OSR: Medieval Miners (or Goddamn Cornishmen Stole My River)

Humble members of the Third Estate traditionally have very little power. The great powers of the world—the landowning bishops and prelates of the First Estate, the lords and knights of the Second estates, and the great merchants and guilders of the Third Estate—traditionally reap society's benefits. But there are always exceptions. Medieval miners, despite their dangerous work, the risk of silicosis, poisoning, dismemberment, and death, had it pretty good.

All quotes in this article are from The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel (reviewed here).

Derbyshire Caving Club
It is astonishing to study the range of rights that miners enjoyed. They were allowed to take timber from the neighborhood woods for use in their mines. Sometimes when wood was scarce, they could even prevent the landowner from cutting his own wood until they had a sufficient supply for their furnaces. They were permitted to prospect anywhere except in churchyards, gardens, orchards, and highways, and were even allowed to divert streams and were given the right of access to the nearest highway.
John de Treeures complained that:
fully sixty tinners have entered on his demesne and soil, which bears wheat, barley, oats, hay and peas, and is as good and fair as any soil in Cornewaille, and have lead streams of water from divers places to Treeures over part of his said demesne and soil, so that, by reason of the great current of water they have obtained and the steep slope of the land there, all the land where they come will go back to open moor, and nothing will remain of all that good land except great stones and gravel.
And further upstream some poor baron could no doubt complain that goddamn Cornishmen stole my his river! And what's worse, they did it legally. Water is critical for mining... and the source of many disasters.
Those who objected to such violations rarely got satisfaction. In central Europe the overlords or lords of the soil wisely set up a mining administration independent of local authorities, headed by a Bergmeister, and then let the miners run their own mines. They had their own law courts, in which twelve or fourteen miners sat as judges. This was to prevent local authorities from interfering arbitrarily in mining disputes, thus risking a stoppage of mining operations, which would be against the financial interest of the overlords or lords of the soil.


The miners were exempted from ordinary taxes and tolls, and from military service. They were offered, when necessary, land to build their cottages on. They were entitled to a measured plot of ground on which to search for ore, and the interest of their concessionary was to be permanent, assignable, and transmissible.

In Germany, besides all these rights, a still higher honor was offered the mining classes. If such a group of miners proved successful, a "mine city" soon arose—such as, among others, Freiberg, Goslar, Iglau, Kutna Hora, and Joachimstal—and the last stage in freeing the miners from the feudal laws was to give such a community the status of a freemen's city. The inhabitants, at least those who were bona fide miners, then enjoyed all all the privileges of town hall as well as those of the mines, including free brewing and baking, free transportation of goods, the removal of the burdensome guild regulations, which hindered the miners in their occupation, and finally freedom from any military service.


The exceptional privileges granted to those who chose to become miners provoked the anger of many manorial lords. Unwilling to see their peasants joining the much freer and more lucrative mining profession, the lords frequently fought back, but in the end were always defeated, and the miners retained their rights. In fact, the free miners not only always took advantage of their privileges but often overstepped their rights. Complaint followed complaint. Miners were even accused of digging on church land in 1237. In 1318, an inquiry revealed that the Devon miners did not even hesitate "to seize and beat up the king's bailiffs. . . and hold them in prison pending the payment of a ransom.


Quarries dot the landscape. Stone is vital for large construction projects. Decorative stone is rare (and often worth importing), but every barony has a quarry or two. Masons and quarry workers are mere labourers, unable to claim the rights of other miners. A quarry might shut down for a decade and restart when repairs or new projects arose. Stone is expensive; transport doubly so. The castle calculations in this post line up reasonably well with the numbers given below.
According to rough calculations, the cost of carriage by land for a distance of 12 miles was about equivalent to the cost of the stone. The builders had to start by prospecting for stone in the neighboring countryside. They were prepared to try and scheme that would reduce costs—for example, having the stone hand-hewn in the quarries, or having ingenious machines built to load and unload stone. If stone had to be moved any distance, it was always preferable to transport it by water.
Traditionally, stone had been one of the most significant French exports, with the regional record for achievement going to Caen... In another instance, for the building of Winchester Castle, on September 3, 1272, we read: "And for 1,450 Caen stones . . . £3 7s. 6d." For Westminster Abbey, £10 4s. 8d. was spent in March 1253, for two shiploads of stone from Caen. The builders of the Tower of London similarly spent £332 2s. for seventy-five shiploads. Caen stone bought in 1287 for Norwich Cathedral (some 300 miles away from Normandy) for £1 6s. 8d. cost £4 10s. 8d., where it was unloaded onto six barges at a cost of 2s. 2d. The freight up the rivers Yare and Wensum cost another 7s. 2d., and there was a final cost of 2s. for unloading the stone from the barges to the cathedral yard.


