Many of us have grown up with the idea of the medieval thieves guild from RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or computer games like Skyrim. We have seen movies like Godfather and Scarface. You may also have researched organized crime in the real world. All of this has given us a number of preconceptions on how a criminal organization looks, how it is built and how it works. However, if you try to copy-paste these preconceptions to a medieval world, you will quickly find that it makes little sense.
As an example, consider a group of bearded criminals sitting around in your medieval city with markings that clearly show that they are part of this group. Even though they claim to just be a group of horse enthusiasts, everybody knows that they are a ruthless criminal organization. What is to keep the local ruler from sending an army to execute them? If the ruler does not it is either because:
- They are allied with the ruler. But why not just wear the uniforms of the ruler?
- They are too powerful. In this case, why not just take the power?
This was the reason that many criminals fled to the countryside and took up robbery, sometimes relying on powerful connections to be sheltered from prosecution, like a letter of marque.
To further muddy up the picture, the closest thing to modern crime organizations was probably the noble families and their retainers. Given that they were the rulers, they were, by definition, not criminals, but they often acted like a criminal organization.
Does this mean that there are no criminal organizations? No, but it means that you have to leave your current preconceptions and consider what the environment allows when designing your criminal underground.
Criminal means operating outside the scope of the law, and as long as there is a demand for illegal activities, someone is likely to step up and supply the activity. If the demand is sizable enough, this will involve multiple persons, in effect becoming an organization. Let us take a look at the types of activity that a criminal organization could take part in.
The main income of modern criminal organizations are various recreational drugs. The American mafia grew explosively during the period of prohibition where alcohol was illegal in the US. However, drugs and alcohol may very well be fully legal in your world. And why should they not? As long as it does not interfere with their ability to do their work, why should the ruler care that his or her subjects are stoned in their free time? In fact, it may be to the rulers advantage, as they may very well become more docile.
Once recreational drugs are eliminated, we are left with things like poison. While there certainly is a market for such things, it is much, much smaller than the one for recreational drugs, and unlikely to be able to support a criminal organization, unless it is used as a means to an end, e.g. murder for money.
Thievery and Burglary
While thievery may have been the most common crime in medieval times, it was likely the last ditch effort to get something to eat and very dangerous.
Today, most people are at work during the day, many travel away on vacation for days or weeks, and it is easy to blend in. Most goods are mass produced. With a bit of luck, you may actually be able to get everything of value from an apartment into a (stolen) lorry and get away before anyone figures out what is happening.
In the medieval world, there were people in the home almost all the time, and goods were made by hand. And most cities were small enough for people to know each other by face if not by name. So, stealing and reselling must have been quite hard, compared to the potential punishment (maiming or execution). Even in very large cities, breaking into regular homes and stealing goods would be difficult as there would likely be people in the home, in neighboring homes or on the street, wondering why some stranger was walking in and out while the owner was out. During the night, the owners would be home, sleeping, so the thief would have to find his way to the loot in the dark while not waking up the family.
Only feasible loot would be something that could be easily hidden and sold, like money and precious metals.
However, if goods were stolen, the thief would have to sell it to someone. This could be someone interested in cheap goods for his or her own home, or it could be a fence. Fences are specialized in buying and selling stolen goods. They could have a legal shop, e.g. a pawnbroker or a stand at the market place, where they increase their profit by selling stolen goods. In order to avoid the issue of someone recognizing an item, the city must have a certain size to support a fence. If someone gets something stolen, and they just visit the local pawnbroker to get the item back, the pawnbroker will quickly end up in trouble.
Breaking into the houses of the rich and powerful may give larger riches, but may also be more dangerous and generate a much more forceful response.
Overall, it would seem that pickpocketing is the easier avenue to get coin. But it is easy to get caught, and in smaller cities, one could quickly get a reputation.
