Right. So. The peasant rant.
1) Peasants don’t have a lot of money.
You may now smack me for my obviousness.
The really annoying thing is not that fantasy authors never mention this. We get frequent references to hovels and poverty and the lower classes in fantasy not having the pretty clothes that the upper class does. The problem is that a lot of authors forget to take it beyond references.
I have read many, many fantasy books, set in what was supposedly your typical (pseudo)-medieval country, in which the peasant heroes/heroines had:
- glass windows
- gold and silver coins
- one pretty dress that just happened to pass muster/attract attention at an upper-class event
- books (see point 2)
- houses made of materials not common in the region—for example, stone houses when they live in the middle of the forest
- wonderful horses
- wonderful tools, such as plows that cut the soil like no one’s business.
Something is dreadfully wrong here. References are not enough, not if the author is contradicting herself by actually having the peasants use the objects they’re not supposed to have.
Asking yourself what the technology level in your world is can eliminate a lot of these problems. Is glass common? If so, then maybe the glass mirrors and windows aren’t a problem. If it isn’t, then WTF are the peasants doing with them? Why would they spend money on glass instead of food? Similar questions have to apply to the clothes and the tools. They have to be both a) possible in your world and b) common enough that peasant owners don’t seem to be making horrendously silly choices.
The houses depend on knowing your geography and your economic hierarchy. What would people most naturally build with? Probably wood, if they were living in a forest. What are the difficulties of transporting any alternate building material? How expensive is it? Why are there peasants apparently buying marble when the upper classes would probably have first pick? Yes, it’s possible that the peasants might have built their houses themselves, but the natural stones of a forest are often not-suited to such a thing. They’re not cut and polished to fit together properly, and if you insist they are, that goes right back to: where did they get the tools to do it?
Also, I’m sorry, but the chance that peasants are saving up gold and silver coins and have thoroughbred horses on their farms is zero to zilch. They might not even see coins if they live hand-to-mouth; a trade-and-barter economy, say six eggs for a chicken, isn’t unlikely in that kind of situation. When they do buy or sell, they would probably receive the smallest coins possible. Gold and silver could make people pay attention that they didn’t want to pay attention. And thoroughbred horses (or any fine animals) are usually the product of long and intense breeding, the kind that peasants don’t have the time to pay attention to. They might have a horse that could run faster, pull harder, or bear more weight than a noble’s horse just by sheer chance, but it wouldn’t look nearly as nice, and it wouldn’t happen to accidentally resemble the perfect horse that the king’s been looking for.
The attraction of peasant heroes is supposedly that they can take all these disadvantages (at least as compared to noble heroes), and rise up against them. Gifting them with random expensive objects is silly.
2) Educated, cultured peasants are usually the product of Bizzarro World.
Few peasant heroes, despite supposedly coming from the most uneducated class, are illiterate. Hell, most of them know a lot of legends, fairy tales, and ancient lore. And why? Wandering old mentors and random books that just happen to be lying around.
Once again, pay attention to the economics and consequences of the situation. Why would a wise old mentor just wander into town and teach a random peasant? The usual explanation is “To get him ready for his destiny, like duh,” but the peasant hero often has to remain hidden as well, and wouldn’t an educated old man paying attention to one particular kid lead the villains right to him? Fantasy authors employing this device rarely think it out. It’s used most often as a clunky plot trick to give the peasant hero information the author can think of no way to get to him otherwise.
Books. Are they common? Are there printing presses? Did the books get stolen from some noble’s library? (I bet he wants them back). Did they get “left behind” by someone else? Who? Why would a peasant family keep them, instead of selling them or burning them for fuel? Peasant heroes often seem to simultaneously have misunderstanding parents and parents who thoughtfully preserve the books they disparage so that the hero can get an education.
Finally, why does this peasant child have the time to sit around studying books and/or listening to stories all day? The usual portrait painted here is that the peasant hero is sensitive and dreamy and should be left alone to pursue his or her dreams, but look at it from the viewpoint of someone else in the family. The routine could well go: working dawn to dusk, or more, in the fields and the forest and tending animals, and then coming home to finish other tasks like knitting and sewing and cleaning, falling into bed like a stone, and then getting up at sunrise to do it all again. From those eyes, the peasant child who shirks work to go listen to some old man’s stories or read a book is not a sensitive dreamer whom they punish out of jealousy; he or she is a goddamn lazy slacker who needs to stop letting other people shoulder the burden of survival. (If the peasant hero was willing to go find her own food and mend her own clothes and so on, I would be more understanding, but too often she comes off as a twenty-first century heroine dumped into a medieval world and bewildered when her parents actually want her to do something. There goes my sympathy).
3) Peasant life is hard on the body.
Those beautiful peasant maidens will probably have a year or two of beauty at the most. Then the hard work gets to them. It may well have done so even before puberty. The following is a list of things that could easily happen to people working outside or in, in many seasons, and in the path of disasters that might not befall nobles:
- weathered lines from sun and wind, and squinting into the sun and wind.
