It is a common misconception that the Middle Ages was broken into three factions: those who worked, those who fought and those who prayed. As with any broad generalization, this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the complex infrastructure and relationships of peasant, lord and priest, especially since these three often overlapped with such occupations as warrior-priests or peasant soldiers, or my personal favorites, the peasants who became lords and the lords who were forced to work.
In the fantasy genre, these relationships can be even more blurred or more rigid depending on the author. In R.R. Mallory’s short story, “Sword Song,” warriors are literally one with their weapons. Anne Lesley Groell uses aristocratic ladies as guild assassins in her novels Bridge of Valor and Anvil of the Sun. In a brilliant blending of medieval feudalism with fantasy, Kinley MacGregor’s Pale Moon Rising shows us a magic-based society where vassals swear alliegance to the Mage-Lord and his underlings.
Similarly, when it comes to law in fantasy, the author is High Judge. However, the laws and punishments should be consistent within that world, unless the capriciousness or injustice of the person in charge is something you wish to illustrate.
Even though you and your imagination are the only limitations in fantasy, it still helps to understand the basic classes and positions held by medieval men and women. The following list should aid you in creating a unique world tailored to your story.
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, a peasant wasn’t tied to the land (serfs were, but even they could escape). In the early part of the period, a peasant could escape his status by either becoming a fighter or becoming an apprentice to a trade – and on a much smaller scale, even a member of the church. There were, of course, other members of the lower class – Gypsies, peddlers, vagabonds, prostitutes and the like. What generally segregated these people from their middle-class counterparts was a lack of land and money.
In the Middle Ages, the possession of land was the only real value a person had. Serfs who were bound to the land were infinitely richer than those who were cast off their lands, even though those without land were able to travel about.
These vagabonds were seen as disease carriers or thieves. Unfortunately, destitution often caused them to become those very things. A woman without money usually turned to prostitution where she contracted numerous diseases, and both men and women who were denied jobs turned to theft.
With so many villages and even towns xenophobic, most people couldn’t find work once they left their lands. The only way to circumvent this was to go somewhere they had family who could vouch for them, or to carry a letter of reference from their previous clergy member or lord.
The idea of the cutpurse or thief took on a noble air with some of the troubadours who were many times vagabonds themselves and who often tried to dignify the homeless wanderer. However, it must be noted that most minstrels were nobility who had dropped out, or were forced out of their traditional place in society.
Acrobats/Jugglers: These performers traveled about the countryside in search of either an inn, tavern, fair, castle or court where they could perform. Since they could go long periods of time without finding a place to perform, many of them turned to theft and other crimes to make ends meet.
Adamist: A gardener or tiller of any field.
Adamite: Term for a nudist, usually a poor pilgrim or hermit who was doing penance for something.
Alchemist: Charged with turning common items into gold, alchemists had a tenuous place in society. Often the brunt of superstition and hostility, they were left alone and ridiculed, except in extreme times when they might be singled out as warlocks and punished by extreme measures.
Artists: Commissioned to pain portraits of various people, they had a reputation for seduction, thievery and other crimes. Though looked down upon by most of society, they were left alone unless they committed punishable crimes.
Barber: One who cut hair, but also let blood to cure infections.
Bard: A musician or minstrel who usually sung only of heroic deeds. Like acrobats, they traveled in search of donations to live on. Many bards and minstrels were nobles who either dropped out or were forced out of their noble status.
Bear Baiters: Much like a modern rodeo clown or matador, these intrepid spirits would bait bears and run from them for the amusement of their patrons.
Beggar: Usually a mentally or physically handicapped person who was unable to work. They either begged in the street or frequented alms houses and hospitals so that they could eat. However, it was also a common occupation for those who didn’t want to work; these people were seen as frauds and, if caught, could be severely punished.
Chamber Maid: Usually of the peasant class, these were young women who went to work in either a middle- or upper-class household as cleaning servants.
Chambrieres: Women who tended cows.
Champion: A man or knight who hired himself out as a stand-in for trials by combat. Some were permanently retained by nobles or towns, and in some cases, several were retained to participate for both the accuser and the accused. Of course, this profession was considered the lowest of the low, and the shame of a father being a champion was passed on to his children, who were sometimes not allowed to own property. It was also a highly dangerous occupation, since most of the time the champion shared whatever punishment was dealt to the accused.
