On quora.com I recently asked “In medieval Europe, did anyone ‘drop out’ of society and live in the forest or other wilderness?”.
I got a few answers (link), but the most interesting one came from Kjell Andersson, about medieval Sweden. I thought I’d re-post it here because it reminded me of a D&D world, where people try to settle a monster-filled wilderness.
People belonged to a community. You could not survive without a community. You belonged to a family. The family to an Ätt. The Ätt to a people.
People who lived in the forest were pioneers who were breaking new farmland. Most land in Sweden is rocky or pure bedrock impossible to farm. Occasionally there is land possible to transform to farmland. Such land could be used as pastoral land. A small cabin, called Fäbod, was build and then a young girl could live there over the summer and look after the cattle.
A brave man who was the younger brother would sometimes take the step to settle permanently in a Fäbod. By hard work some pastoral land could be transformed to farmland. If he succeeded the Fäbod would be upgraded to a Bondgård, a farm. Maybe it would be possible to create farmland enough for two farms. If so the farm could be divided into two. It could end up with a new village being formed. The village would create new Fäbods and the process could start all over again.
Then how was it possible that there was still land unsettled after 1000’s of years of continuous expansion? The explanation was that human expansion moved in waves. Good years the population grow and people prospered. Then disaster struck and people died. After a bad year there would be vacancies. Sometimes war, pestilence, famine or other disasters reduced the population so that it made little sense to fight on alone with a cow and a pig deep down in the forest. People returned to their original village.
Thus we must imagine the pioneer not settling on a new and unknown place but rather a place where people had tried before and failed. He would know that once a family lived here and they all starved to death after a cold summer or a wolf killing their only cow or…The pioneer would most likely have found remains of previous settlers. When the winter came with darkness, the midwinter where I live comes with only 6 hours of daylight, and extreme cold it must have been very scary. Would the food remain for the entire winter? Was the store house safe for rats? Was there criminals deeper in the forest? And what exactly was the sound out in the darkness?
People who did drop out of society would have no better option then to make a living out of criminality. They would find a place where they were not likely to be found. Then they would make a living by assaulting people who traveled through the forest. As there were no proper roads but rather paths such men were called stigmän or Men of the Path. There are a lot of stories of such men or even gangs of them. The stories always end with the villagers finding their place of residence. The villagers would then attack, kill them all and take a fortune find at the robbers nest (a happy ending you would tell your grandchildren about).