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.
The third posting, which focuses on the trades of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here.
Today’s posting will describe the trades of the barber, falconer and miller.
Medieval barbers played an important role in early medicine. Unfortunately, they were constrained by the severely limited medical knowledge of the day. They received far less training than Medieval surgeons, who were educated at universities; as a result, a barber’s practice was largely limited to bloodletting and tooth extraction.
Bloodletting was the intentional removal of blood from the body in an effort to restore balance among the four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm, which correlated with the four elements of fire, earth, air and water, respectively. If the patient was believed to have too much “bad” blood, blood was removed, either by slicing the skin or through the application of leeches, to restore the balance.
The treatment of toothaches was similarly misinformed. A common cure involved burning a candle very close to the tooth; the heat would theoretically drive the worms thought to cause the ache to leave the tooth and jump into a cup of water held below the patient’s mouth. When that treatment failed, the tooth was extracted with pliers, without anesthetic.
The iconic barber pole, in fact, was symbolic of the practice; blood-soaked bandages were hung on the barber pole to dry, and wind blowing the bandages around the pole gave rise to the diagonal striped pattern eventually painted on modern barber poles.
Falconry, or hawking, was the practice of using trained birds of prey to catch other birds, for the purpose of gathering food or entertainment. Although the sport is associated with the noble classes, falconry was practiced by people from all levels of society.
The falconer’s job was to catch and train birds of prey to be handled by humans, without dulling the birds’ natural hunting instincts. The falconer made custom-fit jesses, or hoods and tethers, for each bird, and was responsible for keeping these hunting birds trained, fed and healthy.
Although falconry was practiced by members of all social classes, there were pronounced differences in the species of birds used, based upon a hawker’s ability to acquire them. The most common and least expensive bird was the kestrel, which was trained to land upon the hunter’s fist; other birds, in ascending order of value, were the sacre, goshawk, Peregrine falcon, and eagle, which were usually trained to land on wooden perches. Obviously, only the wealthiest nobles could afford eagles or multiple hawks.
Since nearly all kings took part in falconry, it was common for royal falconers to have several assistants and the ear of the king, making falconers high-ranking, influential officials.
The miller’s profession was making flour from cereal grains, typically through mills powered by wind or water. These mills featured remarkably sophisticated gear-works for the time, which rotated millstones on top of a base, or quern-stone, which remained stationary; the grain to be milled was placed between the stones to produce flour.
In Feudal Europe, the miller usually rented his mill from the lord of the land containing it, payable with a share of the flour ground at the mill. Some Medieval manors required all serfs residing on them to make use of the lord’s mill, a very unpopular demand at manors where corrupt millers misrepresented quantities of finished flour or took more than their legal share from their customers.
Contemporary literature from the Middle Ages suggests that millers were an unpopular lot, notorious for questionable morals, base upbringing and vulgar behavior. While these assessments may have varied among actual millers, some historical sources suggest that, since milling provided the potential for a laborer to acquire wealth and status in a way that most serfs could not, that millers were unpopular due to their potential for social mobility, regardless of their character.