Some readers may have noticed a fault in the post that precedes this – regarding the distribution of grown cereals among the peasants and their caloric intake. That error would have been that a certain amount of the grain, above and beyond what they would eat or give to the Lord of the manse, would have to set aside for next year’s crop. In fact, yields during the medieval period were sometimes less than 2:1. 3:1 was more common. This means that fully a third of the grain would have to remain in storage throughout the winter until the following spring, if the community were to survive.
It is almost incomprehensible to us that yields could be that low. Typical yields today can range from 30:1 in the worst depressed areas of the Third World to upwards of 200:1 in the West. But without mechanized equipment, a proper knowledge of biology or fertilizers, this was the best a farmer could do – grains could not be willed to produce more.
(As an aside, you could argue higher yields from a D&D world, due to arcane knowledge available to druids or others, and generally I tend to predict higher yields with regards to my crops).
There are numerous, similar limitations on food supply in the Medieval world that an unfamiliar DM may fail to take into account: the size of livestock, for instance. Cows rarely exceeded more than 500 lbs. Sheep, swine and horses were all smaller – though efforts to breed larger horses, such as Percherons, Clydesdales and Belgians were started in the late medieval period, they did not achieve quite the success we are familiar with today (though local myths would testify that they did).
Added to less food on the hoof and less food from crop yields is the bizarre notion that many perfectly edible foods were avoided in the belief that they were either poisonous to the body or harmful to the spirit. Fruits in particular were eaten with considerably less frequency than they might have been. Then of course many cultures avoided foods for religious reasons.
All of this makes for both a limited and a scant diet – which in turn disavows most arguments that the typical manse might have existed amidst plenty. It is a usual DM’s belief that if a party were to raid and seize an isolated castle on the borderlands of a kingdom, it would be rich in gold and spoils ... when in fact such a castle would probably have traded such spoils with the more affluent central areas of the kingdom in order to obtain seeds for planting, animals to restock their herds and all manner of tools and handicrafts just to keep the castle running.
D&D also assumes that every castle is managed by a first-rate accountant who apparently never makes a foolhardy mistake in understocking the necessary materials. Every castle is equally under the sovereignty of a Lord who does not gamble, is not a wastrel or otherwise incompetent. No castle in the D&D realm is in debt, nor overextended in lending their coin to others, or “house-poor.” There is always a treasure room; it is always full to the brim and no one present would ever think of spending that loot on anything except more soldiers.
We know from experience that this is a false perception of reality, one which I have been guilty of myself up until perhaps two weeks ago, when I began to conceive of this series of posts. Look at the balance sheets of most corporations and you will find their assets extend to land, permissions, structures, money owed and equipment. Rarely does a balance sheet indicate that the company has billions of dollars in a bank account – this would be foolish, since excess money invested promotes more money to be earned in the future. This was no less true during the Middle Ages – if anything, it was more true, since excess capital tended to disappear whenever a blight destroyed the local seed, or animals began dying of plague, or a long winter demanded considerably more fuel and stored food than had been laid aside. Periods of starvation were more common, demanding expenditures whenever expenditures were possible ... and if something bad hadn’t happened to you, it had to your neighbor, and the polite, politically expedient (and practical) thing to do would be to lend, lend, lend.
In other words, the castle you’ve just plundered might have enough floating capital to survive any immediate threat, but beyond that they are probably dead broke. Guess what? They owe the castle next door 4,000 gold coin, and since the castle next door just suffered the onset of the plague, they needed to collect yesterday. Oops.
Which helps explain why groups such as the Vikings, Pechenegs, Magyars and so on didn’t stop at one castle, or ten castles ... they were living continuously on what they could grab, so that next month if they wanted to eat they better be able to seize two more. All it took was one hard-core castle that could hold out for four of five months, such as that at Brescia, to spoil their fun.
By extension, you might consider that most “lairs” in D&D would have similar problems, from the guild-invested artisan deep in the bowels of the city to the underground lair of orcs twenty miles past the kingdom’s border. Any extra coin could be traded with less than savoury humans who were willing to run tools, meat, ale, leather – what have you – in exchange for whatever the orcs might be able to come across, coin, gems or border guard weapons/armor. Orcs must eat also, and even if they raise herds of giant rats in their underground lairs for meat, those too are occasionally touched by pestilence. Yes, that might encourage the orcs to raid a nearby village, but that assumes the village is stocked to the gills with food ready for the orcs to eat. What if the village is starving also?
While we’re on the subject of plenty and the lack of it, consider at what time of the year your party might decide to seize the local castle: is it late Winter, when most stored goods will have been eaten, the populace waiting in anticipation for the local water sources to open and allow fishing, or for the return of birds which can be caught for food, or for the first shoots from turnips or potatoes? Is it mid-Summer, when the crops are still green, when the coin has run out for good until the sowing can be done and the August festivals will promise good sales? Is it Autumn, after the crops are taken in, after they’ve been sold and the money used to pay off creditors – the party finding hundreds of sacks of beets and turnips to mix with the barley the manse grew this year, ready for the long cold season to come?
Such things matter.
Some weeks ago I questioned the valuables which might be found on ordinary people in my world. Since that time I have been considering the question of payables, and the redistribution of wealth, with the recognition that, by and large, in that time period what the “rich” possessed for the most part was the opportunity to create wealth for temporary periods, which they would then spend on luxuries which themselves would degrade and spoil. Maintenance on the Lady of the Manse’s bedroom could suck the coin right out of a Lord’s purse.
If most people are living hand to mouth, from the lower strata of peasants and laborers, right up through adventurers and celebrities, and even Lords and Kings, then where is the money?