>The Fantasy Economy – What do you mean lifestyle matters?

>And no, I don’t mean the one politicians of all kinds are always making noises about.

What I’m talking about here is something that just about everyone gets wrong – usually because most of us are so used to the way things have worked since the Industrial Revolution that it’s invisible. The changes the Industrial Revolution kicked into overdrive had already been happening, but in the space of fifty to a hundred years they went from upper class only to ubiquitous, and rearranged European society in the process. The other thing about the Industrial Revolution is that most of the changes were economic. The industry side was the means, not the end.

I’m going to start by reduction: it’s easier to see the differences this way. Besides, we’ve all got a more or less reasonable idea of how “the economy” works nowadays. We know you earn money at a job or selling stuff and spend it on the things you need and want, hopefully in that approximate order.

The screamingly obvious first. Say goodbye to electricity, piped gas, and the car. For light, you’re using either candles (expensive) or some form of oil/fat/grease light. More often than not, you’re going to bed when it gets dark and getting up when it’s light. Anything happening at night probably involves a full or at least three-quarter moon because that way there’s a decent amount of light out. Cooking means a fire, which you’ve got to watch constantly and makes things miserable in summer. No cars means everything perishable is coming from close by, if you didn’t grow it yourself. You’re not going anywhere that’s not in walking distance unless you can afford and have space for horses or there’s a coach service. For most people, the effective ‘range’ is three to five miles for general errands, maybe ten miles if you’re going somewhere and staying there, and if you’ve got access to good horses, fifty miles is a day’s journey, more or less. Oh, and you’re getting water from a well – yours if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s by bucket from a communal well, and the quality can be pretty iffy since there’s no sewage system either. A bath means heating water bucket by bucket and pouring it into a tub as it boils. By the time you’ve filled the tub what you’ve got is – hopefully – warm water. If you’re in a large family, everyone uses the tub water and the poor sod who goes last gets cold, dirty water to wash in.

Now get rid of mass-produced furniture and whatnot. Your dishes are probably wood, because for those all you have to do is cut down a tree and make it yourself. Nails are expensive because a blacksmith has to make them, individually. The old joke about granddad’s axe isn’t a joke any more – everything you own gets used, re-used and repaired endlessly. Your roof is probably shingle or thatch because you can do that yourself with local material, and you have to fix it constantly. Furniture-wise, you’ve got maybe a bed a table, and some stools or benches. Unless you’re wealthy – which usually means you own a lot of land – you made it all yourself, or someone in your family did. If you’re doing well, you’ve got some chickens and pigs, maybe even some cows or sheep. You don’t usually see money at all: instead, you barter with whatever you have surplus or your skills. Money is for the wealthy. Even your taxes get paid in kind rather than in money. That’s life for most people.

If you’re one of the relative few who lives in the (rather small by our standards) cities, you probably still keep chickens and possibly pigs, and you might have a small garden that keeps you in vegetables. For flour, honey and such, you go to the markets. Also for cloth, since you haven’t got space to grow flax or hemp or raise sheep. Cotton is rare and expensive because it’s a sub-tropical crop and needs a lot of intensive labor. Mostly what you buy is some version of linen or hemp cloth or wool. There is no such thing as ready-made. You or your family make it yourself. You probably have two sets of clothing: one for everyday, and one for Sunday. Washing your clothes means dunking them in boiling water and beating the dirt out of them – soap hasn’t been invented yet.

Trade means non-perishable goods – high quality fabrics, metals, gemstones, wood, dyes, spices (which are typically dried and will keep for a long time unless they get wet), lace (hand made by skilled artisans), and such. It’s all expensive – your family might own one lace collar, which the lady of the house wears to church on Sundays and treats with extreme care. If you’re a trader, chances are you live on the edge because travel any distance is dangerous and you could lose a fortune if your goods are stolen or the ship sinks. You probably specialize in one type of trade because of the specialized knowledge you need for it. If you’re a skilled artisan, you’re selling mostly to the relatively few wealthy people, or to traders, and you’re probably fairly well off yourself (unless you’re a blacksmith, in which case how wealthy you are depends a lot on where you’re working and how specialized you are – a really good swordsmith or armorer makes a lot more than a village smith). Jobs as we understand them don’t exist: most people are basically subsistence farmers or managing a little above that. People who are ’employed’ are generally servants or slaves who live in their master’s homes, or they’re apprenticed to a merchant or artisan and learning their trade. There were a few ‘open’ trades – keeping an inn or tavern (which generally was done as an extra by someone who was a bit better off than his neighbors), prostitution, and hired muscle of all flavors. One of the things that kept this structure relatively static was a variety of laws that banned moving above the class you were born to.