Churl (a.k.a. Serf): The lowest class of peasantry. As early as the ninth century, it was also used alternatively for husband. (Never say medieval folk didn’t have a sense of humor.)
Comandarrese: Women who hired out other women as servants or wet nurses.
Comedians: Just like their modern counterparts, these individuals traveled around telling jobs for profit. They would sometimes be forced to commit crimes in order to survive, or they would tell a joke that didn’t meet with the tastes or their host. In such cases, the punishment could be quite severe.
Dancers: Male or female, they traveled about in search of arenas in which to perform. They were often condemned by the Church, but the lay society enjoyed seeing them. The best engagements were found around festivals, holidays and celebrations.
Dwarves: People short in stature who often hired themselves out as oddities, jesters or fools.
Dyer: One who dyed cloth. They were looked down upon by everyone and were easy to spot due to their dye-stained fingers. Most were male, but some females also plied this trade.
Fishmonger: One who dealt in fish. Though profitable, for an obvious reason it wasn’t a very prestigious trade.
Fishwife: A woman who sold fish.
Fools: Most were similar to comedians, the primary difference being that these were people who were a permanent member of a nobleman’s entourage. They often made scathing political commentaries masked with their humor.
Footpad: One who robbed on foot, usually on a road or highway.
Fortune-tellers: Though they were often part of the Gypsy clan, there were others, some even born of noble households, who were able to read tarot cards, palms, bones, stones, runes, tea leaves, crystal balls and mirrors. Their readings took up much time and were usually very detailed. The common form of payment was silver. The Church completely banned such practices and called for death as a punishment. Lay courts, however, held more to the old Roman laws and they made a determination between beneficial and malevolent diviners. Beneficial practitioners were often left alone or refined; those judged malevolent were put to death. In times of famine or pestilence, a local priest or friar could single out fortune-tellers and use them for scapegoats. They then would be hanged or stoned to death by the very people they had once helped.
Freebooter: A thief or pirate, most often with a devil-may-care attitude.
Friar: Often seen by the local priests as competition for local charity and giving, friars had a raunchy reputation as purveyors of sin. They preferred to frequent towns and most especially taverns, and were infamous for performing forbidden ceremonies such as secret weddings, last rites for those to whom it had been denied, and so forth.
Gypsies: Though not part of the Middle Ages until the mid-fifteenth century, Gypsies are undeniably a part of fantasy. Medieval Gypsies were feared and often met with horrible deaths and punishments from both the Church and lay courts. Seen as purveyors of sin and sorcery, they were ranked with Jews and generally avoided.
Heretic: This was a term applied to many different types of people. Heretics were witches, political enemies or anyone who contradicted the Church. For those found guilty of it, the penalty was almost always death. However, it should be noted that there were large groups of heretics that were allowed to live in peace, even though the Church condemned them. It was only when these groups began to threaten local church or lay officials that they became objects of persecution.
Imp: One who grafted feathers on hawks or falcons to aid them in flight. Also, a devil-child.
Jongleurs/Minstrels: Traveling musicians who essentially sang for their supper. Their songs could be heroic, religious or bawdy depending on the needs or wants of their audience. They were often from noble families, but were either left to their own accord or were second-born sons with no inheritance. Though women were rare, there were a few who chose this career. Many of these ended up pursuing criminal activities to make ends meet.
Kidnapper: A popular occupation in the high and late Middle Ages. These were often common born thugs who grabbed travelers off the roads, or they were hired by someone to go into another person’s home and kidnap them. The punishment for this crime was death.
Mercenary: This term could be applied to low- or high-born men who rented out their military service for a fee. Many mercenaries banded together and sold their services as a group or traveling army. They also had reputations for turning on the very people who hired them, or of keeping the spoils of war for themselves.
Midwife: A woman who was in charge of delivering babies (a task that was too tedious for a doctor to bother with). Midwives usually passed their craft from mother to daughter and were most often of peasant stock. Many also attended to other female health issues and diseases. Their cures were often more humane than those of their so-called learned colleagues. When some of their cures proved more beneficial, some of their unscrupulous and jealous male counterparts would call them witches or heretics.
