Wizards? In my mediaeval society?

I’ve been thinking lately of the place of wizards in mediaeval society. It began with a discussion of the gold piece limits in settlements, wherein for reasons of realism and consistency the player characters can’t expect to buy or sell ten-thousand gold piece magic items in a small village. Applying this same need for realism to a mediaeval world that features spellcasters and monsters, we must consider their place in the world and the impact they might have.

Focusing specifically on wizards, the option for a person to become one relies almost entirely on how complex magic is to learn in the game world and whether or not they are intelligent enough to handle that complexity. In order for a young man or young woman to become what the game terms a 1st level wizard, the most basic prerequisite is that they complete a period of apprenticeship under a more experienced wizard. Provided that there is a steady market for his spells, a wizard can make several times as much money as a common farmer or the like - a single first level spell fetches 10gp, twenty times a day’s wage for many workers.

In rural areas, however, few people are rich enough to be able to afford a wizard’s prices. Most wizards will therefore naturally opt to move to the city, meaning that prospective apprentices are likely to migrate to the cities to find a mentor to study under. No more ploughing fields for these young men. When they complete their apprenticeship, the opportunities for making money as a freelance wizard in the city encourage them to remain there. Mage guilds are likely to spring up in these cities to regulate the profession of wizardry and to provide a way for wizards to share spells. If demand for apprenticeship is high enough, perhaps mage universities will become popular centres of learning and magical research.

With so many benefits, why are there wizards at all in small villages, as the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests? Presumably, not all graduating wizards are interested in the big money available to most of their profession - perhaps they lack the magical talent or business sense to compete with all the wizards in the big city, and would rather return to their home village to share their income with their family. A village also has the opportunity for buying and owning land, and provides a nice quiet seculuded place for research. Perhaps better to be someone special in a small town than a relative nobody in the nation’s capital.

While it is unlikely that a single village has sufficient money and people to support a wizard, it’s quite likely that the local lord or baron would hire the local wizards for a reasonable retainer fee in exchange for free use of their magic. Indeed, I see these low-level rural wizards researching a great many spells of their own which, while of little or no use to adventurers, perform useful tasks that cannot be done more easily by mundane methods - summoning rare spices on food, entertaining the lord, impressing his visitors, and any manner of effort-saving abilities.

On top of this, many standard low-level spells are of great use to the local lord. Comprehend languages assists in the translation of messages and allows the lord to establish trade or alliances with foreign countries, alarm makes for some nice home security, and detect thoughts assists him in diplomacy or dealing with accused criminals. Even if the wizard isn’t expected to fight alongside the lord in the event of a battle, bear’s endurance and the like can buff up the lord or his best man before the fight, while magic missile might let him pick off the opponent’s leader at the start of the fight - and shield would make the lord immune to his enemy using the same tactic.

A common suggestion is that magic users are feared and hated in rural, less civilized areas, and that they would likely be witch-hunted. Realistically, I don’t think this is the case. Witch-hunts took place in the real world in part because people never actually saw magic and thus feared that it was far worse than real magic could have been; a mage with the approval of the local lord might be envied, but not mistrusted.

Sorcerers, on the other hand, I imagine that they would be more apt to wander freely across the country, able to rely on their personality to get them through life. Their reduced spell selection makes them less useful to someone who requires tailor-made non-combat magic, and as such they are unlikely to work as a retainer for a local lord or rich city merchant. They are more likely to join up to a military service of some kind, where their frequent daily uses of combat magic can make them powerful individuals and thus earn them a high place in society. Alternatively, they may invest in other skills and other forms of magic than the typical combat-oriented adventuring sorcerer, easily competing with others of their profession with the advantages of magic. Divinations, enchantments and illusory disguises might make for an excellent spy or detective, and defensive spells an excellent bodyguard.

In either case, there’s a strong possibility of nations creating laws based on spellcasters, especially given how powerful they can be. Most realistic, I think, is registering with a mage guild in order to be properly licensed. Another likely opportunity is a tax on magic items and spell components. Combat magic, since it’s very powerful, might also be licensed, although I’d imagine that the mage guilds would hold significant power and help to keep restrictive laws like that out of the way, at least for members of their own guilds.