Magic introduces some interesting options, such as magical traps, alarm systems, break-in tools (flying or walking through walls), retrieval of stolen goods (by magical search or even teleportation) or to confuse targets.
The basic point is this: Loan out some money and charge (possibly illegally) high interest rates. If the borrower cannot pay, a number of consequences ranging from legal threads, public shaming over blackmail to violence or even death can ensue. However, these loans may not be legal, and the consequences are certainly not. Also note that the lender will want the borrower to actually be able to pay back the loan, so extreme violence or murder are only in extreme cases or to make a point to other who may be planning to default. An alternative to violence could be to force the borrower to partake in some very dangerous operation to clear (parts of) the loan.
In medieval Italy, some of the early criminal organizations were based on loaning out money at high interest rates. It proved to be so lucrative that, in time, local rulers had to borrow money from the criminals, and they turned into banks.
If taxes on imports are high enough, someone will try to make money by covertly transporting the taxed goods to the market, avoiding said taxes. Prohibition or quotas on certain goods could also give rise to widespread smuggling, sometimes by merchants. Note that significant fines or punishments may be the result of getting caught, so, unless the gain is significant or the risk is very low, smuggling is unlikely to be widespread.
The goods themselves may be legal or illegal, but it requires a network to supply goods, covertly transport goods and sell them after the illegal transport. This could also include forging paper work, paying off officials or similar. The destination could be into or out of a building or a city or across a border.
The transport itself must be hidden. One option is to use hidden passageways, like a subterranean cave system, sewers or hidden harbors. One could also bribe guards to look the other way, or to take a break at a prearranged time, possibly to pay of a debt? If the goods are small and valuable, they could be hidden on a person or among other, common goods.
After the goods have been successfully transported to their destination, they must be sold in order for the endeavor to be profitable. If paperwork is required, the smuggler must get paperwork (forged or not) in order to be able to sell the goods at full price. If no paperwork is available, the local merchants will know that the goods are illicit and may not pay full price, even if the goods are legal. For illegal goods, the smuggler will need a network of sellers to distribute the goods to the consumers.
Many cultures try to limit the availability of weapons to its citizens, or rival countries. This could be hand weapons or siege engines. In either case, a lot of money can be made by smuggling weapons to those who want them, regardless of local law.
In a magical fantasy world where wizards are capable of teleportation, invisibility or similar tricks, it is not unlikely that these abilities are being used to smuggle goods. On the other hand, it is also likely that the authorities use magic to counteract smuggling.
There is also the issue of smuggling magical items, especially if the item can make noise (or even talk). Such items could also accidentally be activated during transport with unpredictable results.
As ancient general Sun Tzu noted, it is crucial to know ones enemies and one self in diplomacy as well as in war. Spy networks have existed for a very long time. Most are tied to another organization, e.g. army, police, government or corporation. Some may be for sale. All exist in a legal gray zone, maybe legal where the parent organization live, but likely illegal and certainly unwanted everywhere else. Even if they are not part of organized crime as such, they may employ or have contact to criminal organizations for various type of dirty jobs.
Like spying, assassinations have been about for a long time. Some people have had power, others had the ambition to get that power and were ruthless enough to murder their rivals. This gave rise to the hired killer. These come in many shapes and forms, from the brutish thug to the supernatural ninja. Assassins may be loners, part of a guild or part of another organization. Loners have the disadvantage that they can be difficult to find: Bragging about your killing prowess can get you into all sorts of trouble, very fast. Again, the client could just hire a few soldiers to do the deed.
Guilds mean that there are middle men who want their cut of the action. Guilds are, however, possibly easier to find, as they may employ middle men who will be available to listen to propositions. From the point of view of the client, middle men can be dangerous as well, as they may not actually be middle men, and may sell out the client to the authorities or the enemies of the client.
In the Elder Scrolls series, the Dark Brotherhood is a guild of assassins, linked with a powerful entity. Those seeking an assassination perform a ritual in honor of the entity to summon an assassin.
