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Bite-Sized History Lesson: The Indenture

May 10, 2010 | | Comments 1

Whether you mine the ancient world for new RPG adventures or re-fight famous clashes of arms with miniatures, history is a great resource. Sadly, I have this horrible feeling that many younger gamers overlook history as a source of inspiration. Rather than force all gamers under the age of twenty to pass a basic “how to use history in gaming course,” I decided to drop some bite-sized bits of history on my readership and let them use it as they see fit.

“Indentured Servants” is a term familiar to any American student.  Landless peasants that signed a contract for free passage to America in return for a fixed period of virtual slavery, usually several years. I understood that the peasants signed a contract, but no one ever discussed what the term “indentured” actually meant. It is a contract, but a very unusual kind of contract. Here is a an image of an actual indenture.

Indenture--Source Wikipedia

Note the wavy cut at the top of the contract. An indenture is a single piece of paper inscribed with a contract twice on the top and bottom of the page. Both parties sign both sides of the contract and then cut it in half. Each party kept a copy. The irregular cut is a a primitive anti-counterfeiting system that made forgery very difficult. Sometimes in this age of encryption and micro-fibers that there were some quite good anti-counterfeiting technologies that did not rely on advanced technology.

There is also a great shot of a bifurcated, but complete indenture on the Staffordshire, UK government web site.  Sorry for not re-posting the image, but there was no  license on the site, so I erred on the side of copyright caution.

As to gaming, since the contract is very difficult to forge, protecting/stealing/destroying/finding one-half of an indenture is a great plot hook. It is also a dead easy prop to make for the game table, just print out the document in an appropriate font, copy it twice on a page and cut randomly. I also suggest you check out James Clavell’s excellent Noble House Much of the plot derives from the hunt for an indenture (a broken coin) that allows the owner to ask a very powerful favor.

The inspiration for this post came from a reference to indentures in Knight: Noble Warrior of England 1200-1600 (General Military) from OSprey Publishing. This reference only briefly mentions indentures, but I found it a great resource for knights and their equipment for this period.

I hope you find this post useful and I am more than willing to entertain any suggestions for topics in this series.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

Filed Under: History

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About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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