Introduction to the 14th Century

Welcome to the fourteenth century!

We’re happy to have you, though you may not be all that happy to join us here. For one thing, it’s dark, a darkness that we can scarcely imagine in the post-industrial age. It’s also a dirty, disease-ridden, violent, and credulous age, the end of The Little Ice Age, and there is uneasy peace in Portugal. To the north, the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon still war with the last true Moorish holdouts in Grenada, though their attentions turn infrequently to the border with Portugal. These threatening gestures have been temporarily stayed by the royal house and their relentless pursuit of intermarriage with the Castillian royal family.

Afonso IV, called The Brave, has ruled since the death of his father, Dinis, in 1325. His reign has been comparatively peaceful, marked with little of the civil unrest his father faced. Portugal is still nothing like a homogenous country, with Moors to the south and Christians uncomfortably intermingled with the Jewish minority in the cities. The influence of the Spanish kingdoms is simultaneously feared and exoticized. The most pressing national concerns are those of reconstruction, rebuilding after the centuries of warfare and the near complete destruction of agrarian infrastructure and advantageous trade relationships, and staving off the repeated killing famines of recent years.

This era of rehabilitation has lately been interrupted by the arrival of the Plague, commonly called The Blue Sickness or Great Pestilence. When it came to the Southern ports, it first struck the Moorish sailors, and there were rumors of wholesale conversion to Catholicism. Soon enough, Christians too were struck down, and the pestilence swept through the country at a frightening pace. Some have attempted to flee before the scourge, while others have isolated themselves in an attempt at quarantine containment. Though mechanisms of transmission are not known in this century, all are aware that to be exposed to the plague is to risk infection. Fear, rumor, and misinformation are carried on a wind heavy with the stench of death.

Fortunately (or perhaps not so fortunately), stench is something comfortingly familiar to you. Bathing is vanishingly rare in this time, and there are many who whole-heartedly believe that a good layer of dirt offers the best protection from sickness of all kinds. Besides dirt, prayer is known to be the most reliable protection from disease. Matters of faith are so central to daily life that many make little differentiation between concerns of the spirit and concerns of the flesh. Miracles, divine retribution, and devilry are all as real as the seasons, if rather less reliable. The Church dominates religion utterly, as few outside its ranks have access to a bible, or speak the Latin necessary to read one, or indeed, possess the ability to read at all.

While men are better educated than women—at least in noble houses—literacy is not notably emphasized over the many other skills considered central to a proper education: court politics, tactics, and the management of one’s holdings, including both land and peasants. Noble women are taught music, household management, and social politics, as well as rudimentary herbalism, weaving, spinning, sewing, and the preparation of the dead for burial. Nobles are not so sheltered as one might imagine; they are frequently familiar with husbandry and the care of animals and with the careful apportioning of food and other supplies, and often have a direct hand in the welfare of their people.

Those who are not so fortunate to be born to a noble house are rarely educated at all, save for learning a trade, fieldwork, or household or military service. Class hierarchy is rigid, and the middle class will not emerge until the Plague has swept the slate clean. Gender roles, too, are constrictive and unyielding. Peasant women are likely to pass from birth to death and father to husband with little opportunity for self-determination of any kind; noble women have only a little more flexibility, as those considered unmarriageable or uncommonly devout might find a place for themselves in a convent. Though childhood betrothals are not unknown, few marriages take place before the parties are near twenty.

Women of all classes are likely to bear five or more children in the course of life, and are more likely to die in childbirth than from nearly any other cause. Birth control is nonexistent, and wives have no right to refuse their husbands, and sex has not yet become the taboo of the Victorian Age. Married couples are expected to be intimate, and bawdy humor and flirtation among unmarried persons is natural and accepted.

This attitude is reinforced by the near total lack of privacy for all. Peasants lives their lives in one or two room cottages, while even in manor houses, only the lord and lady have a private space and bed to share. Unmarried girls in such houses may share a bed in a bower, or may sleep on a trundle in the lord’s room. Other members of the household would commonly lay pallets in the hall, together behind wooden screens to keep off the worst of the draft. At court, rooms are commonly shared with one’s servants, who might share the bed, or sleep at its foot or across the threshold, depending on position and favor.

Introduction to the 14th Century

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