Fantasy world economics 101: Introduction

An introduction to fantasy world economics and an examination of the exchange of coinage and the bread standard

Fantasy World Economics 101

Since we got out hands on Pathfinder’s Ultimate Equipment (and very well endowed it was too) I wanted to write an article of sheer frustration about the pricing system which, for so many years, we have had to put up with. Prices in role playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, make no sense at all and even worse, there is the amazing simplification of “merchants buy stuff at 50% of the listed price” – NO, just no! This monetary system does not take into account supply and demand, wholesale prices, bartering, transportation, taxation, hazards, political status, kingdom treaties, quality of goods, how magic would affect prices, and last but by no means least, the production process of items.

In addition, the price of raw materials and the price of manufactured products seem to have instances where the raw material costs more than the final product, and there are even instances where the final price is 100 fold higher than the price of the raw material.

Having vented our frustration now, let’s talk about how we can make this more realistic whilst keeping it simple, and give our heroes a way to enjoy the game even more. In this short series of articles we will create a new system of economics that you can use and modify for your own worlds.
Welcome to Fantasy World Economics 101.


To make things easier, for the purposes of these articles we will be using a decimalized Gold standard with Gold/Silver/Copper coin, though our initial references will come from sources drawn from 1000 – 1450 AD England and France which used the Silver Livre (Pound) non-decimalized standard. We are converting using the penny (denarius) as the equivalent of a copper coin. This means that the Shilling will be roughly equivalent to a silver coin and that the gold coins will be roughly equivalent to a Noble/Angel.

Fantasy world economics: Guild workers

A common misconception is that the weight exchange of gold:silver and silver:copper is 1:10; that is to say, some misunderstand that 1g of gold would equal 10g of silver in value. This has been driven by the simplification of coinage that we’ve have seen in the aforementioned role playing games, but this is far from true. Coin size and the difference in density of the material (kg/m3) mean that even if the coins had a decimalized relation they would look and feel very different.

Values in oblique are assumed via extrapolation based on the equivalencies table and the gold:silver, silver:copper exchange calculations below. 
Table 1.1: Material and weight
Coin Abbreviation Weight (gr) Material
Copper cp Copper
Silver sp 9 Silver
Gold gp 4.5  Gold
Medieval England
Penny (denarii) d 1.8 (1/240lb) Silver
Shilling (soldati) s 22.65 (1/20lb) Silver
Noble n 9 (1/50lb) Gold
Ingot,Copper clb 453 (1lb) Copper
Ingot,Silver lb 453 (1lb) Silver
Ingot,Gold glb 453 (1lb) Gold
TABLE 1.2: Equivalency of Fantasy and Medieval coins
Fantasy Copper Medieval Pennies Shillings
Copper 1 Penny (d) 1 1/12
Silver 10 Shilling (s) 12 1
Gold 100 Noble 102 8.5
Platinum 1000  –
Ingot,Silver 5000 Pound lb)  240 20
Ingot,Gold 100000  4800 400
  • All ingots weight 1lb / 453g (1 pound)

Metal densities

Copper and silver density is quite close, but the density of gold is almost twice as high as silver. This means that our silver coin weighing 9 grams will be our biggest coin, followed by the copper coin at roughly the 3/4 radius of the silver coin. Finally our gold coin will only be about 1/4 of the size of the silver coin, since it will have half its weight and twice its density. In many occasions the shape of the coin was altered in order assure its authenticity or give it a bigger size. Polygonal patterns or holes in the middle could make the coin look bigger and more significant, whilst keeping its weight correct.

TABLE 1.2: Metal densities
Metal Density (Kilogram/meter3)
Copper 8930
Silver 10490
Gold 19320
Medieval fantasy economics: Medieval fantasy coin sizes
If you want to create your own coins using these as a template, you can find the PSD file attached at the bottom of this article.

Finding the Gold / Silver exchange rate

Note that the exchange rates of these metals varied during the 650 years of the Middle Ages and also, although close, different regions had different rates. For this article we gathered data mostly from France and England during the high middle ages (1300s)

From the above we can calculate that:

1 Noble (9g of Gold) = 8.5 Shillings (22.65g of Silver)

=> 9g of Gold = 192.525 g of Silver (8.5 x 22.65)

=> 1g of Gold = 21.39 g of Silver

The rounded exchange value of Gold to Silver in weight is
Gold 1:20 Silver

with the same method
50 Shilling (22.65g or Silver) = 1 Farthings (3.1g of Copper)

Silver 1:7 Copper

The Bread Constant

Fantasy world economics: Luis Meléndez (1716–1780), Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle
Luis Meléndez (1716–1780), Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle

Without a constant and stable source of food there can be no location specific (non-itinerary) civilization. In order to even begin to talk about an economy we have to establish its base, and the primary source of nutrition is just that. This source had to be commonly available, highly nutritious and provide satiation. Wheat bread ticked all of those boxes for most of central European civilization since the dawn of agriculture. For colder climates (i.e. Northern Europe) oats, rye and barley replaced wheat, because of their ability to withstand lower temperatures.

The price of bread is a constant for the economy; as a dietary staple it becomes a measure of the cost of living. In many medieval kingdoms bread price remained the same, even if in times of war or drought the size of a loaf became smaller. It is easier to keep your constant as simple as possible in matters of price and, since the most commonly used coin is the silver coin, the constant can be set to be that:

Local market selling price
1 silver piece  = 1 8 oz. loaf of white wheat bread (1750 Kcal)
1 silver piece = 1 lb loaf of brown barley bread (1500 Kcal)

Keep in mind that the price of bread as the most basic product also defines the average wealth of the kingdom. Simply put, a wealthy kingdom’s price of bread would be higher than a poorer one.

Grain surplus as the economy driver

Since prehistoric times humans came together in order to survive. Survival was a matter of nutrition and safety, both from the weather and from other threats. With the discovery of agriculture humans no longer had to rely exclusively on hunting and foraging, which allowed for permanent housing; this in turn gave rise to the first settlements. Each farmer strived to be self-sufficient and produce as many of the required goods as possible, but nobody could have the knowledge and the time to produce everything that was needed. This was, in fact, the reason that even when a family was almost self-sufficient it would keep strong ties with the families around it. In order to nurture these relationships, each family unit had to be able to feed themselves and produce a surplus of some of its products; this surplus could then in turn be used to barter with other families for products or services they could not produce themselves.

As farming grew more efficient, surplus became greater. When surplus was so great that it could support people who did not produce their own food (and who traded for services they were able to provide) this gave rise to the first non-agrarian settlements – towns. Towns in many cases would rely, almost exclusively, on the surrounding villages for their source of food, whilst the villages relied on the nearby towns in order to sell their products on a greater scale than local barter, giving rise to trade. Trade became the lifeblood of civilizations since it opened the doors for cross-civilization exchange of products, knowledge and ideas, and also fueled the advancement of local and regional economy, as well as scientific and cultural progress.

Read next

Fantasy World Economics 101: Labour and Wages

Medieval land measuring units

Fantasy worlds and their place compared to written history

Coming up next

Next week we will be talking about taxation and the price of raw materials such as wood, stone, iron, lead, tin, charcoal and coal etc. and how their cost can be calculated.

Coming after that we will start discussing which are the modifiers which affect prices and how magic also can modify the cost of production.

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Fantasy world economics: Medieval fantasy coin sizes
Click to download PSD file



Let’s design a medieval village: Introduction

Let’s design a Medieval village is a project which aims to create a comprehensive guide about everything you need to know about creating a medieval village and the artwork that you can use to build your own villages.

In medieval England and France the village was the smallest but also, arguably, the  most important cell of a Kingdom’s organism. The countryside was literally littered with thousands of villages a couple of miles apart from each other.

Standing at the heart of agrarian economy, villages provided the population of a kingdom with the most important product during the middle ages – food. Without it a kingdom would fall, without a single drop of blood to ever being shed. On the flip side, the wealth of a kingdom and its prosperity was dependent on its ability to create surplus of food and other agricultural resources. Surplus allowed two things – trade and cities. Both of these exploited the surplus resources of villages; one to create wealth by selling the resources, and the other to manufacture items with higher value and to support a city’s population.

Our project’s goal

The aim of this project is to create a document that will explain in detail the design of a village, and to provide you with the resources to build your own villages for your games or pleasure. We will provide you with:

  1. Architectural plans (black and white floor plans)
  2. Top view drawings (full colour) of all the components, in a format that you will be able to reuse to build your maps (png with transparency)
  3. An outlook on how each building was used
  4. List of technologies and tools that were involved
  5. Information about the skilled labourers that worked on these buildings, and the villagers, freemen and nobles that lived there
  6. Infrastructure and map designs of 3 villages (see below) with documentation regarding the know-how behind their design

We will also expand on the economy and culture of a village to give you some hints and tips regarding what your adventurers, and what other visitors, might expect from a realistic medieval village.

This article will also serve as the directory for all the resources we will be building, in order to have a place from which they can be systematically accessed.

The Medieval Village

In order to give you a thorough view on the inner workings of a village, we will focus on four distinctive types of villages:

  1. Lancestrike, a small hamlet at the verge of the forest
  2. Fulepet, a fishing village on the warm, south-west coast
  3. Sojourn, a medium-sized village owned by a Knight at the cold northern fringes of a Kingdom
  4. Ravenmoor, a large-sized, prosperous village of a Baronet, on the verge of becoming a town

Each of these villages has a slightly different focus and economy, and will serve to show the variety that can be achieved when you design your own. This project will also take into account that these villages belong to a world where magic exists, and we will expand in topics related to it.

The Buildings, Structures and Locations list

For each of the following structures, we will be showing you a bird’s eye view (so you can put it on your maps), an architectural plan and finally some information regarding the inhabitants, fittings and everyday usage of the building.

Thatched Cottage example my Dimitris
Cottage example by Dimitris
  • Cottager’s cottage
  • Bordar’s house
  • Villein’s house
  • Freeman’s house
  • Manor house (small)
  • Manor house (large)
  • Knight’s motte and bailey
  • Priest’s parsonage
  • Blacksmith
  • Woodcutter
  • Mill
  • Charcoal Maker
  • Fishery
  • Bake house
  • Brewery
  • Furrier
  • Carpenter
  • Tailor & Cobbler (shoe maker)
  • Barber
  • Mason
Arable land
  • Grain Field
  • Vegetable Patch
  • Orchard
  • Vineyard
Manorial Buildings
  • Church
  • Monastery (satelite Manor)
  • Well
  • Barn (Tithe Barn)
  • Granary
  • Cattle Barn
  • Stables
  • Warehouse
  • Market
  • Tavern
  • Inn
  • Almshouse
  • Great Hall
Non-arable Land
  • Meadow
  • Pasture
  • Woodland / Forest
  • Marsh
  • Field (Fallow)
  • River and Pond

Read next

Let’s design a medieval village: Cottager’s cottage

Fantasy world economics 101: Introduction

Coming up next

On our next article, we will be dissecting the medieval village of Lancestrike, the archetypical rural village (a small hamlet at the verge of the forest).

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All resources that will be created for this article will be designed, written and illustrated by our team, and will be completely free to use (based on the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International from Creative Commons), which means you can use it as you please and share it, but not for work you will be making money from.


This project will be making referencing several academic publications and a variety of books. The following will also be used:

Status symbols through the ages and their importance in culture

Throughout history, status symbols – often bizarre ones – have cropped up in art, texts, and archaeological finds, and have puzzled people from later cultures. As in nature, humans are driven by biological imperative (as well as personal desire) to show themselves as the best, and to advance their authority and power. Humans have found a wide variety of ways to display their “superiority” within a community, ranging from fancy dressing, to the erection of wondrous structures, to the acquisition of rare commodities. Enter the status symbol.

In this article we will examine some of these status symbols, particularly focusing on ways they can be used to enhance (subtly, or less so) your storytelling.

Status symbols and their value

We define “status symbol” as any sort of property that can be used as an avatar of one’s personal or familial worth, both financial and cultural. Thus, status symbols are social cues, much like the plumage of a bird of paradise or the tail of a peacock, to display public identity and financial affluence. In fact, status symbols are most frequently demonstrated by those who can afford to spend financial resources to acquire (and if necessary maintain) the item or service in question. In many cases, these symbols are exclusively decorative, or are displayed aesthetically rather than used for their primary function; essentially, the owner declares himself so affluent that he can “waste” money on frivolous display.

Rotting Fruit…

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the ultimate extravagance and display of wealth was… a pineapple! Pineapples were exotic in Europe, and considered aesthetically beautiful; as non-native fruit, they had to be imported from colonies in the tropics, often South America and the Caribbean. In fact, they were so precious as status symbols that they usually didn’t get eaten – commonly, they would sit on the family dinner table as a centrepiece, even as they slowly rotted away. A single pineapple would cost thousands of pounds, but those who couldn’t afford their own could rent one out for a night to impress the neighbours. Let’s see the Joneses keep up with that…

The Dunmore Pineapple, a folly ranked "as the most bizarre building in Scotland
The Dunmore Pineapple, a folly (see below on follies) ranked “as the most bizarre building in Scotland” – another example of pineapple-mania.

Say it with a picture…

Crest of Baronet George Beaumont
Crest of Baronet George Beaumont

There is nothing more prestigious than hiring a heraldic artist to immortalise the values and beliefs of your family in a heraldic crest. Noble or royal families spent as much as they could afford on their crests, illuminating them onto their Heraldry books and weaving them into tapestries. Another common display of Heraldic crests was casting them on shields and armour, and embroidering them onto jerkins, cloaks and banners.

Heraldry was not just aesthetically pleasing – it spoke volumes about your family’s lands, values, history, allegiances and even patron saints (or deities). Being allowed to don the crest of your family was a great honour, and a way to elevate yourself by association, and the ultimate status symbol which declared exactly who you were associated with. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a heraldic crest may at least say “Sure, I’m only a minor lord, but I’m second cousin to the Duke of York, who’s the king’s brother, and he’s going to kick your ass.” Or the medieval equivalent…

Pointy sticks…

Ornate sword of King Maximilian I
Ornate sword of King Maximilian I

Swords were primarily weapons, and it was important for a nobleman to have one, and to know how to use it. Swords were especially associated with nobility because, unlike axes, hatchets, pikes and the like, they did not have a secondary, agricultural use. They were tools of war. But beyond that, swords also grew to have ornamental value; some were fashioned as art pieces, commissioned by nobles as part of their ceremonial dress. At some occasions, swords were also presented to nobles by the king, to show gratitude for military service, sacrifice or success. They were also presented to visiting kings and nobles from other lands as tokens of good relations and allegiance.

Most ornamental swords were valued highly, not only because of the precious metals and stones used in their creation, but because of the reputation and fame of the craftsmen who made them. Only the most wealthy, with the best taste and knowledge, could know who to hire and afford the price of these exclusive status symbols.

All the tapestries! All the paintings!

The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn on the wall at Stirling Castle
The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn on the wall at Stirling Castle

Huge wall-to-wall tapestries could take decades to complete (the famous Bayeux Tapestry took about ten years, and even that is technically embroidery, which takes less time). Tapestries required the most expensive dyes, bought from all over the world, in order to brightly colour the yarn for the most vivid result. Paintings, created by masters of the time, immortalised the deeds and the faces of the owners and their families.

People had no idea how they looked before the invention of the silvered-glass mirror in 1835. Other kinds of mirrors existed earlier, made of obsidian, pools of still, dark water, or reflective metal, but most created blurry approximations of one’s face. Having a painting of yourself, particularly of your youth preserved against your old age, not only flattered your vanity but was, in a way, a route to hysterophimia – fame which outlived your mortal flesh.

In many cases, tapestries took so long to complete that the process of their creation was, in fact, as ostentatious as the final tapestries themselves. For both paintings and tapestries, the dyes used were as significant as the craftsmanship of the artist. It was common for the patrons to dictate which colours were to be used, to intentionally increase the final expense (and therefore ‘worth’) of the work.

Squeaky-clean clothes, cuffs and collars…

During the 16th and 17th century, pearly-white cuffs and collars showed that you were able to afford changing clothes (and underwear) regularly, proving that you could sustain a significant wardrobe.

Cleaning clothes, and keeping them clean, was a tedious process that damaged clothes, meaning that they had to be replaced regularly.

Frans Hals, A man holding a skull "Look at my shiny shiny collar and cuffs"
Frans Hals, A Man holding a Skull. A.K.A “My panties are as clean as my shirt cuffs…”

Rich nobles of the Tudor era would never allow their portraits to lack collars or cuffs, so as to immortalise their cleanliness. In addition to their grand wardrobe, these clean clothes hinted at something more – a clean shirt ‘serves to keep the body clean’, wrote one commentator in 1626. To have a clean body, and thus a virtuous mind, was another boast of worth, both moral and spiritual. Education and moral superiority were more ways to advertise one’s social status – not just richer, but more virtuous and closer to Godliness, as cleanliness has long been rumoured to be.

Cockroach-killing shoes…

Pointy medieval shoes

The Crackowe (or poulaine, the name of the pointed tip) was a long, pointed shoe popular in the late Middle Ages. The tip was anywhere from six to twenty-four inches in length. As is the case with so many status symbols, these absurd shoes showed that the wearer was wealthy simply because of their impracticality – it was impossible to work in them, so those who wore them must be affluent. King Edward III of England even restricted shoe length to six inches for commoners, fifteen inches for gentlemen, and longer tips for the nobility. As status symbols, they were obviously in no way phallic. Obviously. Nope.

Gimme some sugar…

“Subtleties” or “sotiltees” were excessive displays of sugar, often sculptures which came in all sorts of curious forms – castles, ships, famous philosophers, or scenes from fables. These might be coloured with exotic ingredients like saffron for yellow, or sandalwood for red. The tradition came to Europe from Africa and the Middle East during the middle ages. The showy centre-pieces served as a symbol of power and wealth. Due to their vast expense, they were initially only feasible for kings and queens, and were used to solidify the power of the monarch over his peers, nobles and courtiers.


