At the heart of most traditional fantasy milieux is a culture derived from that of the European Middle Ages, in large part the medieval socities of what are now Great Britain, France and Germany. This culture is a synthesis of both the Roman culture that dominated western Europe for some five centuries and of the Germanic culture that eventually overran and absorbed it.
Three major institutions formed the basis of medieval society and dictated how most people lived. These were feudalism, manorialism and Christianity.
Feudalism was a pyramidal system of contractual relationships in which lords granted lands to their retainers in exchange for oaths of loyalty and military service [was not that for the Pope]. Feudalism was most prevalent in France, Germany, England, Sicily, northern Spain and the Crusader states, and its specifics varied from region to region. The vast majority of people in medieval Europe did not participate in the feudal system, which was largely reserved for fighting men.
Under feudalism, local political, military and economic power was held by the lords. Each of them was subject to the lord above him, to whom they had sworn loyalty in return for fiefs (land, its occupants and resources), and who could, at least in theory, demand service from them. Castles garrisoned by an elite caste of professional knights and men-at-arms, as well as local levies and sometimes foreign mercenaries, were the bases from which lords exercised their control.
Feudalism declined for a multitude of reasons. A major cause was the inheritance of fiefs, which comprised the system of lands being granted in return for oaths and loyalty. Strong national leaders, changes in warfare that reduced the importance of armored knights, and the phenomena of scutage and liege homage also contributed to the decline of feudalism. Scutage was the practice of replacing personal military service with monetary payments. Liege homage was the practice of a vassal who had sworn oaths to more than one lord giving his primary allegiance to only one of them, thus eroding the basis of the feudal system. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, feudalism was for the most part dead.
Because the mounted knights that were at the core of the feudal system needed substantial economic support in order to arm, armor and equip themselves, and needed to spend much of their time training for combat, substantial amounts of land and peasant labor were needed for their upkeep. Thus, feudalism was complemented by manorialism.
Manorialism was an economic, social and administrative system that defined the heredity relationships between the peasantry and the nobility. While only the military and political elite of any given area was affected by feudalism, nine out of ten people in most areas were subject to the conditions of manorialism.
As a rule of thumb, writers should assume that more than half the people in most medieval European areas were bonded peasants – serfs – who had few, if any, rights or freedoms and were completely subject to the land aristocracy. In some countries, particularly Mediterranean regions like Greece and Italy, outright slavery was widely practiced.
Manorialism had its origins in the last years of the Roman Empire, when laws were enacted binding farmers to the land. When Rome fell in the fifth century, Europe was thrust into a state of chaos, descending into the Dark Ages, and farmers were vulnerable to violent, invading peoples. Thus, they were largely willing to cede liberties in exchange for security, maybe even in the early years hoping that the times of trouble would pass and things would return to “normal.” Crises were normal enough that manorialism solidified and was strengthened in the ninth and tenth centuries when new waves of invasions by Magyars, Muslims and Vikings struck Europe. Manorialism reached its peak in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; in the following centuries, it began a prolonged decline that did not end in some areas until the twentieth century.
In general, manorialism was a heredity system under which a lord owned or controlled the land, and then allotted portions of it to the individual peasants who resided under him. In exchange, the peasants paid the lord in crops, money and labor. The specifics of manorialism varied from state to state (e.g., the proportion of their crop or yield; how much money, if any; how many days of labor per year; the size of land parcels).
Peasants [i.e. State Chronology] throughout medieval Europe had severely abbreviated rights, especially by modern standards. Without the permission of their lord, peasants were not even allowed to travel or choose their own occupations. In eastern Europe, conditions like this persisted until the early years of this century. Lords had jurisdiction over many sorts of crimes committed on their lands and tried them in manorial courts. Such courts were a substantial source of revenue for the lords, who often stood to gain financially through fines and court fees regardless of the outcome of cases (or who might be tempted to sway the outcome of a case in a way favorable to themselves).
Conditions began to improve for the peasantry around the 1100s, in large part because of an agricultural revolution that was attributable to several factors. One was implementation of a three-field farming system in which one field was used for summer crops, another for winter crops and another left fallow, increasing output and avoiding soil depletion. Another factor was improved irrigation systems. Technology, too, played a part in improved productivity, and implements like the wheeled plow, horse collar, clearing axe and flail were of immeasurable value to medieval farmers.
Reclamation of land from the wilderness through the clearing of wooded areas and the draining of swamps contributed to greater availability of arable land, allowing for overall greater production. The Catholic church played a big role in such land reclamation as much of it was accomplished by monastic orders, who established their own manors, which were managed by abbeys and run much like their secular counterparts.
Christianity was the predominant religion of medieval Europe and was a social and political force as important as feudalism and manorialism, and frequently more powerful than either.
