It never ceases to amaze me how many D&D games ostensibly set in the Middle Ages are really set in the American Wild West. Most people don’t have a good grasp on medieval culture beyond knights and castles, so they imagine it was pretty much like the oldest thing they do know about: movies set in the American West of the late-1800s.
It shows in a lot of what they say and do. A lot of campaigns have latched onto the idea of “quest board” that looks a lot like a billboard (that is, a board for posting handbills) from the Wild West, complete with wanted posters. There are even scale miniatures for them.
It should go without saying that such things didn’t exist in medieval Europe, because hardly anyone could read.
Now, it should be said that everyone is entitled to do their adventuring in their own fantasy world, and it doesn’t have to mirror medieval England and France. But when people’s fantasy world sounds suspiciously like a cowboy movie, it starts to feel very silly.
There is often talk about a sheriff and a jail. Old West towns hired a marshal; the sheriff was–and still is–elected at the county level. They often call people “farmers”, but that term didn’t exist until much later.
How the Middle Ages Worked
At the foundation of society in the Middle Ages were peasants, who made up 90% of the populace. Peasants were either serfs (field laborers attached to a manor) or husbandmen (free field laborers) or yeomen (free land owners). People who lived in town were freemen called burghers. Above commoners were franklins (untitled landed gentry), then gentlemen and knights (knighthood is not inherited), then lords, then various nobles like barons and dukes, then various royals like princes and kings. While the aristocracy certainly became more complicated over time, there’s no reason to include counts, viscounts, baronets, and the like.
One important thing to remember is that virtually every male trained for war. Yeomen were required to practice archery. Burghers trained as footmen. The gentry and nobility either trained as knights or joined the clergy. Nobles weren’t the effete aristocrats of later times–they were warlords. They trained constantly for tournaments and by extensive hunting trips, where they camped in the forest and speared boars with lances. In a D&D world, they certainly would have gone monster-hunting.
If you want to inject some semblance of history in your campaign, the player characters should mostly be franklins with some yeomen and burghers.
The Manorial System
Essentially, every plot of land was part of some lord’s manor. Lords typically had several manors, each about 1500 acres, often scattered about so that no one lord owned too much contiguous lands. But where there were a few manors clumped together, they lord would have a fortified manor house or keep. Nobles would have castles. Knights would have just one or two manors (a knight’s fee or fiefdom).
A manor had a village attached to it. The peasants lived in the village and worked in the fields. The village had no walls and was also home to a blacksmith, miller, and perhaps a brewer. Many people brewed ale at home; those who sold it to the public ran a “public house”. Beer (which contains hops, while ale does not) kept longer and so could be sold away from where it was made. A village typically had only one oven, owned by the lord; this reduced the likelihood of fire. A villager’s cottage was generally one room, with a central fire pit, with the smoke filtering thru the thatched roof. If you were wealthy enough to have more than one room, you probably kept your animals in it at night.
Yeomen were the “middle class” of the peasantry. They had larger, nicer homes and servants of their own. Franklins sat above them on the bottom run of nobility–untitled but part of the landed gentry. It would likely have been difficulty to tell them apart.
Everyone who lived on a lord’s land owed him fealty and support during a war as well as rent and taxes. A lord would be expected to provide a certain number of archers, footmen, and perhaps half a dozen knights to liege–either the king or the a very high-ranking nobleman. Knights were obligated to serve 40 days a year, either in war or garrison duty (manning a castle) or retinue (traveling guards), as well as being available for councils to help advise in decision-making. Lords generally had a say in who married whom, since it affected the number of people whom he could count as his subjects.
In exchange, a lord provided security and protection from raiders and invaders, as well as traditional things like a certain amount of cloth each year for making clothing.
Towns & Cities
Towns grew up on major roads to provide a weekly market to the villagers. But only guildmembers could buy and sell. Shops in a town were workshops; there were no such things as stores and certainly no “general store” like in an Old West town.
The burghers who lived in the town still paid rent to the local lord (or to the town, which then paid the lord), so don’t think of towns like those in the Old West, being independent and isolated. Villages dotted the landscape every two or three miles, and towns were only 15 to 20 miles apart. Only the rich could afford horses and carriages, so these places had to be within walking distance.
People also commonly get the community size wrong. A village was only 75 to 150 people. A town might have 500 to 1500 people, while cities might be 2000 to only about 12,000, except for the capital of the kingdom. London itself never had more than about 70,000 people in the Middle Ages, but Paris had a couple of hundred thousand, and Rome and Constantinople might have reached half a million.
A very common thing to overlook in D&D fantasy worlds is the food. Before the discovery of the New World, Europe had no potatoes, tomatoes, corn (maize), pumpkin, peanuts, chocolate, coffee, chili or sweet peppers, or turkey. Nor was there tobacco or cocaine.
People ate a lot of peas, beans, grain porridge, cabbage, onions, leeks, and lentils, as well as dairy products and eggs. They also ate a lot of nuts, in particular Walnuts, hazelnuts (AKA filberts), pistachios, chestnuts, pine-nuts and especially almonds. The peasants had little meat, and it tended toward rabbits, sausages, and bacon, while their betters got the roasts.
Tea and bananas and other exotic items from elsewhere in the world didn’t generally make their way to medieval northern Europe. And distilled liquor (whiskey) hadn’t been invented yet. The exotic–and very expensive–items that did were “spices” like black nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, saffron, mace, anise, garlic, tarragon, dill, and (in hard “loafs”) sugar.
Lastly, other common mistakes are imagining that modern items would be available. Medieval Europe had little glass; what windows existed were stained glass and leaded glass, both of which use very small pieces of glass set in leading. The lower classes had shutters to keep the weather out of unglazed windows (that is, windows were basically little doors).
Likewise, leather backpacks weren’t invented. Packs carried by travelers were typically either a leather or canvas haversack over one shoulder or a woven basket with shoulder straps. Another thing to note is the prevalence of barrels and casks in place of crates. While wooden boxes, trunks, and chests existed, barrels are much simpler and therefore far more common.
Many people may be shocked to learn that not only did clothing not have pockets–you carried a pouch or purse on a belt or shoulder strap–but Europeans in the Middle Ages didn’t even have buttons. Brooches and cloak pins are some of the most common items find in archeological digs from this period, but a lot of clothing was held together with pins until the 1800s (the origin of the term “pin money”). They did have belts, tho, often called girdles for both men and women, and they liked them very long and dangley.
Headwear was ubiquitous. The amount of uncovered hair in fantasy art and Ren fairs is strictly late-20th and early 21st century stuff. There were many styles over the years, so take your pick for your world, but the ubiquity of hats and hoods (often a cowl separate from the cloak, because England is a drizzly land) cannot be overstated.
Clothing fashion was rather dull, and we should be forgiven for preferring styles closer to the 15 and 1600s than to the 12 and 1300s. This is why they’re called Renaissance fairs and not medieval fairs. Even so, the biggest mistake remains full-length trousers.
Ankle-length trousers were worn in some parts of the world, usually in the form of loose-fitting pantaloons for thousands of years, but the style thruout Europe was tight-fitting hose until hose were separated into knee breeches and stockings.
Second to trousers is jackets.