Mimes: Actors and actresses. Condemned by the Church, mimes could be male or female if they were a traveling band who performed for taverns, inns, courts, castles and fairs. If they were involved with the Church, however, they were exclusively male.
Oracles: One through whom the gods speak. A mainstay of fantasy, these are revered religious figures who are often sanctified or at least tolerated by the Church. They are usually hermits or other people who have withdrawn from society and must be sought out by those in need of their help.
Pardoner: Men licensed by the Church to sell indulgences, or absolution, for sins. Many of these men were so corrupt (and a large number unlicensed) that the pardoner was often considered a criminal. Thus the epithet “penny-preacher” was born, indicating that anyone could buy absolution for a penny.
Pawnbroker: Worked the same way as the modern pawnbroker, although they could also be loan sharks. Although they could be fined if caught, they were most often viewed as a despicable but necessary part of society.
Peasant: Simply means a rural laborer. They could be free or tied to the land where they worked. Those who were free often sold themselves out for other types of labor or took a second job as a peddler or household servant. In the worst of times, they would also sell their children and even spouses. Once slavery was banned, they abandoned offspring in lean times. Most countries allowed them to regain their children later if they came upon good times and could repay the people who had kept the child during those years. [i.e. See State ‘Chronology’]
Peddlar: A traveling vendor, usually male but at times female, who roamed the countryside. Though most were common born, they were often entrusted to carry messages and such during times of war. Despite such activities, they were tolerated by all nobles and royals as a necessary and vital part of the economy.
Penitent: Someone (male or female) who was repenting their sins. They were often found as pilgrims or just rootless wanderers clothed in rags (or nothing at all), with ashes smeared on their bodies.
Pilgrims: Men and women who were traveling to a holy shrine. Many of these people tended to fall to the wayside and used their pilgrimage as a cover for a variety of crimes. Also, some women would be robbed or would otherwise find themselves without enough money for the trip. Most of these women turned to prostitution. So many pilgrims were victims of crimes that they began traveling in large groups, such as the group of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Poacher: A man or woman who illegally killed game. Most of the time, poaching was an act of desperation. If caught the punishment was binding, amputation or death.
Prostitutes: Though usually a tolerated crime, when lawgivers decided to punish women who sold their bodies, they chose a variety of means. Punishments ranged from merely cropping the prostitute’s hair or shaving her head to abysmal types of death.
Serf: A man or woman who lived off a section of land and had to make a labor payment to the landowner for the privilege of living there. They could easily find themselves homeless if the land was sold or given over to the Church. With little or no money of their own, they often became vagabonds.
Shepherd: Tended sheep.
Skald: A minstrel-poet similar to a bard and usually of Danish origin.
Slave: A man or woman owned by another person. Most slaves in the Middle Ages were used as prostitutes or by artisans who needed many servants or laborers for their particular trade. Females tended to be used primarily for household tasks, and men for apprentice/journeyman type work or other heavy menial labor tasks.
Soothsayers: For some reason in fantasy and classical literature, soothsayers tend to be blind in one or both eyes. They are usually elderly, bedraggled and dirty. They can be meddlesome, and often put in their two cents without being asked. Though they can be punished by a nobleman who doesn’t want to hear the truth they speak, they are often left alone and deemed addlepates. Those who appreciate their words pay them with either food or with copper coins.
Spinner (a.k.a. Spinster): Usually a position held by women, spinners spun fibers into threads and threads into textiles.
Stew-holder: One who ran a brothel. Stew-holders were charged with having their prostitutes examined on a monthly basis to ensure their health. If they were found to be selling girls or boys who were disease carriers, their penalties could be harsh. Overall, they were left alone, but in times of censure, they could be run out of town, tarred or killed.
Swineherd: One who tended pigs and hogs.
Thieves: A generic term for people who took what didn’t belong to them. The punishment for theft depended on what was stolen and from whom. Thieves suffered amputation, branding, blinding or death.
Tinker: One who repaired or made metal items. They were usually travelers, but some had shops.
Usurer: One who loaned money for profit. Denounced by the Church and hated by everyone, usurers were often ostracized by society. It was tolerated as a necessity.
Wet Nurse: A woman who sold her breast milk. Usually, they were women whose own child had died, but there were a number of cases of them being new mothers who hired themselves out to motherless infants or to wealthy women who didn’t have the time, inclination or nutrient-rich milk to feed their own infant.
