Medieval Professions V: more NPCs you won’t find in published adventures

Pilgrims, like the famous band described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were a common sight in the Middle Ages.

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 12 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, describing the duties of the alewife, friar, and plague doctor, can be viewed here.

The fourth part in this series, detailing the vocations of barber, falconer and miller, can be found here.

Today’s post will discuss the rag and bone man, the chantry priest, and pilgrim.

The Rag and Bone Man

The rag and bone man made his living pushing a barrow through town, collecting rubbish ranging from rags and bones (hence the job title) to old furniture or broken crockery, from townsfolk for barter or a nominal fee. Often, he advertised his services through yelling or ringing a bell.

When his collection rounds were complete, the rag and bone man would sift through the debris, trying to find items that could be salvaged or repurposed, then dispose of the rest, rather like a one-man recycling center. On rare occasion, someone would throw away something that was still intact that could be sold.

In a D&D game, the rag and bone man may have access to information players need; after all, he spends all of his time interacting with people in the street, and his lowly status can lead those of higher station to ignore his presence.

Players could also use the role of rag and bone man for intelligence purposes. It’s a fairly easy disguise to make, and a hero posing as a rag and bone man could visit sensitive areas of a city, such as a suspected lair of a villain, the gaol holding one or more companions, or the site of a rival thieves’ guild.

 The Chantry Priest

The importance of religion in Medieval society cannot be understated. Religion, or more importantly, the eternal consequences of not following it, were so deeply ingrained that wealthy people sometimes sought to use their earthly possessions to help ensure a more comfortable eternity after their deaths. To this end, many wealthy nobles and kings devoted some of their assets to the creation of a chantry, or fund dedicated to the saying of Mass for a specific purpose, with the purpose often being for the repose of the soul of the person establishing the chantry.

At minimum, the chantry fund had to include a stipend for the support of a chantry priest, who was responsible for saying the Mass on specific days or times for the stated purpose. Many such Masses were said at chantry altars erected within existing churches. Wealthier patrons paid for elaborate “upgrades” for their chantry altars, such as golden implements or costly vestments. The wealthiest paid for additions to be built on existing churches; a historical example of this is the order given by the English King Henry V to construct a chantry chapel over his tomb in Westminster Abbey.

While the number of occasions a chantry priest may be able to assist D&D heroes is predictably small, the existence of a chantry can provide useful information to a party of heroes, particularly if the chantry was built by or for a villain. What evil did the beneficiary of the chantry commit to warrant a chantry’s construction and maintenance?

The Pilgrim

The fear of going to hell after death was palpable in the Middle Ages. One BBC documentary on the Crusades gave an appropriate description of this fear, stating that it felt like sin and corruption surrounded the people; the air they breathed was rank with it. They saw the frequent plagues as God’s punishment for their sins, and were willing to go to extremes for absolution. An illustration of how overwhelming the cultural fear of hell was at that time can be found in one incident described in the documentary: when Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, he promised absolution for all those brave enough to take up the Cross, and entire settlements joined the crusade and left for Jerusalem.

Of course, not everyone was willing to go on a crusade, but it was commonly believed that sacrificing one’s time, money and energy to visit the holy places and artifact reliquaries dotting the Medieval landscape was a worthwhile gesture, demonstrating that pilgrims seek to be closer to the Almighty and to atone for their sins.

A D&D game may not have the same cultural fear of hell as Medieval Europe, but a fantasy RPG landscape can be dotted with shrines and destinations of spiritual significance that can add flavor to a D&D campaign. At a dungeon master’s discretion, some sites may be under the control of monsters or rival religions, leading to a series of adventures to recapture them.


4 comments on “Medieval Professions V: more NPCs you won’t find in published adventures

  1. Brandon says:

    This series is a great read, thank you for the information! I have been working on developing a list of different NPC personalities, but taking their professions into account would really broaden my options. Thank you so much again for this information.

    • Alric says:

      You are most welcome. I’ve found that sprinkling just a few of these folks in a relatively standard setting has been enough to make adventures more memorable.

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