Zumbs' Blog

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Commoners

Posted by Zumbs on December 8, 2013

Peasants, cobblers, smiths, masons, miners, butchers, bakers, fishermen, farmers, hunters, potters and many more were the commoners of the medieval world. Through their daily work the goods and services needed by medieval society were made. Their daily lives and outlooks are important parts of how a society works, and, consequently, a cornucopia of inspiration for adventures or simply backdrop to the action.

Most player characters will also come from a simple background, the life of the commoner will be their background as well. For inspiration, you may want to watch some of the historical documentaries by Terry Jones, notably the The Surprising History of Egypt, Rome and Sex are recommended.

Food

It has been said that any society are three meals away from revolution. It certainly is true that before a group has secured its source of food, it can do little else than try to secure a source of food. Eating also has important cultural significance: People meet over a meal to build and maintain family relations, friendships or to negotiate deals. Often there are all sorts of rules that apply to the meal, e.g. the rules of hospitality.

How do they get their food?

Is it harvested from their own land? Purchased at the market place? In ancient Rome most commoners did not have a kitchen, so they purchased the food at restaurant and fast food bars on the street. This is likely to cause a lot of people being outside and on the streets at all times of the day. If, on the other hand, meals are cooked at home, streets are likely to be empty around dinnertime. Kitchens could also be communal in nature, so everyone in an area, e.g. a building block or a village, would meet and share a meal, while discussing the issues of the day, rumors, news or telling stories.

There could also be differences between cities and the countryside. Aside from the smaller population in walking distance, if you grow your own food, why sell it to someone just to buy it back?

What do they eat?

Do commoners subsist on porridge, or do they eat a more varied diet? What can one expect to find in a home or at the inn? How much do they eat? Is the fear of starvation real for a commoner? This can be used both as a backdrop and as a vehicle. Hungry people are likely to do anything for a meal, so they can be used as pawns by unscrupulous people, steal food, rob people with money, start a revolution or even eat corpses in desperation. Similarly, the fear of hunger can drive both individuals and groups to desperate acts. Mass starvation could also lead to mass migration, causing all sorts of political instability. If food comes from very few sources, there is also the real possibility that the source could dry out, e.g. due to sickness, over-usage, pollution or magic.

Clothes

What sort of clothes do people wear? Cotton, linen, silk, fur or something different? Is it purchased at a shop or at a tailor? Usually, most cultures will make clothes that are suited to their climate and life style, however, it is also important to look spiffy to attract attention from the other gender as well as respect from others. Even if the culture is highly puritanical.

Clothes could be produced from local or imported produce, and raw materials could be both imported or exported, resulting in significant trade. Different color often had different prices in the real world depending on how the dye was produced. Tyrian purple was made from a secretion produced by certain snails, and was reported to being worth its weight in silver.

Homes

In ancient Egypt people slept on the roofs of their houses, looking up at the stars. With no street lights and little cloud cover, they must have studied the stars, making up and telling stories of the stars and the images they saw in them. Premodern homes were different from our modern homes, and it is one of the places where you must take care with your own misconceptions.

Homes are important to keep warm and safe, as well as living together as a family. What sort of home does a commoner have? Is it a house, a flat or a tent? The construction is also very important. In particular, what is in the house? As noted earlier, ancient Romans had no kitchens. How about lavatories? If people use a lavatory in the yard, you have chance witnesses to things happening in the yard or in the street. Bathing and cleanliness is also a consideration. Many cultures had public baths where everyone could go, negating the need for private baths. Such facilities are also a place where one can catch up on the latest gossip, scope attractive persons or get ready for an encounter. Lavatories and cleanliness also have direct effect on the general health and spread of disease.

Houses also have inventory, e.g. chairs, beds and closets. There may also be drapes and blankets for coziness, small alters for worship and various trinkets owned by the occupant(s), e.g. beautiful rocks or jewelery. The occupants may also have tools for their trade and various hobbies.

As visits to houses happen often, you may also consider the design principles of the culture. What is important to show to the visitor, and what is hidden? If it is important to show wealth, you have ample options for shame (of modest homes), jealousy, theft or competition.

The nature of visits can also be dependent on climate, so in cold climates visits will be indoors, where visits in warm climates may happen on a terrace. When designing the culture, it is a good idea to draw a few floor plans of common houses, so you can make up more on the go.

