” (someone using unknown/uncommon forces did it).

People weren't “filthy,” but they didn't bathe a whole heck of a lot, either. At least not how we think of bathing. They had a pitcher and bassinet. They sponge-bathed their “sweaty” areas (arm pits, crotch, etc.). They used perfume to mask body odor (in the west). Eastern cultures, to this day, consider body odor an aphrodesiac.

Most people didn't own closets full of clothes. They had *maybe* two or three shirts and a couple pair of breaches. One pair of shoes/boots. A couple pairs of leggings. The idea was to *prevent* getting your clothes soiled. More on that in a moment.

Bathrooms, in the sense we know them, didn't exist. Outhouses over pits were used in the country. In the city, people had chamber pots that they went to the bathroom in. Then the maid tossed the excrement into the gutter. Rain washed the waste into the catacombs or down the street until it went into the river/lake/ocean. (Side note: the river Thames in London *exploded* on three occasions from the excess of human waste and the gasses said waste created).

Several things came of this practice of waste removal. One was the plague. Rats would munch on the feces in the street, then crawl into the warm beds at night. People roll over, tick off said rat. Rat bites. Disease spreads.

Did you know it is proper for the man to walk closest to the street? That comes from the fact that if mud, horse poop, or people poop was splashed onto the walkway from a passing cart, the woman would be shielded. Oh, and why did people always wear hats? Well, certainly to shade themselves from the sun, but they were also like portable umbrellas. One never knew when a maid might miss the gutter….

Air conditioning didn't exist, obviously. But Mediterrainian cultures used public fountains to create an air conditioning effect. The splashing water created lowered the temperature and created “cool zones.” Buildings were constructed to hold heat. Don't believe me? Go to the local discount store and check out the domed dog houses. Designed to keep the heat in better than peaked dog houses. Then look at all those vaulted ceilings from medieval architecture.

Refridgeration wasn't around, so meat was kept fresh by keeping it alive. That's why commoners had chickens, pigs, even cows in their yards. Salt was used to preserve meat that had been butchered.

Families were big for two reasons. First, cheap labor around the farm/home. Second, no old-folks home. More kids, the better off Mom and Dad were in their “old” age (usually around 40 or 50 for commoners).

At the age of 10 or 11, most boys were apprenticed. After serving their apprenticeship, they could open their own trade shop. Oldest son got all the inheritance. Every other child got squat. You know the vikings that invaded northern France and eastern Britain (and later all of Britain in 1066)? They were the 2nd and 3rd sons of Norse farmers. No inheritance so they started pirate raids to get money. After a hundred years of pirating (780s to 880s), they began invading. Took farmland, married local girls, settled down and adapted to their new cultures.

Medicine was relegated to quackery. Some medicines existed, but most “cures” were really just wive's tales. Nice idea to put leeches on sick people to suck out the “bad” blood. Many-a-people died needlessly thanks to medical practices of the time.

Most people *could* afford a horse. Livestock was as common as dogs and cats are to us today.

The dead (in cities) were often interred in the walls of the catacombs (and/or sewers) under the city. This preserved land for agriculture (hard to plow a cemetary) as well as satisfied the general trend of Christian burial. Some cultures, especially in the north, put the dead on barges loaded with kindling, set the barge off to sea, then fired flaming arrows to light the barge on fire, cremate the corpse and spread its ashes to the four corners of the world.

Oh, yeah, and our modern-day practice of embalming the dead and waiting a few days to bury them came from the fact that many people were mistaken for dead and buried alive, only to die trying to claw their way out of their coffins.

General Information

From Elric of the Ruby Throne, February 28, 2003 12:36 AM

It depends on what area your discussing. Medival Europe was much different than medival Japan, for example.

Generally though, for Europeans, it meant that the poor owned little and generally worked as serfs for those who were their superiors. Few people bathed, most families were self suffcient and grew their own food and made their own supplies.

Women pretty much were the property of their father until married, at which time they became the property of their husband, and had even less rights than men. A few cultures were different from this, it being the most prevalent among the normands and a life being a little better for anglo / saxon women.

Boys were typically considered men by around age 17-20 and girls women when they had their first period (Which was for females in those days, later in life than in females today, around 15-16 as opposed to 9-12.). Girls could be married as young as 9 years in some cases, although by law their husband could not consumate the relationship until she was of age, (See above.). This sort of young marriage was almost always the exclusive domain of royalty, however.

Few people could read at all, and the diversity of languages spoken meant that just because one person could they might not understand a stranger.

Sanitation had virtually no meaning as filth was dumoped where it was advantageous, thus leading to nasty diseases.

Barber Polls

From Illithid Tentacles, February 28, 2003 12:37 AM

IIRC, barber poles were originally white. The red markings showed up after the barber had bled or operated on someone; he would use rags to soak up the blood, then hang them to dry from the pole out front. As they dried, the rags would drip blood onto the pole, staining it red.

