OSR: Medieval Things, Part 3: The Devil's Broker

Whenever I pick up a new book I grab a stack of book darts and mark every really interesting passage. I've just finished a second read of Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Devil's Broker, a sort of John Hawkwood-focused companion volume to Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. I love A Distant Mirror, and I cite it more-or-less constantly in my feudalism posts. I liked The Devil’s Broker a lot less. It felt like recycled scholarship and it didn’t cover some areas I’d really hoped it would. If you’re writing a book about Hawkwood, you don’t get to gloss over certain periods with an airy “well, Italian politics were complicated”. Yeah I know they were complicated. It’s your job to uncomplicated them. If you don't want to tackle the complexities of medieval Italy, you probably shouldn't write a book about medieval Italy.

Still, as a reader’s digest text, it’s handy for gameable quotes. Non-fiction provides the best gameable content because the real world is very strange. I'm not going to focus on Hawkwood because his Wikipedia article provides enough detail.
Le secret de l'histoire naturelle, France ca. 1480-1485

The 14th Century

It's my favorite.
The fourteenth century has often unfairly been written off as "waning" or "expiring" - a necessary sacrifice to a biological theory of the age which superseded it as a rebirth or "renaissance". But the fourteenth century was a period of such rude strength in the face of awful odds that it is perverse to ignore its optimism, its innovation, its sheer puissance. Sudden outbursts of hysteria and paranoia coexisted with frenzies of virtue; violence and greed existed alongside pacifism and generosity. There was chaos, of course, but out of the chaos, or perhaps because of it, everything was possible, and everything was for sale (even access to eternal life, which was secured by the accumulation of credits - indulgences - here on earth.)

This was the age of the new man, of the renaissance man, who willed himself into existence, who was, like Coriolanus, the "author of himself". The new man was the Pope (Urban VI was born in the slums of Naples), the lord (the Visconti of Milan fabricated their own noble lineage), the tyrant (Cola di Rienzo was the son of a laundress), the knight (humble squires could earn their spurs), the vilein, the lawyer, the bookkeeper, the merchant, the artist. Leaving behind him the "small enclosed society of [men] still wholly preoccupied with local interests", the new man chose instead a field of action as wide as his ambition and enterprise. Shrewd, skeptical, adaptable, he discarded old rules, or used them as a screen for pursuing his own ends.

-The Devil's Broker, pg.17

A bit overwrought perhaps, but could you ask for a better introduction to OSR PCs? The author doesn't even the arch-swindler of the 14th century, Paul Palaiologos Tagari, whose career is a legendary example of how a good costume, the right connections, and sheer bald-face lies could carry anyone to positions of power.
During his long and tumultuous career, Paul was appointed an Orthodox bishop, sold ordinations to ecclesiastical offices, pretended to be the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, switched from Greek Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism and back again, supported both the See of Rome and the Avignon anti-popes in the Western Schism, and managed to be named Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.
Anyway, the 14th century. You have cannons, but not very good ones. The world is moderately disordered. Old power structures are struggling, new ones are emerging. The printing press, the new world, the Reformation, and the Renaissance lurk just over the horizon.
Fortune's Wheel, Hortus Deliciarum


"I am so great a lord that I can make all of your rich," King Jean had told the crowd of soldiers who had jostled to claim him as their prisoner in the battle. His promise was not empty. Even the humblest returned with battle-horses, swords, jewels, robes, and furs. There was hardly a woman in England, crowed Thomas Walsingham, without some necklace, silver goblet, fur, or piece of fine linen brought home by the victors. Those fortunate enough to capture some great magnate became themselves lords. Sir Thomas Dagworth was offered £4,900, an enormous fortune, for the ransom of Charles of Blois. One shrewd looter who had come away with the King of France's Bible cashed it in with the Earl of Salisbury for £67.

In this, "the age of chivalry", loot mattered as much as loyalty to captain or crown; it was the key to courage in combat. Pillage was not simply the inevitable and distasteful consequence of war, but the very substance of it. "From earl to archer they were all adventurers, with the plunder of [France] as the price for which they staked their lives." No wonder then, that when the English army went forth it looked, said one contemporary, "more as if it were going to a wedding than to a war."

