This article is by B.K. Bass, and is presented by Worldbuilding Magazine.
Often when we think of medieval history and medieval fantasy, the noble knight in shining armor is one of the central concepts that come to mind. Along with this imagery comes castles, people saying “m’lord,” and those same knights kneeling at the feet of their sovereign. To me, one of the most memorable aspects of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is when a greater lord “calls the banners” or “summons their bannermen” to battle.
But, why do their bannermen come? Why are these knights and lords so beholden to their lords and sovereigns, and why do common men set aside the plow and take up the spear when called to do so?
All of this, and more, is part of a grander socioeconomic system that dominated western Europe during the Middle Ages: feudalism.
What is Feudalism?
Feudalism was a system by which a sovereign divided portions of his land among his vassals in exchange for certain services, quite often those of military value. These lords might then further divide the land among lesser lords under similar agreements, who may again divide the land. This created a hierarchy among European nobility and a system of titles representing one’s position among this hierarchy. A king might grant large swaths of land to dukes, who then would divide these holdings among a number of earls or counts, who would then divide this among a number of barons. Beyond this point, a baron’s holdings might be split and administered by a number of untitled lords, knights, mayors, sherriffs, and clergymen. Finally, the common people were allowed to live upon and work the land in exchange for the lord receiving a share of their produce and military service when called upon.
Just from this general description, we have enough information to start shaping our own cultures around this system. We don’t know much about how things work beyond where we started, but we can see that these knights and “bannermen” have been granted rights to land by greater lords. In a more mundane sense, we can consider taking the map of our realm and dividing it into smaller and smaller chunks. The king can’t oversee the entire realm himself, after all!
As an example of how this works in our worldbuilding, let’s organize our own kingdom. We will call it the Kingdom of Reginland. Let’s say the kingdom has three primary regions that we will use to create duchies, each controlled by a duke or marquis: a coastal area called the Duchy of Inswich, a central plains called the Duchy of Garn, and a mountainous border region called the Volksgaard March (often, when a duchy lies on a border and must focus more on military defense, it will sometimes be called a “march,” an area controlled by a marquis instead of a duke). Now let’s break down Inswich into six counties, each controlled by a count. These will still be too large for one man to personally manage, so each county can be divided into baronies, perhaps twelve or so, each controlled by a baron. Now, at this point, each baron may control a single manor, but most likely, he will focus more on a hub town of some sort. The outlying manors, villages, and farmsteads will instead be overseen directly by lesser lords, sherriffs, mayors, clergymen, etc. These men will often not have noble titles, although the lords among them will likely be knights in service of the realm.
In return, the vassals are obligated to respond to that dramatic moment when messengers are sent out to gather the fighting men to the sovereign’s side. But, further than this division of land, what were the rules of feudalism?
It is argued by historians that, because European societies never set a shared code of laws regarding feudalism, we cannot codify all the details of how it worked across the entirety of the continent. In fact, the term feudalism is a construct of seventeenth century historians. Regardless, many have attempted to identify and correlate common aspects that appear throughout the historical record into a sort of general guideline. One notable definition of feudalism came from Belgian medievalist François Louis Ganshof in 1944, who said that “feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.” This definition sums up the basic concept of the system, and leads us to the core principle upon which it is built: land tenure.
Central to feudalism was land tenure, a “system by which land was held by tenants from lords.” This sounds much like what we have already discussed, but land tenure delves deeper into the economics of the period and the actual rules that lay at the core of a feudal system.
So, what is a fief? Basically, it’s a term for a parcel of land, specifically “an estate in land held in feudal law from a lord on condition of homage and service.”
What does homage entail? This concept brings us back to the lords and vassals from Ganshof’s definition of feudalism and to the political aspects of the system. Homage is the swearing of loyalty to the lord who has granted the land. Are the terms lord and vassal mutually exclusive, then? We’ve already discussed how land granted to a lord may then be further subdivided among lesser lords, and in this situation, one individual would be both a vassal of his sovereign and a lord to his own set of vassals.
So, we can see here that when one of Martin’s characters demands that another “bend the knee” to show their loyalty, we’re only seeing one side of the deal. Had a medieval lord gone to another and demanded such servitude without giving anything in exchange, he might have been laughed out of the keep—or worse! While establishing the relationships between our greater and lesser lords in our own worlds, we should remember that things are rarely given freely, especially loyalty. Often, there’s a quid pro quo involved that benefits both parties. Feudalism and land tenure, at its core, is an economy of exchanging control for loyalty and land for labor.