Indeed, the role of the Church in day-to-day life, the importance of religion to most people and their level of faith in general can scarcely be imagined by most people today. It was this level of faith that enabled the Church to muster entire communities to raise great cathedrals, the greatest works of architecture of the Middle Ages. Such centers of worship could take decades to complete, and thousands of laborers and craftsmen such as carpenters, glaziers and masons would participate in their construction.
The Church assumed many of the administrative functions that the government of the Roman Empire had once fulfilled, such as the construction of public works and the colonization of wilderness areas. It also served as a repository of knowledge and literacy, which had been nearly expunged in the chaos of the Dark Ages. (Most people, even kings and nobles, were illiterate until the last centuries of the Middle Ages). Histories and other information were recorded in tomes by monks, who copied and illustrated them (a process called illumination) in monastery scriptoriums. This work allowed many works from antiquity to survive and produced many valuable works of art.
Medieval Europe was considered as the heart of Christendom because of the important role played by the Catholic church in society. Nonetheless, in practice, the Christianity of the Middle Ages bore little resemblance to its modern counterpart and was intermingled at every level with elements from the violent, superstitious, essentially pagan world it was a part of. For example, many medieval Christian churches were built upon the sites of Roman, Germanic, even prehistoric pagan temples or worship sites. And, in Scandinavian churches, the iconography of statues of saints can be identified with that of the various Norse gods. Even today, at Catholic Easter masses in some rural villages in Belgium, handfuls of grain are ritually cast into a vat of green flames. Fantasy writers can put such phenomena to good use in their stories.
Veneration of the saints, frequently crossing the line into outright worship, was characteristic of medieval Christianity. Individuals, sects, cities, guilds and even entire kingdoms chose patron saints and sought their blessings and special benefits through votive masses, adoration of relics and special feast days (which frequently displaced Sundays as days of worship). Interestingly, the characteristics of patron saints often correspond closely with those of the pre-Christian deities that peoples in the same regions had worshipped.
That is not to say that people did not have a strong belief in God, only that they saw Him as an unapproachably powerful, frightening being that could not be reliably called upon to intercede in their daily lives. (After all, it is much easier to believe in a benign and sympathetic god if one lives in a benign and reliable world.) In fact, so feared was God in the Middle Ages that many people refused to take communion because of His ominous presence in the host. This phenomena became so widespread that in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council was forced to make annual communion obligatory.
THE SOCIAL ORDER
Titles of nobility are used to organize the upper echelons of an aristocratic society, and those used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages originated largely during the early Holy Roman Empire. Many were derived from Roman titles of rank, among them count and duke, while others were distinctly Germanic in nature, such as earl. Titles, especially the highest ones, were frequently linked to specific lands, powers and responsibilities.
Historically, hereditary titles usually passed from father to son or, in the absence of a suitable heir, from older brother to younger brother. However, in the real world this varied by region and even by title, and the whole system and its study is rather arcane. Writers can certainly create a simple, clear-cut system, or may decide a complex, even impenetrable system is of more use to them.
In the following section, the feminine construction of the various titles appears in parenthesis after the masculine form. Such feminine forms can variously refer to the wife of a titled individual who wields incidental, if any, power, or to a titled individual who rules in her own right. Historically, such women sometimes took power when their husbands died or when their reigning father or brother died without a suitable male heir (e.g., Queen Elizabeth II of England). In a fantasy milieux, women might more frequently be entitled to hold such positions, and heredity titles could even pass from other to daughter.
The head of a state was usually a king (queen) or emperor (empress), and even he was theoretically subject to the will of God, an idea expressed in the concept of “the divine right of kings.” However, this was largely a device to check both papal interference into the business of monarchs and to implement unpopular policies by dismissing accountability toward the populace. Lesser nobles might be the rulers of smaller states. Such nobles, in order of precedence, include princes, dukes, marquesses, counts, viscounts, barons, baronets and knights. Princes, dukes or other nobles might be the rulers of relatively small states.
It is possible for cultures to have aristocratic ranks beyond these. For example, German states also had the ranks of Furst (Furstin), Pfalzgraf (Pfalzgrafin), Landgraf (Landgrafin) and Freier (Freierin).
Writers should not forget that as colourful as aristocratic societies are, they are distinctly undemocratic. Even when measures that are perceived as democratic are instituted, such as the imposition of the Magna Carta, they are usually only intended by a lower echelon of the nobility to reduce the power of those above them, not to extend it to all segments of society. For example, when the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, serfs were worse off they had been before the Norman Conquest.
On the other hand, nobles frequently shouldered great responsibilities. In a dangerous and often violent world, it was the nobility that was responsible for administering the subdivisions of states, raising armies and leading troops into battle. Naturally, in many areas of various ranks and nobility frequently came to lose their original meaning or level of responsibility. For example, in the prerevolutionary France of the eighteenth century, a marquis was not responsible for guarding a marc, or border area, as was originally the case.
