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Building Character: Growing Up in Medieval Fantasy Part I

By Joshua Raynack

In the last Building Character article we imagined the birth of your adventurer in a medieval fantasy world. This week we continue to focus on growing up in a campaign setting mired in realistic situations to spur your imagination when creating an in-depth character background.

While wrought with its own set of perils, once born, childhood poses a myriad of dangers. In fact, almost half of all humanoids you meet throughout your lifetime are under fifteen years of age. Those that rule the realms and command great armies are quite young, most in their twenties. Although the wealthy and powerful have means to conquer disease and injury through mystical talents, it is a violent world; made more so by youth.

As many brash and destructive young adventurers bear swords and sorcery, an atmosphere of fear and strife lingers. It is not uncommon for armed youths to rape and pillage in a drunken, violent spree, all the while waiting orders to soldier onward; and those are men-at-arms that represent your king or queen.* Outlaw gangs, mercenary companies, and warmongering barbarians, also roam the countryside. Furthermore, we cannot dismiss the youth of races with a much more cruel and bloodthirsty temperament: orcs, goblins, giants, and their kin.

As a young lad or lass, you had at least some rudimentary training in archery and swordsmanship as well as an elementary foundation in defensive military tactics to protect property and self-preservation. This basic instruction gave you enough skill to keep safe against marauders; humans and monsters alike.

Aside from martial training, as a substantial villein or freeman in the village, you farmed and worked thirty acres of land. It would be enough to feed a family of five with a small surplus. Though problems with ploughing, ripening, harvesting, and ravaging armies, could prove dire to your livelihood. Is this what drove you from your home to a life of adventure? Do you have a father with a broken leg and unable to finish the harvest in time? Does it fall on you to make amends to ensure your family survives the winter? Will the manor lord forgive your debts if you explore the local ruins; abandoned nearly a century ago?

Like most peasant families, you remember much of your youth spent in a two-room house. For privacy, a fence or ditch surrounded the home. If your familiy held some prominence or wealth in the village, you had oil lamps for light, enjoyed a timber floor, slept on a raised bed with fleabane (an herb to keep the bed free of insects), an outdoor privy, and a table with a tablecloth.

Upon the table, you might take pleasure in a brown, whole meal loaf filled with peas and beans. Aside from eating pottage, eel pasteries proved delightful as well as a few special preserved treats such as bacon, cheese, and sausage. As a youth, you remember helping your older brother or sister weave an eloborate net to catch songbirds and rabbits. If a river ran close to your home, you fished. To wash the scrumptious feast down to your gullet, you drank ale.

Prior to a life of adventure, you may have heard wild tales from the local tavern, an ordinary home of a widow who found farming the land too hard. With a lack of clean water, ale was an essential part of your upbringing often drinking the brew from leather mugs lined with pitch. With a few coins from a good harvest, your father may have allowed you a taste of an imported wine.

Is this where you first learned to pick pockets? Did you learn to brew potions from an old alewife? As a strapping youth, did you guard a merchant importing exotic wines from village to village?

In the next Building Character article, we will continue to focus on growing up in a medieval fantasy world. We will delve into the urban areas and the wealthy merchant families of the feudal landscape.

*In 1379, Sir John FitzAlan, Lord Marshal of England, compelled to wait for stronger winds to sail a detachment of soldiers to relieve the Duke of Brittany, took refuge in a nunnery. To ease the monotony, many soldiers drank and flirted with the nuns. After refusing their advances, the nuns barricaded themselves within the dormitory. Determined, soldiers forced their way into the chambers and raped them.

Thereupon, they looted the nunnery and a nearby church, encountered a wedding party, took turns raping the bride, then seeing the winds were in their favor, boarded the ship with as many women they could carry, and left. In a further miserable turn of events, when the vessel strayed off course due to a storm from the east, Sir FitzAlan ordered all sixty women thrown overboard to lighten the load.

While this is an extreme and not a typical crime, its chroniclers, both Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart, affirm the story is of great importance. They both accept a mob of armed, drunken youths capable of such behavior.


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