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 28

There you have it; XP for looted gold. What sort of hoard could the PCs be expected to find?
When Cardinal Hugh Roger died, his executors found in his house a hoard that represented almost every currency in Europe. In bags, purses, boxes, or wrapped in cloth, they found 5,000 Piedmontese gold florins, 5,000 old gold crowns, 2,000 Aragonese gold florins, 4,500 gold crowns of England, 855 gold francs, 500 gold angels, 97 gold ducats, 1,000 gold papal florins, 363 pure florins of Florence, 511 Sicilian florins, and 900 gold florins of the mint called du Grayle.

...the average cost of living for a single man at this time was estimated at 14 florins a year.

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 38

By my currency system, that’s a haul of 20,726 gold pieces; enough to take 7 PCs from level 1 to level 10, or a year’s revenue for a prosperous kingdom. Seems about right (or within one order of magnitude of right).

However, ransoms ran both ways.
Money won by Hawkwood in ransoms might have to be quickly recycled in order to bail out his own men when they were captured. Moreover, ransoms passed through many hands, were subject to various deductions, were frequently and heavily discounted with merchants, and bore high charges for collection, interest, and upkeep of hostages. Hawkwood himself was taken prisoner at least once. We do not know the ransoms set for him, but they would have been high. Inability to raise ransom was a common predicament: Robert Hungerford, Lord Moleyns, was taken prisoner in France in 1422 and stayed in prison for seven years. His mother, Lady Margaret Hungerford, had to sell jewels and pledge estates before she was able to raise his ransom.

Much has been made of fortunes founded or forfeited on ransom money. Henry of Lancaster built a sumptuous residence in London from the ransoms of French prisoners taken at Pontiers. After the Battle of Najera in 1367, John Kempton, a squire of the Black Prince, released a prisoner after receiving a promissory note for his ransom. The deadline for settlement came and went, and Kempton remained unpaid. Advised to pursue his debtor in the courts of Aragon, Kempton was to past most of the rest of his life chasing his fortune, traveling frequently to Barcelona, instructing a succession of attorneys, and eventually settling permanently in Saragossa as a naturalized Aragonese. He finally recovered the last of what was due to him in 1400.

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 306
Seems like a good plot seed to me. “This guy escaped ransom. Go shake him down.” It might be surprising that in a century of constant disorder, plague, famine, and warfare, someone might seek recompense in the courts. It's even more surprising that he succeeded.
Le livre de Lancelot du Lac and other Arthurian Romances, Northern France ca. 1275-1300


[The White Company] rode in a basic unit of three called a lance (hence “freelance” for military journeymen), consisting of a mounted soldier, a page, and an archer. When ready to engage, they would all dismount and form a tight-knit pack, with the soldier and archer together wielding the heavy six-foot lance, while the page held back the horses. 

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 65

Hrm. Soldier, archer, page => Fighter, wizard, thief.

Think about it. The page is in the best position to gain thief-like skills (larceny, fencing, information-gathering). The fighter fights from the front. The archer/wizard fights from range.

The basic unit of 3 forms the core of the 14th century mercenary army. That’s how your PCs know each other. That’s why they’re in a land where they can loot and raid and come up with cunning plans. They’re mercenaries in not-Italy. Give it a shot.
For escalade, the White Company carried scaling ladders, assembled in sections, and the English shimmied up them like cats, their speed matched only by the longbowmen behind them who unleashed wave after wave of goose-feathered arrows to push defenders back from the walls (and away from the tips of the ladders, which, if pushed, would fall back, taking their cargo of mercenaries crashing to the ground).

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 67
Not exactly deathless prose, but the collapsible ladders and covering fire remarks are interesting. I had never really considered archers firing upwards as a vital part of siege warfare.
The tactics of escalade were described by Jean de Bueil:
“They spy out a walled castle for a day or two beforehand; then, collecting together a group of thirty or forty brigands, they approach it from one side and then from another. At the break of day they burst in and set fire to a house, making so much noise that the inhabitants think there must be a thousand men-at-arms among them and flee in all directions. Then they break into the houses and loot them before departing loaded with spoil.”

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 67

Nice to see that that the old “set something on fire, cause panic, and grab loot” tactic was in full swing in the 14th century.