I believe the blue came later, but I can't recall why.


From SilverPalm, February 28, 2003 01:17 AM

Now, on to my essay on language. If you think D&D oversimplifies science, that's nothing compared to language! I'll stick to English, b/c that's what language we're speaking on this board.

Old English derived from Germanic tongues.

Nu schulon herion, heovonriches ward
Metodes meachte und his modethank
Woerk wulderfader swa he wundra yewhas
Eche drichten or onstealde
He airost scheop aorthan biernum
Heovon to hrove hollie schupend.
Tha middenyard moncuenes ward
Eche drichten after teoday
Firum, foldon, frea, almichtia.

That's English. Old English. Caedmon's Hymn, as well as I can remember it at this ungodly hour of the morning.

Since there were no printing presses, books were copied by hand. Thus, only important works were ever written down. Mainly this meant religious texts, since monks were one of the few classes of literate people. They did so by having the master read from his copy of the Bible, and a room full of monks copied what he said into their Bibles while he talked. Ever wonder why there are so many versions of the Bible?

Also, Latin was used for religion and legal documents. The vulgate (common) language, English, was reserved for “everyday” dealings and was rarely written down. Since it wasn't written down, the language did something other languages couldn't: it changed. Mainly, the vowels shifted from being pronounced at the back of the throat (a la Germanic) to being pronounced nearer the front of the mouth (a much easier way to speak). Vowels were still pretty much “pure” in that they were pronounced the way they were printed. For instance, now we say the word “were” as if it were “wurr.” They pronounced it as if it were “weer”. Also, if there was an “e” on the end of a word, it was generally pronounced.

Then, in 1066, William of Normandy (the Conquerer) invaded England from northern France. After kicking arse and taking names (and the throne on Christmas day), he instilled French as the “official” language. So, religiously, it was Latin; in business and politics it was French; and the vulgar people (read: commoners) spoke the vulgate (read: common) language, English.

Another 200 years passed (until about 1250) with the English language being rarely written down. This meant it continued changing until it emerged as Middle English. A good example of Middle English is Canterbury Tales. It was one of the first non-religious texts and showed how the language had progressed. Pronunciation, and thus spelling, still varied from town to town. There was the “Oxford” way to speak and write, the “London” way to speak and write, etc.

Around 1475, the printing press arrived in England (William Caxton brought it over from Germany). This did five things: 1) books could be made quicker; 2) books could be made cheaper; 3) books were more accurate; 4) spelling was solidified; and as a result of the first four effects, 5) literacy rates among the commoners skyrocketed.

Now all this is well and good, but how do you apply it to the game?

Well, have scrolls or tomes PCs find in treasure piles be written in older forms of common. Compare Old English to Modern English. It's like a different language. So now, rather than just picking up a scroll with Haste written on it and being able to cast it, the wizard can tell it's a Haste spell, but it's written in an old form of common and he'll need an extra round or two to cast it effectively.

I like to use “high common” and “low common” in my games. Most aristocrats speak in proper “high common.” Think stuffy, Queen's English. Most commoners speak in the more vulgar dialect of “low common.” So, a rogue who grew up on the street gets a -2 modifier to his DC check when using Disguise or Bluff to pass himself off as a well-to-do person. That is, unless he takes “high common” as a language slot. Conversely, a prince trying to pass himself off as a common tradesman to avoid being taken as a political prisoner had best not speak too properly….

Also, some foreigners who speak common speak only in the most literal forms of the language (they learned it in school as a second language and didn't use it all the time). They are confused by colloquial phrases. This can be great fun to use when role-playing NPCs.

Barber Polls and Leeches

From Tzor, February 28, 2003 06:23 AM

A side note, blue was never really a proper color for the barber-surgeon's pole. It was added in the United States in some barber shops because Red/White/Blue bunting was popular as they were the colors of the flag.

Second, don't knock the humble leech. While it is true that folklore and myth was the basic mode of understanding, what worked was kept and what didn't work was dropped. Asprin was used for centuries without anyone knowing why it worked, only that it did work. Leeches do not just suck blood, their saliva is injected into the blood stream in order to thin the blood. The use of blood thinners as an important aid for the eldery is seen today in the recomendation for the eldery to take moderate doses of asprin … a blood thinner.


From jasper, February 28, 2003 06:28 AM

bad answers.

Pick up the Francis and Joesph Gies series

“life in a(the)…..” village, castle, etc,

Also the parson(sp) letters.

Also oakshotte(sp) for weapons.


From al usa, February 28, 2003 10:49 AM

Actually, most people never bathed. They thought it would make you sick. And rats didn't spread the plague, their fleas did.