A broad primer on feudal society in medieval western Europe.
Fantasy RPG campaigns conjure up images of castles, kings, peasants, and priests. Here's a dose of historical background to help you establish your low-fantasy campaign's feudal foundation.
It's easy to think of the Middle Ages as a backward, chaotic time. In truth, the so-called "Dark Ages" cultivated a highly ordered social structure that laid the foundations for land ownership well into the 18th century and established precedents for the roles of Church and State that survive today. The Middle Ages were also rife with intrigue, political manoeuvring, and power plays between rulers, nobles, ecclesiastics, and guildsmen. Then there were the "ordinary" people, who toiled endlessly, fought their liege's wars, and struggled to live day to day in a world where food and medicine were scarce.
If you're building a low-fantasy campaign, it's essential that you integrate these details. They'll form the backdrop against which the people, places, and things your characters meet, visit, and seek blend seamlessly. A decent understanding of the feudal structure goes a long way when you're crafting your setting, building nations, or writing adventures—understanding the social climate will guide you almost effortlessly toward a consistent and relatively easy-to-maintain fantasy campaign.
To many, low-fantasy is synonymous with "magic-lite," and creating a low-fantasy campaign simply requires the reduction of magic and fantastic monsters. Unfortunately, this simplified approach just results in a diluted, incomplete, and illogical version of typical fantasy: Because it simply manipulates the "standard" fantasy genre by stripping away layers of magic, it ignores the social, political, and economic factors that define low-fantasy. A better approach to low-fantasy, then, is to start with medieval history and slowly add magic—a few spells here, a monster there, a magic item every now and then. While this might not seem innovative, you'll notice a major difference in the quality of your low-fantasy campaign if, before adding these magic elements, you've established a firm non-magical foundation.
Feudalism is at its core all about economics, and while it creates a particular social structure, it's not a mode of government. Feudalism has less to do with kings ruling over peasants than it does with creating an economy that pays for what the king wants. And what all kings want—selfish or benevolent—is to maintain and extend their power, whether through personal or national influence.
Land is the foundation of feudalism. As the only stable commodity in the medieval world, land is the object of conquest, the bosom of the populace, the measure of prosperity, and the ultimate motivation for all activity. Land means resources: food, animals, natural goods, precious metals, strategic mountain passes, access to trade routes, exotic materials. Resources equate to wealth, which feeds people, wages wars, and builds churches. These things, among others, create influence, both inside and beyond a kingdom's borders.
Unfortunately, the limitations of medieval communication and transport make it difficult, if not impossible, for a single ruler to orchestrate the manpower and administrivia necessary to exploit all his holding's resources. Land must also be defended from outside attack, internal strife, natural disaster, pillaging monsters, and wayward outlaws. These things require help, though a king needs money to pay for assistance, and assistance to generate cash. With these pitfalls known, land can be more a liability than an asset. In fact, the more land a ruler holds, the harder it is to get anything of value from it.
Feudalism is one solution to this problem, and it relies on the relationship between a ruler, or liege, and his subordinates, or vassals. In feudalism's simplest form, the liege divides his land into parcels, called fiefs, which he distributes to his vassals in exchange for military service. While this arrangement isn't perfect, feudalism does address the big issues systemic to owning vast tracts of populated land:
- The tasks of administering land and collecting resources are distributed. By letting his vassals handle farmers, miners, loggers, fishermen, shepherds, etc., a liege can extract his holding's wealth without managing all the work himself.
- National defence is co-opted by regional vassals, who hold a significant stake in keeping their own lands safe and their liege's kingdom intact. Not only does this enable a flexible response to threats, but it also provides an affordable alternative to maintaining an expensive standing, national army.
- Secular power is shared by giving land to vassals who have a genuine interest in using it to turn a profit for their liege. By giving vassals local authority, a supportive liege can ensure regional stability and steady income.
Under feudal "terms," a liege grants fairly complete, local autonomy to his vassals, who (by entering into the arrangement), become extensions of the liege's own authority. In exchange for such broad power, the vassal swears to uphold and support his liege, respond to any call to arms, pay rents and taxes, enforce his liege's laws, settle local disputes, keep the land in good condition, defend the fief, and advise the liege when required. Being a vassal is a weighty responsibility, the chief pitfall of which being death while fighting the liege's wars. Still, accepting the burden is worth it: Competent administration of the fief only strengthens the institution by which the fief was granted in the first place, and adhering to the oath is as much a benefit to the vassal who takes it as to the liege who gives it.