Tulips, as well as other rare and exotic flowers, were imported as bulbs from afar, and put on display or planted in large gardens. They were a way to show that someone had either the buying power to procure them or, in many cases, that he or his ancestors had travelled to these exotic lands. During a fad in Holland, when tulips first became available (imported from the Indies), a single bulb of the flower sold for the equivalent of ten craftsmen’s annual salary.

Arboretum; in some cases, these would have hundreds of trees in areas of tens of acres.
Arboretum; in some cases, these would have hundreds of trees in areas of tens of acres.

In England, arboretums of trees collected during the travels of nobles also became a very powerful status symbol. These beautiful and rare collections were assembled from all over the world, in order to immortalise the travels of the person who brought them back to the family estate. Arboretums were often added to over the generations, and plants were sometimes exchanged as gifts.

The hermit at the bottom of the garden…

In the late 18th century, noble estates in England and Germany were considered incomplete without a proper hermitage. Nobles would build a hermitage and then hire a hermit to live in it. Rather than men of religious conviction, as many medieval hermits were (as per the Rule of St Benedict), the ‘ornamental’ hermit would be paid, and given a skull, a book and an hourglass. Some of these ornamental hermits did not talk to the servants, but simply repeated a phrase in Latin. Most grew beards and did not cut their nails to complete the façade.

This really gives the idea of Gnomes at the bottom of the garden a completely different twist

Medieval Hermitage
Medieval Hermitage

Nobles would also commonly build copies of ancient ruins and other ornamental buildings, also know as follies, with no use in mind other than to decorate their gardens and forested areas and arboretums.

Retinue and slaves

Retinues exist even in present day culture – consider the hip-hop singers, fashion designers and other “personalities” who travel with retinues of security, personal cooks, strategists, assistants and the like – all serving their needs, and acting as an extension of their occupying space. In the medieval era, the size of a knight’s or noble’s retinue had a lot to say about their status and means.

René d'Anjou Livre des tournois France Provence XVe siècle Barthélemy d'Eyck
René d’Anjou, Livre des tournois; France, Provence XVe siècle Barthélemy d’Eyck

When at war or travelling, a knight was never alone. Knights-in-training, page boys, men-at-arms, chamber maids, armourers and all sorts of people would travel with them, whether to war or tournament. The quality of their arms and their attire, and their retinue’s skills, reflected on the knights, and the were commonly used as status symbols. Similarly, noble women were never left unattended, not even at night, but were always surrounded by ladies-in-waiting and maids; the quality of these, and their appearance, reflected directly on the nobility and status of the noblewoman in question.

Great story hooks…

Status symbols are possessed and displayed by the wealthiest and most powerful of men, and this is, in part, what makes them a great treasure. Those who are not wealthy aspire to them, and those who are wealthy will always try to keep one step ahead of their peers. Thus, these status items can be incorporated into your stories as a seemingly worthless treasure, or the item of a quest that the heroes of your stories might be sent to acquire. They may also be things which your group already possesses, which cause the local nobles to view them in higher regard. This also raises the value of ‘local knowledge’, social perception and similar traits – the character who notices that all the buildings are shaped like pineapples might realise, when confronted with one in a chest, that they are valuable here beyond their face value.

The symbol itself might change, but the idea behind them remains the same – they are items to display how wealthy and renowned their owner is, and they do that by being close to unattainable. In the same way that pineapples or tulips were exotic to Europe, blackcurrants would have been impossible to find in the Indies or the new World (until recently they were illegal in the USA). Status symbols can be used to understand the affluence of a noble, a king or an estate, not just saying “look at all my gold”, but by displaying fashion, taste and sophistication – all ways to prove ‘worth’.

Do you know of any other weird and wacky status symbols we missed? How have you used status symbols in your stories and campaigns? 

Please share your thoughts with us and if you like our posts do share it with your friends we will love you forever!

Further reading

Medieval Social Stratification series: Part 3 & Part 4 

The Illustrated Book of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and Its Contemporary Uses

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (New Economic History of Britain) (The New Economic History of Britain Series)

Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in Modern history 


Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (New Economic History of Britain) (The New Economic History of Britain Series), Yale University Press (13 Feb. 2009)

Harold Kerbo, Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983)

Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition, (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003)

Pat Patfoort, Uprooting Violence, Building Nonviolence: From Nonviolent Upbringing to a Nonviolent Society, (Freeport, Maine: Cobblesmith, 1995)

Campbell, G., The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Oxford University Press, 2013

Fantasy world economics 101: Labour and wages

Fantasy kingdom economics: A study on the wages of craftsmen and laborers in a fantasy world economy and the way they can be estimated.

The base of the fantasy world economy

After finishing the introduction to the series, I thought that our first article should have been about raw materials and their prices. I did that considering that since raw materials are the base of the production of every economy that would have been a good place to begin our journey.

But this couldn’t be furthest from the truth. I have tried to write the article and, in fact, the article is now half-there sitting in the drafts, but I couldn’t finish it. In order to establish how much will something cost, I had to ask two things:

How much does a laborer requires and needs as a wage? And, Which are the value of equipment and other sources for the extraction of a raw material? As you can understand, this brought me in a catch-22 scenario, were to have the one I had to have the other and vice versa.

So this article won’t be about raw materials. I do apologize for this, but the article is coming quite soon, along with a third article that I wrote as an attempt to give the basis for those mentioned above. This article is about the cost of labor and how we should estimate it.

This article is about the cost of labor and how we should estimate it.

Factors that affect earnings of an employee

In order to understand the cost of labour, we have to establish which are the factors that contribute into shaping, it. Prices of goods and services, including wages, change over time. A variety of factors drives these changes. Below we examine which are the factors that affect earnings and which of them, stay, pretty much unchanged, versus those that create fluctuations.

Nutritional requirements

If there was a single factor, that determined the expected wage of anyone that would have been the cost of food, and it is indeed, an exceedingly important one.

We know that an average, middle-aged man requires 2,500 kilocalories per day to sustain their weight. This calculation considers the modern style of life which, in most cases evolves significantly, less manual labour, and it assumes adequately insulated, warm and dry housing.

During middle ages, this was true for some but not for the biggest part of the population. For most peasants, the conditions were harsh, and the work was hard and tiring. It required significant amounts of energy in order to sustain their body mass. A peasant’s work was significantly less energy-demanding than the work that a miner or a lumberjack conducted. The average town-dwelling craftsman had, in average, the same nutrition requirements we also encounter nowadays. By reverse engineering from sources 5- 8 we can extrapolate that the average dietary requirements daily in a fantasy world would look like this:

Labourer type Kilocalories consumed daily
Serf, Adult, Heavy work 4500
Serf, Adult, Light work 3000
Child 2500
Miner, Extremely heavy work 7500
Lumberjack, Very heavy work 6500
Master Mason, Heavy work 5000
Commoner (Vendor, Merchant, Housewife) 2500
Slave, House 2500*
Slave, Field 3500*
Slave, Estate 3000*
Noble, High (King, Duke, Courtier) 7500
Soldier (Guardsman, Footman) 4000
Noble, Manor (Baron, Knight) 6000
Craftsman (Baker, Smith, Carpenter) 3000
Craftsman, Apprentice 3000
Labourer, Medium-weight work 3500

* malnourished 

Expected quality of life

Becoming an accomplished master of your art or marrying–up change the expectation that you have about what constitutes a good meal or a good time. Gaining know-how or moving higher into the social echelon affects your assumed quality of nutritional standards. For example, for a cottar, to have meat on the table is considered a great luxury, and happened rarely. For the average blacksmith in a town, meat was quite common if not a daily occurrence. Nobles would expect not one, but several kinds of meat to be available during a meal, all of them, well presented and garnished with all sorts of fruit and vegetables; some imported from far away lands.

These expectations would work as a cost multiplier on the calories needed for each type of worker. For our examples above these modifiers range from 0.65 (Slave, Field) to 5 (Noble, High).

Labourer type Nutritional quality multiplier
Serf, Adult, Heavy work 1
Serf, Adult, Light work 1
Child 1
Miner, Extremely heavy work 2
Lumberjack, Very heavy work 2
Master Mason, Heavy work 3
Commoner (Vendor, Merchant, Housewife) 2
Slave, House 0.9
Slave, Field 0.65
Slave, Estate 0.75
Noble, High (King, Duke, Courtier) 5
Soldier (Guardsman, Footman) 1.5
Noble, Manor (Baron, Knight) 4
Craftsman (Baker, Smith, Carpenter) 2
Craftsman, Apprentice 1.5
Labourer, Medium-weight work 1

Expertise, social status & class

The amount of calories and the type of food that someone would prefer to consume, play an important factor on the expected wage but they are not the only one. The years of practicing your art or craft and how renowned you are at it, or simply your noble rank denote your housing, purchase power, entertainment, education and, amongst others, daily needs.

The simplest way to calculate this would be a multiplier on top of the above that will represent the “additional income requirement” of each citizen of our fantasy world kingdom. This multiplier, for our cases, ranges from 0 (for a slave with no personal possessions) to 45 for a high noble who would expect to amass a significant amount as savings as well.

Calculations and methodology

We’ve have talked a lot about calories and stacked multipliers, but how does this translate into money? Well, this is where the bread constant (the staple of life) comes into play. In the introduction of this article series, we have discussed that one 1lb brown loaf of bread, for our calculations, costs one piece of silver and amounts to 1,700kCal.

Based on this the calories needed (CN) multiplied by the nutrition quality multiplier (NQM) and divided by calories of our staple (CS) would give us the cost of food per day.

Multiplying this by the  Additional income multiplier (AIM) will give us the Expected Wage (EW)

Example: Soldier's cost of food per day

Cost of Food per day:
Calories needed (4000kCal) * Nutrition quality multiplier (1.5) / Staple calories (1700kCal) = 3.51 silver pieces / day 

Daily Wage:
Cost of Food per day (3.51) * Additional income requirement (1.5) = 5.26 silver pieces per day

Days of work

The above represent the wage that someone would expect if he was in the employment of someone else. The yearly profits of each worker are subject to how many days per year they would be employed, or capable of exercising this profession.

For example, in reality the profits of a knight (Noble, Manor) are dependent on the productivity of his personal endeavours within his manorial property. Having said that, and knowing that a “knight’s fee” equals 40 days of service per year. We can assume that a King, initially, should provide a knight with land that can produce for him at least, the expected wage, times forty (in this case 210.53 * 40 = 8,421 silver pieces). This meant, that in times of war, the profits could rise tenfold within a year.

In order to calculate the profits of someone working for themselves, we should consider taxation, fees and other overheads. These in average come to about a thirty-five percent (35%) increase in the listed values. We will elaborate on this in a later article.

Fantasy kingdom and world economics 101
Well, it depends on what sort of beast of burden is available

Labor demand and other modifiers

Prices can be modified depend on the socioeconomic and political situation of the kingdom. Events like an embargo, a war, the discovery of a rich deposit of silver, or droughts, can bring some of the wages down, and some of them, as we already discussed up.

Weather conditions like adverse winters, or shower-less summers can also have a profound effect on the cost of labor. Work conducted during winter in the open, like logging, might drive the days of employment down, which in turn would raise demand for wood and thus the cost of labor. Times of drought would mean that the stores of grain won’t be restored and that there won’t be enough food to feed the animals; raising the price of flour and thus, making the size of the average loaf smaller.

In most cases, other than those which might cause kingdom-wide starvation, the required wage cannot be modified lower than the cost of food per day. At the same way, the additional income modifier should not exceed twice its standard value.


I have created a first draft of the list of wages. This list will be expanded as we delve deeper into this series.


Name: The name of the profession. Light to Very Heavy refers to how arduous the work is expected to be.

Calories needed: The calories needed to keep a human being in the same weight, and in average health

Nutrition quality modifier: The quality of food required, anything underneath 1 is considered left-overs and below the average quality food. 1 denotes bread and pottage diet (villager’s basic diet) while anything above 1.5 assumes that some meat is common place.

Cost of food per day (in silver pieces): The cost of food based on the fact that 1lb of brown bread costs one silver piece and provides the consumer with 1700kcal.

Additional income modifier: Expected basics and luxuries like entertainment, education, equipment, housing etc.

Expected wage/day (in silver pieces): the cost of food multiplied by the additional income modifier

Days of employment per year: Days that which work can take place within the 365 days of a year. Based on 65 to 70 days of enforced holidays (Sundays and festivals), constituted agreements (Knight’s fee), work on field, weather conditions, etc

Yearly profit from employment: expected wage multiplied by days of employment

Daily profits: Yearly profit divided by 365 days (people eat and spend regardless of days of work)

Daily surplus: Difference between cost of food and daily benefits, denoting the actual living conditions and the requirement for additional employment or business ownership or the actual daily spending limit.

Fantasy kingdom economics: Wages spreadsheet

View in Google Drive: Fantasy world Economics 101: Wages

What to read next

Fantasy world economics 101: Introduction

Farming year in medieval times or, farmer’s odyssey during the Middle Ages

Social stratification of a Feudal Kingdom (Part 3): The ranks of the noble blooded

Coming up next

Next week we will be talking about the process of making bread and its cost, from sowing the seeds into the field to the loaf in the baker’s basket.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or join our newsletter to keep up-to-date with all upcoming articles


  1. James E. Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), 542-43.
  2. H.S. Bennett, Life on the English Manor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 104-6.
  3. Douglas Knoop and G.P. Jones, The Medieval Mason (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), 105.
  4. R. Allen Brown, H.M. Colvin, and A.J. Taylor, The History of the King’s Works, vol. I, the Middle Ages (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1963).
  5. Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999, 54 – 55.
  6. Jeffrey L. Singman and Will McLean, Daily Life in Chaucer’s England, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995, 159-160.
  7. Gies, F. & Gies, J. (1981) Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper and Row.
  8. Gies, F. & Gies, J. (1991) Life in a Medieval Village. New York: Harper and Row.


Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop

A simple trick to help you calculate the surface area of a location using Photoshop. Really handy for map makers and worldbuilders.

This article is a bit out of our scope but I thought it might be useful for world builders and map makers out there who use Photoshop to design their awesome maps. 

The issue

If you are using photoshop to create your maps, like I do, you find difficult sometimes to do things that some specialized mapping software do.

I am designing a map for our project and I wanted to be able to calculate the surface area of a kingdom in order to calculate the amount of population it can support based on the data we’ve gathered from the Doomsday Book.

The lazy solution: Surface area of a rectangle


Calculating surface area in Photoshop
Calculating surface area of a rectangle

If it was square or rectangular that would have been easy. You multiply X by Y, and as long as you know your scale … presto! You could then break down the rectangle into smaller interconnected ones in order to calculate the surface area of more irregular shape.

But kingdoms, duchies, counties or any demesne (domain) are hardly ever even close to rectangular; so how do you do it?

The real solution: Surface area of an irregular shape

For this example we will calculate what was the surface area that it was used for habitation on this medieval village.

Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Example Village

Step 1: Define your territory

Create a new layer on top of your map. Let’s call it “Domain” and using a black brush (make sure the colour is #000000) Paint over the area you want to calculate.

Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Domain area
The layer called domain is painted with 100% black on top of the areas that we want to calculate their surface area.


Step 2: Establishing scale

Create a new layer, call it “total area” under the domain layer and fill it with white.

Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Full area
Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Total area

From the previous example we know that 150px equal 450 feet on this map.

This image is 1140×852 pixels which means that the X of the box can be calculated by a simple cross multiplication.

If the long side of the rectangle is 1140 pixels and we know that 150px equal 450 feet

X (in feet) = (1140 * 450) / 150 = 3420 feet

In the same way we can calculate that the short side of the rectangle is equal to 2556 feet.

Using the method we used above we can calculate that the total surface area of the map is X * Y = 3420 * 2556 = 8.741.520 square feet = 200.6 acres

Your file should now look like this:

Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Full area

Step 3: The magic

Now for the magic trick.

  1. Select the “domain” and “total area” layers we created and merge themhttps://www.dropbox.com/s/z1l637k0lrx2rle/Screenshot%202015-03-26%2006.47.28.png?dl=
  2. With the new layer selected, Go to Filters > Blur > Average
    Surface area of an irregular shape in Photoshop: Domain area: Blur Average
    This should leave you with a greyish box. That’s good!
  3. Select the colour dropper Colour dropper from the menu and click on your grey layer.
  4. Click on the foreground colour to open thedialogueandlocate the brightness value.
    The brightness value is marked with the red box
    The brightness value is marked with the red box

Crunch them

87% is the coverage of the area outside your Domain area.
Thus 100 – 87 = 13% (of the total 200.6 acres)

In order to calculate the surface area of our housing district we use once again cross multiplication

206.6 * 13 / 100 = 27 acres of housing 

Make sure that:
– Your colours are pure white #ffffff and pure black #000000
– Your Document is set to RGB (Image > Mode > RGB Color


What did you think of this method? Do you have a better one?
Does this work on GIMP or other programs with Blur > Average filter. Please do let us know!

Further reading

Medieval land measuring units


Thank you mostlyignorant for spotting the calculation issue!


Medieval village buildings: Cottager’s cottage

The first building of the “Let’s design a village” is here. We are starting with the most humble of buildings. The cottage of a cottager, the lowest of the lows, right at the bottom of the feudal pyramid.

Fantasy content notice
Although all our worked is backed by historical research, the following article may include references to fantasy, imaginary content and unicorns. 

This article is part of the project “Let’s design a medieval village”. If you are not familiar with the project, you can read the project introduction here.