Wolf’s Head: An outlaw. In Old English, it meant one who was to be hunted down like a wolf.
Woodcutter: One who chopped wood for a living or to subsidize their income.
Almoner: One who collects and dispenses alms to the poor. He or she is usually employed by a wealthy or middle-class household, and it is his or her duty to gather table scraps and see them dispensed after every meal. The title can also be given to a member of the church who fulfills this position on a regular basis.
Apprentice: These were either boys or girls who were indentured to a trade between the ages of five and seven. The actual time of their servitude was worked out when they were apprenticed, but the average length was seven years, at which time they became a journeyman or journeywoman and entered a guild.
Armorer: One who made armor (steel, iron or leather) or chain mail.
Arrow-smith: One who made arrow heads.
Avener: In charge of a stable.
Bailiff: Overseer of the manor. Same as a steward or sheriff, he could be charged with managing household affairs, or with overseeing local laws and courts.
Beekeepers: Usually a man who kept the bees and sold their honey and honeycomb.
Blacksmith: One who worked with iron or black metal.
Brewer/Brewster: Brewed ale and the like.
Burgher: A citizen of a town.
Capper: One who made caps.
Chandler: Maker of candles.
Clockmaker: The first mechanical clock of the Middle Ages appears around 1271 and portable clocks appear in the early fourteenth century.
Clothier: Maker of clothes.
Cobbler: Repaired shoes.
Copper: Maker and repairer of wooden vessels such as barrels, baskets, tubs, pails, etc.
Constable: Chief military officer of the household. In the absence of the lord or king, he would lead forces to protect the castle or country.
Confectioner: Maker of sweets.
Cordwainer: A shoemaker.
Cutler: A knife maker.
Draper: Cloth dealer.
Fletcher: One who made or dealt in bows and arrows, or an archer.
Fullers: One who cleaned or thickened cloth.
Glassblower: Maker of glass and glass products.
Glover: Maker of gloves.
Goldsmith: One who designed and made gold products.
Groom: A stablehand.
Hayward: In charge of maintaining fences and enclosures and, at times, for herding stray cattle.
Herald: Heralds had a variety of roles. They were charged with assigning, designing and identifying coat of arms. In their original and simplest forms, they were merely messengers sent to deliver letters and missives.
Housecarl: Royal bodyguard.
Jewelers: Makers and sellers of jewelry.
Knave: A boy who served in the lowest capacity in a household. A lowly servant.
Knight: In its pure form, a servant or boy. It didn’t become synonymous with a military person until the twelfth century.
Leech: A monk appointed to care or bleed the sick, so named after the animals they sometimes used.
Marshal: A farrier, or one who was entrusted with the military affairs of a royal household.
Mercer: A man who dealt in silks and velvets. Merceress is the female counterpart.
Merchant: One who bought or sold goods.
Miller: One who ground corn. Corn in medieval England was a generic term for any kind of seed.
Monk: A member of a commune or other men sworn to poverty and celibacy. The practice of those two things varied greatly from individual to individual.
Physician: A trained doctor who tended the sick. They attended and taught at the universities [e.g. manor/”prepare”] and were paid more than surgeons. Many of the better physicians were retained by the wealthy.
Poulterer: One who dealt in poultry.
Prefect: Governor or overseer in a variety of offices. Could govern a city, town, village or manor.
Prelate: A bishop or archbishop usually of noble birth, but sometimes rising from a wealthy middle-class family.
Priest: One who performed public religious ceremonies.
Scribe: Can mean a variety of things. One who interpreted the law. A clerk or secretary, or one who translated or copied manuscripts.
Scholar: A university student. They were infamous for their licentiousness, purveyors of confidence scams and as wastrels (good-for-nothings).
Seneschal: Could be a steward, or a governor of a city, or a member of a high noble household who oversaw judicial matters.
Sheriff: Oversaw the local court and was the chief administer of the shire laws.
Spurrier: One who made spurs.
Squire: A servant or a youth of noble birth who assisted a knight.
Steward: Overseer of the castle and demesne lands (land possessed by an individual, usually a lord).
Surgeon: The practical doctor. The surgeon was responsible for bleeding, as well as for pulling teeth and other more grisly responsibilities that were too common for physicians to bother with.
