From The Ground Up – Feudal Society Pt. 1 : Societal Layers

I talked a little bit, in Nations, about how our concept of nations and what normally exists, is a little bit flawed. I then went into city states, because they are a simpler system, but now I want to talk a bit about Kingdoms, and therefore, Feudal Societies. 

Some of this is going to be partially repetitive with the Nations, States and Kingdoms, but that is how topics like this run. It is also going to be familiar to many people who briefly studied the middle ages, but I am going to get a bit more in detailed on the parts that make sense, with less of an eye on the players than an eye on how to build a society like this. This’ll be longer because of the interweaving structure. 

Structure

Its not easy, when looking at each portion of a world, to stitch together each part into a cohesive whole, especially with magic and gods being real and definable, monsters roaming the land, and a true divide of races among intelligent beings, even those who aren’t considered monsters, for some reason. 

Its even worse when we are talking about topics that are so generally pre-conceived that most people believe they know more than they do about any given portion, and us gamers are more prone to that than some others. we’ve been living in these fantastic worlds once or twice a week, for a few hours often for years at a time. It takes a lot of self reflection to take a hard look at what we think something is, and push it into the game we’ve been playing. Some things, like rampant racism, sexism, disregard for life, and systemic oppression of those lesser off, probably aren’t worth bringing into the game. Sometimes, though, its good to know where and how these things originate within the world so that we understand how to best create a reason behind the hand waving of every hero that isn’t a white male human. Lots of these shittier portions of human existence have ties to the feudal system, so be prepared to see them, sometimes called out, and sometimes not, and prepare an answer in your world to why it works. 

The Structure of a feudal society is pretty standard historical and fantasy fare. Generally its not seen as particularly thought provoking. 

We have the King, who rules the land. Sometimes its a Queen, but we often tend to create kings first. 

Then we have Lords, the nobility of the realm. 

Then, we have knights, who tend to fall into upper crust, but just barely. 

Below them we have serfs and Peasants. 

This typical, and simplified structure, leaves out a number of important details that are major concerns. The first, and most obvious to me, is the clergy. Clerics, priests and the church are often taught separately, or ignored overall, but they held extremely important duties in a feudal society. Freemen are often given a passing glance, and merchants are mentioned. Few people bring up outsiders, invaders, captives and the such. Criminals, too, are a portion of society much neglected along with vagabonds and wanderers. Nobles are often lumped together into a single unit, where there are many titles and ranks that can be held, as well as influence that can be wielded as powerful as many weapons. 

Clergy

Clergy, as I mentioned, was extremely important in the middle ages, and had a role that was extremely important to everyday life. One of the main anachronisms that we hold true from today into the games we play is belief. In the middle ages, there was no room for disbelief. Nearly everyone, nearly everywhere, were believers of some form or another. There were many reasons for this, but one of the most immediate was the roll of the church in every day life, and this rolled down from the king all the way to the Vagabond. 

We look at Kings and Queens, the rulers of the kingdoms, as sovereign people able to do what they wished. This could not be further from the truth. The Divine Right of Kings, though laid down in words first in the 1500’s, was a well known concept – that the earthly monarch was granted powers by God, and only by God could he be judged. Who, then, in the world could judge the Monarchs? The Pope and the church, could. Ultimate power was possible for a ruling Monarch, but only so long as he held in the good graces of the Church and the Pope, Gods voice on earth.  (Remember, from the Council of Nicea in 325 until Martin Luther in 1517, it was pretty much one church, one voice, one Pope.) This slid down all the way to the smallest towns, where even though their may be a lord, who held sway over the earthly world the peasants lived on, the Clergy and church held sway over their spiritual lives. 

This lead, often to a position where the church and the Monarch would work together to accomplish goals, but also would cause great strife when the Monarch would have different goals. it is, looking back on it, a clearly dual system government, one that is intertwined in many ways.I’ll do a later article on Divine Right of Kings, Gods, Pantheons and Churches, but for now, lets say that don’t forget to add the church and its influence into your Kingdoms, because they are always, always there. 

Nobles

Nobles are a finicky lot, and they are often the focus of many a medieval study. Here, maybe a little less, but they are extremely intriguing. Nobles are often portrayed as a singular entity, all of them being better off than most people in the realm, and that is often true, however, there are a number of ranks even in and among the nobility that makes for an interesting look at the generally monolithic structure. 

First, something that sets the Nobility apart from both the peasants and the merchants were that they were wealthy. Unlike today though, they were a form of independently wealthy that never required them to work, but there were levels even there. 