More spectacular layouts are also possible, e.g. in the ancient city of Çatal Höyük, there were no paths or streets between houses. The roofs of the houses effectively became the streets, and houses were entered by holes in the roof using a ladder.

Hopes and fears

Even in the most static of societies, there are those who reach above the station of their births. Alas, it is also possible to fall below the station of ones birth. Often there is a general dynamic in a given period in a society. During the Roman expansion, peasants were pushed off their land into poverty. The black plague caused severe labor shortage, resulting in better conditions for commoners (and women) until the population gap had been closed. Organized labor has significantly improved rights and living conditions of commoners in the 20th century.

From the view of the commoner, what are the chances of falling into poverty, and what are the chances of improving ones lot? And how does one go about it?

Falling into poverty is disturbingly easy. An accident could make a commoner a cripple, unable to work his or her profession, reducing the commoner to a beggar. A home and shop could be lost in a fire, causing the commoner to lose family, home, tools and savings. Peasants can be pushed off their land, anyone can start drinking too much. Consorting with the “wrong” type of people can cause the commoner to loose respect or business. Depending on the society, the result can be the life of a beggar, a slave or even worse, with different kinds of rights and options.

Commoners may try to get some insurance against these issues, e.g. by joining a guild or placing themselves under a powerful patron. Someone may play on anothers fear of sliding into poverty, and use this to get power to themselves. They may even go so far that they spread fear to make people more gullible, e.g. by sponsoring a crime wave or selling liquor on the cheap.

This also makes for a number of adventures or campaigns. Maybe a local monastery are hiring a group of bandits to harass or even murder families in an area that they covet. A friend could fall in with unsavory types, or end up owing a lot of money. Any organization of commoners is likely to generate resentment or downright hostility from the ruling elite, so they will try to break such an organization – or to corrupt its leaders.

It is also possible to better ones position. Through hard work and skill, one may be able to attract more business, make more money and maybe expand the shop. Bravery and loyalty may get the commoner on the good side of a lord or an influential businessman, which could lead to more trusted positions, titles or land. Someone rising could generate resentment from others who believe that this nouveau riche person is taking a post destined for someone born for that position, foiled their plot or are simply bad mannered and foul.

Entertainment

Every now and then even the commoner will have some time off to relax. During this time, the commoner can play a game. Boardgames like chess or nefatavl could be popular in winter or among the infirm. Sports are also likely to be popular. You may be tempted to look at the Olympics for sports, but they have a significant drawback: They are competitive spectator sports. While that certainly can be fun, team sports are also quite popular. Sometimes they can be quite violent as well, and the rules are not always well defined, as described here. Another related source of entertainment can be local competitions that are mostly there for fun, like sackraces, possibly with multiple people in the sack, e.g. parent and child or a young man and woman, or to show off prowess in cooking or agriculture. Such celebrations can be a wonderful way for players to get to know an area, and can be a part of an adventure, like We need to win the best shepherdess competition to get the magic mirror.

Another source if entertainment is to watch a play or go to the circus. Unlike today where plays and circuses often become quite sombre affairs, the spectators took a much more active part in plays in premodern times. If the play was bad, they could throw stuff onto the scene (or maybe even if it was good), and they could shout comments. Much fun could ensue if the actors would react humorously to the comments.

The troupes could be traveling from city to city, so they would be strangers. As the locals have not known the troupe for their entire lives, they would not be considered trustworthy, with all their traveling they may even be considered to be shifty, thieves and almost criminal. This would make targets for (youthful?) infatuations as well as scapegoats for all sorts of crimes. Some of them could also be criminal. They could also have a reason to take up life on the road, e.g. to escape a powerful enemy, a crime, debt or just to see the world. Indeed, the start of a campaign could be that the party decided to travel the world with a group of actors.

Magic

Depending on how magic works in your world, it will impact commoners in different ways.

If magic is something dangerous, practiced by secluded witches and wizards, commoners will tend to be afraid of magic and magic uses and try to protect themselves, e.g. by painting an Eye of Horus or similar. These protections can be more or less effective, or may have a root in something that was effective.

Magic could also be as common as any other tool. In this case commoners would tend to use magic themselves, e.g. to improve the quality of their goods. Commoners may also utilize body art, e.g. tattoos, to protect themselves from magic, or to improve their ability or something similar.

In both cases, the magical service may not work quite as the commoner is lead to believe. It could have side effects like being addictive, causing accidents, draining the user of life or will, or do something quite different.

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