Tailor: One who cut cloth.
Tavern/Innkeeper: One who ran or owned a tavern or inn.
Vintner: Maker of wine.
Weaving/Weaver: One who wove cloth; usually a woman, but there were also men in the industry.
Abbot, Abbat: In charge of a monastery. Usually a man of noble birth.
Abbess, Abbadisse, Abbas: In charge of a nunnery or convent. Usually a woman of noble birth.
Archbishop: Highest ranking bishop. Almost always a man of noble birth.
Baintighearnas: Ladyship (Scottish Gaelic).
Banneret: A military commander who led knights under his own emblem or banner.
Baroness: Wife or widow of a baron.
Baronet: Nobles who don’t have a title, but are members of the House of Lords.
Bishop: Director of a diocese. Usually of noble birth.
Cardinal: Member of the Pope’s council. There are three ranks of cardinal: Cardinal Bishop, Cardinal Priest and Cardinal Deacon.
Ceann-feadhna: Chieftain (Scottish Gaelic).
Chieftain: Ruler of a clan.
Countess: Wife or widow of an earl.
Duchess: Wife or widow of a duke.
Duke: Title for relatives of the royal family.
Earl/Eorl: Highest of the nobility (not of the royalty).
Jarl: A Norse or Danish chief or undertaking.
Jarless: The wife of a jarl.
Kim: Ruler or chief (Celtic term).
King: Ruler of a kingdom. Referred to as Your Grace or Sire. [N.B. But exclusively, MarshallDodgson’s one is Jesus.]
Knight: In the early part of the Middle Ages, they were seen as low-born thugs (even if they came from a noble family). It wasn’t until the eleventh century that they began to gain respectability. And by the twelfth, they were almost always of noble family with noble lineage (either real or fabricated). Supposedly held to a higher standard of conduct, most knights tended to forget their vows and held the view that might makes right. Knights were the cavalry of the army or, in more modern terms, they were tanks. A fully armed knight was virtually indestructible, at least in the early part of the period. As time went on, special weapons were designed to neutralize them such as cannons, handguns and estocs (thin knives designed to slip between the plates or rings of metal).
Knight-Errant: Wandering knight in search of adventure.
Lady: A courtesy title given to any female of noble birth. If she was single and had no property of her own, her name was styled Lady First Name, for example, Lady Alice. If she was married or widowed, she could be called Lady Alice, or Lady Her Lands/Castle (Lady Nottingham or Lady of Nottingham).
Laird: Scottish term for a leader or nobleman who held lands directly from the king. He was usually styled as The Clan Name (The MacDougal).
Lairdess: Wife of a laird.
Lairdie: A petty laird.
Lord: A courtesy title given to any male of noble birth whether he had land or not. If he was without land, he was simply Lord First Name, for example Lord Stephen. If he had land, he could be Lord Stephen or Lord His Land/Castle (Lord Nottingham or Lord of Nottingham).
Miles: Attached to the end of a knight’s name as a designation of his status (French term).
Mother Superior: Title of an abbess.
Pope: Head of the Catholic church. Almost all came from noble families (or, at the very least, extremely wealthy middle class).
Prince: Son of a king, or husband of a queen. In conversations, he was called Your Highness.
Princess: Daughter of a king or wife of a prince. She was referred to as Your Highness.
Queen: Wife of the king or a female ruler. She was referred to as Your Grace or Your Royal Grace. If she had children and/or if the king was dead, she would be called Queen-Mother. If the king were alive, she was properly called Queen-Consort. The basic title Queen meant a woman who ruled in her own right.
Sir: Title attached to the name of a knight, clerk or scribe.
Tighearnas: Lordship (Scottish Gaelic).
Amputation: The removal of a body part, the exact one to be determined by the judge. Usually it was something that had to do with the crime, for example, a thief lost his hand, or a Peeping Tom lost an eye. However, this was not always the case, and any body part could be removed, for example, testicles, breast, tongues or ears. It is interesting to note that at one point in the Middle Ages, this was such a common punishment that people who had accidently lost body parts such as eyes, ears and/or limbs would carry certified notes that assured people that they were the victims of an unfortunate accident or battle rather than about any crime.
