Leech Collector
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He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God's good help, by choice or chance,
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.

- William Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence, 1807

Basic Information

A leech-collector is person who "hunts" or "forages" leeches, primarily for their use as a form of medicine. This was very common back in the bygone days when medicine was based on humorism, and leeching/bloodletting was viewed as a common cure for a great variety of ailments and imbalances. (In the modern day, leeches have again become used for a few specific treatments, but rather than being captured in the wild they are raised in a controlled environment to reduce the risk of blood-borne illness, so this page about the archaic leech-collector profession doesn't really apply to the modern processes.)

Leeches in the wild can be found in a bog, marsh or swamp. Catching them required some sort of warm-blooded bait. There were two main options. If you had a horse or mule that was too old to be of much use as a mount or pack animal, you could lead that old nag into the swampy water, and they would soon be covered in leeches. Horses tend to be expensive, even ones late in their life cycle, so not every would-be leech-collector could afford to risk the life of such an animal in this way. The cheaper option was to wade in yourself in short-pants or with your skirts hiked up, and collect the leeches directly on your own legs.

This, of course, comes with its own risks. It can be quite difficult to remove a leech before it has drank it's fill. So to reduce the chance of harming the leech, you largely have to let it drink from you for 20 minutes or so. Then it will let go on it's own, leaving a small Y-shaped cut. Leech saliva has natural anticoagulant properties, so those small holes can bleed for several hours or possibly even half a day. So a very successful leech-collector could end up light-headed, or even dangerously low on blood, by the end of a day's work.

The actual act of collecting the leeches isn't likely to take a lot of effort or particularly rapt attention, so it's not uncommon for leech-collecting to be a "part-time" job that is done simultaneously with some other swamp-based activity. So you might bring a poking staff with to search as a bog-iron hunter while you're at it, and come home with both leeches and nodules of iron ore. Another option is to work as a thacker, making thatched roofs or just selling swamp-reeds gathered for others to use for the building of said roofs. Leech-collection is a seasonal labor, as cold weather makes leeches lethargic and inactive, so a leech-collector needs something else to fall back on unless their cost of living is very low.

Once collected and satiated/removed, the leeches need to be stored in a container of some sort. Throughout the middle ages and up until the dawn of the modern era, glass was generally rarer and more expensive than pottery. So the most common leeching jar is a small, lidded, earthenware pot, with air holes near the top and filled with water to a line just below those air-holes.

By the early 19th Century, leeching had become such a popular treatment (and fad) that the number of leeches in Europe had noticeably decreased, making it ever harder for the leech-collector with each passing generation. Depending on the popularity of leeching in a given era or setting, and the restrictiveness of local guild laws, leeches might be sold almost exclusively to medical professionals (such as the barber-chirurgeon) or just be a thing any one buys "over the counter".


3. Ripley's Believe It Or Not on the leech-craze of the 19th Century

Game and Story Use

  • Does your game reinforce and reward the medieval mindset, or jape and roll it's eyes at the foolish things we believed in the past? Few RPG settings take a strong stance either way, so it's mostly up to the GM to decide whether or not you want to deal with it at all. Leeching is probably irrelevant if you're playing in a world with cheap and available healing potions and cure light wounds spells, but if healing is more limited in your setting or you're looking to add some historical flavor or "grittiness" to your setting, it might be worth the time to work us some minor healing abilities that are leech-based.
    • In a fantasy campaign, whatever species lives in the swamps, is likely to have the most leech-collectors. So this might mean your orcs or goblins or merfolk or whatever will have either significantly above-normal or below-normal health, depending on whether you're choosing to consider humorism to be supernaturally efficient magical healing or the dangerous nonsense that history and medical science has proven most of it to be.
    • It's also possible to assume that most leeching is dangerous nonsense, but with the right diagnosis, skills, spells, or a specific type of magic leech, it can have merit. Which still leaves the leech-collector a profitable profession, but it might change or limit their clientele.
      • It's possible that certain poisons might resist magical treatment, but be treatable with quick bloodletting. Or perhaps a certain species (or profession, or bloodline…) is subject to iron overload unless regularly leeched.
      • Fantasy worlds are full of blinking canines, horned horses, and carnivorous jellies, so a magic leech subspecies isn't really much of a stretch.
  • A leech-collector could be the NPC that sets your plot in motion.
    • Maybe they go missing, and the PCs have to brave the haunted moors to find or rescue them.
    • Perhaps they find some old macguffin or fabled lost artifact buried in the bog.
  • A small clay pot of (magic?) leeches (in water, with air-holes that could leak) is an interesting treasure item. The PCs might have to take special precautions to keep it from getting spilled or shattered. Depending on the value, this might encourage the players to use up the leeches as their first healing effect, or it might encourage them to turn-around and head back to a city where the leeches can be sold instead of ruined. Some players will find this an amusing little dilemma, but others might get annoyed by it, so proceed with caution if you don't know your player's tastes all that well.
  • For a quirky bit of flavor in your game, you could set your campaign during or just after "peak leech". For generations, leeching has been the go-to form of healing, but now they are growing scarce. Leeches are imported from distant lands, traded for exorbitant bounties, even smuggled or poached. Only the wealthiest can afford the finest cure-all (or most ill-considered quackery) known to man.
  • Peat bogs are known to mummify bodies left in them. I have no idea if a peat bog is the sort of bog that can sustain leeches or not, but if it is, your leech-collector might also have a burgeoning side-business selling mummia. Scientific and historical accuracy is of course less important in a fantasy game. I'll leave the research/decision up to you.
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