Medieval village buildings: Serf Housing

As we have previously discussed, the serfs stood at the bottom of the feudal pyramid, and constituted more than 70% of the total population of England during the early and high middle ages. Over half of them lived in very harsh conditions, with famine being a very serious possibility during late spring when food supplies started to run low and the new crops were not yet ready.

 These titles changed meaning throughout the middle ages, but for the purposes of this article we will define the cottar as the lowest class, followed by the bordar and the subsequently the villein, who stood as the wealthiest bonded (i.e. “un-free”) man.  
Serfs were further separated into three classes, the cottager (cottar), the bordar and the villein. Serfs were tied to the land they inhabited, and thus to the Lord of the Manor controlling the land.

In a medieval village, buildings like houses were usually built by using a wooden frame which was filled with wattle and daub and then covered with plaster made of chalk, or lime and earth. The roof was almost exclusively made of thatch. The serf could use an amount of land appropriate to the serf-class to which he was assigned; that amount of land defined the amount of livestock he could own, the size of family he could support and, of course, his ability to generate any form of revenue.

Today we will be focusing on the Cottar, the lowest class of the feudal system -excluding slaves (also called “thrall”). Our protagonist on this journey will be Aldhelm, a cottar in the village of Fulepet, which translates into Filthy Hole (yes, this is a genuine village name from Norman Sussex. We kind of wish we had made it up).

The Family

Aldhelm’s father died 6 years ago, aged 45. Three years earlier, the already elderly man had seen his wife, his freehold farm by the coast and his freedom evaporate into smoke at the hands of the raiders who came from the North. In debt and without a home, Aldhelm’s father came before Lord Octo and asked for his charity; he became Lord Octo’s serf, in a ceremony called “bondage”, and was allowed a small plot of land to cultivate. Aldhelm’s father died after three years as Lord Octo’s serf, and Aldhelm (as the oldest son) had to reaffirm his allegiance in the form of their best, and only, Ox, Freon.

Family tree of Aldhelm's family
Family tree of Aldhelm’s family

Aldhelm lives with his son, Eni, his son’s 15 year old wife, Cynwise and also with his brother, Eanfled, his brother’s wife Ilwen, and their two young children. All seven of them sleep under one roof in his cottage, the land of which his gracious lord, Sir Octo, granted to Aldhelm’s father in their time of need. Aldhelm has concentrated on making sure that his small plot of land can keep his family fed and safe. Life isn’t easy. Aldhelm’s wife died 16 years ago during the birth of her son, Eni. He lost his two daughters two years ago to hunger, even though he gave them both all he could, and kept for himself only what he needed to continue working.

Everyday life

Eanfled and Aldhelm wake up early in the morning and join the rest of the farmers who head to the fields. Aldhelm was lucky enough to get a very fertile strip in the grain field this year, which might mean that the family has some surplus grain to sell to the market. The biggest problem will be that they no longer have an Ox to plough; they will have to work on the land of a Freeman called Alric in order to be able to rent an ox for a day or two to plough their 8 strips (rods). Unfortunately, it is already almost the end of March, and if they cannot plough by April then their growing season will be too short and the grain will not mature before harvest time.

Typically Ilwen, Eanfled’s wife, works at Alric’s pig farm, but with most of the pigs sold there isn’t much work to go around. She is still able to work for Alric once a week, but the rest of her days she spends either at home spinning wool or in the pasture taking care of the animals and, once a week, in the mill making flour and the bake house baking bread. Both her children are employed by a local fisherman called Swidhelm, helping him with fixing his nets and running errands for him. Swidhelm rewards each child with a fish every week, which is so far the only meat the family eats.

Eni and Cynwise were lucky enough to get noticed by Lord Octo’s wife, and they now work on the Manor six days a week helping out with the animals there. Two of those days (two days each) they work in service of the Lord, but for the other four days, their work is paid with flour and eggs. If it wasn’t for the kindness and charity of Lady Hild, life would be unbearable.

When Lady Hild’s youngest boy, Sighard, fell in the old well it was Eni who jumped inside without thinking and saved the young lad, who had only a drop of life left in him when they emerged at the rim of the well.  Lord Octo was so grateful for this that he rewarded Eni with a cage full of chickens and one of his cockerels.  Eni was moved to tears – this honour could mean that his family would have food, and a way to pay their dues, for years to come.

The cottage

Aldhelm’s father built their house with the help of his children and their wives. It is about 25 ft long and 12 ft wide. The frame is made of thick timber and is filled with wattle (interlocking twigs, woven together), which in turn was covered with daub (a mixture of manure, earth and hay). When the house was built (read more about building materials here) there was no time to plaster it, but today the cottage is covered with a yellowish glaze of earth and limestone which gives its walls a cream colour. The timber of the frame remains exposed and it’s obvious that extra support was required to hold the house together. The top of the house is covered with a tilted roof of thatch which was gathered from Lord Octo’s meadow. The house has no chimney, so the smoke of the hearth slowly escapes from between the gaps of the thatched roof, making the house very smoky. Last winter, Aldhelm had to re-daub a big part of the south-face of the house due to damage from strong winds. There are two small 1 ft x 2 ft windows, one facing east and another facing west. The windows have no glass – during night and throughout winter they are kept closed with wooden shutters. Despite this, the house is quite cold and draughty.

Medieval village buildings: Interior view of a Cottager's cottage
Interior view of a Cottager’s cottage

The house interior is not separated into any rooms. The only visible separation is a low fence that keeps the animals confined. The house has only one level and no loft. Unusually for a serf’s house, part of the floor is laid with flat stones; the children decided that it would be a game to lay stones in the house, and indeed many of the serfs laughed at the idea, but it does indeed make the house much easier to clean, something that Ilwen is very happy about.

Medieval Village: Cottage top view, including porch
Cottage top view, including porch

Furniture and tools

In the house, the family mostly sits and sleeps on the pile of straw at the south side of the cottage, away from the door, but there is also a wooden table and a two wooden stools. Most of the family’s clothing is kept in a big, oak chest. All the cutlery is kept in a wooden tub, which is also used to wash both the cutlery and the clothes by the river side. There are 9 wooden bowls, 11 wooden spoons and one brass ladle – the latter was given to Ilwen by Alric in recognition of her fine cooking skills. The family’s cauldron was sold last year to Omrik, a travelling merchant, in exchange for oats he brought from the North. Since then, Ilwen has only a medium sized copper pot in which to cook.

A wooden bucket with a lid is used to defecate in during the evening hours; it’s emptied first thing in the morning in a nearby stream. The hearth is positioned in the middle of the house and it’s surrounded with large, rather tall, stones (10” high) to contain the fire. The logs are also stored in a pile close to the fire, in order to keep them dry. Most of the family’s tools are hanging by the western wall, from the three structural wooden columns of the house. Aldhelm owns 1 iron axe, 2 flails, 2 forks (haymaking), 3 bronze sickles, 1 iron spade and one oak ard (ox-plough) which has been in the family for 4 generations now and bears the marks of several family members.

The garden

The cottage stands within a small plot of land 35 ft by 25 ft wide, surrounded by a 2 ft high, dry-stone wall (without mortar). Most of the garden is separated into small vegetable patches, where the family grows onions, parsnips, garlic, leeks, lettuces, cabbages, carrots and beetroots. On the North side of the garden stands a wild cherry tree which was there even before the cottage was built, nine years ago. The jewel of the garden is a small patch of strawberries – Eanfled started them after finding a wild strawberry plant on his way back from the town. Right beside the cottage door there is a wooden raised bed filled with sage, thyme, mint and lavender which Ilwen uses sometimes when washing the clothes.

Medieval village buildings: Cottage top view with garden
Cottage top view with garden

Land and Animals

When Aldhelm’s father came to the village he was given 8 rods of land in the fields (2 acres) and a plot of 35 ft by 25 ft feet (875sq.ft) in the village to put his house on. After nine years of serving Lord Octo, the family still has 2 acres and lost their only Ox when Aldhelm’s father died.

Currently the family has 1 sheep called Didi and a lamb (that Didi gave birth to) called Hen. In addition to that, the family also has 1 cockerel and 6 chickens (awarded to Eni for his bravery) with 4 tiny chicks.

With 2 acres of land, Aldhelm is never allowed to have over 4 heads of livestock and 8 fowls, which means that some of those chickens will either be given to Lord Octo, in the form of taxation, or eaten, or sold. Apart from the limitations imposed on the number of animals by Lord Octo, the reality is that a family wouldn’t be able to sustain many more animals unless there was a surplus of food for them during the winter.

Four of the eight rods are in the grain field of the village and, if all goes well, they will produce five bushels (1 bushel = 25kg Sack) of grain. Half a sack of that will go to Lord Octo and a quarter of the same sack Aldhelm will give as tithe to the goddess Shelyn for her protection (or, in a Medieval world, to the Christian church). That will leave four and a quarter sacks for the family. In order to always have bread on the table, the family will need 22 sacks in total. They are missing almost 18 sacks which they will have to work elsewhere to find.

The four remaining crops will be seeded with Barley (2 rods) and Oats (2 rods), in order to provide an extra food supply for the family, and to feed the chickens.

Medieval Village: Cottage local area map
Cottage local area map 1:800 scale

Wares and food stores

Being mid-spring, the stores are half-empty but Aldhelm is positive that they will be able to survive until harvest. Currently in the house the family has stored:

  • 6 sacks of Wheat (25kg each) 2 of those sacks to be used as seed for 1 acre
  • 4 sacks of Barley (25kg each) 2 of those sacks to be used as seed for 1/2 acre; the rest to feed the chickens for another 2 and a half months
  • 3 sacks of Oats (25kg each) 2 of those to be used as seed for 1/2 acre
  • 6 bales of Hay to feed the sheep, Didi and Hen (enough for 4 more weeks)
  • 2 kg of Salt stored in a linen pouch hanging from the ceiling
  • 1 kg of Honey stored in a linen-covered clay pot
  • 5 litres of Vinegar in a leather flask hanging from one of the support columns
  • 18 Eggs in a straw basket
  • 3 Trout (2kg each) preserved in salt
  • 20 Onions smoked in a straw basket
  • 15 Beetroots pickled in a clay jar
  • 5 Garlic garlands (10 heads each) hanging by the support columns
  • 100 Carrots

The garden is separated into squares, each almost five by five feet. With less than 330 square feet of garden, the family can support around 13 squares of fruits and vegetables. Some vegetables grow quite quickly and will allow the family to replant them twice, or even more frequently, within the year and all the way to the first snow. This month the family planted:

Deep within the wooden chest there is a wooden box filled with small linen pouches containing the seeds of all the vegetables. This is, possibly, the most important item in the household.
  1. 100 Lettuce heads (500 within a year including late autumn hardier crops)
  2. 400 Carrots (1200 – 1600 within a year)
  3. 400 Leeks
  4. 100 Broad-bean plants
  5. 400 Onions (800 within a year)
  6. 25 Cabbages 
  7. 25 Cabbages
  8. 300 Pea plants
  9. 225 Spinach plants (hardy greens)
  10. 100 Artichokes
  11. 400 Beetroot (1200 within a year)
  12. 400 Radishes (2000 within a year)

It is safe to assume that, in a good year, 75% of the above will become edible whilst the rest will be failed seeds. In a normal year this will fall to 60% and in bad year could even fall below 40%. Some of the plants that survive will not be eaten and will be left to “go to seed”, so that the family will be able to gather and replant them for the years to come.


Being a cottager, Aldhelm has to pay Lord Octo several types of taxes in order to pay for rights to the land he is using, and also to repay his debt. During harvest he has to pay 10% of his grain harvest (quite low, considering that the Lord of the next village asks for 20%) to the Reeve. During Easter, Aldhelm gave his Lord 2 dozen (24) eggs to show his gratitude. Aldhelm also has to provide Lord Octo with 4 man-days every week, which Eni and his wife are providing by working in the stables of the manor.

Finally, Aldhelm gave an additional 5% of his grain to the church of Shelyn (the patron Deity of the Kingdom) to thank her for her blessing and protection.

In Conclusion

Most cottager families had to work very hard to survive. Making money always came second to ensuring that there was enough food to survive the winter, and to have food supplies until the next harvest. Although all members of the family had to do their part, charity, and the kindness of others, played a very significant role in their survival.

Aldhelm’s house is a very small space where all members of the family, and also the animals, live together. It’s cold and smoky, and surely quite smelly during the winter time. There’s only a very small amount of furniture, and a lot of things hang from the ceiling and support columns, or are stacked in piles; this also would characterise the interior of a cottage in a medieval village. If Aldhelm experiences several very good years of harvest he may, in time, earn enough money to pay in part, or even in full, his father’s debt. Lord Octo might elevate him to a higher class of serfdom, such as bordar or villein, or he may repay his bond altogether and become a Freeman as his father once was. On the other hand, a few years of drought or pestilence could mean starvation for his family. The cottager’s life was a precarious existence, one in which the weather could mean the difference between life and death.

Image Assets

Click on the images to download printable files

Medieval village buildings: Cottage Interior cottage-top-view-150dpi-1:60
cottage-garden-top-view-150dpi-1-1:60 cherry-tree


We are planning to use this format for all the entries of the medieval village buildings project and hopefully, the rest of the articles will be written much faster. What did you think of the article? Do you have any suggestions or ideas of how it can be improved? Write a comment here or in Reddit and let us know!

Medieval Education in Europe: A force of freedom and submission

Medieval Education could be a force for freedom or submission. In this article we discuss the educational institutions of grammar school, university and private tuition. We also examine the differing education of men of women, and of serfs and noblemen, and explore the link between the church and education.

Author’s Note

As we have mentioned in our disclaimer, most of our articles examine historical scholarship of the Middle Ages in England and North France from 1060-1550. This is not going to be the case with this article. Medieval education in Europe was so varied from place to place that it can not be covered by just this remit. We will be mentioning England, France, the Italian states, Spain and Scotland. This article will not cover the education of crafts- and tradesmen, which will be the topic of a later article regarding Guilds and Craftsmen.

The importance of education

It is estimated that by 1330, only 5% of the total population of Europe received any sort of education. For most people, education during the medieval times was not deemed a necessity. Its need only became apparent with the rise of bigger kingdoms, which relied on skills like administration, arithmetic and, of course, the written word, in order to manage them.

Even then education, as we understand it, was not accessible or even desired by everyone. Schools were mostly only accessible to the sons of high lords of the land.

Medieval education and the Church

Medieval europe education: benedictine monks poring over manuscripts
Benedictine monks poring over manuscripts

In most kingdoms in Europe, education was overseen by the church. The church organised the curriculum of studies, created the testing and marking system and, of course, guided the students through their studies. The very fact that the curriculum was structured by the church gave it the ability to mould the students to follow its doctrine. Bishops in cathedrals, priests in churches and monks in monasteries were the teachers of many institutions founded by the church.

Institutions managed by the church focused more on language and the arts, and less on the sciences, but even the knowledge of reading and writing Latin gave the graduates of these institutions a huge advantage. Illumination, painting (fresco) and calligraphy were very important for the church and were taught to those showing artistic aptitude. These three forms of art ensured that books could be copied and that temples would be decorated, inspiring awe in those who entered them.

The levels of medieval education

Unofficially, education started from a very young age. This sort of early education depended on the feudal class of the child’s parents. Depending on the country older children might, if they showed aptitude and their parents had the funds, attend either a Grammar or a Monastic school. Only the brightest and wealthiest of these pupils would graduate and continue to receive University-level education.

Early education

Even the children of serfs would be taught the skills needed to survive by their parents. The boys would be taken out into the fields to observe and to help their parents with easy tasks, while the girls would work with the animals at home, in the vegetable garden with their mothers, or watch them weave.

Young boys of noble birth would learn how to hunt and swing a weapon, while the young ladies of nobility would learn how to cook.

Medieval Education: Baker's Apprentice
Baker’s apprentice

Children of craftsmen and merchants were educated from a very young age in the trade of their fathers. Trade secrets rarely left a family and they had to be taught and understood by all male (and unusually, female) heirs, in order to continue the family legacy.

Education during childhood was very important, whether it was school or work. This was because people who learned during an early age would be able to gain more experience and skill compared to a person who would start later. Also, these skills would create a benefit for them, for the skills they learned for many years would help them make a living, or live in their certain environment.Joseph and Francis Gies

Grammar Schools

Grammar schools were usually built beside, or very close to, a cathedral or a large church. The main subject of study in those schools was Latin (reading and writing). In addition to this, students were also taught rhetoric – the art of public speaking and persuasion – which was a very useful tool for both men of the cloth and nobles alike. Finally, the students had some basic exposure to subjects such as arithmetic (mathematics) or other sciences, depending on the expertise of the educators.

During the late medieval era (in England), grammar schools broadened their curriculum to include ancient Greek, English, other European languages, natural sciences and geography.

Lessons frequently started at sunrise and finished at sunset. This meant that in the spring/summer months, school could last for many hours; the opposite was true for the winter. Discipline was very strict – mistakes in lessons were punished with the birch (or the threat of it). In theory pupils would never make the same mistake again after being birched, as the memory of the pain inflicted was too strong.

After the 1400s, Grammar schools fell under the jurisdiction of a major university, like Cambridge or Oxford. Each year the university would appoint, by committee, two grammar masters, who would journey from one grammar school  to the other and mark the students. Being a grammar master was so lucrative that they had to change staff every three years to minimise corruption.

Monastic Schools

Though similar to grammar schools, monastic schools (Scholae monasticae) were founded and run by monastic orders like the Benedictine monks. Monastic Schools were part of the monastery which included them, and accepted only members of the cloth. Run by monks, but under the loose control of the Vatican, monastic schools became havens of art and the sciences during the medieval era. Many monks focused on studying and copying ancient Greek and Roman books and explored theories of Plato, Eratosthenes, Aristoteles and Hippocrates. Monks made huge contributions in the effort of retaining past knowledge and, in some monasteries, the most radical monks explored subjects like physics, botany and astronomy.


