Although it isn’t necessary to conduct extensive research into Medieval daily life to create an exciting Dungeons & Dragons game, bringing real-world history and anthropology to the game can bring a level of “background realism” that players will appreciate. Most published adventure settings include non-player characters (NPCs) engaged in those professions players may know from school history classes - merchants, knights, friars, peasants, carpenters, blacksmiths and such – along with those professions of particular interest to adventurers, such as scholars and weaponsmiths. While the professions typically presented are certainly enough to convey a believable setting, adding some less-known, but historically accurate Medieval professions can add to your setting’s believability and provide you with an opportunity to role-play some unusual characters.
Medieval careers, especially during the later Middle Ages, were more diverse than many people think. The purpose of this posting is to describe three Medieval careers that never seem to be mentioned in most published settings, but could contribute greatly to the development of an adventure or a settlement’s “sense of place.” These include the messenger, the gravedigger, and the rat catcher.
Messengers were employed by local aristocrats and religious dignitaries who, as their name implies, deliver messages. Depending on the campaign, magic or technology may have taken up some of the messenger’s work load, but there will always be people who lack the means to send magical missives or who avoid using magic out of a desire to remain undetected.
In any event, messengers were a critical to the function of Medieval government and religious institutions. They needed to be highly motivated, brave and self-reliant people, as the journeys they undertook sometimes brought them through dangerous terrain or into the hunting grounds of predatory animals, such as wolves. And, of course, they often had to bring unpleasant news to powerful people. The common phrase about “killing the messenger” represented a real danger for historical messengers; in fact, laws were eventually enacted to protect messengers from the fury of angry message recipients.
In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, messengers can be reliable sources of information about the condition of roads and river crossings, troop movements, human or humanoid banditry and happenings in nearby settlements. If the heroes discover the remains of a slain messenger, several adventure opportunities can emerge, depending on the contents of the message. Delivering an unopened message to its intended recipient will likely bring an ally to the heroes’ cause, but opened messages – particularly correspondence between villains – will probably draw your heroes into adventure very quickly.
Gravediggers had the unenviable job of preparing the resting places of a settlement’s dearly departed. Historically, they weren’t particularly well-paid, although they could become respectably wealthy during times of abundant work, such as periods of plague. In regions such as Eastern Europe, some believed that the dead could rise from a grave and prowl the countryside, feasting on the living (some researchers suggest that these beliefs gave rise to our popular vampire legends); in such cases, gravediggers shared the responsibility with clergy of interring the dead in such a manner that would make such emergence impossible, typically by decapitating the corpse and turning the head face-down, and weighing down the suspect body with heavy stones.
In a D&D game, gravediggers are uniquely qualified to advise heroes about town residents passing to the next life. This information can include common causes of local death, determining how long something has been dead by rate of decomposition, the grave visitation habits of townsfolk, and grave robbing, along with reporting evidence of fantastic elements such as foraging ghouls, packs of giant rats and evil cult activities.
The rat catcher was a surprisingly well-respected fellow, particularly after popular opinion decided that rats played a role in human illness. Historically, this opinion shift is related to people first thinking cats were witches’ familiar spirits, deciding cats were therefore unlucky, and killing cats in order to be safe from witches. The reduced cat population led to an explosion in the rat population, after which rats were considered unlucky. As the name implies, the rat-catcher captured and killed rodents, protecting personal dwellings and critically important food stores.
In a D&D game, a rat catcher probably has a great deal of information heroes might want. It is very likely that he has been inside of nearly every building in his town of employment, and people tend to ignore him while he works. Need to help a companion escape from jail? The rat catcher goes in there twice a week, and knows about guard shifts and passwords. Want to know where the Lady Alandra keeps her correspondence? The rat catcher probably knows. Unscrupulous rat catchers may be found in the employ of roguish organizations, selling their knowledge to the highest bidder; even honest ones may be motivated or duped into sharing what they know by compelling argument or careful questioning.
If you think that highlighting Medieval careers would provide useful information for your campaign, please indicate so in the comments section of this post; if enough people think it worthwhile, it may become a regular feature of this site.