Some questions about serfdom

Mar 2015
767
Europe
#12
Joining mercenaries during the war or uprising would be most realistic scenario. Escape to another country would be very difficult and not because of pursuit. Serf will know only one language in most cases, have no cash money and very little ability to earn any.
Yes, but in Middle Ages, language borders and country borders did not match.

Women warriors are more the product of modern fiction than of any historical basis. Women just don't have the upper body strength to wield swords and other weapons of the day. There are numerous examples of women disguising themselves as men and joining an army, but they always get caught. Otherwise we wouldn't know about them. I suppose it's theoretically possible that a woman could have successfully concealed her sex so that history never recorded her deception, but such incidents must have been very rare. Joan of Arc was executed in part for wearing her hair in a manish style and for dressing like a man so in Medieval times there was considerable social resistance to gender-bending.

Mercenary company is a historically correct term, or at least it's used by modern historians who write about medieval warfare. I would avoid terms like mercenary guild or syndicate. A mercenary company was a military organization headed by a captain who recruited as many men as he could. He would be paid by the number of men on his muster roll, and there was a temptation for captains to defraud the army by claiming to have more men than were actually present for duty. I get the sense, however, that you are talking more about an assassin or thief rather than a soldier. Or maybe a security guard rather than a soldier on campaign.

I can see some potential here for an interesting character, especially since you're being honest about the difficulty of pulling off the deception of the woman warrior.
Armies commonly employed camp followers - women who accompanied the army and provided sex as well as various women's jobs at camp, like laundry, cooking, care of wounded and sick etc.
How did camp followers dress?
Women's clothing is encumbering as well as conspicuous.
Short and scrawny person? Might be a woman. Might be a teenage boy.
So - if you have a company of soldiers and a camp follower, she might wear men's clothing. Everyone in the company knows she's a woman rather than a boy, but an outsider observing them on the march or muster might not be in on it. And as the comrades value her, they are not going to betray her. Women's clothing is packed up in her luggage, so she can sneak out under that identity.

A maidservant in a castle learning to read - then running away to become a camp follower in a mercenary band instead?
Could she have been a concubine of the castle chaplain? Celibacy was not infrequently violated...
 
Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#13
Ok so I have one more question if it's ok. I've been thinking about the escape again and I'm concerned about the part where she goes via backroads to reach the West County. It'll be a while, especially since she is avoiding detection at that point and so will be taking indirect routes that arent too exposed through forests and possibly even leaving the paths entirely at times. I've been thinking about how she will manage for food and shelter from the elements, and figured she could bring salt with her to salt hunted meat from rabbits and such as she goes in order to get by. It's easy to imagine she would find an opportunity to learn to hunt before she flees the village if she planned it so I don't have a problem with that. What I'm worried about is how she will cook the meat, and light a fire to keep herself warm during bad weather. She should be able to salt a decent amount of meat at once so she won't have to cook daily, but I need to know when a good time to make the fire and cook is. Rain would disguise the smell I think, and reduce the chances of someone wandering by if she is sufficiently far from the roads, but what about lighting the fire at day or at night? At night the fire would be visible, during the day the smoke would be visible

I would think there wouldn't be people roaming around at night in pitch darkness probably, if she were camping under tree canopies where moonlight doesnt easily reach it's unlikely anyone will come by. I would think it would be a bad idea to make a fire during the day since the smoke will be visible and she should be travelling as far as she can during daylight hours. Any advice for how to construct this section?

I don't think she would be a concubine. She was pretty malnourished so she's short, skinny and lacking in female attributes, not at all attractive - hence boyish. The scribe's assistant died in an accident and she had already been noted for being quite bright. They weren't going to be able to get a suitable replacement for the assistant for some time since it was winter, so the scribe was told to teach her and she picked up on it quickly, being of above average intelligence. The main reason I chose this is because I'm playing a character who is somewhat intelligent and who will develop a wide range of skills, and who I intend to build into a sort of spy character.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#14
Before the rise of modern mass media, beauty was much more in the eye of the beholder. While there have always been general principles of what constituted beauty and ugliness, there was no one universal standard of beauty. Modern people have been told by mass media what beauty is. Up until about a hundred years ago, people decided for themselves what constituted beauty. My point is, not everyone will find your character unattractive. Some of the other characters will like a boyish look. She would not consider her plain appearance as protection although it would facilitate her disguise as a boy or man.

