On Mid-Medieval Economics, Murder Hoboing and 100gp

The party stands before the local Lord of the small town they’re passing through and responding to an ad:  Kill the local ogre in the hills for 100 gold pieces!  George the Ogre menaced the roads leading into the Lord’s holdings and villages so the Lord wants George gone.   You, the Murder Hobos, who breezed through go hey, we have weapons, we have skills, we have experience points, we can take out George.  And you do!  The local Lord hands out the 100gp (along with the party getting whatever experience points an Ogre was worth) and the Murder Hobos hobo along.

Where does the 100gp originally come from? 

Assuming the fantasy world our Murder Hobos inhabit is plausibly “Vaguely Western European Medieval” with some hand waving about elves, 90% of the population works in agriculture.  Sure expensive magic could make agriculture marginally more effective for the whole population but the structure of most of the countryside are manors of Lords overseeing combinations of bonded villeins and free peasants working the land. Even elves need to eat – or maybe they don’t, but people do.   Dotting along the road is the occasional inn and a few small market towns with functional marketplaces – and these are where our friends, the Murder Hobos, hang out.

Unless the Petty Lord in question owns a mine of some sort, he has few options to raise that 100gp:

  1. Squeeze the Peasants. Why bother to pay that 100gp himself to get rid of that ogre when his peasants surely have a few coins stashed under the floorboards somewhere?  This is what Sheriffs are for.  Go squeeze the villeins and free peasants – those free peasants are always good for cash.  Ever wonder why in old 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons the cash rewards would be in weird denominations? As long as it all adds up to 100gp, who cares the Lords squeezed the peasants a few copper at a time?
  2. Raid a nearby village.  Why squeeze one’s own peasants, who will surely resent being squeezed, when one can go burn down a rival’s village and force the peasants to cough up 100gp at swordpoint?  It really only takes the few buddies that live with the petty Lord, some horses, a few swords, and some flasks of wine… It’s one thing to knock over a few peasants, and it’s another thing to take on an ogre. An ogre is dangerous business.
  3. Squeeze the hostage. Hostage? What hostage? Where did a hostage come from? Surely at some point the petty Lord went on his campaign with his Lord. And that guy has a Lord above him — a Duke or Earl, perhaps. And that Duke got lucky on his last campaign when knocking over some other peaceful peasant villages. The petty Lord, with supreme luck, managed to take out a rival Knight and now has said rival Knight hanging around eating all the food. But the rival Knight’s family is another set of Lords with their own peasants to squeeze so our original magnanimous Lord with the ogre problem sends away for a bit of financing. And here it is.

Our party goes and rolls the ogre.  Possibly the ogre has some goblin friends, maybe a few orcs, and maybe if he’s a high charisma ogre a bugbear.  (Bugbear!)  The party rolls the enemy, collects a few trinkets, and saves the village.  Huzzah!  The peaceful peasant village is saved! They are heroes!  The petty Lord gives them 100gp to go away because he needs to get back to the pressing business of ensuring this year’s crop comes in to cover all his costs for his next year’s so-called war with his Lord. 

And the murder hobos do go away because they have 100gp burning a hole in a pocket and it needs to turn into stuff.

Medieval agrarian societies experienced little inflation over long periods of time.  Little money entered into the macroeconomic system to force prices to fluctuate and the pernicious guild system held prices artificially static.   The cost of wheat was the cost of wheat.  For prices to rise, someone dumps buckets of cash on the society as a whole.   Serfs had little money because they were serfs, Knights (petty Lords) had little money because they had to pay for the arms of war and kick up to their Lords… one had to crawl up the hierarchy before the murder hobos find concentrations of wealth.

But then a group of murder hobos would hoover 100gp out of one small community, find the nearest marketing town, and dump it all there like insane agents of the Invisible Hand.  100gp didn’t just buy drinks, it bought the entire bar.  The best thing for the entire community is if the murder hobos took their money and left.  Talk about acts of redistribution.

Since economic pressures put on groups of elves and dwarves in a Feudalistic society who take up arms to wander the country side and kill ogres interests me, I can game out some of the our party’s choices after spending their 100gp on whiskey.

1. Roll over to the next Lord and take another well-meaning good-aligned job they heard from the previous bar to rescue another peaceful peasant village.  The process starts anew, except this time the murder hobos ask for250gp instead of 100gp because the party leveled and they have more expensive equipment and reagent needs.   They continue along like this until they fight the big boss at the end of the module and destroy a small country’s carefully balanced economy by dumping the treasure on a small marketing town.  Perhaps once the adventure completes, the murder hobos become an upgrade: the murder mercenary company.  Why take out goblins when one can take out towns and knock over petty Lords themselves?  Cut out the middle man.