- calluses from work.
- continually puckered hands from washing.
- bug bites.
- dirty, ragged hair and skin from lack of opportunity (and probably technology) to bathe.
- strong odor from the dirt and the sweat.
- broken nails.
- dirty, ragged, and worn clothes.
- hard-as-horn feet.
- thick, muscled arms and upper body (could be attractive on a man, but few peasant women are portrayed this way).
- scratches from animals, bug-bites, straw, needles, briars, and all sorts of picky little things.
- discolored or missing teeth.
- missing fingers, toes, or ears from accident or frostbite.
- scars from pox.
- scars from wounds that weren’t treated in time.
Where the clean, shining, thick-hair-to-the-waist peasant girls with perfect skin and smiles come from is anyone’s guess. Probably Bizzarro World, just like the cultured peasants.
4) Historical peasants really weren’t all that open-minded.
No, really. The peasant hero who comes to the city as a hippie loving all of nature and accepting everyone of different races/species/religions/sexual preferences is a product of an even more severe distortion than Bizzarro World. Probably Let’s-Get-Rid-of-Any-Historical-Accuracy-Whatsoever World.
Medieval peasants often lived in small villages, very close both physically and mentally, under the control of lords. (They sometimes were serfs, bound to the land and forbidden to move from it, which isn’t an idea that medieval fantasy often deals with, despite the prevalence of the system in our history). They didn’t necessarily have time or permission to leave their lands and go into the forest to commune with nature. Sometimes they weren’t supposed to go into the forests at all, as many belonged to nobles and poaching was strictly forbidden; peasants were supposed to starve before killing a deer. Life was short and violent, and many people died in childbirth, disease, accidents, and of the naturally shorter lifespan. They could be marched off to war if their nobles wanted them badly enough, and they had no choice in the matter. They couldn’t vote. They didn’t have the right of free speech, free assembly, and certainly no freedom of the press. They often weren’t supposed to own weapons to defend themselves: not swords, certainly not guns, and even longbows could make their lords uneasy.
They were often completely under the control of the Church, terrified into believing that they had to do as the priests said or they would go to Hell. Taxes were high. Immense tracts of unsettled and unsafe land could separate villages from each other, or the lands of different lords, neither of which encouraged travel. Starvation always waited if weather destroyed enough crops. Rebellions did sometimes happen, but often only when peasants saw no other recourse at all. There weren’t a whole lot of peasant orators who went around preaching truth, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Nobles would most often have the power to crush, draw and quarter (the punishment of being torn apart between four horses), burn at the stake, or otherwise get rid of people who rose against them.
This kind of life is not one which naturally breeds heroes, much less the wide-eyed singing peasants of much fantasy. Your hero can struggle to overcome his background, work hard, and succeed, and I think that would be an inspiring story. But it’s cheating to insist that he’s just somehow different from everyone else, or to make the background so pick and fluffy that it might as well not be called medieval at all.
5) Remember the closeness of seasonal change.
Why is it that fantasy expeditions always blithely set off into the teeth of autumn and winter winds? The wise old mentors don’t have much else to do, apparently.
You know what a lot of peasants did during winter? Stayed close to home and prayed not to starve.
Seasons are something that don’t get paid much attention to in fantasy, probably because some authors instinctively sense that they would Get in the Way, and most not be allowed to ruin their oh-so-perfect story. Yet they would be important in the life of an agricultural peasant, even if not in the life of a noble who doesn’t have much idea where his next meal comes from. Spring brings planting, plowing, rearing of new animals, clearing of new ground, and the struggle to survive on winter rations long enough to get the food coming up. Summer involves careful tending of the crops and watching of the weather, which can smash the entire hope of a year in a few hours. Autumn involves harvesting like whoa, and storing, and doing whatever else the family can to prepare for winter. Then comes winter, and in some climates it may be severe enough to keep the family and their animals penned in the same house for weeks or months. Imagine being in a one-room house with your parents and six siblings and several cows and pigs. For months.
Once again, not the kind of environment that breeds natural heroes, except in the sense that stubbornness and optimism and sheer guts are heroic traits. And a lot of authors rely on magic and open-mindedness instead.
I’ve heard people complain that, if someone paid attention to all these aspects of writing medieval fantasy, the story would be too hard to write.
- Bullshit. There are authors who manage it, especially Martin.
- Why do you want to skimp on the details and write the next silly singing peasant girl going off with her troupe of performing monkeys party members? That’s stepping deliberately into one of the most stereotypical storylines.
- Why do you want to write medieval fantasy if you’re going to ignore the complications? Medieval fantasy isn’t the end-all and be-all of the genre, but I do think if you’re going to write it, it should be because you love the period, not because you’re in love with a shallow version of it.
Also, the next rant shall be on ways to step out of writing medieval fantasy. So if you have a problem with 3, you could wait until then.