Tending the hearth fire was traditional women's work. I'm sure she learned at a young age how to start a fire, probably with flint and steel. I wouldn't bother with salt or any other kind of preservative. She seems confident she can hunt or steal food as she needs it. It would not be unusual for someone in her circumstances to eat 3,000 or 4,000 calories in one day and then go hungry the next day. Body fat is the best way to preserve calories.

Medieval literature is full of references of outlaws living in the forests and of robbing lone travelers. It would be very dangerous for her to travel alone through the forest or even on main roads. Perhaps she should find a friendly group of travelers who don't care if she's a runaway serf or not. They might even stay at her lord's castle overnight where she befriends them and siezes her opportunity to leave. Maybe she does them a favor which they return by assisting her escape. The whole traveling alone bit seems far-fetched unless you want an encounter or two with outlaws in which your character survives using her wits. Still, she would need a lot of self confidence to even attempt such a thing. Most modern women refuse to go to bars alone or to go out walking alone after dark. Your character would feel the same way. I suppose if she had lived with danger her entire life, her parents or guardians had regularly beat her, if she had extensive experience dealing with hostile strangers, etc.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,725
Sydney
#15
roaming back country road is a terrible idea ,
that would mark her straight away as a suspicious stranger
the local lord men would seek her out to question her
on the main road , there would be more people moving , pretty much no guard except at the city gate ( for taxes )
and her only worry would be the ever present bandits
city guards would have absolutely no interest in her status , they had no concern for runaway serf
they would only check if she had both ears , a thief would have one ear cut off as a warning ,
in case of being caught again that was the noose
 
Oct 2018
6
Cornwall
#17
Ok so what about this: She travels in women's clothes east with a forged manumission. Close to the border of the east county she changes into men's clothes and destroys the manumission. She then travels back west but along different roads to avoid any pursuing guards (what's her story if she is stopped? Why would a boy be travelling on the road without adults?). Upon reaching that city in the West County she blends in with the refugees and claims to be one of them.
 
Nov 2010
6,898
Cornwall
#18
I've only a passing interest, but I would say that you were more or less expected to be 'adult' by about 12 or 13. If this person had survived this trek, it wouldn't be unusual to see a boy alone.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,998
Dispargum
#19
You're right, the forged manumission needs to match her disguise, with either a boy's or girl's name on it. If she's going to change disguises, she needs two manumission documents. She's facing at least two different threats, each requiring a different solution: She might be robbed/assaulted/murdered by outlaws and she might be identified as a runaway serf. The outlaw problem is best avoided by remaining in large groups and avoiding places where outlaws thrive such as the forest.

The second problem, appearing like a runaway, is best avoided if she presents a plausible explanation of why she is where she is - because she obtained her freedom from her lord (best used only if accused of being a runaway serf because the forgery might not hold up), or because she's on a pilgrimage, or because she is gainfully employed where she is, and because she appears to belong where she is, ie, she knows her way around, she has friends, she is no longer a stranger to that location. This will take time to establish, but it's ultimately her best protection. Most runaway serfs were caught fairly quickly, because they looked, acted, and spoke like serfs, because they didn't know their way around, and because they were unknown at that location, ie, they were strangers. The longer she can go without getting caught, the less she will appear like a runaway.

And following up on John's post - orphans were common and not all of them found foster families. Teenaged orphans sometimes had to provide for themselves. They probably still lacked the maturity of adults, but they could find work that would pay enough for room and board. Living on the streets of a town or city was not unheard of for an orphan. So that could be another part of her disguise.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,725
Sydney
#20
Serf are free , their only constraint is that they are tied to a place an cannot leave it without an authorization of their lord
they can obtain it for going to market town or one of the great fairs , for a pilgrimage or to execute a penance given by a priest such as to go praying at a particular shrine , this wasn't rare at all
however they were bound to return
 

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