Ever wonder how expensive stuff was in Europe during the middle ages? I don’t mean how much it cost, but rather how expensive the item seemed to the person buying it. If so, I’ll bet you’ve also thought about what this means for the characters in your favorite fantasy RPG!
Wait, you haven’t? Like, never? Oh - then maybe you should skip this post.
But if you HAVE (or if I managed to make you curious)...then this article is for you! READ ON!
When someone tells me “In 1303, a goose cost 3 pennies!” that's interesting and all, but it doesn’t tell me much about how expensive the purchase felt to the poor farmer that had to shell out the coins for the bird. Even if I know how much the average laborer earned at that time, I still don’t get a feel for whether a medieval buyer would look at that goose and say “Oh, sure. I’ll take two. Why not?” or if they’d gasp and say “3 pennies! What do I look like, a noble!?”
One of the best ways to understand the perception of expense is to compare the cost of an item to the amount of disposable income available to a person. With this information, you can get a really good sense of whether something costs “pocket change” or if it’s the sort of thing you dream about owning for years before you’ve saved up enough to buy it.
So how much disposable income did a commoner have in the 14th century? More than I expected! Research suggests that around 20-25% of a skilled laborer’s cash income was “disposable.” This is the portion of their cash income that didn’t go toward housing, their consumer basket (standard purchases like clothes and food), or other regular expenses (taxes, guild fees, etc.). This means that the typical 14th Century carpenter or mason had around 200 pennies a year that they could spend however they wanted!
But I needed one more piece of information before I could really nail down how expensive things felt—a familiar foundation we could use to wrap our heads around the costs. I set out to determine the average disposable income for an American today.Turns out this number is roughly $15,000 US.
With all of this in hand, I plugged all my medieval prices into a giant Excel spreadsheet and calculated each cost as a percentage of a medieval laborer’s disposable income. By applying this same percentage to the average disposable income today, we can get a really good feel for how expensive things FELT during the middle ages.
The first, and perhaps most fascinating, realization is that it's easy to forget just how CHEAP things are for us today compared to seven hundred years ago. Thanks to mass production, globalization, and a host of other factors, prices are exceptionally low from a historical perspective. Let’s look at a few examples.
Let’s say you’re a medieval carpenter and you want a sheet of paper to write up a contract. The price for that sheet of paper was around 1/3 penny per sheet. Sounds pretty cheap, right? But as a percentage of disposable income, it’s as if you or I went into an office supply store and paid $25 for a single sheet of paper! When machines can churn out thousands of sheets per second, paper is a lot cheaper than if some poor sap has to perform every step of the paper-making process by hand.
What if you had some mining to do? If you’re a medieval miner, the boss is going to make you bring your own pickaxe. In the 14th Century, a pickaxe would set you back around 4 pennies. Again, seems pretty cheap, but consider that this is the equivalent of a $310 price tag in modern dollars. In both cases you could probably afford the item, but at that price you're going to put a LOT more thought into which pickaxe you buy.
For a final example of “It costs how much?” let’s go back to that goose we started with. Want one of those 3 penny geese for Easter dinner? Better dig deep. That’s a $230 price tag in modern dollars!
Market Scene by Pieter Aertsen c. 1550
What the What? How Could Anyone Afford Anything?!
First off, they didn’t own as much stuff as we do, and they probably took really good care of what they did own. When a pair of pants costs you $25 at Target, you don’t worry much about how you treat them. Now what if those pants cost $700? That’s how much a pair of well-made pants would have felt to a medieval shopper.
Secondly, they probably didn’t buy most of the things they needed. They grew them, made them, or traded other goods for them. Sure, now and then you’d buy something special at the market with coins, but most of the time you’d just make your own. Need a goose for Easter dinner? Head out back and get one from the barn. Need feed for those geese? Head out to the field and start planting. Need seeds to plant? Take some of the ones you saved from last year’s crop.
All of this gives us a good an idea of the weight of the decisions the medieval worker was making when they went shopping. Almost anything you purchased had to be budgeted for, probably saved for, and when you did buy it, you'd be MUCH choosier about the purchase since every transaction was a relatively large one.
Weren’t Any Expenses Similar to Today?
Actually, yes! Services. For any expense that didn’t involve manufacturing, the expense felt similar to what we experience today. For example, let’s say you’re travelling to the next town and want to get a bed at the inn. How much would you pay? Roughly a penny a night (cheap breakfast included!) Looking at this as a percentage of disposable income, that’s like paying $80 for a cheap hotel room with a continental breakfast. Not too bad (Although to be fair, today you don’t have to share the room with a group of strangers, but times change!)
Also, if you run typical daily wages through the formula I established you find out that our skilled laborer was pulling in the equivalent of around $300 a day. If they were working an 8- 10 hour day, that’s roughly what you might expect an experienced carpenter to make today. So again – the raw expense of a service, in this case labor, isn’t all that different.
Ways to Use This in Your Game
Naturally, the gamer in me began wondering about how I could use this in my games (in general), and Aetaltis (specifically). To put this into a traditional RPG context, a medieval English penny is roughly equivalent to a fantasy RPG Silver Piece. With that as our foundation, here are some of the things I hit upon as I ran my numbers:
- When the players come in and start smashing things in the tavern or someone’s home, it's a BIG deal. For example, that tablecloth your cleric tore up for a makeshift bandage? Yeah- that cost the innkeeper around $2000! That guy is not going to be your friend.
- When the heroes find a cottage, abandoned with all the belongings inside, they know something very bad happened. That’s a lifetime of saving and crafting there. No one is going to leave those things behind willingly.
- A group of heroes come trotting into town. The paladin rides at the front wearing full plate, armed with a fine longword, and mounted on a powerful war trained charger. The cost to outfit that knight as described was the equivalent of buying a military grade armored personnel carrier in today’s dollars. Imagine how you’d react if an APC rolled into your neighborhood!
- You ask the barkeep to let you know if he sees the missing fugitive you’re hunting. To thank him for his help you slip him a GP. His eyes widen noticeably and he appears short of breath. Why? That GP is the equivalent $1000 in today’s dollars.
Now, to be fair, in 5E the pricing doesn’t quite match medieval norms, so it’s not a perfect comparison at the game table (although watch for the historically based pricing we’re putting together for the World of Aetaltis campaign!) Even so, it’s close enough that you can use this is guidance for everything from “What’s a decent bribe?” to “How bad is it if we steal his cow?”
That’s it for today! More completely unnecessary medieval research to come!