Using force to take something from another is sometimes called robbery. When a band of merry men take money from the tax collectors at sword point, it is robbery. When said tax collectors take money from peasants at sword point, it is legal. At sea, robbery is called piracy, on land it is carried out by bandits. In cities it is called mugging.
Piracy is when someone at sea is being forced to give their cargo to a third party, the pirates. These pirates will need to get a ship and weapons in order to do piracy. They may find use for some of the loot, but often they will need someone to sell their loot to, i.e. merchants, smugglers or others in a city. Depending on their situation, they may also need somewhere to go ashore to fix up their ship … or they may just take another.
Unlike pirates, bandits “just” need weapons to be able to start their crime spree, but they will likely need some sort of camp. The amount of loot that they can bring with them is dependent on their transport facilities, and they may still need someone to sell it to and buy provisions from.
Thugs mugging city dwellers on the streets have some advantages over bandits and pirates. They only need weapons, and the loot will be in the form of coin or valuable items, so it is easy to move. Merchants and fences are likely close by. Unfortunately, so are the authorities, and they can be recognized. A variation on this is robbery of a store or a bank. This may involve more people and more victims.
Unless the town is reasonably large, everyone will know everyone by sight, so it is difficult to get away with robbery, unless the victims are killed, or too scared to say anything. Or to put it bluntly: It may be a way to get some fast cash, but as a way of life, it is extremely dangerous.
One common way for thugs to make money is to try to intimidate businesses and citizens to pay them money to avoid harassment from said thugs. This may involve that the thugs also protects payers from other thugs. And if someone does not pay? Well, it is not very intimidating if nothing happens. However, it is not always that simple. A direct attack on someone may incur a response from authorities or the locals, so the thugs may let it slide. Or they could exact revenge. Note that many cities were extremely vulnerable to fire, so only the most stupid would try to burn down someones home.
Betting and Games
During human history a giant wealth of games have been constructed to provide a diversion when time allowed it. They can be purely chance (who rolls the highest number on a die), a mix of chance and skill (poker or bridge) or pure skill (chess). It could also be sports, e.g. a horse race or a boxing match. Sometimes people bet valuables on the outcome of the games. And when that happens, some will try to hedge their bets by cheating.
Cheating can be by figuring out techniques to roll dice in a particular way, using marked cards or even bribing participants to lose their game. Magic could also be used to cheat, as well as to catch cheaters. As such this does not require a criminal organization to carry out, but if more than one person is involved, it is, by definition, an organized crime.
Note that in some cultures, it is illegal to bet on games, or only legal in certain ways. Some sports may also be illegal, e.g. duels to the death. Some will pay money to watch it. Organizers of such events will need to spread the word, find a place for the event and organize food, drink and, possibly, gambling.
Forgery and Counterfeiting
Most cultures need some sort of paperwork to keep records straight, establish identity, rights, property, money etc. Paperwork does not have to involve actual paper, but could be stone tablets, metal signet rings or some other medium. Forgery is the act of making an object to deceive someone to believe that the object is authentic. This could be a deed of ownership, a signet ring, a receipt for paid toll or something else entirely.
One common type of forgery is to produce currency – counterfeit money. Coins whose value is dependent on its metal can be counterfeit by mixing up the metal with some other, less valuable metal, or by using a less valuable core. This allows the counterfeiter to make money whose face value is a lot larger than the actual metal value. This is naturally highly illegal, and most governments will come down extremely hard on counterfeiters. Another technique is to shave the edges of a coin, again to stretch the metal value into multiple coins.
A skilled gold smith could most likely produce counterfeit coins all alone, but might have some difficulty to use them without attracting attention, so an organization could be helpful, but also dangerous as there would be more people who could talk. Paper money would require someone with a very fine hand, and possibly a printer to produce large quantities. Paper money also implies a more regulated society, so the counterfeiter would have more trouble hiding his or her illicit activities. Naturally, legally sanctioned producers of currency can get greedy and utilize the techniques above to produce counterfeit money. This is particularly easy for paper money (just print more paper), whereas coins based on metal value require some extra work.
Falsifying documents would most likely require someone experienced with how such documents should look, e.g. an official, as well as some sigil. Sigils could be forged by an adept metalworker. They could work alone, e.g. as a corrupt (former) official at a customs station.
One could also forge goods, e.g. an instrument made by a famous instrument maker. Depending on the type of good and the scope of sale, this could be the work of a single forger, or involve a large organization of craftsmen, smugglers and unscrupulous merchants.
Sometimes also called a scam or a con, the swindler tries to fool the victim (often called mark) into giving something to the swindler. The object could be money, information or even participation in some other activity. The swindler will often try to fool the victim into doing something that will keep the victim from turning in the swindler, e.g. by having the victim doing something illegal, or may try to make the victim believe that he or she has not been swindled at all. Some scams may not even be illegal.
The swindle can be very short and simple, or very long and involve many hired helpers. The swindlers may want to avoid running into the victim again, so if the victim is not a traveler, a city of significant size is needed unless the swindlers are ready to move somewhere else.
Wikipedia has an excellent list of cons, some of which can be adjusted to medieval times. Note that most of them assume that the victim has something of value not tied to land, e.g. cash, jewelery, art, fine items or other loot that can be carried. Naturally, the loot could also be the next meal, which is important if you are starving.
When considering how crime is carried out in an urban center, one needs to remember that the city must have a reasonable size to offer some sort of anonymity to the criminal. If the population of the city is a few thousands, everyone will know everyone, by face if not by name. If someone is a professional criminal, it the rumor will quickly spread, and someone will take action. Depending on the society, this could be the authorities or armed citizens.
If significant trade travels through the city, foreign travelers and merchants could be considered fair game. They are, after all, not part of the local community.
However, for an urban career criminal, there is safety in numbers in large cities, whereas small cities are much more dangerous.
You may wonder how many criminals a city can support. Well, according to Wikipedia, FBI estimated that there were approximately 1.4 million gang members spread out over 33.000 gangs in the US in 2011. That is approximately one for each 225 citizens, or 42 members per gang. However, in a country like Denmark, the number of gang members is smaller than 2500, corresponding to one gang member per 2100 citizens.
In rural areas everybody knows everybody, usually both by sight and name. So, organized criminals in rural areas are unlikely to be able to keep their activities hidden for long. Once the criminal is found out, the only alternative to punishment is to hide or flee, possibly both. Thus, many rural criminals end up taking up the life of the bandit, living of robbing passersby, or poaching the local wild life.
Perks of a criminal organization
If a criminal organization were available, it could provide a number of perks to its members and associates:
- Meeting places where members can meet to discuss important issues, swap information or do business.
- Hideouts and safe houses where members can hide if they get into trouble. This could also be the first step to leave the area, if the ground is really burning.
- Training so that rookies can learn from experienced criminals. Skills could be anything from sneaking, climbing, picking pockets, swindling or something else.
- Doctors to care for wounded gang members.
- Access to corrupt officials to help smooth things over or get information. This could also be judges measuring out sentences or bribing watchmen to look the other way.
- Cheap access to illegal merchandise, e.g. tools or poisons.
- Middlemen to deal with people wanting to buy illegal services or merchandise.
The type of society and criminal organization determines which, if any, of these perks are available to the members of criminal organizations. The organization may also have developed a thieves’ slang to convey messages in seemingly innocent conversation, e.g. to point out that a third party is trustworthy (or not).
However, in most ancient or medieval worlds, the punishments for getting caught were extreme, so most of the people turning to a life of crime would have to be desperate, viewing crime as a last resort to avoid homelessness or hunger.
You may also want to investigate the Russian Thief in Law group.