Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Historicity: Welcome to Elfland 2/6

It's Wednesday again...

As promised, in this blog entry I'll try to give a brief introduction to some aspects of real medieval historicity, in this first and several more entries.

Do be warned, dear reader, that the past wasn't pretty. It wasn't Disney. When you go visit Elfland, make sure to bring a big sword - or better yet, bring several strong friends with big swords, in order to minimize the probability that some of the people you encounter will do nasty things to you.

The past, like Elfland, is of interest and value exactly because it is different from the present that we live in.

Instead of retardedly sweeping these differences under the carpet, we should have them out in the open and celebrate them. While the people of the past were still people, biologically homo sapiens sapiens, and with the same intelligence distribution as today (the average person back then was as dumb as the average person today, and so forth), they thought differently. The memes were different. Radically different!

Peasants, peasants everywhere!
Food was a huge concern. Almost everybody, as in 99% of the population, were involved in food production, and most of them did it as full-time jobs. That's what they did. "I'm a farmer!" / "I'm a farmer too!" And so forth...

That doesn't mean that people constantly starved, or were worried sick with fear of starvation. But it was a constant threat, at the edge of their awareness. That the crops might fail. The cattle might become sick. In an average year nobody starved, and there was grain enough to justify the brewing of vast quantities of small beer (see further down), but poor harvests did happen, with an actual famine once or twice per generation (hitting the lowest in society the worst, and the smallest children).

With extremely little surplus food, it's difficult to just go somewhere and practice a trade, and hope to survive. Especially in the early middle age, each individual farmhouse family was almost entirely self-sufficient, producing everything they needed. And yes, I know that's stupid. I know Adam Smith is rotating in his grave. It wasn't efficient at all, happy amateurs doing everything themselves, everybody being a generalist at agriculture instead of people specializing into distinct trades that they become good at. But that's nevertheless how it was.

Most towns were also small, and food there was expensive (famines hurt the urban poor especially hard!) due to the cost of transportating the food from the farms to the town. Most towns, and all cities, were situated on river or coasts, because water transport was cheaper (you could move more tonnes of cargo for the same "cost", measured in grain to feed the men and animals doing the work, compared to using wagons for land transport).

Food not being abundant also had other consequences. For instance, kings, and great nobles such as dukes would often have no fixed home, but rather travel a "circuit" every year, staying at the homes of different lesser nobles, who would then have to house and more importantly feed their liege lord. A king's court could consist of hundreds of people, and a duke's or other similar elite nobleman's of many dozen (and even more later in the medieval period), and for such large groups it's simply easier to move them to where the food is than to move the food.

Such a mobile court would stay a short while at some places, a long while at others, always announcing its arrival well in advance, but I don't know if departure dates were announaced as well. Certainly one way a liege lord can put pressure on a vassal is to stay a long while, eating a lot of his food (as Richard Lionheart does in Tarr's "Isle of Glass), with the vassal not having any way to get rid of the guest and his retinue, except through outright rebellion.

Also, unrelated to the above, putting someone in prison was never a punishment given to ordinary people. It simply was no punishment to sentence them to be housed and fed, even if under poor conditions. Rather, for rural commoners, townsfolk and so forth, being imprisoned in a dungeon or the like was only a temporary measure, a few days or weeks until the case goes before a court, and the court-mandated punishment would always be something done to the guilty part as s swift or distinctly time-limited action (e.g. loss of an eye, or four days on the rack). Nobles were sometimes imprisoned, but in some cases their relatives might be required to pay for their food and clothes, and sometimes servants and entertainments as well (as in "gilded cage").

Lots of beer, but no drunk people
As suggested above, there was lots of beer around, but it was thin ("small beer"), perhaps 1/3 as strong as modern beer (which is 4% to 6% alcohol by volume). People drank a couple of liters (or three, if they did sweaty work!) of that per day, but distributed out over the entire span of the day, 12 to 16 hours, and with everybody having developped some degree of alcohol tolerance (due to daily - constant - consumption), there was no appreciable inebriation. The only effect was that people got hydrated (safely - water was risky to drink because of bacterial contaminants, but even the low ethanol concentration in the small beer rendered it safe), they got some calories and micronutrients, and they suffered very, very slow and very, very long-term liver damage, with most people dying of other causes before the liver damage became even just noticable.

There was a divide, in Europe, of course. Or several, actually. One of them was the beer vs wine divide. Another was trousers vs tunics. A third was buttered bread vs olive-oil soaked bread... I had thought I could find maps of this on the Strange-Maps website, but no such luck. Either I'm misremembering ever having seen such maps, or else I saw them somewhere else.

But trust me, there were such distinctions. North was beer, pants and butter, and south was wine, tunics and olive oil.

Wine wasn't brewed weak, the same way small beer was, but rather was dilluted with water prior to drinking it. That was still safe, since the ethanol in the wine would quickly kill most of the bacteria in the water (some southern towns still had safe water from aqueducts and so people sometimes drank water undilluted by wine - Rome wasn't being ahistorical there).

When it was time to celebrate, and as calorie-economics allowed it (with the lower classes being the least able to do so), people drank undilluted wine or spent the extra grain necessary to brew full-strength beer (both roughly as strong as present-day drink). And yes, then they did get drunk. And they did stupid things. And had lots of sex (some of which was stupid).