Locales within a given fief were quite likely to pose unique administrative challenges: different resources, different labour requirements, different strategic strengths (or weaknesses), and different economic values. To address these variations, vassals often divided their holding into smaller fiefs. Through this practice, called subinfeudation, a vassal became a liege to his own subordinates, who became vassals themselves. The process could occur again and again, with the liege/vassal relationship extended to an increasingly micro level with every level of subinfeudation. The only practical limitation was the size of the resulting fief—eventually, the acreage of a deeply subinfeudated parcel would be too small to make upholding the feudal obligation financially attractive.
Landowners and Tenants
The level to which a given fief is subinfeudated cannot be generalised—there are too many variables—but a constant quality is that the landowner wields almost complete authority over every member of the population, each of whom has a distinct (and often unalterable) role within the feudal structure. In basic terms, the landholder, or liege, is responsible not only for the business and stability of his fief, but also for the welfare of his tenants—those who live on the fief—and the satisfaction of his liege, as discussed above. Few landowners were excessively wealthy, though they often occupied some level of the noble hierarchy. The strata of this hierarchy varies according to how the land is parceled out, and therefore differs from realm to realm, but consider the following:
- King - rules a kingdom
- Count/Earl - rules a county (basic division of a kingdom)
- Viscount/Baron - rules a barony (subdivision of a county)
- Baronet/Knight - rules a local manor (hereditary/non-hereditary title)
There are other noble ranks not included above, and these vary according to the size of realm's scope and levels of subinfeudation extant. Emperors, for example, ruled over empires composed of individual kingdoms. Some kingdoms were divided into duchies, which were more independent than counties and ruled by dukes. Squires or esquires might exist below the rank of knight and while these would be non-landed, they would represent important subordinates of the local liege at any level.
Below the nobility were the "regular" citizens, or tenants, who worked the land, produced some material commodity, or provided some necessary service. Again, depending on how the nobility parceled out the land and ruled over their charges, there were generally four classifications:
- Gentry - rich and influential, but not of noble status, and unlikely to own more than a single estate
- Freeholder - skilled craftsman, often a guild member (if such exist), and free
- Peasant - unskilled worker, but free
- Serf - unskilled worker, unfree
A tenant's designation as free or unfree indicates how he was bound to the land. Free tenants could legally move to another locale and were allowed to sell their wares or earn an income. Unfree tenants were bound to the land as indentured labour, and while not slaves, they weren't permitted to earn a wage. All tenants had to obey the laws of the local nobility, pay rents or taxes, participate in local councils (as fit their station), work or produce as befit their role, and assist in the local defence to the best of their ability. In exchange, tenants had rights of redress and protection from wrongful eviction. It was in a landholder's best interests to look after his tenants, lest they fail—through some sort of negligence—to provide for his own financial obligations.
It is for this reason, in fact, that societal roles on the fief were generally rigid and unchanging: fulfiling static roles kept the feudal economic machine well-oiled, for if a landowner could not pay rents to his liege, he would surely lose his fief (and could be subject to additional punishments). As a result, many laws were invoked and enforced for no other reason than to prevent an absentee work force. Tenants were responsible for paying rents to the landowner, who in turn was a vassal to some other liege, and whether these were paid in cash or in kind, feudal obligations had to be satisfied.
In many medieval settlements, tenants were grouped in tithings of 10 men each: If one man (or one of his dependents) committed some infraction, all were responsible for redress. Tithings—or more accurately, the institution of mutual accountability—took myriad forms, but common to each was the notion that if you belonged, you were part of the social fabric, a loyal tenant, and a functional member of society. In short, you were willing to accept your feudal position and play by the rules. These were important qualities in a world where everyone had rents to pay and the majority of the population lacked more than the minimum needed to survive day-to-day.
