Lots of fantasy books have an approximately medieval world, and many of them (including my forthcoming trilogy) focus on war. That’s understandable, as warfare has much tension, violence, betrayal and mercy/ruthlessness. It’s a smorgasbord of emotion and drama.
However, there were other threats to ordinary folk, which may seem mundane, but probably killed rather more people.
Fire has always been a love-hate thing for mankind. For warmth, light and cooking (sidenote: even lions prefer cooked meat to raw stuff, when offered a choice), it’s vital. Raging infernos, however, are a significant downside. Medieval houses might be fairly spread out in a village, but in a city they’re crammed together (and highly flammable). When open fires and candles are the order of the day for illumination, the prospect of a fire is never far away. There’s no fire brigade, and no house insurance.
The NHS is often in the news, sometimes with ‘funding crisis’ attached to it. However, imagine a world where there’s not only no NHS, there are no antibiotics at all. Most diseases are treated poorly or are totally incurable, and your main options are ‘get better by yourself’ or ‘die’. Lack of knowledge means diseases spread more rapidly, and because people are understandably frightened, most people would be looked after by their family, so if you infect anyone, it’s likely to be someone you dearly love.
In the 14th century the Black Death wiped out huge numbers of people. In fact, the death toll was so massive it had dramatic economic implications. The price of swords plunged (because a significant minority of their owners dropped dead and suddenly the supply of them increased relative to demand), and the cost of food soared (because many peasant workers were dead, which meant the survivors could charge more for their labour, increasing food prices).
If you are curious about a world without antibiotics, give it another few decades. Excessive prescription (and use in farming) means we’re running out of effective drugs to combat bacteria, and may soon be back to a world where they don’t work.
Bad harvests still happen. And they still push up prices. But because of globalised trade, all that really happens is we import more. If there’s a bad harvest in the medieval world, you get to play a tense game of ‘Will I starve to death this winter?’. If you’ve got kids, there’s a terrible dilemma. Feed them, and you grow weak. Too weak, you’ll be unable to work, your kids will be orphaned, and who knows what will happen to them. If you feed yourself, you may have to watch one or more of your children starve. It’s a horrendous choice, and was a danger every single year.
Now, I did mention war separately above. But beyond the obvious downside of potentially getting your house burnt down, subjected to starvation by being besieged or being raped/killed, there was another, almost incidental problem, but which could also have a substantial impact on an ordinary chap’s life.
That does sound harmless. Except, most farmers, or farm workers, worked on a subsistence basis. After paying taxes (often in food rather than money), there’d be enough left to feed you and your family until next harvest, and a bumper crop meant a bit extra to sell at market for a little bit of cash.
A marauding army does not give a damn about that. They’ve got soldiers to feed. And when you go out foraging, you don’t want your friends to go hungry because you’re soft. So, maybe you kill a few chickens. Not so bad, and a bit of tasty meat. Except those chickens are hugely valuable to a farmer. Chicken is by far the cheapest animal to keep (certainly in medieval times). Not only that, regular eggs provide not only eggs to eat directly, but eggs that can be used in cakes and in stuff like chutney, so food lasts longer (important in an age where fridges aren’t even dreamt of).
But for the sake of a little meat, the nearby army (even being relatively kind) will butcher your chicken, and you’ll lose hundreds of eggs (over that chicken’s now theoretical lifetime).
So, whilst war was commonplace in the medieval era, in terms of casualties, you’re more likely to be done in by something as mundane as poor hygiene, or bad weather.
Incidentally, Explorations, the sci-fi anthology in which I have the short story Dead Weight, should be out in about a fortnight. I’ll put up a post when it’s out.