All of this added up to a finely tuned economy that mostly excluded the majority of people. Farms and villages had their own micro-economies based on barter, with occasional luxuries like blankets being brought in by traveling peddlers and usually bartered. National economies relied heavily on how much precious metal could be mined or traded for, and on taxing trade (other taxes generally got paid in kind). Nations that were foolish enough to debase their coinage with base metals suffered inflation and lost trade. Standing armies were rare. More typically, a monarch had a small personal guard, and raised an army from the populace with promises of loot and easy victory. They only did this when they needed to – or thought they could win quickly or cheaply – because once they took people away from their normal livelihood they had to pay them. A long war could cripple a country’s finances.

I’m not touching what magic does to this kind of system, because it depends on what kind of magic and what it can do. Similarly, I’m not getting specific anywhere – but pretty much all pre-Industrial cultures fit this general model, although late pre-Industrial you start having factory production and hugely uneven changes in social standing, wealth, and customs (which can and often did destabilize things). The assorted ‘Daily Life in…’ books offer a decent thumbnail guide to get started with. After that, I’d recommend good translations of material from, and preferably about, the period your setting is most like. Archaeological reproductions help too, as do re-enactor materials. The basic idea with this is to get the general feel of how things worked, dig out enough specifics that you can include the corroborating details (things like peeing in a bucket for your launderer tend to be more effective for Heinleining than things like the exotic carpet in Lord Sonso’s manor because they illustrate the differences in everyday life).

Oh, and if you want a really good insight into war, politics (and underlying it, economics) read Machiavelli. Start with The Prince, then the Discourses to get perspectives on absolute vs republican rule in ancient and medieval times, then move to the Art of War. For double bonus points, start estimating how familiar your favorite authors are with Machiavelli. Heck, for modern war all you really need to do with Machiavelli is update the weaponry.


  1. >Magic in everyday medieval economy.I've got low level subconscious sorts of things, fertility rites in the fields that fix nitrogen, for instance. Various things to discourage pests in fields and storage.I've got weather control as limited to the most powerful, as it involves magical manipulation (generally heating sizable air masses) at a large distance. The most powerful do not advertise that they are doing any such thing.At the middle level, healing, finding things, telepathy. The healing is either second hand (Potions and elixirs) or used covertly in conjunction with ordinary herbal healing. Finding things is useful in mining, but like telepathy and weather control are kept secret to avoid complications with the secular powers.

  2. >You know Kate, what you say is correct. But now here is the hard question… does it work for readers? And does it work for fantasy? Let's face it the life of the medieval peasant was short, hungry, brutish, dirty, narrow, and probably (shudder) had turnips as a main ingredient. It was as alien to our modern reader as the life of the six-pronged helium breather from Alpius V. And… for most peasants it was pretty boring (which is why 're-incarnees' always were princesses or great generals or emperor's in former lives. A life of 'fresh turnips in stewpot!' moments of excitement is hardly worth recalling. Me I was a peasant. All I recall is I do not like 'neeps). Now, your requirements as a popular author are 1)to keep your audience interested (last week we had turnips. My favorite. The week before we had turnips…) 2)To get your reader to identify with the protagonists. I'm one of the handful of fantasy authors who makes some pretense anyway of a grasp of the society and economics of the societies I write about. I can't say it has made me vastly more popular than a huge number of fantasy authors who get every thing wrong – to whom horses are cars, where servants use their aftenoon off to go shopping for new clothes, and where the diet even of the very poor is varied and unseasonal. (A curiousity here – I recall reading that life-expectancy and size of the individual and bone denisty DECREASED with the advent of agriculture. Yep. The herdsman was was bigger, better fed and lived longer… there were just less of them. It makes the conquering hordes of sheepherders over-running the largely peasant levies a little more understandable, even without the other factors.)So: what is the right course – being right or being popular? (ye Devil's advocate, Dave)

  3. >Dave! Have you been reading slush! I just turned down the opportunity to buy a book that featured the Wizard and his granddaughter living alone in the woods. She had a closet stuffed with gowns in brilliant colors and rich fabrics. Served veritable feasts for visitor's breakfasts. And was spoiled and rude to the lesser classes. Soft hands and perfect nails.Maybe she'd just come for a visit. But I didn't read any further than breakfast.