I think most people think of the 14th century mercenary companies as united (if incoherent) armies, but they were fairly compartmentalized. Individual units could join or leave as needed, switch sides, combine to replace losses after a battle or split apart over differences in pay or leadership.
The captain-general, who earned his position by means of respect, confirmed by election, presided over a well-articulated hierarchy of captains, corporals, and marshals. Smaller companies existed within the larger one. A unit might consist of as few as twelve lances (thirty-six men), with its own captain and treasurer who ensured a degree of autonomy at the micro level. It was up to the skill of the captain-general to keep these restless particles together. All decisions were arrived at by the common consent of the commander and a council made up of the leaders of various contingents. Booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. Once they received their share, soldiers dealt through regular brokers who sold it for them.

Also present in the company were priests, prostitutes to cater to other needs, servants, cooks, barbers, jesters, and “sanitation divisions” that included doctors. Common criminals mixed with ecclesiastics, knights and exiled nobles with tradesmen. Some were more or less permanently attached to the company, some were virtually hostages, others came and went. 

-The Devil's Broker, pg. 68

 How rich were these companies?
The cost of settlements to the companies in the early years of the Schism (1381-5) drained in excess of sixty thousand florins from the Sienese coffers. This did not include the countless additional payments, or “gifts”, which communes were required to offer to their predators, extras which could double the official cost of a settlement. One Sienese account book records that, in addition to the cost of wine, bread, and sweets given to Hawkwood, the Commune had to bear the expense of 19 barrels to hold the wine, 12 sacks to hold the bread, 4 boxes, 2 baskets and cloth to package the sweets, and the cord to tie all of the above items. Then there was the cost of the 17 men (paid 10 soldi per day) and 26 beasts of burden employed for two days to transport the goods to the company. In 1382 the city incurred additional expenses by allowing the mercenaries to exchange their devalued florins for good coins.
-The Devil's Broker, pg. 297
Luttrell Psalter, England ca. 1325-1340


In the iconography of Saint Michael, representations of him as a knight outnumbered pacific representations (which is fair enough, given his use of force to expel Adam and Eve from Paradise, celebrated by the French chronicler Jean Molinet as “the first deed of knighthood and chivalrous prowess that was ever achieved.”)
-The Devil's Broker, pg. 121

I feel a bit weird using one book to quote another (better) book, but this bit is too good to leave out. 
“The Visconti – by HBO”.

Chaucer would surely have heard of the lust and cruelty of the Visconti, who were to provide generations of writers with their ripest material on the decadence of Europe after the Black Death. “Murder, cruelty, avarice, effective government, alternating with savage despotism... and lust amounting to sexual mania, characterized one or other of the family,” wrote Barbara Tuchman.
Lucchino had been murdered by his wife who, after a notable orgy on a river barge, during which she entertained several lovers at once, including the Doge of Venice and her own nephew Galeazzo, decided to eliminate her husband to forestall the same intention with regards to her. The debaucheries of Matteo, eldest brother of Bernabo and Galeazzo, were such that he endangered the regime and was disposed of by his brothers in 1335, the year after their accession.

“Are you a bad enough dude to steal the wax legs of the Holy Roman Emperor?”
There was a very real problem in producing well-fitting made-to-measure armour for distant customers. At the prodigious prices paid for it, it needed to fit well. The accounts of Louis, Duke of Touraine (Charles VI’s brother, and later Duke of Orleans), reveal that in 1386 he bought three ells of fine Reims linen to have a doublet made to send as a pattern to his armourer. When the Early of Derby, later Henry IV of England, ordered armour from Milan, four armourers came with it to give him a fitting, before finishing and hardening it. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the solution was reached of modeling the customer in wax. Charles V was then able to send wax models of “his imperial legs to his armourer.”
-The Devil's Broker, pg. 138

It’s interesting that some letters legitimizing illegitimate sons or recommending illegitimate sons to the priesthood included a clause “to dispense him on account of his illegitimacy, provided he be not an imitator of his father’s incontinency”.
Basically, “you don’t count as a bastard provided you don’t make more bastards.” Wonder how often that worked out?


Next time you read nonfiction, grab a stack of markers, note every gameable bit, and put them on the internet.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought that a campaign starting with the Player characters as mercenaries working for a company would be a good idea. They start out as mere swords with no more value than loyalty or the ability to swing a blade, but as they level up, they can advance in rank and have more influence over where the mercenary company goes and who they fight. This also would be a perfect system to use gold/loot = XP, though the most likely source of it would not be from dungeons, but from plunder taken from raiding or nobles ransomed back to their families for considerable sums.