Comments (4)

Rob Conley (June 1st, 2006)

You certainly bring up some valid ideas but I don’t think you are considering the full picture. For me the advent of the game Ars-Magica got me seriously thinking about the Wizard’s role in my world’s society.

The point of listing all this is to make a PLAUSIBLE society that enhances the game by having a internal logic that allows for possibilities. I have found by putting the time into this the player enjoy the game more because they can figure things out and make conclusions that allow them to advance their character’s goals.

The solution need to consider the following points:

1) Wizards have personal power of their own exceeding say a knight with a sword. Their spells work over a longer range and are adaptable to a wide variety of situations.

2) Wizards rely on knowledge and study to extend their abilities. I.e. transcribe spells into a spellbook, spell research, etc. This is a limit on a wizard.

3) Medievel societies are money poor (except for the few cities) and wealth is based on land.

4) Clerics are a magical power unto themselves, are not limited by spellbooks, are as versitile, but are constrained by having to be servants of a higher power.

5) Sorcerers are a magical power as wells, are not limited by spellbooks, highly charismatic, but not as versitile.

6) Clerics and Sorcerers require a lot less resources than either a knight or a wizard. On the other hand only way a person can be a cleric is to follow a higher power and you have to be born a sorcerer.

So this led me to the following thoughts

A peason isn’t going to just drop a plow, pick up a book, and start casting spells. No more than they could just drop a plow and pick up a sword. This suggests that the resource requirement to support wizards are somewhat similar to a knight or at least a knight without a horse. So this means in a medievel society wizards are going to be an elite class.

A wizard’s spells gives them the means to exert control like a sword allow a knight to exert direct control. This means unlike our history’s church they can attempt to use force which makes them a rival to knights.

This power makes them a rival to each other as well so like knights they need a social structure of some type mediate disputes.

Their reliance on spellbooks make that a point of a control as a wizard can be stripped of power by being denied their spell book. As a knight can be stripped of weapons and armor.

The spellbooks can be more valuable by the amount and type of spells contained in it.

Their need for study time is also a point of vulneribility as they need the resources of their lands or income to have the time to study like a knight needs the land or income to have the time to train.

The possibilities

First it seems the first thing that needs to be decided is not stuff about wizards but about the priests and sorcerers.

If there are a lot of sorcerers running around then it is likely that that world’s society will be about sorcerors and their politics. There is little you can do to stop one from increasing power other than killing them. And if there is a lot of them at some point in history they would have banded together to stop any sorcerer hunts and siezed control.

However if there isn’t a lot of them then they would be likely to be hunted down as they are a wild card compared to clerics, wizards, and knights. Except for a few exceptional individuals (think a sorcerer version of Alexander the Great).

For clerics there are several ways I can see this going

1) They are persecuted by, in league or controlled by the sorceror kings. In any case the sorcerer are the top dog. In this scenario the higher powers don’t intervene much in the world except through the granting of clerical spells.

2) Clerics are rival powers to the sorcerers and in continual conflict. Sorcerers are too numerous and too charismatic to totally stamp out so there is a continual tensions between the clerics following higher powers and the godless sorcerors.(Note the clerics may have a few faithful socerors of their own).

3) Clerics are top dog and sorcerors are too few to challenge them and are hunted. The wizards and knights are servants of the various churches. Basically most lands would under some type of theocracy.

4) Clerics are part of a society resting on a triple foundation of clerics, knights, and wizards with sorcerers too few to challenge them. This would get you a more straight forward medievel society.

5) Clerics and knights are equal powers in a society that actively hunt all other magic users including both wizards and sorcerors.

6) Clerics and Wizards are equal powers in a society that is controlled by the use of magic. (The Magecracy scenario)

Finally as for the wizards themselves you will have to decide

1) How the powerful wizards interact among themselves
2) How the powerful wizards interact with less powered wizards)
3) Who teaches the use of spellbooks
4) Who controls the physical spellbooks (for example in a theocracy, wizards have to goto a special chamber where the spellbooks are kept by the clerical guard)
5) How do the wizards support themselves
6) What their relationship with clerics, sorcerors, and knights

Hope this helps

P.S. I use knights instead of fighter because I am talking about fighters that have political and social power.