By contrast, those who did not belong to a tithing were anathema. So-called outlaws, who lacked social accountability and had no one to vouch for them, were a serious threat to the order. The medieval mind set, attuned as it was to the importance of role, taught that if an individual had any redeemable qualities, he would belong to a tithing, or a community, or a population of functional, contributory, and essentially "good" people. The fact that the outlaw didn't made him a social pariah.
Being "outside the law" meant that the individual had no legal protections—he could be harmed, abused, or killed without repercussion. It was illegal for anyone to aid or abet an outlaw in any way, which would have been rare in any case, since outlaws were universally suspected of (and blamed for) all sorts of infractions, crimes, offences, and mischief. Unfortunately outlaws could just as easily be killed for imagined crimes as dragged before the local lord for real ones, and any itinerant or traveller who couldn't confirm his tithing risked taking the blame (and the cudgel) for whatever offenses might have recently occurred. Significantly, landowners didn't necessarily discourage the violent handling of outlaws—it gave vent to community fears, made the area safer, and served to illustrate the futility of flaunting authority.
Problems in the System
For all the relative benefits feudalism provided toward land management, keeping order, and securing borders, it did have significant flaws, or rather, limitations that ultimately made the institution intractable.
Lack of Land
The biggest pitfall is available land, which is the foundation of the whole system. A liege had only so much land to parcel out—eventually, there are no more fiefs to grant, even if there are deserving vassals. This is not dissimilar to modern-day companies with dozens of upwardly mobile employees, but only a handful of management positions. Like today, when this occurred in the feudal era, the problem was about human dynamics: A leader wants the best from his subordinates, but when people aren't rewarded or recognised for their good works or unwavering support, their motivation flags and their loyalties may shift. No liege wants disgruntled vassals.
The most obvious solution was for a liege to obtain more land, though this was almost always easier said than done. While conquest was always an option (albeit expensive and rife with diplomatic and mortality tangles), the most elegant approach was for the liege to grant parcels of wilderness or frontier to vassals who would (attempt to) settle the region and make it functional. The liege gained the most from such arrangements by expanding his borders at the expense of an eager and industrious subordinate, who needed lots of time, money, and people to get the job done: First the vassal had to travel to his new holding, find and clear habitable area, establish viable settlements, attract settlers, defend a vulnerable populace from a hostile wilderness, and (eventually) link his fief to the larger realm.
Another difficulty is excessive subinfeudation, wherein a fief is divided into such progressively small parts that an individual holding is too small to be self-sustaining. As a result, deeply subinfeudated landholders can't pay their rents because their fiefs lack the resources—agricultural or otherwise—to yield sufficient wealth. Over time, the practice results in a multitude of vassals with non-functioning fiefs instead of a select few vassals with viable holdings. While the working fiefs are larger, harder to manage, and more difficult to defend, they're essential, because every liege almost certainly has his own rents to pay.
Loyalty and Willful Nobles
Amid the granting of land and rights to subinfeudation, loyalty can grow suspect: It is perhaps a curious aspect of the feudal order that a vassal is subordinate only to his liege, not his liege's liege. Thus a king might grant land to an earl, and that earl might subinfeudate amongst his vassal barons. The barons' obligation, though, is to their liege, and while they probably uphold the king, it is only by proxy through service to the earl. The king cannot evict the barons, nor can he levy taxes on them, nor can he solicit them directly with a call to arms—he can do these things to the earl, who might then lean on his barons—but for the most part, the king cannot count the barons as vassals. To make matters worse, the king has no say in who the earl chooses as his vassals, and while the earl better choose well if he's to pay his rents, it's entirely possible that he (knowingly or not) installs a baron who's bitterly opposed to the king.
Willful nobles ultimately spell trouble or, at best, headaches. While the liege/vassal relationship is laden with obligation, and respected as model of economic order, there's plenty of room for political manoeuvring if you're an exasperated liege or disenfranchised vassal. Ultimately, a liege's rents depend on his vassals' ability to pay theirs. Similarly, a liege's military obligation is satisfied (in part) by his vassals' ability to field troops. Any liege is forced, to some extent, to place great trust in his vassals, and vassals can exercise considerable pressure—both subtle and overt—if they choose to do so.