2. Climb up the ladder from petty Lords to big Lords and Churches. If anyone has money, it’s those local Temples that dot the countryside squeezing the local free peasants and moderately wealthy landowners for their cash (since they can pony up and don’t have their own private shrines.)  You Clerics you with your wealthy Sanctuaries and need for adventuring teams to go do things.  At higher levels, the murder hobos can shake down people who shake down people who squeeze the peasantry en masse.  Not only does it make more money and destabilize an agrarian society faster, it’s more efficient for higher levels!

3. Get thee to a city.  And hold onto that thought.

Once the petty and not-so-petty Lords get rolled a few times by the murder hobos, they have their own choices because they need to get their wheat to market, they don’t know how to figure in inflation, and seriously they have bills to pay and these guys need to move on.  They can (lists of threes!  lists of threes!):

1. Buy another murder hobo company and sic them, for another 100gp, on the first murder hobo company in hopes of mutual annihilation.

2. Militarily mobilize against the murder hobos – oh thank you for saving us now please go far away and stop hitting all the manors on the road for jobs please.  Maybe raising troops and mass mobilization is the best way to get right of the plague of lawful good adventurers who just want to help the poor and the oppressed against the legions of evil?

3. Join ‘em.  It’s more lucrative to murder hobo rather than run lands as Knight So and So of SuchandSuch.  Grab the sword, leave the gun, take the cannoli and surely they need an NPC fighter!  Who doesn’t?  There’s a Storm Giant menacing a village over the rise.

And now our, oh, 7th or 8th level murder hobo group who has saved many peasant villages now have an entire chorus of ex-petty Lords helping them to right the wrongs while they ravage the countryside, and some Duke or Earl or even King will get smart and point them at their enemies for a bribe of, say, 10,000 gp ganked no doubt off the back of a hundred thousand peasants paying taxes…

Murder hobos are no good for a fine Western European Medieval economic climate full of elves.  So much for the long-term economic stability of the Hobbits of the Shire.

Cities – small, filthy and few as they are – are the only civic and economic structures with enough wealth to support the rapacious needs of the average, healthy, constantly leveling murder hobo.  A 100gp disappears into the cities dark streets like water after rain.  Guilds extort from one another.  Landed Churchmen run the heads of their Temples out of Cities.  Governments make their headquarters.    These are the guy with hard cash.  Where they got the hard cash is of no concern – they have hard cash.  Never mind with landed nobles. Those guys are broke.  There’s some Guild there who has long term grudges with another Guild and wants to get their pay and all they need is a group of murder hobos who have leveled up siphoning all the money out of the countryside. 

Imagine the rogue class of the Auditor who works for the Guilds with the Guild Artisan background who makes sure that now the team is part of the City they pay their kickbacks to the Guilds themselves….

When Guilds don’t have enough money, some Lord of a rich city state who doesn’t bother with such things as lands and rents but in real things like proto-banks and ports needs to have a rival sacked.  Here’s a scroll of fireball!  Gratis!  Go sack.  Hope you don’t come back!

Given an infinite amount of time and actual economic pressures, all adventuring groups become neutral evil. 

There’s a lot to this subject.  This doesn’t even touch money-lending and usury and rents.  This is a time with no real banking – where do the murder hobos store their cash? – and few mints churning out coin.  Lords pass off murder hobos based on IOUs they never intend to pay and then other Lords who will call those in.  Backstabbing guild politics of the highest order and free peasants willing to use murder hobos on their climb by their fingernails up the economic ladder so they can buy themselves a title.   And this is just what is rolling around in my head.   The murder hobos rely on an invisible system to support their need to Do Good: the wealth of the churches, the rent taking of the lords, the control of the guilds, the networks of small market towns destroyed in their wake by overindulgence of beer.

The White Company is the best of real history rapacious and completely gonzo mercenary adventurers who had some fun in 14th century France and Italy.   A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman describes the White Company and the role of mercenaries in medieval society in loving detail.

Anything on the Black Death is good for exploring what happens when disease upends a perfectly good Feudalistic system.  The history of printing gets one into guerilla warfare tactics between guilds and free enterprise (printing was never guild controlled) and the length they will go to blowing up each other.    Seriously, the history of printing and the printers wars with keeping out of guild control is the best historical story no one knows about. 

Debt: the first 500 years has a chapter on Western medieval economics in detail and describes what happens when one dumps huge amounts of liquid cash on a low cash velocity society.  (Hint: massive hyperinflation –just ask Spain!)

I am currently reading the Story of England by Michael Wood which describes life in a Medieval and Renaissance society in loving, personal detail.  Also, academics are jerks.   If you thought monasteries were bad they are nothing compared to a small Liberal Arts college in 1300AD.

Nothing coughs up ideas like real life.

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar FishesUnfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell’s previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see — “Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!”

I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai’i from 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named “Sandwich Islands” for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai’i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods — Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.

Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai’ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai’ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more “modern.” Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai’ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.

Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai’i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai’i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old “American Manifest Destiny” and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.

The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there’s a huge revival of local culture — a good thing.

Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won’t allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it’s a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin’s bit, “Religious Lift.” It goes like this:

“Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don’t let me wear your shoes if I don’t want ’em and we don’t have to go down and nail lifts onto the native’s feet!”

View all my reviews

The Telegraph

David Plotz on last week’s Slate Political Podcast quoted this section of Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs as a bit of random trivia. This quote is a minor reminder that in American politics all that is old is eventually new again and the same few arguments come up again and again. If the telegraph is such a world-changing marvel in 1885, what is the Internet?

“The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and do his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented; sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze—but the application of stream to propel vessels against both wind and current, and machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances had changed as greatly as material ones. We could not and ought not to be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.”

– Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, Chapter XVI, Section 14

Today in a Daily WTF

“Tea party” activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers.

Amid the history buffs and parents with young children wandering along the crushed shell paths of Virginia’s restored colonial city, some noticeably angrier and more politically minded tourists can often be found.

They stand in the crowd listening closely as the costumed actors relive dramatic moments in the founding of our country. They clap loudly when an actor portraying Patrick Henry delivers his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. They cheer and hoot when Gen. George Washington surveys the troops behind the original 18th-century courthouse. And they shout out about the tyranny of our current government during scenes depicting the nation’s struggle for freedom from Britain.

“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

I’ve got nothing.

King Tut’s Chariots Marvels of Engineering

(Just a splat-share, but this is pretty awesome from a nerd standpoint.)

King Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, rode full speed over the desert dunes on a Formula One-like chariot, according to new investigations into the technical features of the boy king’s vehicle collection.

via King Tut’s Chariots Marvels of Engineering : Discovery News.

Extra Bonus Post!

1. I found a nice program called Calorie Tracker for the Droid (free) that backs to a massive database of restaurants and foods. It also has barcode search via the camera, tracking across all sorts of metrics (carbs, fat intake, etc), graphing, etc. My experience with trying to find out what is wrong with my diet is mostly one of data collection. Whatever it is, I’ll find it and stop eating it. Or at least find things I shouldn’t be eating in general and stop doing that.

2. I fell asleep watching this older documentary on the Dark Ages from the History Channel last night. Yay Netflix streaming to device that… I shouldn’t be in bed with but I was trying to stay up and failing. It occurs to me two interesting facts:

A. These documentaries are myopic. They completely leave out the existence of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. No mention is ever made that they tried to recover Rome through several invasions via southern Italy. All of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe simply disappears off the map. Leo the Great! The General Basiliscus! Zeno vs. the Ostragoths!

Oh… nevermind. No one gives luv to Constantinople.

B. If one wants to know what would happen in the case of a Zombie Invasion, study the Fall of Rome. Seriously! A decadent Empire is felled by invaders who take over the cities and force the few survivors to scrabble through the ruins to scratch out survival. Any moment a barbarian may appear and take people out with an axe (or a zombie virus). They never stop coming! To survive, the survivors collect next to the ruins of technological marvels they could never hope to replicate and strip them for parts. Aqueducts fail. Roads crumble. Bits of civilization holds out — the Roman Governor of Gaul held out for a breathtaking 70 years — before the barbarians (zombies) took out the last bit of existence.

I was so excited by the parallels last night I fell asleep. But don’t duplicate my example. Read a book! Or Wikipedia! The perfect blueprint for a Zombie Invasion — right from history!

Completely Random Fact

The clip we saw on AMC from the original 1938 Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn was not colorized as we originally suspected but in an early and eye-gougingly bright Technicolor. I swear I thought it was colorized but no, apparently it was filmed in color.

According to IMDB, they used all 11 Technicolor cameras in existence (from Technicolor) to film the movie and it’s huge Avatar-like success is what lead to the adoption of color movies.

It’s the 1922 Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks that is in B&W.

That answers my random outstanding and context-free question of the day.

Using Laser to Map Ancient Civilization in a Matter of Days – NYTimes.com

As an archeology geek with interest in the Mayans, I go squee: Using Laser to Map Ancient Civilization in a Matter of Days.

Then, in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.

In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.

It has an interactive graphic! It’s awesome! The city is huge!

Chewing

Today in history — Chewing!

Cooking is something we all take for granted but a new theory suggests that if we had not learned to cook food, not only would we still look like chimps but, like them, we would also be compelled to spend most of the day chewing.

Without cooking, an average person would have to eat around five kilos of raw food to get enough calories to survive.

The daily mountain of fruit and vegetables would mean a six-hour chewing marathon.

It is already accepted that the introduction of meat into our ancestors’ diet caused their brains to grow and their intelligence to increase.
Meat – a more concentrated form of energy – not only meant bigger brains for our ancestors, but also an end to the need to devote nearly all their time to foraging to maintain energy levels.

As a consequence, more time was available for social structure to develop.

If God didn’t want us eating animals he wouldn’t have made them out of meat! Go team carnivore!