Crime in Mythic Europe (?)

One of our players has an character concept for a crooked clerk, who is also a fence and black marketeer... and it suddenly occurred to me that I don't know that much about crime in Mythic Europe. Lords of Men, Ordo Noblis and Heirs of Merlin go one at some length about trails and punishments but not so much about crime itself. I know that there isn't anything like the old D&D idea of the Theives Guild, no medieval mafia. However, I'm not sure what there is.

I mean, say you're a bandit. You've got your band of runaway serfs and local bully boys. You beat up the passing merchant and grab his stuff. Now what?

Any thoughts?

If there was something like a thieves guild, it was the beggards (though it might just be French novelists and L&L that make me believe this). Minorities were also associated with crime, especially the gypsies. In Italy, I assume that there have always been "houses" with black ops teams. Germany had robbers/highwaymen (though the famous ones come from the early 19th century).

It depends on what crime is. In a rural area, I'd say mostly poachers/highwaymen living in the woods. In cities, beggars were more important. Then there are the plunderers, gamblers and whores that follow the crusades.
From a Marxist perspective: The most successful thieves were the nobility and the clergy.

Here's what you need to know about crime in the Middle Ages: everything you know about crime rates, throw out the window. You know the bloods? Crypts? Mafia?

F****ing pansies.

The murder rate was astronomical. There was no police force, as such, whatsoever. No even semblance of one until the Renaissance. Town Watches and the like tried to fill some of the gap in some places, but most "policing" was either community vigilance and noble-hired thugs looking out for their master's interests.

People compensated for the lack of institutional security through personal violence. Insults are more than just "words": they're the equivalent of direct assault. Failing to answer an insult is an open invitation for people to kill you and take your things.

Theft is punished by death, instantly, often by those who catch the theif, not waiting for official results. Nobles and local "magistrates" often were rubber stamps for vigilante or community justice. Stealing even small amounts, like grazing on another's field or stealing an apple from a tree, could get you killed on the spot.

Cities had a little more control than the countryside. The ruling house, houses or guilds could keep an eye on everyone, within reason.

In terms of criminal networks, there was a tonne of smuggling. Tolls were everywhere, and so lots of people were involved in evading them, including nobility and monastic orders (salt, grain and some luxury items were the big rackets.)

Gangs were ubiquitous, but the big rule was that everything was community run. Locals looked after their own, but outsiders were always fair game. There was little

Your character will have to decide what social class he caters to.

Is he the local distributions man for the large-scale smuggling in salt, grain and wool etc? He is the guy who knows where to get the moonshine, and can sell you cheap contraband? Does he facilitate the bribes for the local baliff or governor and the court, and arrange for sketchy legal documents, or can he attain a pardon for the right person? Or has he found a way to circumvent the guild rules on the production or sale of certain materials? At the highest level, in an Italian city, can he arrange for the theft of guild secrets, arrange for assasinations, arrange for fake livery or fake letters patent?

The best use for a clerk, sadly, would be for tax. Taxes were by definition crooked, and were often arranged through a tax-farm system: The King, Duke or whatever, contracts out the right to collect taxes to private contractors who cook the books to inflate their profits. However, this isn't criminal, just corrupt, which wasn't considered an abnormal or really criminal thing at the time.

I hope that helps. If you're more specific, maybe I can help you more. What country are we talking about? What region? What social class? What intended benifits?

You might take a look at The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall. I haven't read it myself but I've heard good things about it.

It's good in so far as it goes, but short on detail that's easy to lift for RPG purposes.

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives might be worth a look.
Not an extensive treatment on crime , even in the Outlaw episode , however.
The Knight (in a castle) was far better situated to loot and plunder and Terry Jones mentions a couple , iirc.

Thanks. I answer your questions in order: England, Welsh Marches, he's a clerk for a wool merchant in a small market town, and his goals are personal wealth and reputation.

In the welsh marches he can have a prominent role in the English-Welsh conflict. It was rife with raids and counterraids.


As the character is a clerk , you probably have Virtues related to that social status for the character.
Perfect Eye For (Commodity) , page 109 , City & Guild might be useful.
If not for the clerk , then a partner he might work with.
Knowing the value of woolen cloth , if you are going to perpetrate fraud with a warehouse stocktake.

I have to second Vulcano: the really really common "white collar crime" in the Middle ages was smuggling. There were tons of tolls and taxes, which made it worthwhile to spend a lot of effort trying to avoid them. City and Guild has concise, but effective rules for dealing with smugglers in the "Trade" chapter. Basically, you can either be a full time smuggler (in which case your "trade skill" is Intrigue in place of e.g. Profession: Merchant or Craftman: Glassblower), or be a simple merchant that aids smugglers and acts as a fence, in which case you gain an extra season worth of income per year (this would probably be suitable for your clerk too). In both cases you gain the Dark Secret major flaw, and the Social Contact minor virtue (the latter to reflect your network of contacts).

In general, I would strongly recommend looking into City and Guild for interesting information about medieval economics, crime, and intrigue, and all the means by which someone who is not a noble might advance (or ruin) his station in life; it's well researched and rather sound mechanically (make sure you check the errata though).

That was definately one of my thoughts, but the question is how exactly. What's his role?

For instance, you're the leader of a band of Welshmen. You hop across the border, burn out an assart, snatch some sheep, maybe a ox and some pots or other valuables. Now what? I mean, reasonably one could just add the sheep and ox to your own stock and have some extra pots. You don't really need a fence to convert your stolen goods into wealth because they already are wealth.

So again, I like the idea of him playing a role in the raids and counter-raids, but I'm unclear what the role would be.

The raiders of your clan come home with the English hot on their heels. When they arrive you face them and ask them their business. You point out that they cannot tresspass since these are Church lands and tresspassing would mean them facing more than mere human muscle (human muscle that is, BTW, quite abundant around this location. And besides, you have not seen anyone going this way with stolen cattle.

If you can pull that raid-protection for the local people, you are a worthwile ally.


Also, raiding in this part of the world could be problematic as it takes the issue from simple crime to tribal warfare, and perhaps feudal warfare if and when the local lord gets P***ed off.

For Wales, stick to smuggling.

Inbound: Salt, Spices, Silver.

Outbound: Wool, Iron, Grain

Local: Moonshine (nobles controlled rights to make, distribute booze of all kinds.)

Also, as this is Mythic Europe, he could be a fence for Supernatural and Hermetic devices and Items. Remember, by peripheral code it is very, very illegal to sell directly to Mundanes, especially enchanted items. Groups like House Verditus use complex networks of intermediares, led by Venditore factors, to move their stuff.

While its unlikely that your fence is hawking Verditus to the locals, he could be the guy to see to get it to the local hyper-militarised Welsh nobility. He could also be the fence for Phamacopean cures, poisons and boosters, or non-Verditus items. Certainly, it would both explain his contact with the Magi and make him a doubly useful reasource.

It would also be highly exciting. Verditus magi are always trying to disrupt one-another's sales and distribuitions networks. Only a fool uses the Redcap network: really easy to detect and therefore disrupt. Theyd have desperate need for a reliable fence. This one would have a double shield of deception: First, hes a merchant or clerk. Then, he`s a petty mundane smuggler. In fact, he uses his mundane smuggling as a cover for and facilitation of smuggling of enchanted items.

Just a thought, for spice.