Rick the wonder algae (June 1st, 2006)

I think, also, that you have to look at the standard of living that small town mages are born into and have come to expect and what their purchasing power will get them in barter and how the two relate. I don’t have my player’s handbook right here in front of me, but I think the prinicples are pretty sound.
Let’s say that our town wizard casts mend on the miller’s broken millstone to repair it for him rather than him going to the trouble of having a new one shipped in, his grain slowly rotting while it takes weeks to arrive. In return, he might promise to provide the wizard with 10gp worth of flour. Obviously he can’t provide all this at once. Not only would it take a prodigious amount, but he’d be short on his delivies that week (he’s already been down for a day thanks to the broken stone, after all). So instead, he offers to pay the wizard a pound or two of flour every week for the next X weeks.
Well that’s just great isn’t it? What’s the wizard going to do with two pounds of flour every week? He can’t use that. So, he makes an arrangement with the baker. He’ll have the miller send the baker those two pounds of flour each week and in return he gets a fresh loaf of bread every week.
Eventually, everyone in town is going to need his help for something or another. Pretty soon he’s got milk and cheese coming in from the dairy farmer, meat coming in from the butcher, the carpenter is working on an addition for his house, and that pretty young daughter of the beet farmer down the road (our wizard either doesn’t like beets or is a lech that likes watching pretty young girls) comes over a couple times a week to clean his house.
I would assume that some communities simply assume that this is the way things will work, because they have in the past, and don’t really keep track of who owes whom what. Everyone simply brings a bit of everything they produce to the wizard and when he needs something, he simply asks the appropriate tradesman, and it’s given to him. In return, he provides spells whenever asked. Sure, it’s possible that an inequity might occur (probably on the part of the wizard) but the setup is easy and it works.
In very short time through either barter or promises of barter, our wizard has if not the best, one of the best lifestyles in town without doing much more than memorizing and casting a spell or two once a week. True, he might not be making the money he could be if he moved to the big city and charged book rates, but as far as he’s ever known, he’s living like a king and doing very little in the way of work.

Tsuyoshikentsu (June 2nd, 2006)

First, a brief note: a tax on spell components is kind of implausable. Most components are rather mundane items; imagine, for instance, a tax on dead spiders! (Although a tax on, oh, bat guano I can imagine. Especially, in fact, on bat guano.)

The truth of your article is self-evident, and it doesn’t just apply to arcanists. Heck, the shamanistic wise woman who gives out healing poultices existed for hundreds of years in medieval society; why not have her actually be a druid casting cures? There’s also the fact that the game in general makes a lot more sense if you use Wizards the way you’ve described. Why isn’t filth rampant, as in the middle ages? Duh, they invented a cleaning spell.

All in all, an excellent read, and very true!

Dan Howard (June 3rd, 2006)

You might look at how wizards are analogous to modern day lawyers. Lots of lawyers go to the big city to get great salaries but even small rural towns have one or two lawyers hanging around. Even if those small town lawyers suck, they still make a living, albeit a modest one.

Similarly, small town wizards can survive because living in a small town can be dirt cheap. A small town wizard with a garden can feed himself. With a few chickens and a kindly neighbor, he can even have a good variety of food.

And, who says that he’s alone? A medieval father supports his family, even helping out extended family. He might help support orphaned relatives, his crippled brother and even the crazy magician son who never can hold down a job. Living off a small inheritance that grows ever smaller might be a choice for small small town wizards, rather than getting paid for his craft.

Also, medieval societies had reasonably well developed commercial systems; they had progressed far beyond the hunter/gatherers of primitive times and even beyond simple bartering. If a medieval PC has goods or services (such as magic) that have value, people will want those and will seek them out. Even unskilled laborers, scamsters and an old woman who can only knit sweaters wouldn’t starve in medieval times, if they made the effort and if larger economic issues such as war or plague were not affecting the area.

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