Banishment: This was used for treason or just about any crime when the judge or king didn’t want a convicted person hanging around their territory. Banishment was most often used with noblemen and women, but could also be used for those in lesser positions. The duration of the banishment would depend on the crime and position of the convict. At one point, became quite fashionable to force people to take pilgrimages to specific holy shrines, or to force them to walk from shrine to shrine until the saints forgave them for their crime. Just how did one know when the saints had forgiven them? The chains they were forced to wear supposedly fell from their arms or legs. It was often reported as a type of advertisement for shrines just how many prisoners had gained their freedom while visiting such and such church or relic.
Beheading: Reserved for capital crimes, it was accomplished by a variety of means, the most common of which was with the convicted person’s head being placed on a stool or block and an axe being used to strike off their head. In other cases, a sword was used to whack off the head of the convicted felon while they knelt before their executioner. Some countries had laws that only allowed so many strokes to complete the deed. If the person survived, they were set free, but more often than not, it resulted in a long, painful death for the convicted while they slowly bled to death from their wounds. It was also customary for the head to be placed on a pike and publicly displayed for a designated amount of time.
Blinding: Prescribed for various crimes, including robbery, rape and so on. It involved having one or both eyes gouged out.
Boiling: A person was placed inside a large cauldron and literally boiled alive.
Branding: This involved having a red-hot iron placed against the naked skin. In some countries there were specific designs to designate what crime had caused the brand to be given.
Burning: This is most often associated with heresy and witchcraft, though it should be noted that it wasn’t the usual punishment in the Middle Ages for witchcraft. Hanging had that dubious honor. It was, however, used for various crimes such as treason, rape and abduction.
Cucking Stool or Ducking Stool: A punishment chair used to confine a person for public humiliation where they were either set in the town square or led through town. Also used for dunking in water. Usually reserved for prostitutes, witches, heretic, scolds, disorderly women or fraudulent trades people.
Dungeon: A room where the accused was kept in a near-naked or naked state and forced to live on three morsels of bread and three draughts of stagnant water. The accused was always denied light, and some of them were kept inside with a board and weight placed on their chest.
Embowlling, Disembowelling (most commonly referred to as Drawn or Drawing): The removing of organs. This was usually performed on people who were awake and very conscious of what was being done to them.
Excommunication: This was a trump card of the Church and was used for all manner of crimes, petty and large. It meant that the person couldn’t attend mass, or have any sort of benediction from the Church. In the Middle Ages, one couldn’t marry while under this, nor could one receive last rites or confess their sins.
Fine: Most punishments could be commuted to a fee penalty, which meant that the rich seldom paid physically for their crimes. Those who couldn’t scrape together enough money, or those accused of the severe crimes that couldn’t be commuted to fines, suffered the full torture of the court.
Flagellation: Flogging. This was used for most any crime and as a way to induce confessions. The exact whip took on a variety of forms, from just a simple leather whip to one laced with shards of glass or steel spikes.
Garrotting: This involved having the convicted person strangled with a cord by an executioner. It was the chosen means of Spanish execution, but can also be found in other countries.
Hamstringing: This involved cutting a convicted person’s hamstrings, thus crippling them. It was used commonly for robbery and prostitution, and as a means of compelling testimony.
Hanging: One of the most common forms of execution. It was usually done at a crossroads in order to gain the widest audience. Those executed were often left hanging until their bodies decomposed.
Hung, Drawn and Quartered: The convicted felon was hunt until they were barely alive (in the event they passed out, they were revived), then they were diembowelled and what remained of their body was cut into four pieces and buried in four parts of the city, town or village.
Impaling: This was performed either with a red-hot poker or stake being driven through the rectum. In some cases, the convicted was placed on a greased pole and they struggled to remain above the stake as long as they could. Invariably, they would lose their fight and be impaled. Again, it was customary to leave those impaled on public display.
Imprisonment: Imprisonment wasn’t used through much of the Middle Ages, but in time it did become more and more fashionable. It should be noted that many of those imprisoned were usually political hostages who were too valuable to kill, more than they were people who had actually committed crimes. Where a person was imprisoned would depend on who they were and why they were being detained. Many political hostages were kept in lush towers with servants and some of the lesser noble, rich or middle class were kept half naked in dungeons. (This was also a method of keeping rich Jews until their relatives could pay ransom).
