It can be hard to make interesting people and places. Things kind of blur together, forming a mush of fantasy tropes. One source of inspiration is actual history: so many of our fantasy settings are based on misconceptions that a world closer to reality can be novel and fascinating. (And if you’re like me, realism is something to be prized for its own sake.)
The facts presented here are largely true regardless of where you’re looking in the world: the Mediterranean, Europe, China, India, whatever. This is because they’re mostly based on fundamental physical (Edit: and technological) realities instead of cultural themes. However, it’s impossible to say that anything is completely universal, so there’s tons of wiggle room here.
It’s worth mentioning that most RPGs, D&D included, could arguably fit in the “early modern” period instead of “premodern.” We tend to intuitively understand those times a bit better, so I won’t cover them here. In addition, magic and monsters change things a lot, way more than we often think about. That’s another rabbit hole I won’t be going into; this is just about the real world.
A lot of this is drawn from the fantastic blog of Professor Brent Devereaux, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry—particularly his “How Did They Make It?” and “The Lonely City” series. I highly recommend checking out his stuff.
- The vast, vast majority of people living in premodern societies are subsistence farmers. We’re talking 80-90% of everyone running small farms that make enough for their families. They don’t have specialized occupations or even buy/sell things that much, they just do their best to survive off of what they can make themselves.
- One important thing to note is that despite the realities in the previous point, “commoners” weren’t miserable people grubbing in the dirt. They had a surprising amount of downtime and a robust life, filled with festivals, religion, etc. I don’t go into detail here, but there are a lot of sources to describe village life.
- With a lot of variation, the average household size is around 8 people. These households have fairly little land to farm, so there’s always too many people and too little land—these people are almost always close to starvation. In fact, there are very high death rates in the period right before harvest (especially for children and elders). Their decisions are based more on avoiding the risk of death and less on maximizing the potential of their resources.
- There are two main activities that dominate the lives of these “commoners” (for lack of an easier term): farming and clothesmaking. Because women have to spend a lot of time nursing, they end up with the clothesmaking role, since they can do most of it while working on other tasks. Since both jobs require a lot of practice, these roles can be pretty rigid: everyone, from kids to elders, helps with their assigned role (food or clothes).
- Farms have many different types of crops (mostly grains) and animals (pigs, sheep, chickens). Specializing would lead to higher outputs, but this way a bad harvest on one crop at least means you’ve got a bunch of others to fall back on.
- The clothesmaking role of women is one of the most glossed-over aspects of “commoner” life. Making clothes is very labor-intensive, and making just two outfits per family member a year can take many, many hours of work. Almost all of a woman’s time will be spent spinning thread; even while doing other things, like cooking and child-rearing, they’ll have tools for spinning (distaff and spindle) under their arms or in bags, ready to start again once they get a moment’s time. Spinning wheels make this faster, but no less ubiquitous. They also weave the clothes for their family.
- Commoner clothes are usually wool or linen. They’re pretty tight-fitting, both because they’re made for the individual and because using extra fabric is to be avoided. Unlike almost everything you’ve seen, clothes were usually very brightly dyed using whatever colors were available. This is also almost universal; people like to look good. These were relatively varied (reds, greens, blues, yellows, browns, etc.), though there might only be one shade of each color.
- One very important way commoners mitigated risk was by investing in relationships with other commoners. Festivals and celebrations were very, very frequent. If a household got a bumper crop, instead of storing it (it would probably spoil before next year) or selling it (money was very unreliable), they would throw a party for their friends. All these favors made it more likely that if your harvest went poorly, others would help support your family.
- One interesting custom I feel like mentioning is the “hue and cry.” In settlements too small for a city guard (which was sometimes kind of a real thing), people in distress would give a special shout to indicate they were in trouble. Everyone who could hear was obligated to immediately come and help. Great to keep in mind if you have to deal with murderhobos.
- While commoners are defined by “too many people, too little land,” nobles are defined by “too much land, too few workers.” People like this are in every premodern society; they’re technically called “big men” to avoid relying on a culture-specific term, but I’ll just call them nobles to make it easier.
