Geriatrics, Sexual Roles, and Agriculture

Modern conventions that have been placed into most role playing environments include unrealistically good geriatric care and sexual equality, at least for a preindustrial culture.  Without getting into a detailed and fervent history of attitudes toward the elderly and women’s suffrage, a game designer with an eye towards immersive believability could stand to benefit from understanding the reasoning behind the history of these causes, and the implications of introducing them into a setting which historically could not support them.

In a preindustrial agrarian society, everything is based on how good your harvest is, and therefore on how many able-bodied peasants you have at your disposal.  Able-bodied peasants generally referred to males between the ages of 16 and 40 or so.  These were the people who kept everyone from starvation and allowed for more leisure time among the aristocracy and artisan classes, so they could develop technology.  As outlined earlier, the peasantry typically comprised at least 90% of the total population, if not more.  However, out of everyone that lived on a farm, only able bodied laborers were immediately important to the harvest and therefore the tax base.  This excluded three major groups of "peasant dependents":

  • The very young
  • The very old
  • Women

The very young were unable to work effectively at food-gathering, and even if they were doing chores like milking cows or collecting eggs and berries, they were not producing enough to feed themselves, let alone support any excess.  They were important only because they would eventually become food producers or childbearers themselves if they lived that long.  This still did not make them as important as the farmer himself, and if there was a famine, the children generally starved to death rather than the productive family members.  This seems horrible from the modern compassion perspective of "feeding the children before yourselves," but this ethic is only possible because our food production technology is sufficient enough to support it.  If the children starve in a preindustrial farmhouse, you have less of a drain on the precious little food that remains, and you can presumably always make more children to replace them.  (Note that during the Irish potato famine of the 1840′s, ethics did dictate the feeding of children first, but they starved anyway as a result of being fed the inside of the potato, while the adults made do with the less appetizing, but more nutritious, peel.)

The very old in a peasant house are doubly penalized.  The first consideration is the same as for children in that they cannot work, but they will never become strong farmers again.  In effect, all they do is eat.  This makes them a liability to the farmer, who now has to support more mouths and still pay his rent and taxes, and also to the lord of the land, who sees the elderly as a useless food sink that cheapens his tax base while returning nothing.  (The concept of gratitude for services rendered is another modern ethical consideration that can only exist when technologically feasable.)  As if this weren’t bad enough, medical care was understandably extremely limited, and one reason the elderly were not such a problem for the population was that a peasant was usually dead by the time he became unable to work.  Old people are more susceptible to injuries, as the body stops regenerating as efficiently once the capablity to propogate the species is gone; he is as useless to the gene pool as he is to the lord of the land.  A fall resulting in a broken bone was usually fatal.

Women had a number of things working against them from the standpoint of food gathering in the European system.  The first is the difference in bodily functions with men, particularly the lack of explosive upper body strength, which is important for hard manual labor (or killing something with an axe) unless it’s something relatively easy like rice sprouting, and rice-based cultures often did have women working the fields alongside the men unless they were having children.  Secondly, the advantage of human females in metabolism works against them:  since women can survive longer without food and water than men (except during pregnancy), they tended to get less nourishment.  The primary role of women in this sort of society, where the survival of the species was actually something to worry about, was childbearing.  This was a full time job in many cases, since you took it for granted that a certain number of your children were going to die before they reached maturity.  Having lots of kids was both a societal and genetic imperative.  Coupled with the incredibly high rate of death during childbirth, this meant that women in the European theatre generally led short, miserable lives that consisted of little more than light hand industry and birthing.  Without the technology to improve their lot, and the lot of the society, it was an unfortunate inevitability.

Concerns about the elderly only really apply in a fantasy campaign where time is important, as it is in any really good campaign.  The elderly members of the peasantry are still effectively useless in the agrarian power structure, though.  They cannot farm, and eat the food that others bring in.  The archetypical fantasy mage often tends to be old, but one can assume that a mage is by all rights a member of the aristocracy or the nobility, with access to better healthcare and nutrition than anyone else, and historically only the upper classes lived to advanced age.  If you want to present a more compassionate face for your society, you can say that the excess food production from your fantasy supercrop allows the elderly to be supported, in effect a technological advance that permits a new ethic to flourish.  You must be careful, though, to avoid a situation where longevity is the norm for every member of society, or the elderly will be eating food they haven’t grown for many many years, draining the economy past self-sufficiency very quickly.  For this reason, magic should not be allowed to act as an advanced anti-agathic agent, and the old ex-farmer will still die at what would be consdered a very young age today.  The same rationale can be applied to the survival of young children, simply by lessening the risk of famine.  However, a situation where magically created food can sustain everyone infinitely should be avoided, as such a situation creates entirely new sets of social problems that are outside the scope of a comprehensible fantasy game for a modern player.