  4. >Kate,This is why I don't delve into historical fiction much. I'd get caught up in the research and minute detail so that the story would never get written, especially a short story. Also, unless I plan to write a lot of shorts in such a universe, it hardly makes the return on a short feasible. A novel, I can see.The closest I've come to a historical short was "Pony Up" for Julie and Rob's Ages of Wonder anthology. Even then, it was set in the expansionist west with which I'm fairly familiar. I only needed some details that were catered to the story.And for "Winds of Change" in Sarah's Something Magic This Way Comes, it was set mid-1900's where only a bit of historical detail was used.I'm not particularly a history buff, so I tend to stay away from historical stories. That's not because I can't find the details, but I don't have the feel for the setting of the story. I suppose this could be fixed by reading up on more of a certain time period, but I'd have to really love a story whether it be short or novel to be able to put that much time and mental energy into it.Suffice to say that I do enjoy reading historical fiction where an author has put that kind of time and mental energy into it. I'm just glad I didn't have to write it.And BTW, I'm so bummed to have missed Sarah's intro to her shorts boot camp yesterday. Had too much going on. I'll try to remember what day Wednesday comes on next week. Sometimes, I forget that it's after Tuesday!Linda Davis

  5. >Okay, Dave, most of us of course mitigate this. And there are varying … grades of it, even after the industrial revolution. For instance, in the village I grew up in, if you had a job — let alone a sit down job — you were "well off". Most people had their own businesses and weren't paid in money. But that was okay, because money, by and large, was used for extras. Though that changed very fast. I mean, like in my first six years of life. At the same time, life was maybe not QUITE as deprived in some parts of the world. At least judging by the fact that many potters in Portugal still use Roman patterns. I'm sort of assuming their business thrived through the dark ages. And we're finding there was more trade than we thought and a little more surplus production than we dreamed of. But, grosso-modo, Kate is right.Also, most of us try not to have period hygiene in our books. At least I do. It's really hard to get interested in your Lord and Lady if you describe the vermin crawling through their hair and clothes.OTOH, I think what Kate is trying to vent against is more egregious than even what Pam mentions. Among younger writers of fantasy there seems to be total lack of wareness that rubber is a product of the discoveries and that disposable plastic fill in the blank doesn't grow on trees. No, I'm not joking. I've SEEN this. Also, I'm getting truly tired of the girls who think fantasy is history and that every medieval woman knew some contraceptive herbs, the knowledge of which has since been suppressed by the patriarchy! (Turns out there was a plant that was near perfect for contraception. It became extinct within fifty years of discovery in Roman times. I don't remember the name. Kate found it.)

  6. >Sarah, as someone who lives a sort of semi-self- sufficient lifestyle I have to agree there were probably more 'hidden' surpluses than we realise. Of course real shortages – feast and famine were facts of life too. What happened to the surplus… well our forefathers fuedal overlords (that some people have a wishful thinking yen to return to – somehow imagining they'd all be the overlords) tended to scrag a lot of it. And sad fact of life — not all illiterate peasants were hard-working or forward thinking. Some were of course.The other thing is goods didn't have built in obselecence, so in some ways 'capital' did accumulate generation on generation.

  7. >Ori,I'm well aware of the ancient Roman technology level and population. That isn't the point. The point is that a ridiculous majority of fantasy uses something quasi-medieval as its setting, so I'm looking at how medieval actually worked in the forlorn hope I won't see peasant farmers buying pale blue blankets at markets or wearing cotton or any of a ridiculous number of other things that make me want to kill someone for stupidity.Talking about the Roman Republic when the era being discussed is more or less medieval qualifies.

