Are your peasants men or mice?

A couple weeks ago, I was reflecting on the role of the peasantry in fiction. This is in the context of having just watched a couple of Scandinavian films, I suppose. In The Salvation, a Dane in America’s wild west finds himself up against a ruthless gang lead by Negan. Really.


I don’t want to get spoiler heavy, but you’ve got two types of villagers here. The sniveling coward appeasers, who refuse to stand up to the lawless cowboys, and the real common men. I think this is a common motif in Western stories. Sometimes it takes a leader to marshal the townfolk into fighting back against the bad guys. The protagonist and his brother were once soldiers, so we are told, so I suppose they don’t count as “peasants” in this musing.

The other film I watched, The Last King, tells the story of a Norse king who is assassinated so that those close to him can seize the throne. It is soon discovered that he had an illegitimate son – an infant who is being protected and hidden away by babe’s mother and some men loyal to the king.

Ultimately, a showdown between the usurpers and those truly loyal to the rightful king becomes inevitable. The two soldiers guarding the royal baby wind up marshaling a gang of farmers to arms.


Though they know the odds are stacked against them, the Dane peasants ski in YOLO -style to kick some ass.

This is what got me thinking. I’m going to make a big generalization here – different cultures have wildly different perceptions and portrayals of their villagers. Specifically I was thinking of most of the Japanese films I’ve seen.

Part of this, I’m sure, if explained by the histories of the different countries we’re talking about. In feudal Japan, peasants would have maybe had pitchforks and other farming implements. They were forbidden to own swords for a good chunk of time. And I guess the strict class structure of Japan would have been another strike against badass fighting peasants.


I don’t really have any solid explanations here. Just my half-baked thoughts. Still, this is an interesting element for DMs and writers to consider. Can PCs and baddies just come waltzing into town and expect everyone to lay down for them? Or is the populace going to fight back if pushed? This could be a neat way to draw a distinction between different peoples and cultures, too.




10 thoughts on “Are your peasants men or mice?

  1. Aren’t some of these Nordic stories based on societies were every freeman owned a sword and, in fact, that was the reason he was considered free? It would be like trying to make Swiss “peasants” into cowards when each one was trained to be a hardcore, halberd-swinging bastard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case. I suspect there are cultural and historical reasons for the way peasants are how they are in each society.

      That may also speak to “peasants” on the American frontier. Were a lot of guns floating around, and a lot of men who had served in the military but not as career soldiers. But again, get both flavors in stories of the wild west – store clerks and gamblers and ranchers with guns and guts, and also plenty of folk who would rather knuckle under and hope they’re not next to have their heads bashed in.


  2. I think education has something to do with it, too.
    Peasants in China are seen with and treated with contempt. They are expected to be cowardly, stupid, venal, short-sighted, greedy, etc.
    But in China, from time immemorial, personal improvement was done via education. One could only become an enlightened man via education.

    Or maybe the West is just more warlike in general.

    China was always trying to pacify the barbarians and have peace. The barbarians just wanted to invade and then have the good life, with peace. The Japanese had some warring periods, and strife, but, like China, war was pretty much horrible for everyone, so maybe they tried to avoid it as much as possible?

    Whereas Europe was constantly at war with itself, all the time. If it wasn’t over territory, then it was over succession. If not those two reasons, then Catholics and Protestants were having it out.

    The result being that when Europe started exploring, their tech was so advanced they easily dominated all the other peaceful nations. Particularly China, which was powerful and wealthy…for a world that wasn’t constantly improving warfare technology with constant wars.

    What I’m saying is, maybe there *is* a socially-instituted, or even genetically inherited, difference in belligerence and combativeness?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Then again, the whole point of this is just adventure ideas for DMs, right?
      From that point of view, I really like your way of thinking. Add complexity and uncertainty for the players.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading this made me think of one of my favorite novels, John Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down”. The invaders–who are based on Nazi Germany, although it’s never said directly–have all of the advantages militarily. They have overwhelming force and the locals are disarmed. The locals, however, can and do resist in hundreds of small, subtle ways and over time wear the invaders down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. I’m not familiar with that one!

      That does bring another element into the equation – are otherwise passive populaces more likely to fight back against foreign occupiers?


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