Do you know where the word university comes from?
The University arose around mutual-aid societies of foreign students called “nations” (as they were grouped by nationality) for protection against city laws which imposed collective punishment on foreigners. These students then hired scholars from the city to teach them. In Bologna, these various “nations” decided to form a larger association, or universitas – the first university.

University education, across the whole of the continent, was a luxury to which only the wealthiest and brightest could ever aspire. Since the creation of the first university in 1088 1 A.D. in Bologna, Italy, universities have been considered to be self-regulated, scholastic guilds of students and teachers who work under the sanction of an ecclesiastical or civil authority.

Initially, medieval universities had no physical manifestation. Students and teachers met in houses or churches and, occasionally, public parks (mimicking the ancient Greek philosophers). Later, universities began to rent and, in the case of many, construct buildings specifically for their purposes.

The students

Students attended the Medieval University at different ages, ranging from 14 (if they were attending Oxford or Paris to study the Arts) to their 30s (if they were studying Law in Bologna). During this period of study, students were often living far from home and were unsupervised; thus students developed a reputation, both among contemporary sources and modern historians, for drunken debauchery. Students were frequently criticised in the middle ages for neglecting their studies in favour of drinking, gambling and sleeping with prostitutes. Considering the fact that 1/3 of the high clergy (bishops, archbishops, cardinals) attended university by the 1400s, this paints a very interesting picture of the early lives of those who commanded the Catholic church.

While students were “in tenure” they were afforded the legal protection of the clergy. Because of this, no one was allowed to physically harm them. For church-founded universities, this extended to a ruling that students could only be tried for crimes in an ecclesiastical court. The students’ immunity to corporal punishment led to the breaking of various secular laws, and even promoted acts of theft, rape and murder. It is fair to say that there were uneasy tensions with secular authorities. Student strikes were not uncommon; in Paris, after a riot which left several students dead, all the students left the city for two years.

The student – teacher dynamic

The dynamic between students and teachers in a medieval university was significantly different from today. In the University of Bologna students hired and fired teachers by consensus. The students also bargained as a collective regarding fees, and threatened teachers with strikes if their demands were not met. The “Denouncers of Professors” was a special committee that judged the quality of a professor’s work and fined them if they hadn’t completed a course on time, or if they failed to achieve the educational standard expected. Professors themselves were not powerless, however; forming a College of Teachers, they secured the rights to set examination fees and degree requirements. Eventually, the city of Bologna ended this arrangement, paying professors from tax revenues and making the university a chartered, public institution.

Medieval Education in Europe: Meeting of Doctors in the University of Paris
Medieval Education in Europe: Meeting of Doctors in the University of Paris

The curriculum & the seven liberal arts

New university students would enter the institution around the age of 14 or 15 years old, following the successful completion of Grammar school; however, only the most capable students would have been accepted. University studies started before sunrise (5:00-6:00 am) every weekday. A Master of Arts degree in the medieval education system would have taken six years; a Bachelor of Arts degree would be awarded after completing the third or fourth year. By “Arts” the degree was referring to the seven liberal arts – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These were all taught in Latin, both speech and text, and students were expected to be fluent and able to converse and debate intelligently in the language. The trivium comprised the three subjects which were taught first – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three subjects were the most important of the seven liberal arts for medieval students. Later the curriculum also came to include the three Aristotelian philosophies – physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy. It is important to note that subjects were separated into courses and each course was essentially the study of a book or key text, such as a book from the bible or one of Aristotle’s works.

Once a student attained the level of Master, he was able to pursue studies in one of the higher faculties of law, medicine or – the most prestigious degree of medieval education – theology. Studies in the higher faculties could take up to twelve years for a master’s degree or doctorate, which were initially considered the same. Within these additional six to twelve years, a student was awarded an additional bachelor qualification and a licentiate (‘licence’ in Latin) which meant that the individual had the right to exercise this discipline.

Private Tuition

In some cases, especially in Scotland, wealthy Lairds (lords) and Burghes used their assets to transform their home into a school. This started with just the members of the family and kin but, in some cases, expanded to become what is know as a “household school” which would educate neighbours and family alike. These schools were primarily, though not restrictively, focussed on boys. Most girls would get their education in a nunnery if possible but, by the end of the middle ages, girls’ schools funded by local lairds started to make an appearance.

Education of the serfs

Medieval Europe education: Elizaberh de Clare
Elizabeth de Clare,

Elizabeth de Clare inherited a third of her family estates after her brother died at the Battle of Bannockburn. Elizabeth took a keen interest in education. After the death of her third husband in 1322, Elizabeth decided against marrying again and focussed all her power into helping the education of those who needed it most.

In the mid-1300s Elizabeth was one of the richest women in England but, unlike many rich people, Elizabeth believed it was important to help the poor. Her accounts show that in one five-month period she gave help to over 5,000 different people; of these, 800 received a daily allowance from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth de Clare disagreed with the view that serfs should not go to school. She arranged for a large number of people who lived in her villages to be educated. She also paid for those boys who showed talent to be educated at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

In 1336 Elizabeth supplied the money for the foundation of Clare College, Cambridge. This provided an education for twenty scholars. As well as donating a considerable amount of money, she also became involved in deciding what the students should study. Students at Clare College attended lectures on law, medicine, religion and the arts.

The sons of the peasants could only be educated if the lord of the manor had given his permission. In 1391, King Richard the II of England and his parliament passed a law which stated “No serf or villein…. should put his children to school.” Any family caught having a son educated without permission was heavily fined. Whilst this legislation was maintained, the education of all serfs in England was halted. Historians today believe that this policy was another way in which authority figures attempted to control the peasants, since an educated peasant/villein might prove to question the way things were done and upset the balance of power which kept the nobles strong.

Education of Women

Students held the legal status of clerics which, according to the Canon Law, could not be held by women; women were therefore not admitted into universities.

Medieval education: Catherine de'Medici
Catherine de’Medici, a Florentine, educated woman in a position of power

Most girls were not educated at all, unless their parents placed them in a nunnery. Their education would not have been scientific, but would have focused on the study of scripture and on child care, and they would not necessarily have been taught to read. The text De eruditione filiorum nobilium (On the Education of Noble Girls) was the first medieval pedagogical text to both systematically present a comprehensive method of instruction for lay children and to include a section devoted to girls.

In some rare instances, women were taught reading and basic calculus; this was mostly the case when the assets they had to manage, for their manor, required significant management skills and trading. This was more often seen in the Italian States, where women held higher positions of power, such as in the Medici family.

The quill and the paper

Paper was expensive and ink could only be afforded by monasteries and the highest ranks of nobility. Students in grammar schools hardly ever used a quill. Instead, students learnt how to write using a waxed tablet and a stylus. Only when their calligraphy was perfected, and only then if they could afford it, would students be allowed to use paper for writing.

Medieval Education in Europe The King Edward VI Grammar School mid 1500s
King Edward VI Grammar School, mid-1500s

Medieval education differences across European states

As aforementioned, education in Europe varied greatly from kingdom to kingdom. Restricted access to medieval education became the whip that kept the populace in line, and for those lucky enough to be educated it was a sword that freed them from a life of ignorance and forced servitude. Generally, there is a very clear negative correlation between the strictness of the regime and the access to education; the more centralised and rigid the system, the less likely the populace is to have access to education.

A clear example of this can be found in the differences of approach between England and Scotland. England, with a very strict authority model and a governance system which aimed to become more centralised, allowed no serf to be educated and provided no education for women. At the same time Scotland, a decentralized system of authority, saw the rise of open-to-all universities and serfs who had their education fees paid by local lairds (if the laird saw promise into them), and where women also had some access to education.

Even more extreme, in France we see a decentralized system which is highly focused on education; this translated into tens of universities founded in the duchies of the country.

Furthermore in Spain we see both Muslim, Basque and Castilian professors and students joining to study and research together, something unprecedented in any other European nation, and all of this regardless of the strong relations between Spain and the Vatican and the Holy See.

Read related articles

Social stratification of a Feudal kingdom (Part 3): The ranks of the noble blooded


  • Gies, F. & Gies, J. (1981) Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Graham, H. (1929) “Education in Medieval Scotland,” Catholic Educational Review, May, 1929, p. 273.
  • Leach, A.F. (1914) Some Results of Research in the History of Education in England. London: British Academy. p. 31-32.
  • Leach, A.F. (1915) The Schools of Medieval England. Accessed March 2015.
  • Rait, R.S. (1912) Life in the Medieval University. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rowling, M. (1970) Life in Medieval Times. New York: Perigee Books.  
  • Simkin, J. (2014) Education in the Middle Ages. Accessed March 2015.
  • ‘The grammar schools of the medieval university’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H E Salter and Mary D Lobel (London, 1954), pp. 40-43 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol3/pp40-43. Accessed March 2015.
  • A. Giesysztor, Part II, Chapter 4, page 136: University Buildings, in A History of the University In Europe, Volume I: Universities in the Middle Ages, W. Ruegg (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  1. There are multiple accounts placing Bologna’s university founding in 1088, but it is not certain.

Farming year in medieval times or, farmer’s odyssey during the Middle ages

The farming year in medieval times, the tasks that the serfs had to undertake and the tools they had to use for farming.

A reason to pray for good weather

For the serf and freemen, there was no rest at any point during the medieval farming year. The farmer’s struggle to survive was never-ending, and tasks continued even under the blanket of winter snow. The life of each farmer was tied to the weather and seasons, and his tasks would change or adapt according to it. There was no such thing as “good weather” – the ideal conditions changed according to what was required to advance the crops and facilitate that month’s tasks, and farmers might be as likely to pray for rain or wind as for sun. When the weather did not oblige, the family of a serf could starve.

The farming year in medieval times

Month Work to be done
January Repairing structures and Planting early crops
February Ploughing the fields, Fertilising
March Sowing seeds, Weeding and some more Ploughing
April Pruning, Weeding and Scaring off the birds
May Weeding, Scaring off the birds
June Harvesting crops, Shearing the sheep
July Ploughing, resources Gathering and stockpiling
August Harvesting, Tying and Threshing
September Harvesting, Tying, Winnowing, Fruit picking and Milling
October Sowing, Milling, Weaving and Rope making
November Butchering, Salting, Smoking, and Weaving
December Collecting, Digging, Skinning, Hunting and Tool Making

Some tasks were necessary on a small-scale throughout the year, but are only mentioned above during their peak times in medieval farming year.


Butchering animals during late winter was a necessary both to provide food for the family, and to reduce the number of livestock requiring winter sustenance. During November and December, the barley and hay put aside to feed the animals during winter time would begin to run low. In order to ensure the survival of breeding stock and very young animals, the villager had to slaughter a significant part of its flock, leaving only those that he couldn’t afford to lose.

Medieval farming year: Butchering animalsFarmers spent most of their time with their animals in their house and, it is documented, that in many instances they formed bonds that resembled the modern pet-owner relationship. Killing the animals, contrary to popular opinion, was done with great respect and quite humanely. The farmer would use the back of his axe to first render the animal unconscious, before cutting its throat and hanging it from the ceiling in order to drain the blood out.

Bleeding the animal helps to the process of skinning and, later on, provided drier meat for preservation by salting or smoking. No part of the animal was left unused.

Collecting & Gathering

Gathering resources like wood, twigs, straw, dung and, of course, tasty eggs, was an important part of a villager’s life throughout the medieval farming year. Wood was used as fuel for the fire to warm the house during winter. Twigs, animal dung, and straw were used as building materials for repairs on the house and all their tools, and straw was also used as bedding. Finally, animal dung was used to both fertilise the vegetable garden, though usually there wasn’t enough to be used in the fields.

Composting was also a part of the collecting and gathering process. Animal dung, and other biological matter which could not be eaten by the villagers or their animals, was collected in piles which were turned occasionally in order to rot evenly. Rotted matter (manure) then was used to fertilise the crops. It is worth noting that fresh manure applied directly to growing plants will kill them, a the ammonia content is too high; the rotting process breaks this down into usable nitrates for plants.


Who doesn’t love a bit of digging? In the instance of the medieval serf, grabbing a shovel and digging away was more a requirement than a favourite pastime. Digging trenches ensured that flood water will not water-log fields, which greatly improved the chances of a good crop. In areas where rainfall was low, irrigation ditches were dug in order to bring the water of nearby rivers closer to the crops. In some locations, digging was also used to cover human excrement in order to dispose of it in a sanitary way (normally it was just thrown in the same stream that villagers were also drinking water from – mmmm, delicious).


Contrary to popular opinion, most of the fields were not fertilised using manure. Fertilising a whole field meant that you had enough animals to produce a significant amount of manure, which was rarely the case. Another technique used was “marling”.  For marling, farmers spread clay containing lime carbonate onto their soil. Clay was not available everywhere, but where it was, enriching the soil with it provided a great boost on the fertility of the field.

Manure was used mostly to fertilise the patches the farmers had around their house, which provided the family with fresh fruit and vegetables throughout most of the farming year.

Fruit picking

Fruit picking, like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, lemons and apricots, was done mostly during late autumn and it was one of those jobs that the young members of the family could do without supervision and enjoyed the most. Fruits and nuts could easily be preserved by creating marmalade or by drying them out, which made them an excellent supplement to the diet of the villager during the winter.

Medieval Farming year: Harvest Time


The time of harvest was a time of hard work and celebration. During harvest, twice a year, during August and September, the whole of the family would take to the fields to gather the grains and legumes that were seeded. It was important that the crop was harvested as quickly as possible to prevent rain and cold damage. The villagers would work from the break of day to dawn every day, in some cases even on Sundays. It was common that, if a family was struggling, the rest of the villagers would help them out after they were done with their own fields without any pay – that’s how important it was to have a good harvest. Though originally the sickle was the harvesting tool of choice, it was quickly replaced following the introduction of the more time-efficient scythe.

When all this was done, it was time to celebrate. Even better was the fact that ‘Harvest Home’ was one of those rare celebrations which the Lord of the Manor would have funded in its entirety.


Did you know? The first record of a windmill in England is a mill in Yorkshire, dating from 1185.
Milling is the process of grinding down grains of wheat and barley in order to produce flour. Flour was not white and powdery as we know it today. It was brown and coarse like wholegrain, but included more particles of husks.

Medieval Farming year: Watermilll used to mill grain into flour

If the Lord of the manor owned a mill, all the milling of the village would have happened there and would have been taxed with a portion of the flour milled. If there was no mill available, the villagers would have used a hand-operated mill (quern) which was comprised of two stones – one above the other – and a handle to grind the top stone over the bottom one. The top stone had a hole in the middle, where the grain was poured slowly. As the stone moved in a circular motion, the grain would slowly break down into flour; this process could have taken hours. It is calculated that, in order to have enough flour for one loaf of bread, an adult had to spend around four hours milling flour.


If the fields were used for grain, barley and legumes, the gardens, also known as tofts, of the villager’s house were used to grow vegetables and fruit. Planting took place during late winter and early spring and, for some vegetables like lettuce, continued throughout summer and autumn. The vegetables planted provided the family with their daily pottage (stew).

Another part of the planting process was the harvest of seeds from plants that were “gone to seed” – intentionally left in the ground since the last year in order to provide seed for the next year.


From all the tasks of the medieval farming year, ploughing was, without argument, the most arduous of them all. Ploughing was the process of preparing the fields by breaking, aerating and turning over the top soil, revealing the more fertile undersoil for planting. In order to achieve this the farmer would use (preferably) a heavy plough dragged by oxen or, in the worst case, a shovel and hours of unending, back-breaking labour. Ploughs were heavy, intricate and expensive, and oxen needed a large amount of food; in many cases, villages would own communal ploughs and oxen and take turns in using them during ploughing seasons in February and July.


Pruning was the process of preparing the trees to fruit; cutting away old growth promoted new vigour, and was also a chance to remove diseased branches. Pruning also included propping up and supporting branches which were extending further from the trunk, and which would otherwise put strain on the tree and reduce its yield. All this was done to ensure that trees produced the maximum amount of fruit or nuts. It was a task normally carried out by women and children, who were taught at an early age. Young trees would be pruned in April/May, whilst established trees are pruned in the winter when dormant.

Medieval farming year: Pruning


Medieval houses were homemade, and frequent repairs were necessary to repair damage from high winds, humidity, extreme weather and even the passage of time. Re-thatching, replacing wattle and daub, or providing additional support for preexisting structures, were all necessary jobs. Repairs were frequently postponed until the winter, simply because there were fewer chores than in the rest of the medieval farming year, and inclement weather house maintenance less unpleasant than outdoor work.

Rope making

Rope-making was possible only when there were the appropriate materials – flax or hemp – grown locally. The process including separating the fibres of the plant, and weaving them together. Ropes would also sometimes be waxed for additional strength. This would also happen during the cold winter, when the whole family would stay inside to help.

Salting and Smoking

Salting and smoking took place after the of slaughtering animals or fishing. Smoking was not just for meat products, but also for alliums such as onions and garlic. Smoking was more common in serfs’ households than salting, due to the very high price of salt. In areas far from the sea, salt would have come from the peddler or rarely, from mineral salt mines. Serf houses were chimney-less and thus meat would smoke simply by hanging it from the rafters near the roof.

Scaring the birds

Why use an inanimate scarecrow if you have children with bells, gongs and rattles? Preventing the birds from eating the newly sown seed was vital to increase the yield. Noise makers of various types would have been used for this task, or even simply shouting and clapping.