Now let’s assume that because you don’t want your fantasy game to be picketed by the Women’s Liberation Movement, you have a caveat that women are equal to men in all ways.  Actually, this is not true:  what you are really saying is that player character adventurer women are equal in all ways to their male counterparts.  The peasant woman is still probably dying while having her third baby, but the peasantry is pleasantly invisible to the players.  However, there are some interesting implications.  If women have the same physical potential as men, this means that the peasant wife can now be very productive during the planting and harvest… not as productive as the man, since some of her time will still be spent trying to deliver babies, but say about 80% or so.  Ths raises the female peasant from the role of "dependent breeder" to an important part of the agrarian community.  This means that there is less waste and overhead for the peasantry, resulting in a higher surplus yield, which means you have more people with free time.

Women are still valuable as the mothers of the next generation, though, so how can you reconcile this with the idea of female adventurers risking life and limb without restriction?  You must assume that magic allows for safer delivery, and that the midwife is the magical equivalent of a primitive but functional maternity ward.  Magic can also act as a blackbox form of pediatric care, and so less peasant children die before maturity.  If this is the case, then the people have less of a problem with women getting killed on the battlefield, since the next generation is more safely assured.

5 Responses to “Geriatrics, Sexual Roles, and Agriculture”
  1. Are you claiming that there were no armies of bikini clad female ninja warriors who would only sleep with a man who could first defeat them in single combat? Dude, you have totally ruined my favorite fantasy! Now what will I rub one off to?

  2. If women have the same physical potential as men, this means that the peasant wife can now be very productive during the planting and harvest… not as productive as the man, since some of her time will still be spent trying to deliver babies, but say about 80% or so. Ths raises the female peasant from the role of “dependent breeder” to an important part of the agrarian community. This means that there is less waste and overhead for the peasantry, resulting in a higher surplus yield, which means you have more people with free time.

    This would have interesting effects along with the magic and/or technology greatly reducing infant and childhood mortality. You’d probably get even more productivity out of women, although you’d likely also get a rise in various ways of eliminating excess births (like contraception, abortion, and infanticide).

    Combine the above two with reasonably reliable magical contraception, and you’d end up with a very interesting looking medieval society. It would likely be an older one, as well, simply because children would be less common, and there would be more old people due to the significantly less early childhood mortality (which was the real reason you generally see statistics like “medieval people had a life expectancy of 30 years”. It’s not that they dropped dead at 30 – rather, infant mortality was very high, but if you survived your childhood you’d likely live into your 50s and 60s barring disease, injury, or war).

  3. This is going to make me go back through my Celtic history books. Women being relegated to a “lesser” position wasn’t necessarily part of the way life was, but was also a cultural choice. Celtic societies had maternal worship, so while in the peasant caste (and there was a caste system for the traditional Celts) women still probably did a lot of child-bearing, they were exalted for it rather than viewed as dependent. At the same time, the Celts themselves were making technological advancements past the Romans in both metal and chariot engineering, even if they weren’t making any advancements in military organization. Women in Celtic societies were also leaders (Scottish law held over a rite of succession for a long time that the throne may be passed for one generation to the Mother’s side of the family to avoid giving it to a weak son, an incident involving this formed the basis for MacBeth–in reality, MacBeth was the good guy), scholars, doctors, and one of the main points I must check in my history books now are if they were fighters as well. Though Celtic society is primarily pre-medieval with it having been Romanized and Normanized by the time the Middle Ages came around, a cultural base to come from for designers to move forward with is most likely more useful to look in to than trying to take our current cultural perceptions and impress them backwards. For designers wanting a more equal society along the lines of the sexes, ancient Celtic society is probably a good starting point for viewing how an agrarian society lives. The assumptions of what they’d do with middle age farming technology can be made afterwards.

  4. An essay like this needs simplification to be practical but one can simplify too far; the role of women isn’t that straightforward. Not just the Celts: Germanic tribes seem to have been freer for women before Christianity hit them, and they were already Iron Age. Etruscan art suggests more female equality. Spartan women had more freedom than Athenian ones — for having a goddess ‘patron’, Athens was actually rather misogynist. Role of Roman women changed over time. Egyptian women seem to have had legal equality, apart from high office, owning land, bringing lawsuits, and serving as lower officials, and this is a society that lasted 3000 years. Meanwhile Babylonian and Assyrian law codes are harsher.

    Also I rather doubt the classification of women peasants as unproductive.

    There’s very likely to be social expectations of gender roles, women raising kids and doing jobs consistent with watching kids (textiles) and having only defensive if any military role, but how rigid those roles are for ornery females is a cultural variable. Some cultures may legally enforce chatteldom, others may just frown a lot at a woman taking male roles. Even in medieval Europe, women seem to have had more freedom to buck the system than in early Victorian times, when roles were codified. Other societies have had ways to be considered a member of the opposite gender. You don’t get a modern Western society, but you don’t get stereotypical medieval either.

  5. countercheck says:

    You’re also ignore the other major cottage industry women were involved in: textiles. There’s a reason the female line is known as the distaff. While they might have been less productive agriculturally, they spent a LOT of time working with drop spindles.

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