  8. >Matapam,It sounds like you have a good setup there – but then you've done your research and you've got an endless supply of examples of what not to do. 🙂

  9. >Dave,I don't have any intention of inflicting turnips (ew) or period hygiene (EW!) on readers, but I do think it's possible to get it somewhere close to right without the organic four-legged car that never stops at an inconvenient point to do what comes naturally, never seems to need rest, and presumably clones itself somehow, because mares are never pregnant, you never see foals, and stallions never, ever go after anything female in heat/menstruating. (clearing throat)Anyway… ye Devil's Advocate, there's not much fantasy that stays with peasant farmers even if it starts there, so you can get it right as well as write good books. Or you can lay in the magical whatchammy that improves the quality of life all the way down to Joe Subsistence Farmer.

  10. >Matapam,Like Dave said, the sad thing is when those get published. And then idiots rave on about how "authentic" it is. Not only would I not have got past breakfast, there's a fair chance I'd have lost my breakfast. Which is why I'm posting these things – in the faint hope that someone will read them, go do some more research, and not inflict the Hollywoodesque Tough Guide version on those of us trying to preserve our functioning brain cells.

  11. >Dave,That kind of dumb attracting large advances leads me to wonder either who is doing what or whom or whether the assets of the author involve left and right. Not that I'm cynical or anything.

  12. >Linda,I don't 'research' history – I love reading this stuff. I'm working my way through Machiavelli at the moment – I've finished the Discourses, I'm about halfway through the Art of War, and then I'm going to re-read The Prince because it's been too long.It certainly gives you an insight into the mindset and the assumptions – which is as important as the facts when it comes to writing something that feels right. The thing with me is, knowing this stuff means it really drives me nuts when I see it blatantly, horribly wrong.

  13. >Sarah,Hell, yeah, we mitigate it. No-one is going to read "and we spent an intimate evening combing lice out of our clothes and hair", so you skip that bit and talk about the fabrics and needing servants to help you get dressed and so forth. And we don't mention what they used where we use paper (mind you, different diet leads to different…. Er. Nevermind)And yes, you're absolutely right about what I'm venting against and hoping it might prevent a few more pieces of nonsense like… oh… plastic buttons in ye medievalish fantasy (which I WISH was something I was just making up) and just a little more attention to the realities of life – like, as you say, the alleged contraceptive herbs. (and no, you do not want details about what happened during that time of month. Trust me. I can see the 'ick' triggers going off from here). Oh, the Roman one that was harvested to extinction was silphium, possibly a fennel and related to asafoetida. It grew in a very limited geographical area and didn't take to cultivation. Everything else that got tried – and there were a lot – tended to be of the "poison just enough to lose the baby without killing the mother" type. With the expected results.

  14. >Dave,There was a lot of seasonal, and a lot of using absolutely everything that could possibly be used. There wasn't a lot of an animal that didn't get eaten or used in some way (Haggis, anyone?). Anything fibrous enough to be broken down into a spinnable thread got spun and woven and worn and patched and made over until it eventually fell apart. A lot of things were made, and then lasted, with repairs, for multiple generations – which does create a kind of hidden surplus because from generation to generation there's no need to start new. The practice of extended family all living in the one home tended to do that, too, and since the farmers were typically only inside to sleep and cook, there wasn't the need for space we have. Also, as I recall, the medieval farmers, even the serfs who were attached to specific parcels of land, had a better life than servants living in the cities – the cities weren't nice places. Those who read Heyer and Austen would have noticed that even as late as the Regency period, cities were good places to be. You went to the city for the social things and to be seen, then you went to a resort or to your country estate where it was cleaner and safer. That particular trend was around even when London was a small town.And now I'm rambling and jumping over hundreds of years in a metaphorical hop, so it's time to shut up.

  15. >Kate,It's been a good long while since I read The Prince. I skimmed the other stuff in highschool but never gave it the in depth look it deserves. I need to do that. If for no other reason than it might be a fun debate at some point.How many people do you suppose are out there who never heard of another "art of war" other than the one written by Sun Tzu? Too many I would think. Like those who still don't understand Machiavelli for the pragmatist he was.