Shearing and Spinning

Medieval farming year: combing wool
A 15th century image of a woman combing wool – look at the large, iron teeth on those combs!
Villager’s clothes were largely made of wool (probably un-dyed), since it was cheap and readily available. Wool was shorn from the sheep using shears, and this was often a task for the women. The quality and quantity of wool depended on the health of the sheep, which was directly related to the amount of food they were supplied with. Wool would then have to be washed to remove some of the greasy lanolin and muck. It was combed using vicious-looking iron-toothed combs. Wool would then be spun and woven, or otherwise felted to give fabric for clothing.


No part of the animal was wasted, and after butchering the animals, the skin would be carefully removed. It would either be sold to a skinner, or if the villager had the knowledge and equipment himself, he could treat it. Animal skins require curing to make fur and pelts; skins could otherwise be tanned to produce leather.


Seed sowing took place after the ploughing, and was done by hand. A harrow (or rake, for small areas) would then be used to cover up the seeds with aerated soil.

Tool making and Maintenance

During the winter time, tools would have been thoroughly cleaned to prevent rust. Any broken tools would have been repaired, and extra nails would have been added to fix tool-heads onto hafts. In addition, new tools would be created as required – these requirements might change as children matured to working age.


This refers to tying the bushels of wheat and hay together. It was part of the harvest process and would have been done primarily by women. Tying made transportation and storage easier.


Basket weaving ensured that there would be proper storage for food, and also create receptacles to carry things in. It was a time-consuming process and, again, mostly carried out by women. Materials used included willow and rushes or reeds. Weaving techniques were also necessary to create wattle-and-daub structures, fences, and supports for climbing plants.

Medieval farming year: Weaving

Wool weaving was another way to create fabric for clothing, in addition to felting and, in the late medieval era, knitting. Before the invention of the spinning wheel in the 15th century, knitting would have been done with a simple drop spindle.


Throughout the year – before ploughing, during the growing season, and just before harvest – weeding was a necessary task. other plants completed for the same nutrients, light and space as the crop, and had to be removed. This would have been done by hand, and by the whole family; it was a tedious and back-breaking task.

Winnowing and Threshing

Threshing was the process used to separate the delicious grain from the husks and chaff of the plant (the stalks, seed casings etc.). Cut grain-heads would be hit with a flail to knock the grain out. The whole mix of grain and chaff would then be put load-by-load onto a winnowing basket and flung into the air. The heavier grain portion would fall downwards (either into the basket or onto the floor) whilst the lighter chaff and husks would be blown a few feet away by the wind. These were not wasted, but used as animal fodder.

As always, if you have any questions or something you need us to expand on please do let us know and we will do our best to answer your questions.

Did you find a mistake or something that required elaboration? Please do let us know. We really enjoy hearing from you.

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Medieval tools in agriculture

A review of medieval tools like the axe, flail, harrow, scythe, plough (ard), heavy plough and all others medieval villagers used.

The Importance of Agriculture

Even since the dawn of the first human settlements in 5000 BC, agriculture has played a vital role in the development of every civilisation; over 6000 years later, this remains the case today. Feudal medieval Europe was primarily an agricultural economy. Only a very small portion of the population lived in cities and they were heavily dependent on the surplus that the agrarian settlements (villages) produced.

As we will see, tools had a profound impact on the development of medieval, as well as modern, civilisation. Certain technological developments single-handedly pushed the growth of population across the whole of the continent.

The Medieval Tools


In many ways the axe is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, tools in use during the medieval ages. The idea behind a simple, medieval tool like the axe is that its haft essentially works as a force multiplier, allowing its sharp, wedge-like metal blade to focus this force onto a very small amount of surface area. The axe was thus a very powerful cutting tool, that also slightly extends the reach of the user.

Medieval tools:  Handaxe

Villagers used the axe mainly for two jobs; cutting wood and killing animals – primarily wild boars, which threatened their families or livestock. Cutting wood was essential for a variety of tasks, from providing their house with fuel for the hearth, to building structures and even other tools. Finally, the axe was also used to humanely end the life of livestock before bleeding them (to ensure that the meat doesn’t spoil).


Europe was not the only place where the agricultural flail was used as an improvised weapon. In southeast Asia, short agricultural flails, originally employed in threshing rice, were adapted into weapons such as the nunchaku or sansetsukon.
The flail consisted of two pieces of wood – a longer handle and a shorter, thicker ‘striker’. The two wooden pieces were connected by a leather strap, passed through holes or metallic loops at their connecting ends.

The flail was used to separate the grain from the husks, in a process called threshing, after they were harvested.

The flail (medieval tool) also inspired the creation of the flail (weapon). Originally this was used as an improvised weapon, but later became a standard man-at-arms weapon. As a weapon, rather than a medieval tool, the flail would have been fashioned almost entirely out of metal.

Medieval tools: Wooden flail


After the soil has been turned using one of the ploughs (see below) and the seeds are sown, the earth must be smoothed so that the seeds are covered and protected. In order to achieve this, medieval farmers used a harrow.  The harrow was essentially a wooden frame composed of four to six connected beams. The lower side was set with spikes or nails, made of either wood or metal. The frame of the harrow would be dragged over the ploughed, sown fields, and the spikes would comb the earth smooth, covering over the precious seeds.

Medieval tools: Harrow (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410): that guy looks like he's regretting not calling shotgun on the horse
Medieval tools: Harrow (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410): that guy looks like he’s regretting not calling shotgun on the horse

Fork (Pitchfork)

The fork, or pitchfork, is probably the most popular of medieval tools today, because of its connection with rioting villagers “grabbing their pitchfork”. As with the flail, it was indeed used as an improvised weapon in many cases. The fork has a wooden handle of about five to six feet long, tipped with two or three prongs (or in some instances, as many as four or five), which were usually made of iron.

Medieval tools:  Two prongs medieval pitchform

Forks were used to prepare the ground for seeding and covering, in the place of a plough or harrow, for small areas. They were also necessary for the process of making hay, which involved throwing the cut grass  into the air in order to aerate and turn it. The aeration of grass prevented the grass from molding which meant that the hay dried and would have been usable as nutrition for the animals during the winter.

Medieval tools: Pitchfork and Haymaking  (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410)
Medieval tools: Pitchfork, Rake and Haymaking (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410)

Plough, Light (Ard)

The ard, also known as the light plough or scratch plough, was a wooden tool that was dragged through the soil, usually by an ox or a work-horse (heavy horse), though sometimes by humans. The ard was similar to the handheld hoe, but because its wooden peak remained semi-buried in the ground it was much faster and more efficient than the hoe.

The plough was used to turn and loosen the soil, in order to bring the most fertile part of the topsoil to the top whilst, at the same time, creating a hole where the seeds could be planted. The ard was used with great success in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean where the soil is light and sandy, but was much less efficient in the heavy, clay-rich soil of northern Europe.

Plough, Heavy (Mouldboard)

The heavy plough was a significant improvement on the ard, with a much heavier blade which created a deeper furrow in the ground. Another vast improvement, due to its augmented design, was that the plough deposited the newly turned soil top-down, meaning that any weeds growing would be smothered without having to be removed.

Medieval tools: Medieval Heavy plough / Mouldboard plough

Mouldboard ploughs were mainly used in heavy clay areas, where extra measures were necessary to turn the soil, and reaching deeper into the top soil was important in order to make the soil suitably fertile. They would have been much more arduous to draw than light ploughs, but the pay-off in improved yields was significant.

Plough (Wheeled)

Wheeled, heavy ploughs were the last upgrade on ploughing technology during the Medieval era. They were an adaptation of the heavy plough, which made it suitable for the lighter soils of southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The wheels prevented the heavy plough from burying itself in light soil, and the heavier plough blade led to increased crop yields by ploughing more deeply. Wheeled ploughs were not necessary in clay-soil areas, because the viscosity of the soil prevented the plough from burying itself, and nor were they useful; the wheels ended up buried in the cloying soil, halting the plough. However, they were widely used in territories with more sandy soil to increase the fertility of the farmland.

The wheeled heavy plough replaced the wooden driver of the mouldboard plough, with two wheels left and right of the plough (see image below).

Medieval tools: Heavy wheeled plough (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410)
Medieval tools: Heavy wheeled plough (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410): Yup – that’s an actual DRAGON flying over the castle (top right-hand corner). Iconographic evidence, perhaps?


Medieval tools: Rake

For those who didn’t have the resources or the ability to use a harrow, or for smaller areas like vegetable gardens, the rake was a low-tech alternative. The rake worked exactly as the harrow, but on a smaller scale, covering over seeds and smoothing the topsoil. The rake was also used during haymaking to spread and collect grass.

Rattle, Bell & Drum

Birds – beautiful singing, heralds of spring, winged-disaster for newly planted seedbeds. The average yield of a good field was 1:5, meaning that for each planted seed, you would yield five (nowadays this is closer to 1 to several thousands). Birds could easily lower this proportion to 1:3, which would mean starvation for that serf’s family. In order to prevent this from happening, villagers would equip their children with all sorts of rattles and bells to scare away the birds. For all their simplicity, these medieval tools had a huge impact on the productivity of a field.


Medieval tools:  Scythe

Barley, oats, grass (and the occasional soul) were no match for the mighty two-handed scythe. The scythe transformed the serf’s life, making it much easier and less tiring, when it appeared in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. With a scythe, one could reap a whole area of stalks quickly by using a simple circular movement; the clever design of the bent haft and side handle made the movement quite intuitive.

Medieval tools: Scythe (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410)
Medieval tools: Scythe (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410). Interestingly, the men are working in the field but the women are shearing the sheep.


Shears were mainly used to shear the adult sheep of the flock once a year, cutting their wool for spinning. They were designed like a pair of tongs with knives attached to their edges, and used the thin iron’s malleable properties to return to their original, open position. You can see them in action the picture above (bottom right-hand corner).

Medieval tools:  Shears and Sickle


The sickle was used as a cheaper, more precision-centric scythe, probably for smaller areas and awkward corners. The inner side of the curved iron was sharpened. Sickles usually, as with scythes, had smooth blades; for more robust or hardened vegetation, though, they would have used a saw-toothed blade.

Spade (Shovel)

Medieval tools:  Spade / Shovel

Spades were possibly the most versatile of medieval tools, and also have had the most iterations and specializations throughout their history. The shovel was a long, hardened wooden pole with a flat, and sometimes sharpened, metallic head, was used for shovelling manure, digging ditches, preparing vegetable beds in the garden, preparing irrigation and, in some cases when a plough was not available, in order to plough the fields.

Winnowing Basket

After the grain crop was thoroughly flailed, the grain seeds were separated from their husks and chaff. The thresher would put all the material in the winnowing basket and then launch it up into the air. The heavy grain seeds would fall right in front of him on the ground (or back into the basket) while the chaff and husks, light as they were, would be blown a few feet away by the wind.

Medieval tools:  Winnowing basket

The Beast of Burden

Though perhaps not technically a medieval tool, the ox was possibly one of the most significant forces that changed the landscape of the medieval world. Oxen were strong, hardy and unwavering beasts which worked all day, under almost any circumstance. As a serf, owning an ox was a indicator that things were going well. In many cases though, oxen could not be owned by just one serf and they were shared amongst the whole, or part of, the village – this was due both to their worth and their food requirement. Oxes were stronger than a heavy horse, and certainly indefatigable compared to any man. They were able to carry large weights and pull the heavy plough for hours every day. The domestication of oxen was an art that not many mastered, and required fine tuning in order to create a creature which was domesticated, yet still retained its raw strength and physique.

Medieval tools:  Oxen drawing

The discovery of the heavy plough

We often talk about the importance of the industrial revolution and how it changed the world around us, but not many know that such a revolution occurred during the high middle ages. The invention of the heavy plough (described above) presented a unique implement which transformed the difficult, low-yielding, clay-rich soil of northern Europe from a clearly inferior soil to the most high-yielding farmland a farmer could wish for. Clay is naturally an incredibly fertile soil, but due to its heaviness it was difficult to turn and renew, and thus clay-rich farmland became gradually more infertile. The invention of the heavy plough changed this; in fact it was, almost by itself, entirely responsible for an explosion of population in northern Europe.  It was probably the reason that, even with the diminished number of farmers after the outbreak of the Black Death plague, the population managed to re-stabilise and eventually sky-rocket. You can read more about this phenomenon in the article “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe”, linked in the references below.

Can you think of a medieval tool used in agriculture that we forgot to mention? Are there other collections of items you’d like to see or learn more about? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll try to publish it for you (artwork and all)!

All assets created by us are free to use and authorised by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. This means you can use them as you wish for non commercial use by attributing somewhere the creators. If you want the PSD or PNG transparent versions of them, let us know, we are more than happy to share.

Medieval Tools by Lost Kingdom Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.lostkingdom.net.

Creative Commons License


“Medieval Farming”. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.

Simkin, J. Medieval Farming Tools. Accessed 2015.

Andersen, Thomas Barnebeck and Jensen, Peter S. and Skovsgaard, Christian Volmar, The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe (December 3, 2013). Discussion Papers on Business and Economics, University of Southern Denmark, 6/2013. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2362894 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2362894

Goodbye to the Elephants

Our goodbye to a man who has been a mentor, a friend, a guide and a source of many tears and laughter

In honour of Sir Terry Pratchett

No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

It’s strange that an author can write for a hundred, thousand readers, and yet the connection between reader and author is a truly intimate and personal one.

I read my first book by Terry Pratchett, The Carpet People, aged ten. I’d picked it up by chance. By the time I was fifteen I had read almost every book he’d published to-date. I was implacable, because I felt like I’d found an author who was a friend, who explained the world to me unflinchingly in a way which most adults could not. He had a beautiful message to convey, and his work could be accessed and enjoyed by everybody – even young teenagers very far from home. Sure he told Dad jokes and his characters, at times, seemed impossibly British, but reading every single one of those books was, for me, like a great, big hug. I would frequently get to the end, turn the book around, and read straight through again. Those books got me through a lot of difficult times.

I guess it’s fair to say that I grew up with Pratchett; his quirky humour, his innate sense of justice, and his unique take on the world had a massive impact on my own outlook. Without him, I doubt I’d have found my way to the Sci Fi/Fantasy section of the bookstore, and there would be no Lost Kingdom today. A lot of other things would also be different in my life, big and little. In that particular bifurcation of the Trousers of Time, I’m glad I got to be me.

So thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett for all those lessons about people and the world, which you (probably accidentally) taught me. You made a big difference to this little person. I’m certain I’m not the only one. And give Granny Weatherwax a wink from me.

True to his magnificent style, his death was announced in a series of tweets:


It continued: “Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

The posts finished with “The End.”


You can read more about Sir Terry Pratchett’s passing on the BBC website here.

Was king Arthur from Glasgow, Scotland?

A new claim that King Arthur might be from Glasgow Scotland has be raised by Dr Andrew Breeze of the University of Pabloma

Strathclyde region in Scotland meaning “valley of the River Clyde”

A new paper by Dr Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain claims that King Arthur was Scotish. His claim is based on historical data of place names of battles that took place while the local warlords defended the area of Strathclyde from invaders.

“he could have been a Glaswegian, possibly from Govan” –  Dr Andrew Breeze

As to be expected, research regarding king Arthur’s legend origin was met with certain doubt from the scientific community. Professor Thomas Owen Clancy, Ollamh na Ceiltis (Professor of Celtic) at Glasgow University, responded to his claim saying:

“Dr Breeze’s approach to associating the battle sites with Scottish place names is very unscientific, and I hope that in any presentation or article on this he tightens up his workings.”

It is not the first time that the idea of King Arthur being Scotish is brought to the table. Edinburgh’s Arthur’s seat was considered to be a location associated with Arthur and Stirling’s “King’s Knot” was assumed to be the place of Arthur’s round table.

Arthur's Seat overlooking Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat overlooking Edinburgh
King’s Knot underneath Stirling Castle

Dr. Andrew Breeze will present his thesis in Glasgow in July. You can find parts of his claim below.

“The battle of the Caledonian Forest will be in the Southern Uplands, near Beattock Summit, while the conflict on the River Douglas will be on Douglas Water, near Lanark. The difficult ones were fights on a river called Bassas, a riverbank called Tryfrwyd, and at a hill called Agned. But if you go to books on early Scottish place names, they mention Tarras Water in Eskdale, Dreva in Upper Tweeddale, and Pennango in Teviotdale.

“I think that Bassas is a scribe’s miswriting of Tarras, while Dreva will be the riverbank Tryfrwyd, and Pennango, which means ‘Death Hill’, will be a lost toponym southwest of Hawick.”

Buy the book from Amazon

Regardless of where King Arthur is from, his subject and heroism described in Le Morte d’Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur) by Sir Thomas Malory still fascinate all role players and fantasy writers around the world and excite the imagination of players and readers. If you haven’t read the books you really should – they are an amazing read. 

In addition to that, we cannot say for sure if Scotland is the motherland of the most legendary king of all time but it’s definitely an amazing place to visit for everyone who loves medieval history. A countryside filled with castles, sites of battles and amazing history.

Let’s design a medieval village: Mapping Scales and Size Ratios

This article aims to establish the rules that will govern the creation of assets for the “Let’s design a medieval fantasy village’ series. We are discussing the sizes and scales as well as printing of all assets.

As discussed during the introduction of this series, we will be supplying you with graphics and diagrams for each of the physical elements that we design; this will allow you to use these elements on:

  1. Battle grid maps, for example, a square or hexagon mat
  2. Local area maps, like a village or a town’s centre
  3. Extended local maps, like a village and its surrounding lands (fields, pasture, meadow, groves etc.)
  4. Wide area maps, like a county, duchy or kingdom.

In order to achieve uniformity we needed to set some rules to regulate the proportions; this will allow all the resources we build to be used coherently. 