Queen/King, is clearly the top, and that hasn’t really changed except when a number of kings would all bow to an emperor. 

Below That are the family of the Monarch, the Princes and Princesses. This rounds out the immediate royal family. Extending beyond those immediate family members, the Monarchs extended family are generally regarded as Duchesses and Dukes. These are considered the first peers of the monarch and are often the closest to them, giving them advice on their topics of expertise.

The Marquess and Marchioness are oft neglected titles due to their obscurity, but are extremely important to a feudal land. These nobles hold the title to lands on the frontier – often called Marches – and are responsible for the defense of the borders. They are allowed much greater leeway in the armies they are allowed to raise. 

Countesses and Counts, also referred to as Earls, are different than the above nobles in that his title is not considered hereditary, but was instead bestowed based on deeds performed. Many Earls did not have lands of their own, but were noble non the less. They became nobles and had to take advantage of that. Some, though, did have lands, called counties, which were generally smaller estates. 

Working under the Counts were the Viscounts and Viscountesses.Similarly to the Count, these were not hereditary titles, and were simply the rules of smaller areas of the counts estate. 

Finally, in the high nobility, we have the Baron. This is a title that transcends all the other ranks as an additional title and an award separate from the rest. Originally, it was simply an award for military service, but eventually all direct vassals to the Monarch, both sworn and awarded, were considered Barons, and were granted baronies of their own. 

The lowest of the nobility are the Knights, Esquires (squires) and Gentlemen – Knights were warriors, sworn vassals able to own their weapons and mounts of war. Squires served with and alongside the Knights, earning their nobility. Gentlemen were independently wealthy through some means or another, but were unable to claim nobility, and were often merchants. 

The Outsiders

The rest of society, realistically, are the outsiders. Freemen, peasants, vagabonds, criminals and merchants are all part of society and can sadly be lumped all together. 

Freedmen are those men and women who are in no debt to the land and considered free of servitude. They are not all ex-peasants, though they well could be. Instead, they are the people who’s ancestors had worked freedom from subjugation. though they were not inherently free from rule, they were not bound to the land and forced to perform a specific task. this often came through wealth, as they were able to pay their taxes in cash, instead of goods. many craftsmen, merchants, and other skilled laborers became freedmen, and passed down their trade through the generations. This ties in with the stranglehold that the church had on the spiritual life of people, as many were told that they were only pleasing God if they performed the tasks laid out below them. 

Peasants and Serfs live, tied to the land, forced to pay their sworn lord in a specific manor. Kings needed a specific amount of grain to feed the armies, so grain had to be grown, so people had to grow grain. The same went for horse husbandry, bakers, and any number of specific jobs. Laid down late in the roman period to ensure that the empire remained stable – which it failed at – these necessary duties fell upon generation after generation of peasants and serfs, who were punished strongly if they were to leave their lands as a portion of the lords, and therefore the monarchs, land would be unproductive. 

Vagabonds and Criminals are of one type. Those branded as complete outsiders due to actions. Vagabonds had no home, no job, and were often seen as leeches on proper society. They were criminals simply for being. Criminals, though, were forced into homelessness, joblessness and often vagrancy because of actions they performed or were accused of performing. There were no jails to lock people up, nor any desire to. Criminals were often shamed – in pillories, flogged, branded or mutilated – and then simply told to carry on their way. Many times this left the criminal without the ability to fend for themselves or get honest work. They became the objects of scorn to society. Often, criminals became bandits, vagabonds and mercenaries, unable to perform any other duties. 

Finally, we have the Merchants. This is the trickiest part of the whole thing, because it is very hard to get our heads around a simple idea that forms the core of the merchant world: Working towards wealth is wrong. 

This comes hard, to our modern sensibilities, but it was clear and true to the middle ages as it was to none other. It was against the right methods of society to be working towards anything other than your own families well being, and maybe a little extra to make some coin to grind some grain into flour. Either you owned land, and therefore were money, or you did not, and made yourself happy with whatever was around you and yours. There was little respect for the desires of a merchant. This slowly changed with the power of merchants gaining exponentially as they became amazingly wealthy over a short period of time, as trade routs popped up everywhere, making extensive use of the networks of villages and towns and cities to hawk wares and make great profits. Where the nobles simply tossed money around because they had it, Merchants were generally of the careful and frugal type who didn’t like spending money, which made them suspicious. 

Join me next week as I put it all together into a single Feudal Society, I hope. Its not going to be easy.