Thus far, we have discussed primarily the relationships between lords and vassals. This relationship is considered free tenancy, where the services to be provided by the vassal are determined and documented in the formal arrangement with their lord. As we mentioned, this agreement often includes military service where “calling the banners” comes into play. A vassal swears to answer his lord’s call for military service and to raise a certain number of soldiers when needed. The other form of tenure is unfree tenancy—also known as villenage—where the tenant of the land might be called upon to perform any number of services for the lord without prior agreement. These services can range from plowing a field to marching to war, and this is where those promised soldiers mentioned before come from.
Someone familiar with the period might see this and think of the serf, who toiled the land at the will of their lord and held little to no rights at all. It is a misconception that all peasants were serfs. In fact, they were two distinct social classes that often worked alongside one another. While a peasant might not have a right—or the wealth—to own land, he would still have certain freedoms. He may be beholden to work his lord’s land in exchange for the privilege of living upon it and feeding his family, but he was not tied to the land and could freely move on to greener pastures, as it were.
Serfs, on the other hand, had very few rights. The practice of serfdom originated from the slow collapse of the Roman Empire. As the cities across the empire became economically untenable, many fled to the countryside and reverted to a more agrarian lifestyle. Imperial agents still controlled the land, and they allowed these new refugees to settle and work the land in exchange for a share of the yield. These people were known as coloni, and over time, sets of Roman laws regarding their status in society eventually carried on to become the basis of serfdom. As far back as the third century CE, coloni were not allowed to leave the land they worked, and the status became a hereditary one.
As the Roman Empire spanned most of western Europe, this practice became widespread before the eventual fall of Rome. As the empire dissolved and its former holdings established independent systems of governance, the traditions of the coloni survived the transition. Many serfs in the Middle Ages were descendants of Roman coloni. They were bonded to the land and their lord, and their “movements were constrained, their property rights were limited, and they owed rents of all sorts to their landlords.” While there are similarities, serfdom and slavery should not be confused. The key differences between the two is that the serf did possess some basic rights—such as those regarding personal safety and dignity—and that a serf was not considered property and could not be bought or sold. Depending upon the region one studies, serfs might make up the majority of the common population. Alternatively, the serf class might include only individuals who are bound into service in exchange for some crime or to pay off a debt.
This latter example might remind one of indentured servitude, a practice similar to serfdom but enacted for a contracted term of service. This was practiced in the colonial period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indentured servitude often involved an individual voluntarily contracting to work for a specific employer for a set term, usually four to eight years. The indentured servant essentially signed over all of their rights and were not allowed to leave the employer’s service until the end of the term. In return for this service, the employer provided food, shelter, and offer some sort of reciprocity, such as the repayment of outstanding debts or offering free transport to the New World.
In our own worlds, we might want our peasant class to be free to move about and do what they will. This way, they can act as needed to fit the construct in which we have placed them. On the other hand, it may be interesting to examine the social and ethical dynamics where the majority of the population is bound in servitude. Of course, we could take the middle-ground. A relatively simple line to draw in the sand would be to divide skilled and unskilled labor. While those who farm the land might be serfs; the blacksmith, potter, and cobbler might be free men. On the other hand, if a lord wishes to guarantee his favorite blacksmith doesn’t decide to move away, serfdom would be a way to keep this skilled labor under his control.
Exchange of Goods and Services
The astute reader will have noted by now that, while we are discussing economics, we have thus far only covered the exchange of land for service. Surely though, there were thriving markets, trade ports, and coffers overflowing with coin during the Middle Ages. If the entire system was about land rights, military service, physical labor, and the production of goods, where did currency and trade come into play?
While the feudal economy was a heavily structured system with layers of control and obligation, shared resources, and authoritarian implementation, there were also aspects of a free market economy interwoven within it. This free market economy is driven by the surplus. Any goods produced beyond what the producer used, or obtained beyond what the receiver used, could be exchanged for other goods or sold for currency.
Feudalism contained many elements of capitalism, which should be familiar to anyone reading this. In contrast to being able to choose our employer and what endeavors to devote ourselves in a capitalist society, “in feudalism the direct producer has an obligation to work for a specific employer within a given sphere of production.” So while our lowly peasants might work land owned by another and have an obligation to turn over the lion’s share to their landlord, they may still produce more than needed to feed themselves. What of their other needs? Surely a farmer who tends naught but a field of wheat needs more than this to sustain his family. And would he need to mill the grain himself? Perhaps he would take his entitlement to the local miller and exchange it for several loaves of bread and a few coins. He then may visit the local butcher, who obtained meat from the shepherd, and exchange some of the profit from the grains for a haunch of mutton. And no trip to the market would be complete without visiting the local ale house or even purchasing a small cask from the brewer himself!
