A Most Peculiar Cottage
Mankby is an archaeological site in Finland, not far from Helsinki. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a fairly typical medieval village in what was then part of the kingdom of Sweden. There is one structure in Mankby, though, that has raised some eyebrows: a most peculiar cottage.
The cottage consisted of three rooms and a cellar. The rooms were each about 5x5 meters, arranged in a line, forming a roughly 15x5 meter structure. The northern and southern rooms were heated by large stone ovens, while the unheated central room was a sort of entrance hall, with doors leading to the other two rooms.
No other medieval three-room cottages have been found in Finland, though the style would become popular later and was already in use elsewhere. Finnish peasants of the time lived in one-room cottages, including all of this family’s neighbors in Mankby. It was also unusual (though certainly not unheard of) for medieval Finnish peasant cottages to have cellars. Archaeologists uncovered fine goods in the house, though there’s nothing genuinely exclusive about any of them. For example, archaeologists found in the cottage the remains of a bronze tripod for a cauldron, Rhenish stoneware, and Bohemian glass beakers. It wasn’t unheard of for medieval Finnish peasants to own such things, but if they did, they owned only one of them, and it was the nicest thing the family owned. To own all three was remarkable.
While the people living in the three-room cottage were better off than their neighbors, the difference was one of degree, not of kind. They probably ate the same food (though maybe a little more of it) and still suffered through the long darkness of the deadly Finnish winters in a tiny house, clustered around the oven. They just had two tiny rooms for the entire family, rather than one. Furthermore, Mankby was inhabited by free peasants who paid their taxes directly to the crown. There were no noble landlords in or near Mankby. Not only did the people in this odd cottage not live like nobles, there were no nobles nearby anyway.
So who were they? Anna-Maria Salonen & Georg Haggrén of the University of Helsinki offer two interesting hypotheses. First, there’s some circumstantial evidence that one of the freeholders in Mankby may have been a distant relative of the wealthy noble family of Horn. We don’t know whether he lived in the cottage, but it’s conceivable that his family connections might have afforded him a slightly better life without fundamentally changing his station. Second, one of the fine goods in the house bears the coat of arms of the dethroned Swedish royal house of Falkunga. At the time, Sweden was undergoing a purge of its noble families, with many bloodlines being stripped of the rights and privileges of nobility. The people in the cottage might have been a minor branch of a former noble family that possibly lost their noble status for supporting the wrong side in a Swedish dynastic struggle.
At your table, this peculiar cottage and its unusual inhabitants could be a fun bit of local color (or even a mystery!) to plunk down in an otherwise unremarkable village that could desperately use some character. The family’s connections might be useful to the PCs. They might even be privy to some old and juicy family secrets that actually well-off people would never admit.