We started out by examining the proportions which several manufacturers use for their maps and for their miniatures. Our conclusion was that, in all honesty, the whole scape is a total mess – there is no real consistency between different resources. In order to build a system that makes sense, we drew a table of all the scales frequently used, and then assigned weight to each result based on the sales which each of them had – after all, we wanted to ensure that we keep most of you satisfied!


The best selling miniatures were the Dungeons and Dragons Minis followed by Reaper Minis – Bones and Pathfinder RPG. We have excluded Games Workshop from this list – although it leads the general sales in figurines, their products are intended for War Gaming, rather than for Role Playing set ups. Also, their figurines are classified as “Heroic” size, and their proportions are rather closer to bulky giants than to the average humanoids (we left their stats in the table below, so you can see how truly ma-hoooooo-sive they are). Instead, we will be focusing on what miniature manufacturers refer to as “True size”.

Based on an average man: 1830 mm = 6 feet  (72 inches) 

Manufacturer Scale Mini Height 6ft at Scale
Games Workshop 1:72 28mm 19.98mm
Reaper Minis 1:72 25mm 25.41mm
Pathfinder RPG 1:72 25mm 25.41mm
D&D Minis 1:60 30mm 30.5mm

Based on the information we collected, we finally decided to institute four different scale ratios for our mapping system, to represent different sizes of mapped area: Battle Mat, Local Area, Extended Local Area and Wide Area. The details of each of these can be found below.

Map Sizes and Scales

Battle Mat Scale (BMS)

BMS will be used for all architectural plans and all battle grid sizes. This will be useful for skirmishes which involve indoor fighting. It will also enable you to custom design that bespoke inn you’ve always dreamed of owning.

1:60 separated into 1in(1×1 inch square) representing 60×60 inches squares (5×5 feet). This also coincides with most miniature bases. All elements and items visible will be scaled at 1:60 in 450ppi  so they look as close as possible to correct relative size.

Wattle and Daub cottage interior
Wattle and Daub Cottage Interior: when you defend a village against Orcs, this is where you’ll be doing your close-quarter fighting
Wattle and daub cottage Battle map view
Wattle and daub cottage Battle map view (click for full size and print testing): you can maintain some mystery for your players by not revealing the interior until the dramatic moment – BEHOLD! a table…


Local Area Scale (LAS)

This will be the scale used for maps of a whole village or small town. It could also be useful for showing districts within a city. This size will allow you to print your village in high quality (450ppi) on A3 paper, which will:

a) be able to fit the whole of the small settlement
b) have discernible, characterful buildings, rather than just coloured rectangles

Considering the stipulations above, we’ve decided to go with a scale of 1800:1 in 450ppi (pixels per inch) which will render a structure of 50×25 feet (average house) as 150×75 pixels on screen, and will be around 100×50 mm when printed.

Local area map 1:1600 scale
Wattle and Daub cottage, local area map 1:1600 scale. That’s one hell of a rural setting – boy, those long winter nights must just fly by…


Extended Local Area Scale (ELAS)

The ELAS is intended for displaying the lands surrounding a village or town, or for showing a big city. At this scale, most of the buildings won’t be clearly recognisable. The intention of these maps is to show large areas and to understand the scale of the world your characters are inhabiting. We went through various iterations of draft maps, but in the end one of our main concerns was to be able to accommodate a large city on an A3 paper. In order for this, the maps should essentially be double the size of LAS scale, thus these maps should be 3200:1 in, once again 450ppi. This means that the average house will be ±75×30 pixels on screen and 50x25mm on paper. We’ll be getting you images of this as soon as our art-gremlins have finished their government-mandated holiday.

Wide Area Scale (WAS)

Wide Area maps are not intended to show individual buildings. If anything, the smallest discernible entity on a map of this scale should be a marker denoting a village or a place of interest. For WA scales the fractions become a bit silly, since 1 cm is equivalent to 100 kilometers or 1:100.000.000. These kind of scales will allow you to display a relatively small country like the United Kingdom on an A4 sheet of paper (210x270mm) with some detail. Considering that the UK is about 1/10th of Europe’s total area, it stands to reason that if we wanted to use the same piece of paper to display a region as big as Europe, the scale should be x15 of that, bringing us up to a whopping 1:1,500,000,000. We can extend this further, to the point that a campaign setting map the size of Earth could easily be at a scale of 1:40,000,000,000.

Needless to say, when mapping large areas there is a certain amount of balance necessary between details and area span. It’s fair to say that any country-size map should be at least 1:100,000,000 in 450ppi in order to show enough detail to visualise most, if not all, major settlements.

Shadows and Lighting

Maps have been represented differently throughout history. We wanted our maps to have character and depth. Without proper lighting maps can look two-dimensional and flat. For this reason we wanted the elements of our maps to have shadows, and also wanted to make sure that the items we create can be used across all our maps. Thus, we decided that all of our maps will use exactly the same rules for lighting.

In order to have the best shadows available, all light will be considered to come from the top right (North-East) at a theoretical 45 degrees (±10:30am) over the horizon. This would freeze all of our maps at late morning on an early spring day (Northern Hemisphere, GMT). Early spring is a conveniently beautiful time, since everything is green and the flowers are blooming, but you might also have the occasional snow to denote peaks or micro-climates.

Study on lighting, Shadow sizing
Study on object lighting: Enjoy hiding in the shadows? Now you can plan your path!


When possible, we will try to provide two sets of graphics for the elements, both with and without shadows. When the elements are shadowed, we will also try to provide graphics facing in all eight directions (with the lighting coming from the same source).

In conclusion

Our goal by establishing this document is to make sure that our readers (yes, that means you) are happy with the sizes we have proposed, and that we create useful resources for you to use. So what do you think? Would you use this system? Are you looking forward to it? Do you just want to request a picture of our art-gremlins? Please leave your feedback in the comments below, or in Facebook, Twitter or the Reddit posts of this article. We look forward to your comments and ideas.


We are still working on style and technique, so any feedback on that (as well as the scales proposed) would be greatly appreciated.

Magic: The fifth fundamental force

A pseudo-scientific take on the existence and nature of magic in a medieval fantasy world.

Author’s Note

This article explores the realms of fiction, and strives to describe the properties of magical energy as part of the fabric of a world where magic exists in a pseudo-scientific way. The content below aims to establish a basis to which all upcoming articles regarding magic will refer.

Throughout the process of building Project: Cove, we will try to keep everything we do accessible and useful, regardless of the game system you are playing. In the instance of magic, in order to describe some concepts, we will have to delve a bit deeper and give some supplementary rules.

Magic as an overlay

In physics, we understand that there are four fundamental forces (also referred to as fundamental interaction). These four forces, namely gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear, govern the laws of physics as we know them. In a world where magic exists, it could be considered as another of these fundamental forces – the fifth force.

Each of these forces is primarily described by the medium upon which it acts, the particle which experiences the force and, finally, the particle mediating the force.

Casting a spell by Noxypia
Casting a Spell by Noxypia


By reverse-engineering magic as it appears in commonly-known fantasy worlds (such as Forgotten Realms, Inner Sea etc.) we may understand that it has an altering effect which frequently transcends matter, energy, space, time and even thought-patterns; thus, we can stipulate that the force of magic acts on every single object or energy of the world as a blanket which indirectly controls their reactions.


As gravitational forces are experienced by the unobserved Graviton, so could Magic or Prime (as it is referred as by the Mages of the Arcane University) be expressed via the Primon. The Primon is a particle which serves as a conduit of energy; multiple Primons form part of a three-dimentional fabric which engulfs all matter, and fills the gaps between everything (some could say that Prime is the dark matter/dark energy). The Primon is not like an electron which transmits energy; it may rather be considered like the Higgs Boson, which itself fundamentally embodies energy. The Primon is able to interact and alter the state of all other matter and energy around it, almost like an ocean in which everything else floats.

Using magic

Mages, knowingly (or unknowingly, as is mostly the case) are able to manipulate the Prime and, in effect, alter the surrounding energy/matter.

We live in a world of wonder governed by physics; even if we don’t completely understand the physical rules we can still function in this world and use, or be subject to, those inherent physical laws. The same goes for the magic users in a world were magic exists. In most cases, spell casters are not aware of the implications – or even necessarily of the existence – of a magical particle in the fabric surrounding them. What they do know is that, through a series of actions or rituals – verbal, somatic etc. – they can alter the world around them. It stands to reason that, as one works more with Magic, one gains a deeper insight into the actual workings of it, allowing more magnified effects, better manipulation and, eventually, the achievement of more complex tasks.

Most mages conceive of magic as a deep personal experience, involving a thorough understanding of themselves or of their deities; only higher beings, or those who are much more attuned with the weave of magic, can really see it for what it truly is. This means that you will hardly ever see or hear anyone describing magic as a set of physical laws, because the experience of discovering its true nature is altered based on the user’s or researcher’s personal experiences.

Wizard by Stefana Tserk (Ekaterina)
Wizard by Stefana Tserk (Ekaterina Gudkina ) | Visit http://www.stefanatserk.com/

Magic as Energy

Magic exists everywhere and can be used, depending on the capability of the user, to channel its effects. But we are aware that certain items can be imbued by temporary or permanent magical effects; this denotes that magic, or at least some of its facets, can be stored within some structures. Staffs, metals (weapons, armour), stones, crystals, parchments or even liquids (potions) are commonly known to carry these effects, or are able to replicate the effects of the rituals (spells) used to manipulate the Prime. We also know that certain types of items can be recharged by transferring magical energy into them (such as staffs), or that their effects can only be used a certain number of times a day, which may denote a slow recharge rate (absorption of magic from the environment). All these properties seem to indicate that magic is an energy, which can be stored, absorbed and used or manipulated.  We also know that magic can be interrupted (dispel), or even disappear all together (dead magic area), which means that the volume, or even existence, of the weave can be altered, and can fluctuate.

In conclusion

Although strictly in the realm of the imagination, magic can be thought of as a fundamental energy of the world; it can be perceived and manipulated in different levels via the use of rituals (spells) performed by conduits (casters), who allow Prime (magic energy) to shape the forces it engulfs. Finally, the nature of magic is almost surely unknown to most of its users, but via the use of ritualism and study it can nevertheless be expressed.

The Porcelain Argument: How would the existence of magic affect technological advancement?

Magic versus Technology and how the existence of magic would affect technological progress in a world that magic exists

Porcelain – a curse and a blessing

It was around 16 BC, in the middle of the Shang Dynasty (which spanned 17–11 BC) that porcelain first began to appear in China. Initially this wonder-material was a great boon; its inherent properties, such as low permeability and elasticity, strength, hardness, toughness, translucency and resonance, and its high resistance to chemical attack and thermal shock, ingrained it into Chinese art and architecture, as well as into everyday life. Porcelain was used as an effective food and liquid-storage, and in many ways immensely helped the advancement of the Chinese empire until the post-medieval era.

Porcelain making in ancient china

Porcelain-making in ancient China

However, the early discovery of porcelain prevented the development of glass, which was not brought into frequent use until the 19th century, significantly later than in Europe. Non-reactive and non-porous glass was vital for progress into hard chemistry and all sciences tied to it. Glass grinding led to lenses, and subsequently microscopes and telescopes, which brought about a new understanding of the world. It was also vital for spectacles, which significantly extended the working-life of intellectuals by as much as 15-20 years, allowing them to read and work when presbyopia or other sight-conditions set in. It can be argued (although perhaps slightly teleologically) that porcelain – an early and useful discovery – held back the scientific development of China and became a barrier to its further advancement.

Magic vs. Technology

The “Porcelain Argument” can, on a larger scale, be used as a way of understanding the impact of magic on the technological and scientific progression of a fictional society. The very existence of magic, and the ability of some individuals to manipulate it (either by innate talent or hard work) allows for the accomplishment of both astonishing things, and of other-wise arduous, mundane tasks, in a quick and simple way. Thus, as in the case of porcelain in China, magic can be a fix-all tool which may inhibit the development of other technologies and scientific progression in a fantasy world setting.

It stands to reason that, as long as magic is readily available in one form or another, the need for technological advancement to perform the same function becomes effectively redundant. If “Necessity is the mother of Invention”, then conversely a lack of need produces a lack of development. Of course, ‘available’ is a variable term – magic may be available to those only with considerable money, or it may not be for sale at all. Thus the magic-technology balance might vary in different social echelons and within different societies.

One example of the effect of magic on technology can be found in the realms of communication, particularly long-distance communication. Trade, espionage and warfare all rely on effective communication, and failure to deliver an important message could alter the tide of war, bankrupt a merchant enterprise or lead to a major political incident. But what if a message could travel instantaneously across hundreds, if not thousands, of miles with a fairly simple spell, or even through a magical device (which would effectively remove the immediate need for a spell-caster)? For critical decisions such as these any price, even a very high one, would be worth it in order to prevent disaster. This would significantly alter military tactics, trade strategies, and any other aspect of a nation relying on instant communication. Concepts of distance would change, people might travel and trade further afield. Conversely, monarchs from distant lands would be able to communicate almost face-to-face, without travelling, which would hugely affect the scope of international relations. Magical protections might be necessary to protect against magical espionage or listening devices.

If magical communication was readily available to the public, would there be any reason for the advancement of technologies allowing long-distance communication, such as carrier-pigeons and pyre-relays (and later, the invention of telegraph, telephones, and internet-based communications) or even the development of shorter-distance communication methods such as semaphore, morse code, heliographs, or drum and whistling codes? Such technologies would require extended research and frequently expensive infrastructure, not to mention the fact that they may not even be invented if magic is always assumed to be the ultimate solution for communication. Would people even bother writing letters to one another? Amongst the wealthy it might be considered obsolete, or even miserly.

Steampunk magic technology woman
by Rebecca Saray; see more at her blog

As has been indicated above, there may be various reasons why people may not have access to magic in an otherwise magic-rich fantasy setting. Some regions or nations may have a less-developed knowledge and understanding of magic, it may not have been discovered at all, or perhaps magic may not even function or exist in their area (dead magic areas). In multi-species worlds, some species may not be as attuned as others and, in those societies, technology would probably have developed more rapidly, fuelled by a desire to keep up with other nations or species. Magic could also be considered unholy or criminal in some (or all) regions, and that would significantly affect its use in mainstream society.

Magic could also add a whole new level to the arms and industry race. Depending on how magic is used, the philosophies of its users and its offensive capabilities, nations without access to magic (within an otherwise magic-rich world) with might be considered weak, and would probably be quickly invaded or annexed. Certainly developments leading to, for example, the radar or the nuclear bomb would not occur, but it is even more important to consider the simpler things such as agriculture, manufacturing, energy and propulsion. These are the aspects which would lead to a rich and prosperous kingdom with surplus resources, allowing them to become wealthy and powerful. Surplus food allows cities, trade and a large standing military – all the characteristics of a formidable nation. Even if they did not take magic into the battlefield, it would be inextricably entwined with their success.

Not all is as it seems

We have discussed some of the effects of magic on a grand scale, considering nations, wars and mercantile enterprises. But what effect would magic have on, for example, the every day peasant? Superficially, a typical medieval fantasy village resembles a historical, medieval village. However, the differences would be significant; spell casting and magical items would change the medieval world in many fascinating ways.

“I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath
given you one face and you make yourself another.”

W. Shakespeare, Hamlet (III.i.142-3)

lineage2 Elf by lkk20273
lineage2 Elf by lkk20273

What about a simple healing spell, instead of painstakingly learning the different uses of plants and herbs? Child mortality and death from illness would be drastically decreased, and population density would be significantly increased. The ability to magically sustain and ensure the healthiness and growth of crops and livestock would significantly increase crop and food yields, leading to a healthier, wealthier peasant class with more free time for leisure or education. Light during the night (which would also impede the development of electricity, or even the refining of candles and oil lamps) would affect the length of the working day in winter, and could have some impact on education as well. The ability to magically copy tomes would have a similar impact to the printing press – books would change from exclusive, expensive, bespoke items to more widely available, commonplace commodities.

More examples abound – just consider the impact of mending spells, ‘turn rock to mud’, ‘magic hands’ and levitation on heavy labour such as construction work, mining and prospecting. Individually, all these look like small differences, but their accumulation would significantly change the life experiences of a medieval world at a very fundamental level. Even if only one magic-user lived in the village, his/her presence would still have a significant impact on daily life.

Of course, technology would still be present for many reasons. A good example would be that those in power wish to control and suppress their subjects (as is historically the case) and thus might limit the access they have to magic. In such cases, although the economy and work life of peasants might be assisted by some magic, technology would still play a significant role to their domestic lives.

Magic Users and their Social Perception

It is interesting to consider the social role of a magic user. Magic users of different strengths may find different niches within society – a low-level hedge-wizard may set up a practice in a village or small town, whereas a magic-user capable of more significant spells might be employed by a court, or might even endeavour to create a nation of his own. From a storytelling perspective, magic makes a beautiful “rags to riches” hook since frequently the ability to use magic is a matter of innate talent. Magic might also be passed down through blood lines, which might lead to whole families being ostracised or celebrated. The more common magic is, the more that it is likely to be present in a small way in many people and thus the more likely it will be to have an impact on everyday life. Conversely, in rare magic worlds, magic and its users are more likely to be taboo, revered and/or feared. In such cases, technology and the sciences would certainly be more likely to advance, and some might even be wary of those disciplines if they bear a too-striking resemblance to the powers of magic users.

In conclusion

In magic-rich fantasy worlds, magic and technology compete for the same niche, and the existence of one can impede the progress of the other. Nevertheless, they do co-exist to a certain extent, often due to a lack of knowledge or resources. The existence and the ability to manipulate magic would significantly alter the “historical” timeline of a world. It would also likely extend the duration of a medieval-style era, since magic would prevent a ‘renaissance’ of the sciences leading to a higher technological level. Magic is also a resource; whether used in a peaceful way to expand growth and industry, or employed offensively, it can change the balance between those with access to it and those without.

