Sunday, 6 April 2014

F is for Feudalism, Fiefs and Freedom

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I’m looking at aspects of medieval history here that might be of use to writers of fantasy. Today it’s about the ways in which medieval societies were structured, and the amount of freedom that gave people. The idea of a fixed “feudal” system isn’t often accepted these days, since it’s all a bit neat and tidy. It’s the idea of everyone owing fealty to someone above them in this perfectly arranged feudal pyramid, when in fact, it was far more complex. People could owe formal fealty to a number of lords. Kings could do fealty for particular pieces of land to other kings, or even barons. Wars almost always featured the betrayal of various feudal “commitments”, so that it’s often more useful to think of a rough clump of friendships and attachments than a formal structure when describing medieval society.


If the feudal system is one medieval element that writers sometimes put too much emphasis on, one that modern writers shy away from is the lack of freedom in the lower echelons of medieval societies. These were societies that practiced slavery even if the Church nominally frowned on one Christian taking another as such. They were certainly societies with numerous serfs, who were as unfree as any slave, but tied to a particular piece of land.


It’s tempting for a modern writer to gloss over this, but doing so can paint an overly rosy and pleasant picture of the middle ages, and also ignore potential complications for your characters. If they’re in a generically medieval fantasy world, how do they feel about this big and frankly evil thing at the heart of their social structure? If they’re not noble, are they free to leave their land and go off on an adventure?

1 comment:

Suzanne Sapsed said...

Hi, popping in from A-Z:) I read so many books on medieval history,both fact and fiction, and so loved your post!
Suzanne @ Suzannes Tribe
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