Iron Boot: Fit to cover either the leg and foot, or just the foot, it allowed wood or metal wedges to be hammered into specific places of the feet of those being questioned. It was a favored device of the Inquisition.
Judicial Duel or Trial by Combat: Fought on foot or on horseback, it involved numerous weapons. The choice of weapon would depend on local custom, which would stipulate it was the accusers choice or predetermined choice decided by the accused’s social status and/or alleged crime. Not only could the accuser or accused demand a trial by combat, but they could also challenge any witness who testified. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, any women, physically informed people, children and clerics were not banned from participating, and there are several cases of them having to take arms against trained men. Although it should be noted that most courts did allow them to choose a champion to fight in their stead. There were also champions for hire, but it was a dangerous occupation since, for most of the Middle Ages, the champion shared whatever punishment the accused was given, for example, death, amputation or dismemberment.
Ordeal by Boiling Water: The defendant was ordered to fast and pray for three days. When the day arrived, a mass was held and a priest oversaw the event. A single ordeal was used by those accused of minor offenses. In this the accused had to plunge his hand up to the wrist and, in some cases, retrieve a stone or ring from a kettle of boiling water. In the event of a triple ordeal (used for more serious offenses), the accused had to plunge his arm up to the elbow. The wound was then bound and sealed with the judge’s signet. After three days, the wound was examined and if it bore no sign of burns or scalding, the defendant was released. If the burn was evident, then the accused was convicted.
Ordeal by Cold Water: The accused was bound by both hands and feet. A piece of rope with a knot was attached to his or her midsection, and the accused was lowered into the water. If the accused and the knot floated, then they were adjudged guilty. But if the accused and the knot sank, they were innocent.
Ordeal by Fire: The three-day preparation was identical to an ordeal by boiling water. After three days, a woman who was suspected of adultery was forced to place her naked foot against six, nine or twelve red-hot ploughshares. In other cases, the accused was blindfolded and made to walk across the red-hot ploughshares. However, the most common form of punishment in an ordeal by fire was for the accused to walk nine feet while carrying a red-hot lump of iron. For minor offenses, the hot iron weighed a pound, but for treason, secret murder, counterfeiting, robbery or any other felony, the weight was three pounds. Upon completion, the wounds were wrapped for three days and then examined. If the wound was still intact, they were guilty. If no wound was evident, they were innocent.
Oubliette: A tight-fitting hole that allowed those imprisoned in it to neither sit nor stand, forcing them to endure an uncomfortable position of complete torture. There are two arguments for the name, which is obviously derived from the French verb oublier, meaning “to forget.” One argument is that it was a place to put someone you wanted to forget; the other is that those put inside an oubliette would quickly forget their sanity.
Outlawry: This was used to punish those who fled before they could be tried. What it meant was that the accused was no longer entitled to the benefits of the law, and anyone who came across that person should hunt them down like a wolf. A standard fee of five shillings would be paid to the outlaw’s killer, and anyone could kill an outlaw with immunity. Any lands owned by the outlaw would be forfeited.
Pilgrimage: Due to the high cost of imprisoning someone, this became a fashionable way to get rid of the undesirables. they were condemned for a certain time to walk from shrine to shrine. If the crime was severe, they would be forced to pilgrimage until they died. The only reprieve from this life sentence was if one of the saints took pity and the convict’s chains miraculously fell from him. Since this didn’t happen very often (to say the least), the propensity to hand out this type of sentence made the roads very dangerous for everyday people and other pilgrims. This is the reason that group pilgrimages and caravans became very popular.
Pillory: This had two forms. One was simply stock placed on a pillar for better display. The other consisted of manacles and an iron circle around the neck thatheld the person to a pillar. It was used for any number of crimes, including adultery, perjury, public drunkenness, spousal abuse and others. It allowed the convict to be ridiculed, abused and molested by anyone passing by. This made female convicts particularly susceptible to rape.
Pulled Apart: This was used for more severe crimes, including abduction (which was called raptus or rape regardless of whether the woman was physically violated), treason, murder and other such larger crimes. It usually consisted of a person having each of their limbs tied to separate horses. The horses were then whipped into a run, resulting in the person being pulled apart limb from limb.