Consider a king who wants to invade a neighbouring country. If a full third of his nobles are opposed—the cost is too much of a strain on their fief, they like the neighbouring country, they're still recovering from the last war, they think the king is power-mad and must be stopped, whatever—they might succeed in various ways in undermining their liege. Some fulfil their military obligation by sending inexperienced and inferior troops, while others pay a scutage (cash in lieu of actual service) that forces the king to swell his ranks with troublesome foreign mercenaries. One noble might cut a deal with the other country, exchanging strategic information for lands or power because he didn't like the king anyway. Another noble, whose fief borders the proposed enemy, secretly opens his border because he'll gain more if the king loses. There are a hundred different reasons why a vassal might betray his feudal obligation, so a prudent liege pays heed to the adage that warns us to keep our friends close and our enemies closer.
Historically, the Church could impose much greater pressure than willful nobility. There is significant, chronicled evidence to suggest that medieval ecclesiastics were in many ways more interested in economics than salvation, and the feudal structure was a perfect mechanism by which to exert authority and extract an income from the laity. The Church participated in feudalism, sometimes as liege and sometimes as vassal, but, charged as it was with the tending of men's souls, it always assumed that it was above, outside, or beyond the confines of secular law.
State and Church were very much aligned in their goals: each wanted power, wealth, and influence. But they established their authority on very different foundations. Kings, earls, barons, and knights relied on secular rights and responsibilities to conquer, populate, and work the land. Popes, bishops, priests, and clerics rested on ecclesiastic mandates to rid one's soul of sin. The struggle for dominance was perpetual. Secular leaders considered the Church part and parcel of the feudal order, but below the rung reserved for landed nobility: If the Church occupied land, it was vassal to the landowner. Church leaders considered themselves unfettered by secular law. After all, they trafficked in the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of men.
Predictably, problems arose when it came time to field armies, collect taxes, pay rents, and enforce the law. Some landowners thought the Church consumed more than it produced, while the Church defied landowners to put a price on eternal salvation. Landowners argued that mandatory tithes made it too hard for tenants to pay rents, while the Church taught that failure to tithe barred the gates to Heaven. Landowners wanted to bring outlaws to answer for their crimes, while the Church offered 40 days of sanctuary. And on and on.
Unfortunately, commoners were caught in the middle—it was like two opposing masters calling the same dog, and instead of being free to choose, the people were expected to obey both. And why not? An angry king could clap you in irons for the rest of your life, but an angry god could send you to Hell for eternity. Thus, the commoner was relegated to a life of numbingly persistent obedience: He obeyed his lord to stay in good graces while he lived; he obeyed his god to remain in good graces after he died.
Stagnated Social Roles
Perpetuating this tug-of-war for supremacy were the stagnated social roles of the Middle Ages. As noted, roles were very important within the feudal structure; indeed (as 11th century bishop Gerard of Cambrai famously categorised), there were those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. With church and state alternately and constantly exhorting "those who worked" to toil in the fields, pay tithes, cough up rents, refrain from sin, honour thy lord, and worship The One God, there were too many expectations, restrictions, and conditions for the "normal" citizen to actually "improve" himself or his station by practicing a new trade, becoming a military hero, or exploring the unknown.
Certainly there were exceptions—if one met the proper requirements, one could enter the priesthood, or a child from a large household might be apprenticed to a master craftsman, or one might join a Crusade against the infidel—but by and large, most folks remained in the station to which they were born, lived their whole lives within five miles of their birthplace, and couldn't even write their name. While this arrangement served well those who fought and prayed, it did little to promote social or political change, and it wasn't until the 15th century that a mature middle class accumulated wealth and influence sufficient to rival the secular and ecclesiastic standards that had dictated order for the previous 500 years.
Tips for Low-fantasy Campaigns
Now that you've been exposed to the rudiments of feudalism, where it succeeds, and where it fails, you may begin developing details for your low-fantasy campaign:
Barter is the most common means of exchange, and obligations are more frequently paid in kind or through service than in cash. This practice is due to the extreme poverty in which most of the population lives, and the difficulties inherent to minting coins. There are two consequences: Non-necessities are expensive, and portable wealth has intrinsic value beyond its equivalence in goods or services. Thus, weapons, armour, and finery are beyond the financial grasp of most. Forms of wealth like trade bars, coins, and (especially) gemstones are worth more than their "dollar" amount simply because they're portable (it's easier to carry a pouch of precious stones than a wagon train of trade goods). Most people (including nobles) prefer to pay in goods or services because it lets them hold onto any cash they may have accumulated.
