5 Things to Consider When Mapping a Medieval Town

The Cartographer Magic Card from the Odyssey Set
I have read on social media many times that Map Making is becoming a dying art in D&D. Apparently Dungeon Masters simply aren't taking the time to prepare them anymore. Whether that is due to a lack of artistic talent, the sheer volume of available pre-made maps, or if it is even true; I am not sure. But at JADE we all make and use maps for our D&D Games. We don't map out everything, but occasionally something comes up where having a map is beneficial.

You see, mapping an area can help you design it in greater detail, and the map itself (with some important details and notes removed) can serve as useful as a guide for your players. So of course it is important to make sure that your town feels like the medieval setting D&D takes place in.

My Wife and I recently returned from a 3 week vacation in the UK where we traveled to dozen of medieval towns, and here are five things I learned about settlements from the middle ages from the various museums, tours, and leisurely walks around those ancient places.

Photo from pingallery on Deviant Art

Town Squares Aren't Always Square

While of course there are a few major cities where the town squares are actually a square (such as the beautiful Prague up above) but this is not the case in every town. While German settlements often have proper town squares, many small English and Scottish towns feature more of a circle or an indistinct blob that served the same purpose as a square. These openings are often built around important public buildings such churches, inns, taverns, government buildings, etc. There was also often a fountain, or some sort of fixture in the center that was paid for by the town's people, or donated by a wealthy citizen.

These circles serve as meeting places and common areas, however they are often not in the centre of town as usually depicted. A lot of the blobish town squares in Scotland were at the edge of the village: near one of its entrances. These areas served as a sort of foyer for the rest of the town. In some place we went to, there were even several squares, each with their own fountain and significance. It all depends on the size and layout of your settlement.

The Town of Falkland, Scotland

City Streets Don't Make any Sense

If like most of JADE's readership you are from North America you will be used to roads and towns laid out on a logical grid system. You have "X" number of streets going roughly North/South that intersect with "Y" number of streets going East/West, giving you a logical grid layout for your roads and town. Sure the topography of the area may require some minor changes to the grid, but over all that crisscross of roads makes up the area. This is not the case in the the UK and much of Western Europe.

The picture above is of the town of Falkland in Scotland. Now this is a modern image of course taken from Google Maps, but it does show you just how crazy and seemingly random an old town like this is. Notice that there is a central road that the town is built around, and many of the houses are off of the main streets on very tiny side roads, that in some cases you would not be able to fit more then one person along.

Towns of this era were largely designed with pedestrians in mind. So there are a few major roads for larger traffic such as horses and carts, but most of the town is comprised of side streets built off of these sections, with more paths added as needed. So keep your villages designs tightly packed around one or two major roads and they will start to feel like a medieval town.

The Cliff Side Market MTG Card from the Planechase Set

Town Markets Are More Complicated Then You Think

Villages and Cities operated under different rules of conduct when it came to the sale of goods. If you lived in a city such as York in England in the middle ages, then to go shopping you would need go to several different streets to fulfill your list. This is because each street was devoted to the sale of one type of good. Butcher Street for meats, Copperpan Street for copperware, Baker street for your baked goods, etc. While certainly there were other shops around the area, (and in fact many cities had bazaar like markets) delegating each type of vendor to a street meant it was easier for towns to tally and tax incoming goods. It also promoted competition among vendors keeping prices fair.

If you were in a small town however, while you would have a handful of travelling and small local vendors handling the daily needs, most trade would be done through household bartering. In fact we learned in the UK that your town could only have a weekly market if you were granted permission by royal decree. So if you want something from a small town you would have to go straight to the source.

The Beautiful York Minster Cathedral

Churches and Cathedrals are Massive Undertakings

I grew up in a small town, that was at least old from a North American perspective. There was an old half of the town, and a newer half of the town. Both built around churches, and in both cases the church was the largest building in that section of town. Now this is surely because the primarily residential community of my old hometown meant you didn't need anything taller then a church steeple would stand. However the height of a building also often denoted its importance in town, and a church was a far more important place then it is often considered today: It would in fact be the pride of the town.

Large cathedrals such as the gorgeous York Minister pictured above, would have taken centuries to complete and required the finest craftsmen. But even a small church would have been a honour for a carpenter to work on, and would largely have been supported and built with community funding and labour. Churches were a big deal, and huge undertakings for a community to bear. So consider having your cathedral not yet finished and everyone in town has worked on it for generations. Or your church and community are unhappy with the quality of their carpenter's work and constantly speak out against him. If the town has a church/temple, then make the town revolve around that building. Make it a character in the town itself, and give it the importance that it deserves.

Gardyloo!

Sanitation is a Serious Problem

Settlements in the South of the UK had the benefit of being conquered by the Romans in this regard. Roman soldiers brought Roman engineers who built complex sewer systems in many of the towns. While these systems were eventually overpowered by the sheer number of people living in England around the 18th-19th century, they did serve as an effective waste management system for much of their use. 

If you lived in Edinburgh however, this was not the case. Scotland was never conquered by Rome and thus never had the benefit of Roman engineering. As such, in Edinburgh we learned of an rather disgusting way of dealing with the human waste that the city of 60,000 would accumulate. At 7am, and 10pm each day it was the job of the youngest member of the household to grab "the bucket", bring it to the window and toss it into the street yelling "Gardyloo!" to warn people below.  If you were passing underneath you would loudly shout "Hold Your Hand!" Which would hopefully get the thrower to stop before they tossed their bucket of shit all over you.

This waste would then run down the angular streets into the artificially constructed Nor Loch... Which also happened to serve as the towns drinking water. Needless to say outbreaks of just about every kind of disease were common.

Sanitation remained a serious issue in the UK well into the 19th century, and the issue of disposing human waste and refining drinking water still plagues much of the world today. So consider if your town has a sewer system, how would they dispose their waste? Is this causing any problems for the town? All of this will add atmosphere to your settlement, the option of some side quests, and the potential to dump a bucket of shit on one of your player characters; Priceless.

I could go on for a while about other oddities I noticed in specific towns, however those five were the most common that I observed in each town I went to. So keep these things in mind the next time you map out your own medieval town, and it will feel all the more real.

Written by: Andrew Gregory
5 Things to Consider When Mapping a Medieval Town 5 Things to Consider When Mapping a Medieval Town Reviewed by Jade GamingNews on 7/13/2017 02:05:00 pm Rating: 5

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