This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Getting a Peek into Medieval Life. By Way of Southampton.

When I lived in England, I got to go to a lot of really cool places. (You can see a bunch of them by clicking on the Ten Reasons to Live in England tab near the top of this page.) We were members of both English Heritage and the National Trust, the two organizations that operate 98% of interesting historical sites in England, and we took advantage of those memberships on an almost weekly basis. We visited huge places like Dover castle, famous ones like Stonehenge, and grand ones like Winchester cathedral. But perhaps my favorite site of all is neither huge nor famous nor grand. It’s this place:

The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton. It’s all of five rooms huge, and open maybe 20 days a year. Ironically, although I found it one of the most fascinating sites in the UK, I managed to never take a photo there, so this and my others are ripped off of the intarwebs.

You can visit lots of cool sites around England and be awed by how they look. But they don’t often give you a sense of what it was like to live there. What people did and how they spent their days and interacted with one another and all that. And yet, once your characters emerge from their old-school dungeon and stand blinking in the pallid sunlight of your grand campaign world, that’s really what our games are all about. We build fantasy worlds based on the medieval lifestyle.

But then we fill them with characters and places that are essentially just modern equivalents with a veneer of ye oldeness. I’ve already talked about how our inns and taverns tend to be based on modern bars. Need a sword or a wand of magic missile? No problemo; just hop on down to the sword or magic shop. OK, it doesn’t look like a Wal Mart, but it probably looks like the shops in your local strip mall, with a little extra thatch on the roof for color. Our characters order off the menu at the tavern, our buildings and towns are well lit at night.

But thatch and firelight are not the only differences between the then and the now. The people of earlier years were not like The Flintstones, living just like modern people but with everything made out of rock and animals. Medieval folk—and the Romans and Victorian folk and those living in the Iron Age and the times of the Celts and the Saxons—actually lived differently. They interacted differently with the world around them and the civilization they built. If you want your game to feel a bit more authentic than an episode of Gilligan’s Island, a little insight into how these folks lived their lives is really helpful.

What Is It?

The Southampton medieval merchant’s house is, well, a house that belonged to a merchant. A wine merchant, in this particular case, as you might gather from the signage. It was also a shop, because that’s how they rolled in those days: A merchant or tradesman worked out of his (or sometimes her) home, with a room in front for business and perhaps some storage space for extra stock if that stock tended to use up much space. Although it’s hard to see in the photo above, there’s a large window underneath that overhang; a big shutter closed the shop up after hours, but opened horizontally to create a counter onto the street during business hours. Behind that is a smallish room that served as the shop itself. The rest of the building is the house (expect the cellar, which was mainly used to store wine).

It dates to the late 1200s, and it’s pretty typical of city homes throughout Europe for a period of six or seven hundred years if not longer. It’s the original building, although it saw many uses over the centuries and had to be restored back to its current (medieval) condition.

Incidentally, the merchant’s house isn’t the only authentic peek into medieval life in England. The clues are all over the place, if you know where to look for them. The roads of virtually every town and city follow the same plan they did in the Middle Ages. Heck, take the A3 into London, and marvel not just at the twists and turns as you approach the city center, but also at how the road shifts from four lanes to two and then back to some ill-defined three-and-a-half lanes, and so on. That’s quality medieval urban planning, right there.

But another good place to visit is Dover castle. (There are a million great reasons to recommend Dover; this is just one of them.) When I first moved to the UK the keep was a big mostly-empty building like the majority of castles across the UK, but while we were there they completely redid the interior as it was in the era of Henry II (earlyish Middle Ages; the period of the Crusades and Robin Hood). It’s a bit more opulent than the merchant’s house, but the kitchen and chapel and other workaday areas are also done up in this manner.

What’s Cool About It?

The merchant’s house isn’t a dazzler of a site. It’s not big and it’s not grand and it doesn’t draw a huge crowd of tourists, and that probably explains why English Heritage only bother to open and staff it about 20 days out of the year. But it is fully restored and fully furnished, and, unlike the echoing, empty chambers of most castles—or the treasure-filled galleries of stately homes—it gives you a genuine sense of what daily life was like in an era that’s almost unimaginably different than our own.

For starters, the layout isn’t what you’d come up with if you sat down with your graph paper to lay this place out for your game. Like a castle, the principal space is a great hall—a big room that serves as living, dining, and lounge space. In this case, the hall sits in the middle of the building, a two-story space that extends to the open rafters above. A staircase leads to a gallery, which connects to the front chamber (above the shop) and the rear chamber (above the kitchen, which sits at the back of the ground floor).

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By "more modern," I mean they're only 600 years old, not 800.

Some larger, and probably more modern, shops in Canterbury. By “more modern,” I mean they’re only 500 years old, not 800.

Something You Didn’t Know

The thing that struck my most about the medieval merchant’s house is the utter lack of climate control. The windows don’t close; they’re open spaces barred with wooden slats for security. Where the rafters meet the walls there’s a six-inch gap between the top of the wall and the roof, all the way around the building. The place would have been drafty and cold whenever the weather outside was. I noticed the same thing in many of the castles I visited. The truth is, a medieval building was more like a permanent tent than a modern home. It kept the rain off your head and warded the worst of the wind, but that was about it.

(You know those big old-fashioned beds with curtains all around, like the curtains Scrooge shivered behind as he attempted to hide from Christmas ghosts? That wasn’t just the style at the time–it’s how people kept from freezing to death. A fire couldn’t be left blazing unattended while people slept–even if you could afford the firewood, that was just asking for a catastrophic fire that might take out the entire city (which happened every couple of decades as it was). So the medieval house was cold at night.)

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

Cozy! Note the daylight where the roof meets the wall.

The medieval house also didn’t have much in the way of security. And by much, I mean anything. Most houses had no locks. But that really didn’t matter, because the house was probably not left unattended very often. The business was in the house, families were large, and anyone in the middle class or higher probably had a servant or three. The unglazed windows were barred, and the doors could be bolted from the inside for security at night. Things of particular value were kept in a large, heavy chest in the kitchen, and that might have a lock. But most of the time security was provided by the simple fact that someone was always home.

This is where I'd keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

This is where I’d keep my game collection. That silverware can sit out and tarnish.

What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

Appreciate that the medieval world doesn’t just feature different buildings. (In fact, it doesn’t necessarily feature different buildings at all: Go back to that first picture from Canterbury—see the word “coffee” on the building to the right? That’s a Starbucks. Seriously.) So if you want to bring it to life–if you want it to feel real— it’s not enough to stock your world with timber framing and thatched roofs. It needs to feel like the different–even foreign–place it really is.

A stable isn’t a garage; it’s a place where animals are fed and cared for, where their medical needs are seen to, where they poop and have babies and where they sometimes die.

An inn isn’t a restaurant or a roadside motel. There’s no menu–you eat what they’re making that day and you sleep where they have room.

Even houses aren’t much like what we think of them.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing