Medieval Professions III: More NPCs You Won’t Find In Published Adventures

While probably not a physician in the strictest sense, plague doctors like the one pictured above were a common sight during the Black Death of the 14th Century.

While 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. To that end, the RPG Athenaeum has thus far outlined outlined six important Medieval occupations, which never seem to appear in the pages of published D&D modules.

The first posting in this series, describing the vocations of messenger, gravedigger and rat catcher, can be viewed here.

The second posting, detailing the livelihoods of the chandler, crier, and dragoman, can be found here.

Today’s entry will focus on the trades of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor.

The Brewer, or Alewife

The craft of brewing was largely practiced in northern and eastern Medieval Europe, where it was too cold to grow grapes for wine. The trade was unusual among Medieval occupations, as it was dominated by women. These female brewers, or alewives, served an important function, as the poor sanitation of the period often made local water supplies unsafe due to waterborne pathogens.

The ales made by alewives were brewed from barley-malt, water and yeast, and while far thicker and weaker than today’s brews, still contained enough alcohol to kill some waterborne organisms that could make people seriously ill. These ales would typically spoil before they could be exported, so the brewing of ale was an almost constant process. Sometimes, the ale was flavored with rosemary or similar herbs. it was customary for a green branch to be tied to a pole outside of the brewer’s residence to tell passerby that ale as ready for consumption; some of these branches were so prominent that they presented a hazard to people riding horses past them in the street.

Since people tended to congregate where the ale was served, the homes of alewives became the forerunners of what eventually became taverns.

In large settlements, a person was designated as the ale-conner, who had the dubious distinction of taste-testing each batch of ale before it could be sold. Job satisfaction among ale-conners varied with the quality of local brews. For example, one historical record in Cornwall, England, described the local ale to be “white and thick, looking as though pigs had wrestled in it.”

Later, hops were added to the production process of some brews, creating beer – although unhopped brews, called ales, remained popular. It was later discovered that the hops, in addition to producing improved flavor, also increased the alcohol content, extending the effective shelf life of the brew sufficient to allow export. By that point in history, brewing had gone from a cottage industry to a fully-developed trade, and ale and beer were produced in large quantities by both breweries and monasteries.

The Friar

Not everyone becoming a man of the cloth wore a priest’s robes. Some chose the path of the monk, dwelling in a monastery, shut away from the world in accordance with monastic rule. Others chose the role of friar, which swore to the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as the cloistered monks, but saw their mission in communities, where they were to spread the Gospel of Christ, living on the charity of others in exchange for spiritual guidance. Friars generally received more formal training in their art than parish priests, many of whom couldn’t even read or speak Latin, so their sermons in urban areas tended to be better-received.

Typically, orders of friars went forth into the world to fulfill specific missions. The Dominican Friars, for example, focused on teaching and fighting heresy.

Inevitably, friction developed between the orders of friars and high-ranking church officials, largely over the friar’s vow of poverty. While they were permitted to beg for food and clothing, friars were generally prohibited from accepting gifts of money for their work. It was common for friars to wear simple, homespun garments and to go barefoot, in stark contrast to high churchmen, who lived lives of splendor similar to the great lords of their time.

As the years passed, friars were authorized to celebrate mass and hear confessions, and with added power came some level of corruption. The profile Chaucer provided for his friar in The Canterbury Tales described a fellow who had a license to hear confessions, but provided easy penance for those who accompanied their confessions with large cash donations. In some places, the conduct of the clergy led St. Bernadino of Siena to say, “Men often believe in nothing higher than the roof of their own house…and this is because of the evil lives of monks, friars and priests.”

Of course, the level of piety prevalent among friars in a D&D game falls within the purview of the dungeon master (DM), but friars maintaining a higher moral standard than temple priests could create interesting tensions within the game, particularly if a player character hero’s role falls on one side of those tensions.

The Plague Doctor

These ominous figures appeared during the Black Death of the 14th Century, during which the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe. Often, these fellows weren’t true physicians; most trained doctors had either died from plague themselves or deserted afflicted regions as untreatable by the time plague doctors became commonplace. Since so little could be done to prevent the plague from running its full – and fatal – course, the duties of plague doctors largely consisted of verifying if an individual was infected.

To protect himself from exposure to the disease, a plague doctor wore special clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat (a common garment worn by Medieval doctors, which allowed people to recognize the plague doctor as a member of the medical profession);a primitive gas-mask shaped like a bird’s head, with fragrant herbs stuffed in the beak and red glass lenses to protect the eyes (it was believed that birds carried the disease, so a bird-mask might entice the plague to leave the afflicted and be absorbed by the mask, and the herbs within purified “bad air” before the doctor could breathe it); a long, black cloak covered with wax, which would resist absorption of the various fluids spewed out of burst swellings or coughed up by the afflicted; leather breeches to protect the legs; and a walking stick which could enable to doctor to examine a patient without touching him.

In practice, the plague doctors probably helped to spread plague instead of stopping it, as the doctors could transfer contamination from one residence to another, but they represented an important step in the development of infection control.

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12 comments on “Medieval Professions III: More NPCs You Won’t Find In Published Adventures

  1. Cyric says:

    Great and helpfull article – mostly for my Warhammer FRPG campaign. Thx alot!

  2. Ripper X says:

    Great stuff, keep em coming! I had never heard of the plague doctors, I remember seeing them in pictures but always just assumed them to be symbols; fascinating stuff.

  3. Aritz says:

    Great articles you have, thanks!
    Should I say, though, that Paizo’s Pathfinder already included the Plague Doctor so It’s just a matter of time and articles like this one that they include more real middle-age professions!
    Keep writing, now you have an additional subscriber!

  4. El cervecero, el fraile y el médico de la peste…

    Tercera entrada dedicada a profesiones medievales poco conocidas o reconocidas en el ámbito de la fantasía medieval. Estos artículos son originales de Alric y publica­dos en The RPG Athenaeum. En esta ocasión se introducen el cervecero, el fraile y el …

  5. [...] The third posting, which focuses on the trades of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here. [...]

  6. [...] into foes September 2009 5 comments 3 100 Subjects for tavern chatter April 2009 9 comments 4 Medieval Professions III: More NPCs You Won’t Find In Published Adventures December 2009 10 comments 5 Miniature Painting Tutorials April 2009 1 [...]

  7. [...] The third posting, describing the duties of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here. [...]

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