Today we recognise that science and technology have drastically altered our strategies and our perceptions throughout history. By considering how these might or might not have progressed alongside magic, or how they may have varied in a world with unequal magic, we can have a fuller understanding of magic’s integration and impact on a fantasy realm.

What do you think the impact of magic would have been? Can you think of any examples? We would love to hear from you, so leave a comment below!


Ancient Chinese Inventions and Discoveries that Shaped the World http://blog.world-mysteries.com/science/ancient-chinese-inventions-and-discoveries-that-shaped-the-world/, retrieved 25 February 2015

Lu, Jonathan. “REASSESSING THE NEEDHAM QUESTION: WHAT FORCES IMPEDED THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN SCIENCE IN CHINA AFTER THE 15TH CENTURY?.” CONCORD REVIEW (2011): 209. https://www.emmawillard.org/sites/emmawillard.org/files/ConcordReview-Summer2011.pdf#page=1

The life of a villager during the Middle Ages

A quick look at the everyday lives of medieval peasants, their homes and the conditions in which they lived and worked.

During the middle ages (medieval times) the lives of villagers (serfs) were far from easy. Hard work and continuous effort – required to ensure the necessities of life – characterised most aspects of their existence.

Please note that by Villager we mean any serf, including villeins, bordars and cottagers, and exclude any Freeman who was farming land.

A villager’s house

Middle Ages Serf House
Medieval Serf House

Villager homes (also known as cruck houses) were simple structures based on a wooden frame. The walls of the frame were panelled with wattle and daub and plastered with quick lime and earth, a process also referred to as whitewashing. The colour of the local soil gave the plaster vibrant white, yellow or red colour, depending on the minerals present. The roof was usually made out of straw, reeds and other dried vegetation, commonly referred to as a thatched roof. There were no panes of glass in the windows. Instead, wooden shutters were used, closed at night or during winter, and would have made the houses quite draughty. Although this draught would have lowered the overall temperature of the house, it would have provided much-needed ventilation to combat the high concentration of smoke from the fire, and the smells of both animals and people living in close quarters. The floors were of hard, compacted earth sometimes covered in straw for warmth. The materials made the building relatively easy to erect and to maintain, because the components were readily available and frequently free to obtain.

In most cases the house was not internally separated and thus consisted of one long room. In some instances the house would have been separated in two rooms and possibly also would have had a raised floor spanning about 1/3 of the structure, which would have been accessible by a wooden ladder. This floor was used mostly as living quarters, primarily inhabited by the younger members of the family, since it was considered safer.

Furnishings and Tools
In the middle of a peasant’s hut was a fire used for cooking and heating. However, there was no chimney – the whole of the house would have been filled with smoke, which would slowly escape from the thatched roof. This would have kept pests (such as rats) and some parasites under control to a certain extent. Any furniture would have been very basic. Peasants sat on benches or stools, with chairs being considered more expensive, luxury items, only usually found in the manor house of the village. They would have a simple wooden table and chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Hooks were used to hang clothes and equipment around the house. The bed mattress was made out of straw and pillows were a luxury that peasants could not afford – it is theorised that logs were used to support their neck. Houses had no fresh water or a lavatory. A bucket was used and was emptied at the closest creek nearby in the morning. Food would have been cooked in a suspended cauldron on top of the hearth.

During summertime, the peasant’s animals would also live with the family in the house during the night. During winter the animals would have stayed in the house throughout the day. This contributed to a fairly low hygiene but also kept the house warm. Animals were expensive property and vital for survival, and keeping them inside would have ensured their security overnight.

These houses mostly provided shelter for a whole family; that would have included the serf, his wife, their children and quite possibly the extended family. The average household would have numbered eight peasants.


During the late middle ages the house would also have had a well and an outhouse, and also a barn.

The surroundings of the house would have had a fenced area to keep the animals inside, and also a small garden for the serf to cultivate vegetables and some basic herbs for his family.


The medieval serf’s clothing was basic and practical. A medieval serf’s clothing or dress consisted of:

  • A blouse of cloth or skin, fastened by a leather belt round the waist
  • An overcoat or mantle of thick woollen material, which fell from his shoulders to half-way down his legs
  • Shoes or large boots
  • Short, woollen trousers
  • A sheath for his knife, hanging from his belt
  • In cold weather or in rain he wore a woollen hat
  • Gloves were only worn for their practical clothing value and were padded for use in tasks such as hedging
Noble versus Villager clothing during the middle ages
Noble versus Villager clothing during the middle ages


Peasants ‘enjoyed’ a rather monotonous diet. Meat was a rare luxury and would have usually been rabbit or pork; rabbits were easy to catch, provided the villagers had permission to use traps from the Lord of the manor. Pigs were the most standard meat animal and were usually slaughtered in the early winter, since feeding them throughout the lean winter was difficult and impractical. The bulk of a peasant’s diet consisted of brown bread (coarse barley bread) and cheese, made using the milk of their goats, lambs and, less commonly, cows. They only had one cooked meal a day, ‘pottage’, which was a broth of grains, vegetables and possibly some meat or fish. During late summer and early autumn peasants would gather nuts and fruits, as well as acorns, to fatten up the pigs for slaughter during winter time.

During the middle ages, starvation was not an uncommon cause of death, especially during times of drought. Peasants lived hand-to-mouth and anything which depleted their already meagre supplies would have had a devastating effect on the household.


Despite recent dramatisations (ahem Blackadder)  the hygiene of peasants was not as bad as is commonly supposed. In fact, there is considerable evidence that most medieval people tried to keep themselves clean. The evidence also suggests that most people washed and changed their clothes quite frequently. They also tried to keep their houses clean. The idea that people were filthy and stinky is a myth.

The myth may have arisen because villagers rarely took baths. Before the 19th century it was difficult to heat a large amount of water in one go. Suppose you heated a cauldron of water and poured it into a tub. By the time you had heated a second lot of water, the first lot would already be cold.

Medieval Bathing in a wooden tab
Medieval Bathing in a wooden tab

The Romans solved this problem by having public baths, which could be heated from underneath. However, after the fall of Rome, it was much easier to have a strip wash. In hot weather people bathed in rivers. There is also evidence that villagers washed their clothes quite often.

Health manuals from the period note that it was important to get rid of dirt and grime. They also explained that it was important to keep the entire body clean. For example, the fourteenth-century writer Magninius Mediolanesis stated in his work Regimen sanitatis that “the bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body”.

Children & Education

During the 1330s, only 5% of the population of England had any sort of education. In fact some lords of the manor had laws against educating the serfs. Some manors allowed particularly bright children to attend grammar school if that was available in a town nearby. The lack of education was, perhaps, one of the most powerful tools that the nobles had for exerting control over the numerous serfs. The nobles of the land knew that their lack of education, combined with continuous, draining physical labour, was a very effective way to keep the populace subjugated and tame.

Farmland & Animals

Depending on his classification, a serf could have anything from one acre (1 to 5 acres for Bordars and Cottagers) to 30 acres (20 – 30 acres for Villeins).

An acre is defined as the land that a man behind one ox can plough in a day. One acre is 4840 square yards and would cover about half a full-size football (soccer) pitch.

Considering the fact that in order to make a living, a family needed about 10 acres, many of the villagers had to work on other serf’s land in order to survive.

The lands of a villager were divided into strips, called selions or ridges, scattered within two of the three active fields of the manor; the third field was left uncultivated (fallow) every year to ensure the land’s fertility.  The strips in the first field would have been used to cultivate grains in order to pay their dues to the Lord of the Manor and the strips on the second field would have been used to grow barley and legumes for personal consumption.

In addition to their strips, each villager would have had a small vegetable garden close to his house to grow vegetables for his family.

Most of the villagers would not have been able to afford to have a team of oxen by themselves, which mostly meant that two villagers would have to team up in order to plough their fields.

In addition to an ox, which was of vital importance to all villagers, each family would also have had some geese, chickens (for eggs), goats (for milk), and lambs (for wool and milk). In some cases, a villager might have also owned cows and/or pigs. The amount of animals that a villager had depended on how many his family could afford to feed and support, and how many animals the Lord of the manor allowed to graze in the commons (pasture and meadow).

Taxation and Fees

As we’ve discussed, serfs were not land owners; they were using the land of their lord (not renting) in order to repay their hereditary debt to him. Most of the serfs hardly ever had coins and, for their transactions with their Lord, would have to pay by working for him and with items produced.

Each household had to pay two to three man-days per week in their Lord’s service, doing anything the lord needed at the time, from cleaning the manor to taking care of the fields of the lord (ploughing, seeding etc). The amount of days was completely arbitrary and each lord could have requested more household members for more days. In times of high labour need, such as during harvest, this work tax was regularly increased.

The serfs had to use the manor’s mill in order to grind their grain, and the manor’s oven to bake their bread and for both those services the Lord would demand a portion as a fee.

During Easter, the serfs would offer the Lord an additional dozen eggs, and during Christmas the serf would offer a goose to his lord.

When the father of the household died, his son would have to pay a Feudal relief to the Lord as a reassurance of his fealty and in order to inherit the right to use the land. This, in most cases, was the best animal or the best part of the serf’s bounty. If a freeman or a serf outside the manor wanted to marry one of the serf’s daughters, her father had to pay a fee to the Lord.

Last but not least, a serf had to pay a food-rent to the Lord called feorm, which was essentially a significant part of his grain production.

A serf was able to pay a very heavy fee in order to purchase his freedom, or occasionally he could prove extraordinary valour in battle in order to have a chance to gain Freeman status. In some cases, serfs who gained their freedom by showing their valour were also ennobled.

Legal Status

Serfs were considered part of the land of the manor. They did not own the land they were living on or cultivating. Although serfs might have enjoyed some “freedoms” that slaves did not, for all intents and purposes serfdom was considered a form of hereditary ownership. A serf could not leave the land, but he could save enough money to repay his debt and buy his freedom if his Lord wished it.

Some serfs were able to escape and hide within cities; after a year and a day they could be recognised as freemen, but if they were found the penalty was a most cruel punishment, both for them and their whole family. Accounts of these punishments are violent, graphic and extraordinarily ostentatious – clearly these were intended to serve as examples to other would-be escapees.

Work & Holidays

Serfs worked for 6 days a week either on their fields or in the service of their Lord. Sundays were days of rest and prayer. In addition to Sundays, serfs did not work during holy days (holidays) which were usually accompanied by festivities, patronised by the Lord of the manor.

Common Tasks for Medieval Workers 

January & February – work indoors repairing hunting nets, sharpening tools, making utensils – on mild days work outdoors to gather firewood, prune vines and mend fences.

March – work in the fields,  ploughing and cultivating. 

April – clean ditches, pruning trees, fixing sheds, hauling timber, and repairing roofs.

May –  sheep cleaning and shearing,  planting and field maintenance.

June – mowing hay crop and raking it into piles.

July – harvest grains, bundle sheaves, weed gardens.

August – threshing and winnowing of grains, grinding of grains into flour.

September – fruits picked and dried or stored, grapes picked and pressed for juice and wine.

October – gather nuts, roots, berries, and mushrooms, fields ploughed and empty fields sown with winter wheat, repairing and cleaning equipment.

November – firewood gathered, split, and stacked for themselves and the lord, pigs and cows slaughtered and meat smoked or salted,  flex and hemp processed to make thread and rope.

December – trim trees, grape vines pruned, and hunting.

In conclusion

Most serfs had very hard lives and, in most cases, struggled to keep their families alive and well. Most of a serf’s clothing was scented with smoke (due to the lack of a chimney), though contrary to popular opinion they had a good understanding of hygiene. Their everyday food was a very humble warm meal once a day and, in some rare occasions, meat was part of it. Most, if not all of the villagers, were uneducated. All villagers had to pay very harsh taxes, consisting of both manual labour and produce; these taxes were tailored to suppress the serfs and make it impossible for them to recover from their hereditary debt and gain their freedom.

Do you have any questions?

Please leave a comment! We will be more than happy to answer any questions you might have, or listen to your feedback. We have tonnes of research we cannot publish on each article (due to its size) and we are more than happy to share.


Serfdom, Wikipedia, 20 February 2015 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom

Everyday life in the Middle Ages by Tim Lambert, 20 February 2015: http://www.localhistories.org/middle.html

The Lifestyle of Medieval Peasants”. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014, 20 February 2015 http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_peasants.htm

Medieval Life – Housing, 20 February 2015, http://www.historyonthenet.com/medieval_life/houses.htm

Medieval Serfs, 20 February 2015, http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-life/medieval-serfs.htm

Peasant life in the middle ages, 20 February 2015, http://www.camelotintl.com/village/peasant.html

A brief history of baths and showers by Tim Lambert, 20 February 2015, http://www.localhistories.org/washing.html

Did people in the Middle Ages take baths?, 20 February 2015, http://www.medievalists.net/2013/04/13/did-people-in-the-middle-ages-take-baths/

Medieval land measuring units

Measuring units during the medieval times were a mess, lack of standardisation, distance and languages barriers was just the start. This article is trying to give you a rough understanding of how land was separated and measured for production and taxation purposes during the medieval times in England (as per Doomsday book)


Farm-derived units of measurement:

  1. The rod is a historical unit of length equal to 5½ yards. It may have originated from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad.
  2. The furlong (meaning furrow length) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. This was standardised to be exactly 40 rods.
  3. An acre was the amount of land tillable by one man behind one ox in one day. Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plough.
  4. An oxgang was the amount of land tillable by one ox in a ploughing season. This could vary from village to village, but was typically around 15 acres.
  5. A virgate was the amount of land tillable by two oxen in a ploughing season (30 acres).
  6. A carucate was the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.

How big is an acre?

One acre is about 4046 square meter or 43560 square feet or 0.4 of a Hectare.


Social stratification of a Feudal kingdom (Part 4): The Family Royal

Closing our four part series in medieval social stratification we talk about the top of the echelon, the royal family and those around them.

It’s hard to argue with someone when his power upon this realm was vested to him by the one and only God out there. Even if you knew that he had to murder his father, brother and a whole bunch of other people to get in there, you never know if it wasn’t the Almighty’s will. So, you’d better do as you’re told…

Ramblings of a drunken Bard

This article is the fourth part of the series. Read the three previous parts here
Part 1: Serfs | Part 2: Freemen | Part 3: Nobles

Above serfs and free men, above all the knights and all the counts and dukes in every medieval kingdom, stood a King or a Queen, who with a benevolent (or cruel and unyielding) hand commanded the unordained.

A monarch is the sovereign head of state, officially outranking all other individuals in the realm. A monarch may exercise the most and highest authority in the state, or others may wield that power on behalf of the monarch. Typically a monarch either personally inherits the lawful right to exercise authority over the realm (often referred to as the throne or the crown), or is selected by an established process from a family or cohort eligible to provide the nation’s monarch.

Alternatively, an individual may become monarch by conquest, acclamation or a combination of means. A monarch usually reigns for life or until abdication.

Laws and Investiture

A monarch, depending on the state of the kingdom, may rule as the head of a council of nobles (elective monarchy), or by absolute, autocratic power (absolute monarchy). The crown’s fluctuating military, financial and diplomatic power, as well as the liberties granted to the nobles, were factors that kept feudal kingdoms in a state of flux throughout the middle ages. Noble lords of the land, fuelled by ambition,  always coveted more liberties; these liberties were vested to them by the laws governing the relationship between nobles and king, and could be changed by royal decree, as long as there was noble support. The only way that a king could control a nation was by walking a fine line between restricting their liberties (by signing kingdom-wide agreements) and, at the same time, bestowing honorary and/or landed titles to his nobles in order to appease them.

In most cases of absolute monarchy the title was hereditary; the Kingship would pass from the father to the firstborn son or, if no first-born son lived, to whoever was closest to the king by blood. However, depending on the kingdom’s type of hereditary rule, on the time of death, or in the case of abdication, other relations or persons would be eligible to take the crown.

Many of history’s moments of bloodshed started with the death of the king who didn’t have, one way or another, an appointed successor or clearly named heir (a good example of that being the War of the Roses [book].


demesne /dɪˈmeɪn; -ˈmiːn/


1. land, esp. surrounding a house or manor, retained by the owner for his own use
2. (property law) the possession and use of one’s own property or land
3. the territory ruled by a state or a sovereign; realm; domain
4. a region or district; domain
Word Origin
C14: from Old French demeine; see domain

As we have discussed before, each noble lord controlled his holding by right of landed title, which consisted of the demesne which he had direct control over and those who belonged within his holdings. He would also have had indirect control over sub-regions of his demesne, which were in fact classed as demesnes themselves. A Duke would have direct control over his own Duchy (his demesne), but indirect control over a Count’s county which was within the Duchy (the count’s demesne).

The level of control every noble was able to exert over his domain usually equalled the percentage of the profits which would remain in his hand rather than be handed over to his overlord.

This was no different for the King of the land. The King himself usually had a substantial demesne, consisting of a number of duchies and counties, as well as several Baronies within them; from those he would get the largest portion of his personal profits. The higher demesne a King held was the one of the Kingdom. As the bearer of the crown, he was entitled to a portion of the taxation from all duchies and counties of other lords under his direct control, also known as his vassals.

The amount of tax a King would have received was directly influenced by what his vassal was willing to give, and how much the King willing to pressure the vassal for the crown’s “fair share” of the bounty. King William I “the Conqueror” tried to streamline this process by conducting a great survey of all his lands that came to be known as the Doomsday Book or the Book of Winchester. The purpose of this manuscript was to create a proper accounting of all the lands his vassals owned, in order to better understand the taxation he should be receiving from them. By doing so, William was able to keep his vassals accountable for the tax he was due.