- Systems will often be in place to get nobles the labor they need: slavery, serfdom, tenants/sharecroppers, whatever. While commoners are focused on avoiding risk to survive, nobles are more profit-oriented to get as much as they can from their land, allowing them to support relatively lavish lifestyles.
- In most settlements, the best farming-enhancing resources are owned by the nobles: plows, powered mills, draft animals, etc. Commoners have to pay in goods or labor to use these services.
- Nobles often have some obligations to their commoners—usually defending them militarily or legally—but these benefits are small compared to the resources the nobles extract. This relationship wasn’t completely one-sided, since some elite peasants could often bargain for better rights, but it definitely wasn’t equal.
- Something important to note is that the clothesmaking role of women is almost never abandoned, even for noble ladies. They may supervise other women who do a lot of the work, but they still have to help themselves. Several ancient sources revere “good wives” who spin and weave despite their wealth—Livia, wife of Roman Emperor Augustus, still made his clothes.
- I’m using “specialists” as a catch-all to describe everyone who isn’t a “commoner” or “noble” as I’ve defined them. These people have “jobs” in a way that’s at least close to how we understand it.
- Merchants are one of the most important specialist classes, but also almost universally despised. They broke the relationship-based system of commoner life and no-one thought it was honest that merchants bought at one price and sold at another (economics took a long time to be discovered). Most merchants were travelers who bought whatever stuff was cheap and sold whatever stuff was expensive; ware-specific shops were rarer and restricted to cities.
- Merchants could, and sometimes did, grow as rich as the nobles of the previous section. The nobles did not like this, and often passed laws to limit merchant wealth and power.
- Commoner clothesmakers were supported by two groups of specialists. The first is shepherds, who usually have to move their herds from place to place to give them enough pasture. They also process the wool before selling them to commoners—one of the few times commoners regularly buy things. (Note that many villages have communal flocks to reduce their reliance on external shepherds.) The second group is fullers and dyers, who treat and color clothes once they’ve been woven. Yes, fullers do soak clothes in urine in most ages, but that’s not the biggest part of their job. (Still there, though…)
- Metalworkers are another specialist group that you can find almost everywhere and frequently interact with commoners. Metal goods are invaluable; the processes involved are complex, but still interesting.
- It’s not worth going into all the other specialist groups here, but I want to restate: these people are a slim minority. Remember, 80-90% of people are “commoners.” Your characters are likely to be interacting with specialists and nobles more than commoners, but understand that there’s way more going on behind the scenes.
- Think about Winterfell, Minas Tirith, or almost any other fictional premodern city you’ve seen. Those cities are functionally naked; any real premodern city is surrounded by miles and miles of farms, pastures, etc. (In the books, Minas Tirith had farmland stretching all the way to the river Anduin, where Osgiliath is.) This productive countryside around the city is called the “hinterlands.” All this supporting area has to be there in order to give the city the resources it needs to survive; transporting stuff, even grain, is incredibly difficult and expensive. Transporting by water is way cheaper (about 5x cheaper for river, 20x cheaper for oceans), which is one reason why cities tend to be near water.
- One interesting result of this is that if a city learns that an army is on its way, it will frequently demolish the buildings near the walls to make sure enemy soldiers don’t have cover as they approach. Not a big deal, just something I thought was neat. Many cities had laws that buildings couldn’t be built near the walls for this reason. Just as there were buildings outside the walls, there were often small farms/gardens inside the walls.
- The three main things that cities were good for was being a commerce hub, a political center, and a military stronghold. Almost everything that was in the city was based on one of these functions. When I say “commerce,” I mean selling stuff, not making stuff. Almost everything was made in the hinterlands, then brought to urban markets. Also, when I say “political center,” I mean the administration of the surrounding countryside. Since that’s where almost everyone lived and where almost everything was made, that’s what was worth governing.
- Lastly, it’s hard to overstate just how deadly cities were. Disease was constant, and mortality in general was very high. It was so high that more people died than were born. The only reason that cities grew in size—or at least didn’t disappear entirely—was that people moved there in search of the three benefits mentioned above. London only reversed this trend in the late 1800s.
And that’s it! I hope all this was useful; thanks for reading!