Note also the absence of distilled liqour. There was no whisky or vodka in medieval times! Anything that could be fermented was, with the Mongols even fermenting milk, but although distillation was a known alchemical process, and was used to make perfume and some other substances, it wasn't done with alcoholic drinks (fuel costs, skill required, a certain danger). The only way to increase the alcohol content (and flavour concentration) after fermentation was over, was via freeze-distillation, which was slow and weather-dependent, and didn't do all that much anyway.

WTF is up with all these gold coins?
Pretty much everywhere were coinage was used, the standard coin was made of silver, because gold is extremely value-dense. Even a silver penny (a denarius), a tiny, tiny coin, only a very few grams of silver, is worth a lot in terms of food or beer. People used to cut these tiny pennies into even tinier quarter-pieces called "farthings", so they had small change they could use to pay for single loaves of bread or individual mugs of beer.

Even places that didn't have coinage still used silver, just in the form of hack-silver, pieces of silver of random size, often chopped-up loot from monasteries (church silver), that was traded by weight (a merchant would have a weighting scale). And by the way, coined silver was usually weighed too, for large transactions. You wouldn't stand there and count 60 or 72 pennies out.

Gold coins did exist, in some places. The Moslem world. The Byzantine Empire. Sure. But if you're reading a historical novel, or a historical fantasy, and people are talking about "gold" as if it is the main type of coin metal, then chances are you're getting involved with a work that is low in historicity.

Larger silver coins where rarely minted. Shillings, marks and pounds were "monies of account", not actual physical coins (1 pound is 240 pennies, 1 shilling is 1/20 pound or 12 pennies - a mark was 2/3 of a "Carolingan pound", so something like 0.2 or 0.25 kilogram of silver). Some places did mint 4-penny coins, sometimes called "groats" or "grosschen", perhaps to speed up transactions (it being faster to fork over 3 or 8 large coins than to painstakingly weigh out a large amount of farthings).

Horses, expensive to buy, and to own
Another of those small but still fairly important items. First of all, everybody didn't own a horse. They were expensive to purchase. Horse thieves were often hung - and by the way, a medieval hanging isn't a short drop and a sudden stop; no, you get pulled up from the ground  by the rope, and choke to death slowly, most likely peeing and/or shitting your pants in the process. Not only do you die - you die in a humiliating and completely undignified way!

Horses were also expensive to own. You have to feed a horse. Contrary to popular belief, half a tonne of muscle and bone can't live in a couple of handfuls of grass per day, especially not if you want them to carry you around on their back everywhere! Even an idle horse needs a large area of grassland as pasture (or hay - dried grass - when stabled during the winter), and most breeds were selectively bred for traits other than an efficient digestive system, so even some idle horses may require supplementary grain. The real problem, though, is when you want the horse to perform work. Then you need to feed it appreciable amounts of grain every single day. It is far from enough to give it a couple of hours' opportunity to graze every night, while you sleep.

Ownership of a horse thus requires two things: First of all the ability to afford the purchase price of a horse, although that can be avoided if you or your parents (or an uncle who likes you a lot) breed horses (or if you dare to steal one, despite the risk). Secondly, and this is the part that can't be avoided, you have to have the resources to feed the critter, year round. Pasture land, and more pasture land, and lots of grain (see above, about food scarcity being an ongoing concern  - and by food I mean staple foods such as grain, not luxuries like meat).

Pyramid, not diamond
In modern nations, a graph of the distribution of privilege and material wealth, along a vertical axis, forms a diamond: You have a large middle class, people who are reasonably well-do-to, in terms of privilege and material wealth, and a small upper class, and also a small underclass. The bulge is in the middle.

In most past cultures, including all of the middle ages and most of the renaissance (with the possible exception being the severe economic upheavals brougth about by the black death, in the early renaissance), the graph was instead pyramid-shaped, with a very small upper class, a small middle class, and a large underclass. Well, not just large. Huge. The bulge is at the bottom, and it's absolutely freakin' ginormous!

A bright spot (well, slightly bright, anyway) was that most of the underclass was in a direct client-patron relationship with someone higher up. A middle class man might be a farm owner, and employ half a dozen farmhands or exploit half a dozen slaves. But they were going steady. See also manorialism (not to be confused with feudalism, although many people do) for when a knight (placed on the lowest rung of the hierarchy of the upper class) had this kind of going steady thing, slightly less directly, with an entire village of serfs .

These people didn't really have to fear being fired. When there was less to go around (e.g. during a famine) they suffered for some time, but their positions were relatively secure. In fact, serfs, or "villein" as they were called in some places, were "bound to the land". They couldn't quit. It was illegal for them to leave the manor on which they were born, unless they got permission from the manorial lord.

It was different in the towns, with many of the lower classes being labourers, often day labourers, and thus not having any higher-ups to depend on. When there's a famine, you really don't want to be a town labourer.

No equality meme
Another modern notion, which some people mistakenly bring back with them into the past, is that of equality. The notion that all people should have equal rights and privileges and living standards. No such thing in a medieval setting! It is obvious to everybody that some people are better than others, and as such deserve a higher standard of living and more rights. A peasant might want to become a lord, and thus desire individual betterment, but it would be anachronistic for him to desire that all peasants should live as lords, or that his lord (let alone all lords!) should be brought down to the living standard of a peasant. People didn't think that way.

Some times and places may have been slightly more egalitarian than others, but they'd still be very far from our modern ideal.

Welcome to Elfland!
I did warn you. Elfland ain't Disney. Which do you want? That which is comfortably familiar and boring? Or that which is strange and different? The blue pill or the red pill? Or if you like, postpone your decision until you've read it all...

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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