In conclusion

Becoming a King, usually an issue of conquest or hereditary investiture, was the easy part. Retaining your title as a King and surviving to die of natural causes proved more challenging. Successful rule was an unending game of chess against ambitious nobles of the land, who were always seeking to hold on to their profits and expand their demesnes and liberties… and that’s not even counting external threats from other realms. In order to survive and possibly thrive, a King was supposed to be a general, a spy-master, a diplomat, an economist and finally, really good in bed, in order to ensure that everything he accomplished could be passed on to his son and thus kept in the family. After all, wealth and power is nice, but the only way to immortality is through your loins.

What were medieval houses and structures built from?

In this article we go through the list of building materials used during the medieval times from the lowly cottage to the grand cathedrals of the time, from straw to glass

Building materials, from straw to glass are combined to bring to life anything from a lowly cottage to the cathedrals reaching for the skies up above.

As we’ve mentioned on our previous article on medieval buildings types, different types of buildings had different requirements (longevity, defensive capabilities) as well as cost (in materials and/or time). In addition to that there not many periods of human history that there is such a gap between the rich and the poor, and this difference is clearly demonstrated in the type of buildings that people inhabit or use.

In this article we will discuss a bit further the differences between the materials used and the reasons that were used. One of the reasons that we are exploring this is in order to prepare for the upcoming article on rules for building construction in terms of sourcing materials and the time-cost of building anything from a peasant’s house to a Cathedral or a mighty castle.

Base Materials

Base materials are the materials used for the bulk of the project. Most of the buildings used several materials for their construction but the finalized structure was defined by the material mostly used.


Straw might seem like a very lightweight material and we hardly come across it when it comes to archeological digs of medieval settlements. The truth is that Straw, by itself or as a major component was used across most houses during the middle ages.

All Thatch by Lew Davis

Straw buildings like houses and barns were constructed by packing cuboid (rectangular) straw bales and stacking them on top of each other. In most occasions this structure would have been supported by a lightweight wooden frame. The roofs of these houses were also built by using straw and other dry vegetation, these roofs were used across many building types and are commonly known as Thatched roofs.

The reason we don’t find these houses in archeological digs is that due to the fact that Straw is a biodegradable material, building constructed with it have quite a short lifespan once they are abandoned.

Straw bales provided excellent insulation and they were very easy to come by after reaping at the end of summer and thus made an excellent choice for the serfs of the land. Sadly, they were also quite flammable, which contributed to their short lifespans.

Straw was also a very important component for the creation of wattle and daub 

Wattle and Daub

Wattle and daub is a composite building material used for making walls, in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw.

iron-age wattle and daub

Wattle and daub may not be a raw material but its modular nature and comparatively easy construction made it an excellent construction material. There is evidence that wattle and daub might have been used since the neolithic era and the fact that in medieval times we still find housed built out of it, is a testament to its efficiency as a building material. It is more sturdy than straw and provides better insulation from the elements. As with straw houses wattle and daub houses also made use of a timber frame and used Thatched roofs.


Cob, like wattle and daub is also a compound material Traditionally, English cob was made by mixing the clay-based subsoil with sand, straw and water using oxen to trample it. The earthen mixture was then ladled onto a stone foundation in courses and trodden onto the wall by workers in a process known as cobbing. The construction would progress according to the time required for the prior course to dry. After drying, the walls would be trimmed and the next course built, with lintels for later openings such as doors and windows being placed as the wall takes shape.

As we’ve mentioned Cob buildings make use of stone foundation something that is was more rare in wattle and daub and straw structures. The main reason for it being that cob, as a very heavy in clay compound needs to have a better footing in order to support the superstructure of the building.


The walls of a cob house were generally about 24 inches thick, and windows were correspondingly deep-set, giving the homes a characteristic internal appearance. The thick walls provided excellent thermal mass which was easy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.

The material has a long life-span which, where cob was available made a great way to construct permanent structures.

Buildings made of Cob did not make use of timber frames but timber was mostly used in order to shape doorways and windows or internal passages and room separators.

Due to the plasticity of the material cob-made houses are easily distinguishable by their curvy walls, an architectural style that was used a lot due to its uniqueness.

Finally cob houses were and, still are extremely resilient to fire which made them ideal candidates for a long-standing structure. Their roofs were in most cases thatched and in some occasions made of timber or even clay.

Logs &  Lumber

Lumber was a very important part of most of the buildings during the middle ages. Essentially most of the framing of a house as well as the roof structure was made by wood. In England, Oak was used widely due to its strong resistance to humid weather. Although an important element of many buildings, solely wooden houses were not so commonly used. Lumber was though used in military structures before the introduction of the Norman stone defences. Actually many of the invaders of England brought wooden defensive structures ready to assembly (Like IKEA flat packed but some hundred years ago).

Although not in heavy use in England many of the Scandinavian countries used Logged cabins and structures like Halls since the Bronze Age (3500 BC). Also the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio in his architectural treatise De Architectura. He noted that in Pontus (modern-day northeastern Turkey) dwellings were constructed by laying logs horizontally overtop of each other and filling in the gaps with “chips and mud”

Lumber was also used for the construction of important infrastructure like bridges

Clay & Brick

Although clay is used as both a construction and a manufacturing material, clays bricks and bricklaying became common practice in England very late during the medieval era.

Clay was an important component of daub as well as cob and it is widely used for pottery, but the technique for creating fire bricks that flourished in the Italian peninsula states since roman times, only came to central Europe during the 12th century and it would take several hundred years until it’s in England.


also referred to as schist or shale)

Building with slate roof tiles
Building with slate roof tiles

Slate was commonly used as a roofing material for rich houses due to its low water absorption properties.fixing is typically with double nails onto timber battens (England and Wales) or nailed directly onto timber sarking boards (Scotland and Northern Ireland). Nails were traditionally of copper. Both these methods, if used properly, provide a long-lasting weathertight roof with a lifespan of around 80–100 years.

Lime Mortar

Lime mortar or plaster was made by extracting stone from a limestone quarry (lime works) which was then processed into a lime kiln in order to be rendered into a malleable form (quick lime).  This allowed Lime to be used for building, rendering, plastering and lime washing building. Lime power was also used as mortar in between stone slabs which provided very good insulation for the building.

In locations that Lime stone could not be found, oyster shells were used in kilns in order to produce a very similar material (both are calcium carbonate)

Stirling castle was made of masonry stone but the whole of the structure was actually covered with a lime stone plaster, giving to the castle this bright white/yellow colour. This colour marked all sites of the royal family of Scotland.
Stirling castle was made of masonry stone but the whole of the structure was actually covered with a lime stone plaster, giving to the castle this bright white/yellow colour. This colour marked all sites of the royal family of Scotland.

Lime wash was used as an external coat to many of the wattle and daub houses. This plaster would take the colour of the earth that is was mixed with which resulted in many cases in vibrant reddish, yellow or white colours plasters. An example of this washes can be found at the keep of Stirling Castle (white yellow plastered masonry) or in Tudor era Town houses (white plaster over wattle and daub within a timber frame)

Wattle and Daub, timber framed house with Lime plaster covering the walls Drawing of Little Nag's Head Cocoa House in 1877
Wattle and Daub, timber framed house with Lime plaster covering the walls
Drawing of Little Nag’s Head Cocoa House in 1877




Stone was used during the medieval times for a variety of purposes. Due to it’s sturdy nature, stone was an excellent building material for structures that were meant to inspire awe and last in time, in some instances, their capability of take a significant pounding was also quite important.

Bridges, Cathedrals, Castles and Manors all used masonry as their main structural component. Of course all of those buildings also made extensive use of lumber but, in most of them, even the frame was made of stone.


Due to its nature, stone required a very well-organized logistics system that started with mining in a quarry to transportation to the stone cutters and then the careful laying of it. It was this unique nature of stone that promoted the creation of stone mason guilds, Guilds of craftsmen that kept the knowledge of their art a double locked secret.

Stone is able to withstand any sort of climate and provided with perfect insulation against the elements as well as enemy bombardment. In addition to that stone buildings were able to build much higher and to support much heavier superstructures. The rigidity of the material also made true modular design possible that, in many cases needed no “filling” material since the sheer weight of the material was enough to ensure its stability.

Marble / Granite

With the exception of Limestone (Purbeck marble) that was used for some Cathedrals, marble and granite were not commonly used in the middle ages England. In later times (Renaissance) Marble is used to construct mostly civic buildings and in some cases religious.

At the same Marble as with clay bricks is commonly used in the Italian States.

Secondary materials

Iron, Copper & Lead

All three of these metals are used one way or another in medieval architecture. From the manufacturing of nails used through almost every building type to copper and lead being used for pipes and for the construction of cathedrals, (drainage, domes sheathing etc) which required materials capable to stand the test of time.

Iron rods and are also used for added structural integrity in many military and religious buildings.


In architecture, flushwork is the decorative combination on the same flat plane of flint and ashlar stone. If the stone projects from a flat flint wall then the term is proudwork, as the stone stands “proud” rather than being “flush” with the wall.

Flint was mostly used for decorative purposes where it was available but in some cases whole buildings were built using flint.

Soil and Turf

In some northern regions the roofs in order to keep the humidity and water out would have been build by applying a layer of soil under a layer of turf on the roof of the house. Houses and other buildings made that way would almost blend with the rest of the scenery making them very hard to notice from distance.

A popular culture example of this kind of houses were the hobbit holes of the shire



Glass, in most instances as stained glass was used commonly for the decoration of religious, civic and some military building. Stained glass allowed to sufficiently light stone buildings but also to decorate them in a way that will inspire awe to all that visit buildings that made use of it.

In conclusion

Although most of the buildings constructed during the middle ages were made of malleable materials like, straw, wattle and daub, cob and sometimes wood, Stone buildings were the only buildings that could survive nowadays. The fact that a building was built in stone showed the wealthiness of its owner. Manors, Churches, Cathedrals and Castles served as places of worship or for the defence of the surrounding area, but also as symbols of power and wealth which required in order sustain the Feudal state’s status quo.


Clarke, Snell; Tim, Callahan (2009). Building Green: A Complete How-to Guide to Alternative Building Methods : Earth Plaster, Straw Bale, Cordwood, Cob, Living Roofs. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. pp. 276–. ISBN 978-1-60059-534-9. Retrieved 1 June 2013.

Pollio, Vitruvius (1914). Ten Books on Architecture. Harvard University Press. p. 39.

Lime plaster convervation http://conservation.historic-scotland.gov.uk/cement Retrieved 18 February 2015

Building Scotland – Lime (vimeo video) https://vimeo.com/37513460 Retrieved 20 February 2015

The differences between medieval building types depending on their usage

As with buildings today, in the medieval times different buildings are serve different functions. Each of those functions in many ways define the architecture of the building, the materials used, the maintenance required and of course the time that it takes for them to be built.

As with buildings today, in the medieval times different buildings are serve different functions. Each of those functions in many ways define the architecture of the building, the materials used, the maintenance required and of course the time that it takes for them to be built.

Generally buildings are separated into

  • Private Buildings
  • Public Buildings
  • Business Buildings
  • Industrial/Manufacturing Buildings
  • Military Buildings
  • Religious Buildings
  • Infrastructure Buildings

Private buildings mostly consist of several types of housing ranging from a wattle and daub hut to a glorious stone villa. Private homes can vary widely but due to the amount of people normally served by them the maintenance cost remains fairly low. The construction time and cost of these buildings is primarily defined by their size and the materials that they are built from.

Public buildings include structures like baths, parks, halls, gardens, market squares, piers, Granaries etc. Public buildings are built for endurance so the quality of materials that are constructed tends to be much higher than the average private building. In addition to that, these buildings are made to server a large amount of people, possibly, everyday which means that constructing the building in a way that the maintenance costs will be low is paramount.

Business buildings include shops, warehouses and service buildings like inns, stables etc. When it comes to their construction, In many ways these buildings are considered to be very close to public buildings with the difference that they are privately owned and as that their quality varies depending on the available assets of the owner. For example a tradesman might be selling jewels and need to be well protected within a stone structure that will make it harder to criminals to steal his wares but a cabbage farmer only needs a wooden stool in a market square.

Industrial and Manufacturing buildings include, Forges, Mills, Bakeries, Workshops, Smithies, Carpenters, Masons etc. These buildings possess special features which raise their cost and need to be in general more sturdy than a shop in order to accommodate their needs. For example Mills need to have a reinforced structure in order to be able to support the weight of a water-mill or a the sails of a wind mill. and a Mason’s workshop uses much sturdier wood in order to frame the structure since moving and storing slabs of stone can be strenuous to a building which is not built to do so.

Military buildings almost in their entirety are build primarily from stone and most of them actually use various techniques to reinforce the walls of their buildings in order to make them less susceptible to enemy attacks. Having said that Wooden military buildings do exist but even those are reinforced one way of another. Since military buildings are constructed knowing that damage to them is imminent, the ability to be repaired quickly and effectively is quite important. This means that due to their modular design military buildings not only take much longer time due to their construction material but are also extremely intricate in their spartan simplicity to build.

Religious buildings need to inspire awe and to make their visitors feel they are in contact with the divine. Due to that Religious building apart from inheriting the properties of public buildings in terms of their quality they also employ a variety of intricate architectural tricks to create a sense of grandeur. in addition to that these buildings, in most cases, are heavily ornate with statues, painting, frescos, wood and stone carvings and details of precious metal and stones which make them extremely expensive to build. Most of religious buildings are built in several stages that dress and/or expand the building throughout their life time.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this article. We will soon be talking about building materials and how these were used

If you have any questions please let us know!

Social stratification of a Feudal kingdom (Part 3): The ranks of the noble blooded

Dukes, Marquises and counts, all under one king but all of them above everyone else. The one percent ruling the masses, celebrated or feared by all. Aspiring to the highest and inspiring millions. In this third installment we discuss their place in the social strata of the medieval times.

This article is part of a series. read the first Part here and Part II of the series here

In every social structure that existed since the beginning of human history there is always an small “elite” of leaders which their role is to organize and to rule/command the rest of the people (anarchy excluded). In England of the middle ages (and later on the British Isles) these ranks are populated by the Royal family followed by  five ranks of nobility.

It’s all about land

The simplest way to understand the organization of a Feudal kingdom is always to think about the land. In the case of a serf, they belonged to the land, as a Freeman you had the rights to your own piece of land, as a noble you manage a piece of land and finally, as a royal you own the land. The King or Queen has a right to hand over titles, essentially in most cases, redistributing the management of their lands. The nobles managing the land were responsible for the protection of the land but also owned all it’s generated wealth (in form of taxation). In return, they offered part of their wealth to the King and in times of war, military assistance.



A duke, being the highest rank of a noble was granted a duchy from the king to reward him for his fealty and to keep them happy.A duchy was separated into administrative sectors called counties or, in the case of a county at the borders of the kingdom, marches. A Duke, as a Lord of  Manor had the right to request the serfs of the land to work without pay in order to complete public works within the duchy.


A Marquess was the lord of a March, a territory at the borders of the kingdom, and as such he would almost certainly be the one responsible to fend off any external threats to the kingdom. Because of that, although the size of the land he owned was comparable to an Earl’s, (lord of a county) he enjoyed a higher title.

Earl (Count)

Earls, like Marquess, were responsible for the management of a county and as such, for the taxation and protection of their territory.


Viscounts are the only non-landed non-hereditary, title of the kingdom. A Viscount is, in most cases, the first born son of an Earl or a Marquess and it’s honorific title. In a way the title of a Viscount was there to acknowledge someone as noble. Since the titles of Earl and Marquess were hereditary it meant that a Viscount was to become an Earl or Marquess upon the death of their father (or, occasionally their mother)


Barons are essentially Lords of a Manor, which could have been a village, a market town or in very rare occasions, a city.

Nobles in the service of the King

As with a modern corporation the lower ranks did not owe fealty to their direct managers, (A Baron to the Count of it’s territory, a Count to the Duke of his duchy etc) being a noble meant that you swear fealty to the King and that implied yearly military service. Military service meant that themselves and their retinue (private armies) were expected when called by the King to come to their assistance.

The rich and the famous

Each of the nobles owned taxation directly to the King, the taxation came from the Manors and Infrastructure they held directly and was managed either by them or by their Bailiffs. In addition to their direct holdings a noble also received a small portion of the tax generated from the holdings of other Lords within their administrative section. The higher the rank of a noble it was the larger and more numerous the holdings he would manage within his territory. For example the Duke of a duchy would most probably manage the largest settlements (cities) within the region as well as several Manors within it. It was fairly common that a Duke would hold one or more counties as his own as well as Baronies (Manors) as an Earl would hold several baronies within his County.

For example the Duke of X would also be the Earl of XY and the Earl of XZ as well as the Baron of XYa XYb and XZc and he would take money geld (money in the form of tax) from these holdings as well as a small portion of the tax generated by XYc and XZa, XZb. Each year the Baron will have to give to his King tax for all his direct holdings and the Counts of his duchy will also pay the King’s tax directly to the King (minus the portion that was given to their Duke)

In conclusion

In a Feudal kingdom the nobles of the land were men who declared their fealty to their King and received part of the King’s kingdom in return for a portion of their income and military assistance in times of war. Each of these lords (Viscounts excluded) held their title in their family, which meant that one of their sons (firstborn in most cases) would inherit all the land they were given and hold the same obligations to their King.

Continue reading in Part IV: The Royals >> 


References and Further reading


Royal and noble ranks at Wikipedia, retrieved February 16th 2015

Larence, Sir James Henry (1827) [first published 1824]. The nobility of the British Gentry or the political ranks and dignities of the British Empire compared with those on the continent (2nd ed.). London: T.Hookham — Simpkin and Marshall. Retrieved 2013-01-06.

Economy of England in the Middle Ages at Wikipedia, retrieved February 16th 2015