Skilled workers provide goods and services in a specialised area; these folk are known as freeholders and (in game terms) possess a particular Craft or Knowledge skill that defines their productive role. To protect their trade secrets, freeholders form guilds, and to protect themselves from competition, guilds retain monopolies over their stock in trade, typically with the blessing of the ruling nobility (who, naturally, allows market dominance for a cut of the profits).
Practicing a trade without guild membership is a legally punishable offence (and will garner the most unwelcome attentions of local guildsmen). Most guilds offer three ranks of status: Apprentices (who are just learning the trade), Journeymen (who do much of the actual trade-work), and Masters (who govern guild affairs and may start new "branches" of the guild). Depending on the nature of the trade, apprentices start young and may not reach journeyman status until their late teens or mid-twenties. Master status recognises shrewd business savvy and leadership in addition to trade skill; most masters are well-connected to merchants, local nobility, and perhaps foreign trading partners.
Social order is preserved with laws that revolve around one's feudal obligation and not impinging on the feudal obligation of others. Thus, there are laws to keep tenants on the fief (preventing an absentee work force and promoting mutual accountability); laws to prevent or limit hunting, timbering, and harvesting the lord's land (thus denying resources the landowner uses to fulfil his obligations); laws to keep people in their place (for example, making it illegal to question, affront, or assault those above one's station); and laws to enforce taxation, tithing, and redress (ensuring that lieges get their cut of anything produced on their fief). In general, laws offer few rights in exchange for many responsibilities, though the majority accept such conditions as the proper order, preferring to live within the law rather than struggle against it.
Most people in a low-fantasy campaign can't read, as literacy is not a trait required of unskilled labourers. Guildsmen are taught to read and write in the predominate language, mostly for business and contractual purposes, though such tutelage would be provided only to apprentices who seemed likely to progress to journeyman status. Guild masters are likely to know one or two additional languages, but these too would be learned only to support and facilitate trade. Nobles are frequently literate, and most would know at least one foreign language, either because they were raised in a neighbouring country or in anticipation of future diplomatic necessity.
Clergy are almost guaranteed to be literate, both in the common language and in the script of their religious teachings (as a side note, most religious works—your campaign's missals, lectionaries, hymnals, etc.—would be written in religious script and therefore not directly accessible to the illiterate public; historically, the Church prohibited vernacular translations to ensure that their interpretation of scripture would be promoted to the exclusion of any other).
Divine magic is seen as a gift to the faithful, requiring a pious priest to wield it and a devout flock to receive it. Your campaign's churches would defend strongly their "monopoly" on Divine powers; only the ordained could practice it lawfully and with ecclesiastic sanction. Alignment ties would be strong such that clerics and priests would not "waste" Divine power on non-believers or those of differing ethos. Instead, it's likely that those capable of wielding Divine powers would limit their application to the local congregation or parish.
While Divine magic is considered miraculous, Arcane magic is bad, wicked stuff: its use requires neither faith, devotion, nor adherence to divine order, and is therefore indicative of the wielder's ostensible lack of faith, devotion, or obedience. Naturally, there will exist benevolent practitioners of the Arcane, but these are branded by the churches as heretics as readily as any evil-doers.
Spirit-based powers are left somewhere in between, for while they do require some degree of spiritual devotion, they are granted outside the strict covenants organised religions establish between deity and worshipper. In many low-fantasy locales, such powers are tolerated so long as "spirit worship" does not overshadow, compromise, or contradict veneration of one or more principal Divine entities; where this does occur, spirit-based powers are akin to the Arcane.