In this way, a small community has formed around a single manor where the people work to produce different necessities of life from the land and—if they are lucky—perhaps a few luxuries as well. Likewise, should the lord collect more than needed to pay his taxes and sustain his own household, he might then sell the excess and grow rich upon the spoils of those who labor under him. Of course, the individual situation might vary.
Often, as was the case in the Middle Ages, life was difficult even for the wealthier classes. Drought, famine, and disease might wreak havoc on the production levels from year to year. Even landed and titled lords might find themselves falling into poverty; and should they fail to deliver results for their lords, they could often be ejected from their position and have their rank and title stripped altogether. In other cases, their lord might demand rights to any excess, and in this way, a count himself might sit back and grow fat upon the toil of his barons and the blood, sweat, and tears of the people laboring under his lesser lords.
Illustrating Feudal Life
I always advocate that when applying worldbuilding to prose, one should sprinkle in small details from a character’s perspective to hint at the greater world—rather than bombarding our readers with encyclopedic passages of facts. One might argue that this is not always true, and I could be forced to agree. Tolkien, in fact, did the same in many instances. However, one must be cautious to avoid long, dry passages that bog down the pacing of the story.
Expressing your worldbuilding in a way that is exciting and novel, such as having a reader’s advocate experience feudal life for the first time ever, will help to keep your readers engrossed in the story itself. How then would I suggest applying what we have learned here through a character’s perspective? There are two key takeaways here: one, the relationships between lords and their vassals in the exchange of land rights for service; two, the relationship between lords and the common folk in the exchange of land use for labor. In addition, we can illustrate the life of the common folk and how they sustain themselves and their families as well as the community that grows around the necessity of maintaining a diverse workforce in the constraints of a single manor.
Haemish balanced the small leather pouch on his palm, the paltry coins inside clinking against one another as he strode through the market. The weight of it felt insignificant compared to the ache in his back from working the fields. His mule clomped through the mud beside him, and the bulging sacks on its flanks more than made up for this. Inside them were loaves from the miller, smoked pork from the butcher, and vegetables from the grocer that would keep his cellar full until spring. He’d even had enough to visit the chandler. The light in his modest shack would be a welcome treat during the long winter evenings. He strode through the muck of the village’s main road, his field-worn shoes sliding painfully across blistered feet. The cobbler was his next stop.
A rousing cheer drew his attention as he passed the alehouse. Other villagers had sold off their own surplus goods and were celebrating the harvest with strong drink, weak stew, and song that belied melody enough to hardly deserve the name. Haemish bounced the pouch on his hand again, feeling the weight of the copper coins and letting their clinking beat a rhythm to the singing coming from the alehouse’s garden. Just one drink, he thought as he pulled on the mule’s reigns and sloshed through the muck towards the revelry. If Lord Sebastian was worried enough about the spring planting, he might use some of the silver in his coffers to ensure his people’s feet were well-shod. He does the same for his horses, does he not?
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Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. This article was featured in their October release: Economics. You can visit their website to read full issues and subscribe for free here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on Twitter for the latest news. Mythic Scribes is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.
You can learn more about this article’s author, B.K. Bass, at his website. Cover art for this issue was done by Ahmed Elgharabawy, who you can follow on Twitter. The maps are from William R. Shepherd via The Historical Atlas.
 Brown, Elizabeth A.R.. “Feudalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/topic/feudalism. 5 JUL, 2019. Accessed 12 AUG, 2019.
 Ganshof, François Louis; Grierson, Philip. Feudalism, 1st ed.: New York and London, 1952. It should also be noted that feudalism was a uniquely European concept. Many have applied the term to other cultures, most notably the “Feudal Period” of Japanese history which spanned from 1400–1600 CE, more accurately known as the Sengoku Jidai, or “Age of Warring States,” Period. This misconception stems from a Eurocentric worldview adopted by many historians. As they attempted to make sense of foreign cultures, they imposed uniquely European concepts upon them, often seeking out familiar trends while paying less attention to the unfamiliar aspects of those societies.
 Various. “Feudal Land Tenure.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/topic/feudal-land-tenure. 2 JAN, 2012. Accessed 12 AUG, 2019.
 Various. “Fee.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fee. 4 AUG, 2019. Accessed 12 AUG, 2019.
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 Kenton, Will. “Indentured Servitude.” Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/indentured-servitude.asp. 17 AUG, 2018. Accessed 12 AUG, 2019.
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