Iron rules the medieval world. In misplaced enthusiasm, cathedral-builders sometimes strung iron chains through their stonework or built complex and unstable iron frameworks to keep the walls straight. Tools and ploughs were edged with iron. Horse were shod with iron. 
The accounts for expenditure on the fabric of Autun Cathedral for 1294-1295 include not only wages and the price of transport but the cost of yet another vital raw material needed to build with stone: iron. More than 10% of the total cost is absorbed by expenditures on forges in the quarries and on building sites.
To the forge at the quarry, 62 sous
Including our iron £3 2s.
To the forge at Autun, for the year £42 10s. 6d.

The Franciscan monk Bartholomew wrote in 1260:
Use of iron is more needful to men in many things than the use of god. Though covetous men have more gold than iron, without iron the commonality be not sure against enemies, without dread of iron the common right is not governed; with iron innocent men are defended; and foolhardiness of wicked men is chastened with dread of iron. And well nigh no handiwork is wrought without iron, neither tilling craft used nor building builder without iron.
What a quote! "Without the dread of iron the common right is not goverened." It'll almost certainly make its way into the Iron Gates setting.

Silver & Other Metals

Treasure can come in unexpected forms. Put a shiny rock on the random encounter table.

In 1136, when traders carrying rock salt from Halle to Bohemia came across what they thought to be silver-bearing ore washed down from the mountains by a spring flood in Saxony, in the region of Frieberg, they picked up ore samples and took them to Goslar to be analyzed. The samples turned out to have a finer grade of silver than the silver ore of Goslar, a discovery that prompted an immediate "silver rush". "As news of this discovery spread, adventurers in considerable numbers, with picks and shovels, hurried to Freiberg. They came in a spirit of adventure not altogether unlike that of the Americans who migrated to California in the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century." By 1170, mining and smelting at Freiberg were in full swing in a metalworking center of some thirty-thousand inhabitants.

Study of the mining vocabulary used in various countries in Europe shows that to a substantial degree it is of German origin, understandable in that German miners played the leading role in the opening up of new mines and the modernizing of existing ones... Their fame was such that they were called for by rulers from all over Europe (even in Turkey the vocabulary of mining terms today is German). Gold and silver too precedence, but there was much interest also in lead, copper, tin, and zinc, and to a much lesser degree in iron, always easily found on the surface in small deposits here and there.
An enthusiastic report was made and we now know that the author's enthusiasm was justified. He is writing to the Bishop of Bath and Wells:
Know, my lord, that your workmen have found a splendid mine of lead on the Mendips to the East of Priddy, and one that can be opened with no trouble, being only five or six feet below the ground. And since these workmen are so often thieves, craftily separating the silver from the lead, stealthily taking it away, and when they have collected a quantity fleeing like thieves and deserting their work, as has happened so frequently in times past, therefore your bailiffs are causing the ore to be carried to your court at Wookey where there is a furnace built at which the workmen smelt the ore under supervision of certain persons appointed by your steward. And as the steward, bailiffs, and workmen consider that there is a great deal of silver in the lead, on accounts of its whiteness and sonority, they beg that you will send them as soon and possible a good and faithful workman upon whom they can rely. I have seen the first piece of lead smelted there, of great size and weight, which when it is struck rings almost like silver, wherefore I agree with the others that if it is faithfully worked the business should prove of immense value to yourself and to the neighborhood, and if a reliable workman is obtained I think that it would be expedient to smelt the ore where it is dug, on account of the labour of carrying so heavy material such a distance. The ore is in grains like sand.
I'm sorry, but every time I hear "Bishop of Bath and Wells", my mind goes to the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells


Was [mineral wealth] owned by the territorial or overlord landowner, or by the lord of the soil? In the later Roman empire most of the mines had belonged to the emperor, and on those that were still privately owned a 10 percent tax was levied. The medieval overlords, perhaps with knowledge of this Imperial Roman custom, tried to enforce such regalian rights for their own benefit... While in England the Crown was generally able to enforce its control, in France up until the fifteenth century the king did not try to claim regalian taxes from his feudal vassals.
In regions with strong central control, mining rights were controlled by the strong central power. In disorganized areas, local powers (down to individual families in Italy) could maintain control. Mines could be leased or sold under a bewildering variety of agreements. Mines in England could be leased to Florentine financiers.


At Douai, in northern France, in the thirteenth century wood had already become so scarce and expensive that families from the lower income groups could not afford to buy a wooden coffin for their dead. They had to rent one, and when the ceremony at the cemetery was over, the undertaker would open the coffin, throw the corpse into the earth, and bring back the coffin to use again.