Low-fantasy implies a dearth of powerful or fanciful monsters, but rather than proscribe the existence of such creatures, try limiting the occurrence of each monster type (e.g., Chimera Basic, pg. 22). Relative to the entire "monster" population, consider the following:
- Common (40% of encounters) - Animal, Human, Lowlife, Plants
- Uncommon (30% of encounters) - Humanoid, Monster, Undead
- Rare (20% of encounters) - Construct, Mythical
- Very Rare (10% of encounters) - Planar
More "fantastic" monsters are increasingly rare, which lends credence to their status as "fairy-tales" or "fearbabe" stories. As a result, it's easy for people to believe in relatively mundane monsters like giant animals and the occasional plant creature or sprawling ooze. Humanoids, monsters (i.e., non-magical, adapted animals), and undead creatures are more rare and border on "made-up," "tall tales," or "ghost stories." Constructs and mythical creatures form the stuff of legends, certainly not to be believed; if such creatures exist, they did so only in ages past or in remote areas never visited by man. Planar creatures occupy ages deeper than legend, and participate in a culture's foundational stories (e.g., Creation Myth).
Described above, nobles are differentiated from the rest of society because they own land. As landowners, they occupy a crucial and significant position in the feudal hierarchy. Noble ranks (in generally descending order) consist of: emperor, king, duke, earl, baron, and knight. With the exception of knight, these titles are generally hereditary. Landed gentry (i.e., rich people who own land) are not nobility, and though they are landowners, their holdings are too small to be self-sufficient fiefs.
A noble house is identified by its device, or coat of arms, which signifies the right of its members to bear arms (though that also carries with it the responsibility of responding to their liege's summons to defend the realm). As a result, only nobles may lawfully go about armed; PCs in a low-fantasy campaign require special permission from their lord to do the same (lest they be considered outlaws).
UPDATE: Ralf Kruytzer wrote an excellent piece on weapon permits in fantasy campaigns, explaining how a GM can justify roving bands of armed adventurers throughout the countryside, and the perils thereof.
Worship of divine patrons tends to provide positive focus for much of what substinence-level mortals worry about: getting enough food, reaping a good harvest, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying a righteous afterlife. None of these is either good or bad, and details vary according to the nature of the patron worshipped. To relative degrees, these are the driving motivations behind veneration of any immortal.
In support of these ideals, popular "state" religions promote the social order by upholding the political structure, extolling the virtues of station, and promising some mortal or eternal reward for obedience. As a result of this, religion is a powerful force in low-fantasy campaigns and is likely to be just as (if not more) influential than the dictates of kings and earls. A powerful religion sublimates all secular endeavours into worshipful activity (e.g., The 1st-3rd Christian Crusades). For reasons mentioned earlier, folks are hard pressed to upset their god willingly, and so they treat clerics, priests, and holy men with bountiful respect, lest they somehow offend such worthies, earn the brand of heretic, and find themselves barred from paradise.
In low-fantasy campaigns, travel is limited, not only because transportation technology is low, but also because people are not encouraged to venture very far beyond their homes (recall legal efforts to prevent an absentee workforce). Very few individuals travel more than a few miles from their birthplace, nor would doing so serve them well since, as members of tithings, they have local obligations.
On the other hand, outlaws (who do not belong to a tithing) may travel quite a bit, especially if they're avoiding justice. As a result, there's a fine line between outlaws and adventurers, so PCs should have a royal charter, letter of marque, or substantial guild connection if they plan to travel about without being harassed (or worse) as criminals. The higher up the chain such credentials originate the better—a commission from the earl ostensibly applies to an entire county, while permission from a local knight applies only to his fief.
Conclusions and Endnotes
You don't have to have a degree in medieval history to create a low-fantasy campaign,  but you do need to do some homework if you're going to develop a believable environment. The key to any low-fantasy campaign is starting with feudal history, and if you can grasp what makes feudal wheels spin, you'll understand—to various extents—how every element of medieval society fits together.
- This really is true, though the author's undergrad degree is in Medieval Lit., so this is, admittedly, a loaded statement.
- "Medieval university." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Sep 2006, 13:25 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Oct 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_university.
- McCall, Andrew. "The Medieval Underworld." New York, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991.
- Ross, S. John. "Medieval Demographics Made Easy." The Blue Room. 2006. Cumberland Games. 27 Apr. 2006 http://www.io.com/~sjohn/demog.htm.
- Steele, Lisa J. "Fief: A Look at Medieval Society from its Lower Rungs." Austin, Texas: Cumberland Games & Diversions, 2001.
- "Village." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Oct 2006, 18:00 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Oct 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village.
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