Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Life in a Medieval Castle

Jerry Stratton, September 14, 2013

Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle figures prominently in this book.

Joseph & Frances Gies’s Life in a Medieval Castle is a nice little 272-page book1 covering:

  1. The Castle Comes to England
  2. The Lord of the Castle
  3. The Castle as a House
  4. The Lady
  5. The Household
  6. A Day in the Castle
  7. Hunting as a Way of Life
  8. The Villagers
  9. The Making of a Knight
  10. The Castle at War
  11. The Castle Year
  12. The Decline of the Castle

There’s also a short glossary of castle terms, a short glossary of feudal terms, a geographical guide to “Great Medieval Castles”, and a fairly lengthy bibliography.

Some of the interesting things I’ve learned are that castles often had entrances only on the second floor: the easiest way to keep attackers from bursting the front door is to not have one. The first floor would be used for storage, with, potentially, small slits for combat.

If the climate includes cold weather, there is likely to be a fireplace somewhere near the living quarters set into thick stone so that the stone retains warmth after the fire burns low.

Besides a well or other water source nearby, there might be a cistern on an upper level, with pipes leading down to provide lower levels with easy access to water—that sounds like a fun thing to add to an abandoned dungeon.

Also, castles were too big for an outhouse, so they had garderobe’s built in, usually nestled in a buttress at the end of a short passage, or corbeled out over a moat or river or a long shaft to the ground.

Two of the more interesting chapters are the ones on the villagers around the castle, and the year in castle life.

A peasant’s possessions consisted of three or four benches and stools, a trestle table, a chest, one or two iron or brass pots, a little pottery ware, wooden bowls, cups, and spoons, linen towels, wool blankets, iron tools, and, most important, his livestock. A reasonably prosperous villager owned hens and geese, a few skinny half-wild razor-backed hogs, a cow or even two, perhaps a couple of sheep, and his pair of plow oxen.

They also talk about the villein (the non-free villager, or serf, though “the term was less common in England”) who owed two or three days of labor a week to their lord, and who “could not leave his land or sell his livestock without permission”.

There were also the free tenants, who did not owe labor:

Peveril Castle garderobe

The garderobe was often overhanging some corner of the castle wall.

Some simply held their land free of most labor services, owing money rents and “suit,” meaning attendance at certain courts. Others were the skilled craftsmen: the miller, the smith, the carpenter, the weaver, the tanner, the shoemaker. Most prosperous among these, and least popular, was the miller, who paid the lord for the right to operate the mill, a strictly enforced monopoly. The villagers brought their grain there, contributing in payment the multure, a sixteenth to a twenty-fourth part of the grain. Since the millers did the measuring, they naturally fell under suspicion of cheating on weight… A few villagers secretly ground their grain with a hand-mill at home, but ran the risk of seizure and punishment.

The chapter on the castle’s year covers the seasons, which are somewhat different than ours:

  1. Winter was September 29, Michaelmas, to Christmas. Wheat and rye were sown during this period.
  2. Spring crops were sown between end of the Christmas holidays and Easter: oats, peas, beans, barley, vetches2.
  3. Summer lasted from the end of Easter week to Lammas, August 1.
  4. And Autumn was the harvest, from Lammas to Michaelmas again.

Michaelmas was also the beginning of the castle’s fiscal year.

The three major holidays were Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They began with a feast of the Church, followed by a week of vacation (two weeks for Christmas), and ended with a feast of the people before resuming work. There were quite a few lesser feast days and vacation weeks as well.

The castle died less from the technology of gunpowder than from the rise of central governments and their foot soldiers, and the rise of leisure among the nobility, who preferred living in residential manors than damp hard castles.

A single knight might still be more effective on the battlefield than a foot soldier without armor and with a clumsy arquebus, but he was less valuable than ten such, and more expensive. The same sort of economics applied to castle building, with the added factor that the new political geography made obsolete many of the old frontier castles, such as those guarding the long-embattled English-Welsh and Norman-Breton-French borders.

There are small bits of black and white period art and black and white photos throughout the book. A lot of it is Chepstow Castle in Wales, as are many of the quotes about the economics and running of the castle. It was a very interesting read, a blending of popular book and light scholarly work.

April 15, 2017: Life in a Medieval City

Joseph and Francis Gies’s “Life in a Medieval…” series is a useful series for gamers. I’ve just finished reading Life in a Medieval City and it provides details that should inspire ideas both for characters and for creating adventures.

The Medieval City of the title is, basically, Troyes, around the year 1250, in what was then only sort of France. The king of France didn’t control the Champagne area; the Count of Champagne ruled over the Province of Champagne, and Troyes was its capital.1 Nor was it the only area not under the control of the King, and Champagne itself was potentially under several jurisdictions.

The sovereign who granted Troyes its charter was Thibaut IV, whose talent as a poet won him the dashing sobriquet of Thibaut le Chansonnier (“Songwriter”). Even before he inherited the kingdom of Navarre (after which he signed himself Thibaut, king of Navarre and Champagne), his territories were extensive, though held from seven different lords—the king of France, the emperor of Germany, the archbishops of Sens and Reims, the bishops of Paris and Lancers, and the duke of Burgundy. For administrative purposes, the complex territory of Champagne was divided into twenty-seven castellanies, each of which included several barons and a number of knights who owed military service—altogether more than two thousand. (There were also a few hundred knights in Champagne who owed military service to somebody else.)

Language was fragmented as well. The literate used Latin as a common language—sometimes. The rest did as best they could with widely variant versions of French.

Because of the class structure, knowledge was also fragmented: all those strange things we read in medieval bestiaries, such as that “weasels conceive by the ear and deliver by the mouth” were there because the people writing the encyclopedias copied from (possibly misunderstood) Roman sources, rather than consulting the “Furriers, trappers, hunters, and poachers [who] could correct much of the natural history in the encyclopedias.”

In a fantasy game, of course, scholars have a very good reason for not investigating monsters at the source: the monsters are real, and it’s dangerous to investigate them. Which could make for a lot of fun when the encyclopedias don’t match what the monsters actually do.

Troyes was the major fair town in an area known for its fairs, and the authors take us through the kind of people who take part in the fairs and how they do it. As with Life in a Medieval Castle, they cover not only how the fairs grew, but also how they faded.

  1. It’s actually 224 pages of reading—the rest is the glossary, bibliography, and index.

  2. A legume, somewhat like a red lentil.

  1. <- Free Compendiums
  2. T is for Tower ->