A History of Life in the Renaissance

A lot of people at least claim to play during the medieval time period; I’m not sure if that is either just a word that they use which has lost all meaning, or if they really do go all history with it. Me, personally, when I do play fantasy, I don’t play it during a medieval setting; instead, I typically shoot for the Renaissance. The reason is simple, even from the Renaissance, our minds and philosophies are very far removed from these ancestors or ours, and this only gets worse the more ages we go back. In all actuality, we have little in common with these people which we claim to be role-playing.  

The Renaissance is the time period where our modern philosophies began to take form; it wasn’t anything like us yet, but the seeds of decency were planted. It was during this time period that the West was ready to emulate the Roman culture; they had their basic needs met, and they were ready to begin work on a very hard to grasp concept for them, Civilization. Improving life, not just your life, but the life of others as well; and when one spends generations living fist to mouth, and spending all of their energies gathering resources for themselves, it is very difficult to shed what we modern westerners would call: Selfishness or Self Serving behavior.  Perhaps, in game terms, what this means to us is that, during the Renaissance, the Lawful Good alignment returned to humanity after an absence that had lasted since the fall of Rome. Up until the mid-Renaissance, in order to survive you had to be self-serving.

Let’s go back in time to France, besides Italy, the greatest achievements of the Renaissance age were found in this country, and they kept really good records. In order to understand our differences, we just have to look at how we treated children. In the Renaissance, life was hard. Society dictated that a man should have at least 10 children to survive him, but they had many many more, and most of these youngsters died very early in their lives. Today, the death of a child is impossible to get over, but back then, in farm journals of the period, it was just another notation in the books, and not a very important one either. More children died than lived, and even those that did survive didn’t live well.

If a woman died, her husband, though a devoted man to her, quickly got married again. Things got even worse if the husband died. When a woman was widowed, she too was expected to get remarried as soon as possible, but her children were not a part of the deal. If an infant was lucky, perhaps a widow’s sister would be kind enough to keep the child, but older children were completely abandoned and left to fend for themselves. They never saw their families again.  This was behavior dictated by society that only recently became unacceptable, so chances are, all of the players who refuse to write up a family background are actually playing closer to period than those who fuss over such things.  As far as what else we can take away from this, if people can do this kind of thing to their own blood, how do you think that they treat each other?

To be fair, a man of his time treated himself no better. It wasn’t uncommon to take a long journey on a drunken whim which serves no real point, and drag whoever happened to be there along with you. If you didn’t die on the road, you typically came back ruined and without friends, and for what? Well, a man of his time wouldn’t ask that question. Thinking of the consequences of his actions was not yet even a thing. Again, you live a fist to mouth existence, and you are genetically designed to fulfill immediate needs first, but now you have a little bit of free time to think. The Romans knew that free time was not productive, so they eliminated it, which wasn’t the case in France. People got bizarre ideas and they acted on them, and why not? The highwaymen who robbed and killed travelers stupid enough to follow the roads on their own typically made more money than any body else. Sure, if you got caught you were killed, but so what. The future was unthinkable to most men, thus it was ignored.

Lets get away from men, and let's look at other things in his world that are more real to us than how he saw the world around him. Cities! I’m sure that we all know what Waterdeep is! A bustling city full of people, adventure, and violence! Well, that is not what happened. There were no cities like that during the Renaissance, and they hadn't existed since the fall of Rome. Paris, the capital of France, what was it like? We have a much larger population today than back then. Most people chose to live in the country, and when they couldn’t, and they were forced to live in the city, they always brought the country with them.

There were no bustling crowds of people, though it was a place to gather to buy and sell at the market, but most of those people didn’t live in the city itself. Streets weren’t cobbled, they were muddy trenches that froze in the winter, and caused horrible clouds of dust in the summers. The few homes within the city all had gardens, and buildings, just like in the country, but on a smaller scale. I suppose that one could compare them to very small villages today. If one is going to live in the city, one needs to have a trade, and make a tidy living. Nothing extravagant; Instead of gold, or money, it was chickens, eggs, or dried whatever that you preferred to work for. As nice as gold is, one has never been able to eat it.

If we go look at a Lord’s chateau, one would think that this is where the good living is taking place, and it was! But, it wasn’t what you’d think. In fact, the nobles were forbidden to earn currency, they were expected to live off of that which was provided by the king, and this was not easy. Their homes were grand, and if you go to one today you will be impressed, but at the time things were very different. Today we live better than kings! In our homes we have cold and hot water on tap, we have a refrigerator to help us keep what we eat fresher longer. We can cook things on demand, but of all of these modern conveniences which we ignore every day, the men of the Renaissance had no central heating and cooling, specifically no heating. One can go see their massive fireplaces and marvel at their grander, but one is still standing in a modern temperature controlled environment. These places were cold! In the summer, they brought greenery inside to keep the stench down, but the hardest time was in the winter. Straw was brought in to cover the floors, imagine that for a moment. These lavish and beautiful chateau floors covered in straw. This helped keep the heat in. And one would assume that the lords and the servants avoided each other, but this is a Victorian idea, and one that never entered into the minds of our Renaissance ancestors. People didn’t have personal space back then. There were no comfort bubbles. People lived right on top of each other, and it wasn’t just people. The warmest room in any house has always been the kitchen, and that is where you found everybody. From the lady of the home, dressed in the most modern finery to the men who worked out in the fields all day covered in filth, they all crammed into the kitchen every chance they got. Imagine that you are a child, doing your studies, you’ve got everyone pressed together in the kitchen; dogs are running around fighting over scraps and looking for attention, not to mention the goats and the chickens which are kept indoors so nothing can take them. Your smaller siblings are running around, your infant sister is squalling for attention which she will not get. Your mother is dutifully and critically watching the maids who are trying to set the table, your father is there too yelling to be heard over all of the noise as a cook kicks a dog to get it to go back. How in the world did anybody get culture? This scene played itself out, not just in chateaus, but in homes all over Europe.  The quest to stay warm was one of necessity, and when it comes to this, the more the merrier!

Travel was dangerous, thieves killed and robbed everybody who they judged game. One wanted to travel with armed men, and lots of them. Everybody knew that they were out there. That was a given. If you did survive traveling the roads by day, one found themselves at a dark inn full of homeless, fellow travelers, and the undesirable all gathered around to repeat this ritual of finding warmth in company. These places were not nice, the highwaymen could be found here as well, in droves. If one was lucky enough to get a room, we again run into the common theme, beds were huge, but most inn beds fit four men, and they slept together without a second thought, this too kept you warm. Being alone in the Renaissance never happened, and the men and women who lived here didn’t want it to happen! One didn’t find much rest here either, once a room was full, a dresser was pushed in front of the door, one drew their sword and rested as best as they could until the sun came up and travel was once again possible.

Actually, speaking of the sun, man had not yet tamed the darkness, and darkness was a very terrifying thing. Darkness dictated our lives. We were slaves to it. People didn’t sleep all night, to sleep for 6-8 hours was unheard of! One had to get up periodically and check on their loved ones, look in on horses and other animals too large or too dirty to be kept indoors. They would venture out into the night to check on their neighbors. Many of these jaunts were fatal, it is easy to get lost in the pitch blackness. If something happens to your light source, you were typically doomed. People fell into rivers, twisted ankles and froze to death. Superstition dictated much of what was known, and when the body of your neighbor is found floating in the river, people had only their fear and superstition to explain this.

Now, what about the King? When one thinks about a king, one imagines a powerful man sitting on a throne and making decisions for people, but this wasn’t all that accurate. A king who stays in one place will soon be a king of nothing. In France, from the time of his coronation, to the time of his death the king is on the move. What about his court? Well, the court traveled with him. Visions of beautiful princesses and ladies of the court are fantasies, these women were just as hard as the men, they had to be. Even the Queen was on the road with her husband. In the morning, the servants would rush ahead to where the King would be spending the night, typically a Lord’s Chateau. The royal huntsmen would attempt to find red meat or fish, which were rare. The royal cook would take over the lords kitchen and begin preparing supper while the lords servants rushed around to make the house look presentable and make room for all of the king's horses and all of the king's men. This was the life of a noble! God forbid that a holiday was coming up, typically the King wanted to be in a specific place for religious observances, some were long enough to give himself and his men a break from the road so that he could actually spend a month in one place.

The King would look over the lords records, which had to be kept in order. He himself was forbidden to earn currency as well, with the exception of leveling taxes upon the people. Nobles and the King were expected to live on a budget, if one went over their budget, then tough! The only class which could earn currency was the middle class, namely merchants, soldiers, and tradesmen. This formed the basis of European economy for centuries. A knight who went looking for wealth was unable to keep it, as the wealth that he found belonged to the people. That is something to think about.

Not that we want to be trapped in history while playing our games, but it is something to consider. If well used, history can provide many fun ideas for us to try. It is a lot of fun researching this kind of stuff too.   


Brooser Bear said...

Hey, Ripper, I was off line for a bit, my PC crashed. Got your points about life during Renaissance versus Dark Ages and that most peoples' conception of Renaissance is based on the splendor of the Louis the Fourteenth's Court.

However, we run fantasy games, and everything is possible in our imagination and in the multiverse. So, yes, we can create a historically accurate medieval or renaissance setting, or create out own, or even leave it alone and let the players think, that they are living in the same world as ours, except for the swords and armor. It's all good. Now, it would be interesting, how you implement the alien-ness of the different era in the regular running of your game.

RipperX said...

I think that many players of the game are also into history. While we don't want to be enslaved by it, we can use it to add color. It is a tool that is available to help the DM decide what NPCs are doing on a massive scale, which is hard. Do I suggest that you empty out the City of Greyhawk in some pompous attempt to add authenticity? Absolutely not! But it can be an interesting tool that guides our writing.

Continuing our education is something that we do, and we do apply what we have learned to our settings, it is fun! Many of the decisions that we make at the table deal with cause and effect, any tool to make this unique and believable is a good tool.

As far as my game, we are back to Gothic Earth, a game that takes place in the world of Victorian Gothic Horror stories. By no means are we capable of creating an authentic experience, we don't want to, but we are all very literate in regards to the era, I know that it is probably my favorite genre. At the end of the day, we are still playing AD&D; my writing and the decisions of the players always comes first, but the back drop, the feel, the influence, that we can apply to the game makes it a very unique and very fun experience. The players are a part of the writing process, and we all know different things about our world which does come up in the game, and changes the story in an organic way that is very pleasing to everyone. In a traditional game of Fantasy, the only person who really knows the world is the DM, but when one plays a more historical game, this playing field is leveled. Everyone knows the world, or at least the rough geography, things may be slightly different, but everybody is somewhat familiar and knows what to expect. Not to dismiss true fantasy, exploration is a fun aspect of the game, but the less that I as the DM have to tell them, the easier I can control the pace of the game, which is something that is very important to me.

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