Pulley (a.k.a. Squassation): Another popular implement of the Inquisition. The victim of this torture had his hands tied above his head, and his feet were tied to the floor or the bottom of a frame. A set of weights was then attached to the ropes holding his hands and then dropped suddenly. This would disjoint the arms and/or legs of the victim.
Quartered: The person was cut into four pieces and buried in four sections of the town. The thinking behind this practice was that on Judgment Day, the person wouldn’t be whole and would therefore be denied entrance into Paradise.
Rack: An iron or wooden frame where victims were placed for interrogation. Pulleys would allow the victim to be stretched to unbearable degrees. It was another favorite of the Inquisition.
Sanctuary: Any criminal, regardless of his deed or sentence, was given sanctuary by the Church if he could make it to Holy Ground. Any person who violated this code by dragging the felon out was excommunicated.
Stocks: Essentially, a thick board with a large hole in the center and two smaller holes on the left and right. A cut bisected the board lengthwise through the center of the holes, allowing the top to be raised and a convict’s head and hands inserted. The tope was then brought back down and locked into place, securing the convict. Sometimes holes for the feet were also included. This was commonly used for any crime, especially misdemeanors. Like the pillory, it placed the convict on public display for ridicule, abuse and molestation by the citizenry.
Water Torture: The accused was either dunked into water repeatedly or had a large amount of water poured over his face.
Wergild (a.k.a. Wergeld): In England, the amount of money owed a victim’s family by a murderer. The amount was on a fixed scale relative to the victim’s social position. In tribes where money was scarce, the payment was made in cattle or other livestock.
TRADE AND BARTER
Though it is a common belief that everyone in the Dark Ages bartered, this has been proven false. Archeologists have uncovered proof that a monetary system remained in place throughout the entire medieval period, even in the early centuries after the collapse of Rome. Those with enough coins were always able to buy luxury items and the collection of coins was quite prevalent. Wages continued to be paid.
However, those who were poor did barter. In fact, this helped found the whole feudal world, wherein one traded work for protection or some similar service. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification; even in the earliest times, those who had coins could pay instead of work.
Peasants [State ‘Chronology’] were allowed to work their land as long as they either provided their landowner with a certain amount of work or a certain amount of their produce or, in some cases, both. Whatever was left over was either sold or traded for what they needed. Many peasants also took on side jobs as servants or peddlars to make ends meet. One common way to earn extra money was in rounding up hawks and falcons that had escaped mews or jesses and returning them to their lords, who often paid a tidy reward.
Some peasants were lucky enough to escape their poverty by becoming members of the Church (though most were banned from high office) or by entering apprenticeships. However, it should be noted that most apprenticeships went to those of the merchant class. Apprentices usually began their training between the ages of five and seven. Their parents negotiated a contract with their master for how long the apprentice would serve and be trained in a particular trade.
Most tradesman chose to have their children trained in the same profession, though there are some cases of them choosing complimentary trades. For example, a dressmaker might have a daughter or son trained as a silk weaver or capper.
Many women were employed as sellers and laborers, but their pay was usually substantially lower than their male counterparts. Most women tended to work for family members, and those who were apprenticed seldom went to work for themselves.
Most women married another in their profession and went to work in his store. Though some women did attain high rank in the guilds, almost all women were banned from holding office or voting on guild matters. However, it should be noted that if a guild member died, his wife could continue to run his shop until the day she remarried.
Fairs and markets were important aspects of both guild life and medieval life in general. Some fairs were biannual and annual events, while others ran continuously. Merchants, entertainers and the like would gather in a designated area and sell goods and services to their patrons. These fairs were also good places for thieves, prostitutes and cutpurses to make money.
If the market was set in a town, then where a person set up his shop was usually highly regulated. Tanners, butchers, fishmongers and others who had smelly or distasteful jobs tended to be segregated out of the other districts and usually located downwind of the town. One area might be set up for clothiers and those selling textiles, while another area would be all the metalworking trades. And, of course, those of ill-repute would be confined to their own district.
The key to fantasy world-building is that the layout of the story, the monetary system, the laws, et al are completely up to you, the writer. However, these elements must make sense, or the reader will become frustrated or confused by the gaps in your logic. For this reason, you may want to choose a real setting such as medieval England or ancient Rome and alter it to fit your needs and ideas.