An average house built of wood needed some twelve oaks. In the middle of the fourteenth century, for the building operation at Windsor Castle, a whole wood was bought and all the trees felled—3,004 oaks. This was still not sufficient, for some ten years later 820 oaks were cut in Combe Park, and 120 in Pamber Forest, bringing the total for this one castle up to 3,994 oaks.
And these are big oaks too; any timber less than twenty foot long was essentially scrap. A famous book of engineering drawings includes "How to make a bridge over water with twenty-foot timber" and "How to work on a house or tower even if the timbers are too short."
To obtain 50 kilograms of iron it is necessary at that time to reduce approximately 200 kilograms of iron ore with as much as 25 steres (25 cubic meters) of wood. It has been estimated that in forty days, one furnace could level the forest for a radius of one kilometer.
So the deforestation around Isengard is, if anything, less than one might expect. Limekilns, charcoal furnaces, and other processes consumed wood at a frantic rate, let alone simple household firewood. Sea-coal and mined coal helped in some regions, but forests continually shrank through the whole medieval period, never to recover.
Finally, here's a poem on medieval blacksmiths and water-assisted hammers.
Swart smutted smiths, smattered with smoke,
Drive me to death with din of their dints;
Such noise on nights ne heard men never.
What with knaven cry and clattering of knocks!
The crooked caitiffs cryen after coal! coal!
And bloweth their bellows till their brain bursteth.
Huf! puf! says the one; haf! paf! says the other;
They spitten and they sprawlen and they spellen many spells.
They gnawen and gnashen and they groan all together,
And holden them hot with their hard hammers.
Of a bull-hide be their barm-fells;
Their shanks be shackled for the fiery flinders;
Heavy hammers they have that are hard to be handled,
Stark strokes they striken on a steely stock,
Lus! bus! las! das! snore they by the row,
Such doleful a dream that the devil it to-drive!
The master loungeth a little and catcheth a less,
Twineth them twain and toucheth a treble,
Tik! tak! hic! hac!, tiket! taket! tyk! tyk!
Lus! bus! las! das! . . . Christ give them sorrow!
May no man for brenn waters on night have his rest?
Adrian Smith

GLOG Dwarves?

I didn't originally include dwarves in my setting. I still don't think they're a good fit. Elves have a lot of interesting aspects for a medieval setting; dwarves can be made interesting but not without signifiantly deviating from the "surly scottish short bearded person" motif.

Similarly, a Miner class doesn't fit my vision of how the GLOG works; "Miner" could be a skill but not an entire class.

A specific race that has access to the richness of this post seems odd too. There's too much here, and plenty I didn't list. Quarries with horizontal tunnels a mile long. Mysterious burning rocks that wash up from the sea. Pixies are a bit too close to my Gnomes to deserve a separate article.

Metals go to dragons. Stone goes to elementals.

The ability to evalute stones, gems, metals, and ores (compared to a Thief ability to evalute currency, worked goods, art, etc.) could be interesting, but why pointlessly split up an ability and give the GM one more thing to adjudicate?

An "architecture sense" ability could be fun in a game that heavily relies on mapping, but it never seems to work out in play. There are more interesting things than precise room measurements or sloping corridors.

So yes, at the end of all this, no dwarves. But a great deal of potentially useful medieval esoterica.


  1. Re Dwarves:
    So as you mentioned a lot of the mining vocabulary is of German origin (the Bergmeister futher up BTW translates to "Master of the Mountain), but in Germany there are old ledgends of the "Walen" (people who speak Welsch/Latin) or "Venedigermännlein" (little man from Venice).
    Prospectors from south of the alps who according to the ledgends were able to sniff out treasures in the mountian and had various magical means to find minerals. They were also known to bestow great riches on people who helped them.
    Those stories seem to have an historic background in that the Venitians did send out prospectors during the late middle ages who searched for minerals like bismuth and alum, which were needed for colored glass.

  2. You are amazing. I can’t believe you give this away for free and I don’t know what I ever did before I found you.

  3. Is the price given for 1450 Caen Stones for dressed stone? Based off some weird math and assumptions, that's about 16 silver per ton of stone, which isn't too bad.

    1. I don't think it's dressed. The stone for the Tower at least was dressed on-site for decoration. It was probably just rough-hewn blocks.

  4. This is the perk I give to dwarves in my games: Speak With Dungeon 1/day. The player can ask a question about a room or passageway, such as "how many doors are in this hall" or "are there any secret spaces next to this room" etc. That's how I do an "architecture sense" ability.