  16. >Chris,Far too many people think The Prince is all there is to Machiavelli, and don't have any idea what's in that book, much less what's in the others.There's so much buried there in the assumptions he makes, as well as the advice he's giving. Very much a pragmatist, but with some interesting moral views creeping through even The Prince's "if you want to be an absolute ruler, this is how" and the Discourse's "Sometimes you need an absolute ruler even if you're a strong, stable republic."He was a very shrewd observer of human nature – which is why so much of what he wrote holds true today.

  17. >"He was a very shrewd observer of human nature – which is why so much of what he wrote holds true today."This might also be why most people consider his ideas to be equal to "bad".

  18. >Might be worth noting that I harbor dark suspicions about magic that seems to be mostly intended to substitute for modern tech? E.g., the magic guild that automatically takes care of the sick, provides sewage handling and similar services, and coincidentally provides a range of transportation services available to everyone… just because a sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic doesn't mean that magic is just technology with sparkles. Nor does it (necessarily) transform the underlying social structure. If you have lords and nobles and whatnot, with serfs… who gets the magic services?

  19. >The 50 miles/day thing assumes you can change horses. You won't be doing it on a single horse and expect the horse to be anything other than food and glue the next day (except maybe if you're a mongol).Oh and it helps if your fantasy is really medieval enough that they've invented stirrups which IIRC showed up 1000AD ish. King Arthur (to pick a favorite period) and his knights would not have had them. Without stirrups riding is a lot harder.And then, likewise, there's the horse collar and the wheel barrow which made a huge difference to productivity and which may (or may not) have been in use when/where you set the fantasy.It is interesting to note that Rome, which seems to have had wheelbarrows but not horse collars was far more interested in slaves than medieval rulers who had horse collars and may have had wheel-barrows. A horse without a horsecollar can pull 5 times the load of a man but he also eats 5 times as much so that's a wash and men are easier to keep alive and vaguely productive than horses which tend to not tell you that things are wrong but just die instead.

  20. >Mike,This is a very good point. If you've got the feudal social structure, the magic is going to go to the royalty and nobility first. In some circumstances,the magicians will quite likely be the royalty and nobility – but that's a discussion in a different thread.Magic being used as sparkly technology can work (see Sarah's Magical British Empire books starting with Heart of Light), but part of the reason it works is that the strongest magic in the West is associated with the nobility – if scattered somewhat courtesy generations of noblemen tending to be rather… enthusiastic about spreading their seed widely.Done badly… The usual procedure is "Defenestrate book with prejudice. Extract brain. Dump brain in bleach bucket. Rinse and repeat until no trace of offending book remains in memory."

  21. >Dirty,This is exactly the point. You can do fifty miles in a day on horseback – but not if you want to keep the horse or not on the same horse all day. And even if you're used to spending all day in the saddle you're still going to regret it the next day.Usually fantasy hits "high medieval" blending towards renaissance – a kind of unholy mix of anything that seems attractive from the 13th through the 16th centuries, generally with modern sensibilities tacked on because to the author it's unthinkable that they wouldn't be there. (is not going to have that argument. Would be here forever).Certainly, for general labor slavery in some form or other was the favored option right up until assorted inventions made it cheaper to use livestock, then mechanical gear. Estimates vary, but I don't think I've seen any that put the proportion of slaves in most medieval cultures below 50% (they were rarely called that, and most of the Western European versions of slavery involved ties to the land rather to a specific person. 'Villein', 'serf', 'thrall' all mean approximately the same thing.) Free farmers were relatively rare, except in the more uncivilized places like the areas of Eastern Europe that were routinely overrun by assorted hordes through the Dark Ages.The Black Death was one of the major factors in the collapse of slavery as an institution – labor became much more valuable because there were so few people available to do it. Livestock becomes more economic than slave labor at that point.

  22. >There's a brilliant book by Tony 'Baldric' Robinson called The Worst Jobs in History which shows how awful such jobs as washing clothes with lye soap, or extracting animal gut for musical instruments could be. Lots of lovely details about everyday life. Also, I live 25 miles N of London, which was a day's journey by coach in the 18th cent – there are still 4 pubs remaining in Hoddesdon that used to put up travellers to Cambridge.

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