In some states, including most of the monarchies that still exist today, titles of nobility are often granted as a symbolic but nonmonetary way to recognize and reward service to the state. In other states, titles of nobility might be illegal or anathema. For example, the Constitution prohibits the United States from granting titles of nobility, and in republican Rome, there was a fear of anyone who was in a position to proclaim themselves, or be proclaimed, king.
NOTE: Royal titles are not capitalized unless used in conjunction with a name, unless they are in German, which capitalizes all nouns. Some of these are rough equivalents of the listed English titles.
prince (princess): Whereas the child of a monarch is referred to as a prince or princess, in some states the children of a prince or the spouse of a monarch might also hold such a title. Princes, if not the head of an independent state, usually have few powers and no land, but might also hold some other title. For example, the oldest son of the monarch of England is also the Prince of Wales. A state ruled by a prince is called a principality.
(French prince, princesse; German Prinz, Prinzessin, Furst, Furstin; Italian principe, principessa; Spanish principe, principesa)
duke (duchess): Derived from the Latin dux, or “leader,” the duke is usually the most powerful of the landed nobility beneath the monarch and is the highest title in the English peerage (i.e., the nobles entitled to sit in the House of Lords). A state or area within a state ruled by a duke is variously called a dukery, duchy or dukedom.
In some societies, nonruling dukedoms have been bestowed upon princes in direct line of succession to the throne or upon generals who have won great victories in battle (such as the English generals Marlborough and Wellington). The first nonruling English duke was created by Edward III in 1337 when he made his oldest son, Edward the Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall.
Some states with many dukes distinguish the most powerful (or, for example, the siblings of the monarch) as “grand dukes.” Grand dukes might wield great power within a state, as in Imperial Russia, or be the leaders of small states, such as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
(French duc, duchesse; German Herzog, Herzogin; Italian duca, duchesa; Spanish duque, duquesa)
marquess (marchioness): Dating from the eleventh century, this title originally applied to lords who were responsible for guarding border areas, known as marches. In Germany, where the title Markgraf was bestowed upon counts who stood border guard for their monarch, such nobles could be further distinguished as Landgraf or Markgraf, depending on the sort of territory they controlled.
(French marquis, marquis; German Markgraf, Markgrafin; Italian marchese, marchesa; Spanish marques, marquesa)
count (countess): From the Latin word comes, “companion,” a count is a powerful noble with authority over a province or similar area. The English equivalent is the earl, the oldest title in the English peerage. Derived from the Danish jarl, or “chieftain,” the earl was originally the lord of a shire.
(French comte, comtesse; German Graf, Graefin; Italian conte, contessa; Spanish conde, condesa)
viscount (viscountess): Meaning the lieutenant or deputy of a count, the title of vice-count was probably created in the Holy Roman Empire prior to the reign of Frederick I Barbarossa. In some states, high-ranking soldiers have sometimes been rewarded with the title of viscount.
(French vicomte, vicomtesse; German Vicomte, Vicomtesse; Italian visconte, viscontessa; Spanish visconde, viscondesa)
baron (baroness): Barons are the lowest level of noble who are granted land directly from a sovereign, and their name is derived from this meaning. The title came to England during the Normal Conquest, where barons became the lowest level of noble entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Historically, the baronage relished the power they lorded over those below them, but chafed at royal control. It was the barons of England that took advantage of the weakness of King John Lackland by foisting the Magna Carta upon him. An area ruled by a baron is called a barony.
(French baron, baronne; German Baron, Baronin, Freiherr, Freiherrin; Italian barone, baronessa; Spanish baron, baronesa)
baronet (baronetess): Baronets were originally English barons who lost the right of individual summons to Parliament in the fourteenth century. A hereditary order of baronets was created in England in 1611 by King James I and sold to gentlemen willing to set up plantations in Ireland. In 1624, baronets were also created for gentlemen prepared to settle in Nova Scotia. The title for the wife of such a noble would simply be “lady.” Historically, only one woman was ever made a baronetess.
knight (dame): The term knight can be used many ways, and can refer to an individual honored with the nonhereditary title of knight; to individuals enrolled by an order of knighthood (see “Knighthood,” page 16); or, used loosely rather than titularly, to refer to any army and armored mounted warrior (e.g., any baron riding into battle might be referred to as “one of the king’s knights”).
It is with good reason that the rank of knight is associated with the mounted warriors of the Middle Ages, a class who enjoyed high social status. The French and German terms for a knight, do, in fact, mean “horseman,” while the English word knight is derived from the Saxon word cnyt, or “attendant.”
(French chevalier; German Ritter; Italian cavaliere; Spanish caballero)
Not all societies will have all of the listed titles of nobility, and they may not be as important in all societies. For example, in imperial Russia, the Tsar, or emperor, was at the apex of society. Below him were a vast number of princes and princesses, but because there was no law of primogeniture, as in many western states, the aristocracy was bloated, and many of these nobles were relatively unimportant and not in line for the throne. (A reading of some of Tolstoy’s works will shed a lot of light on this subject.)
Writers should not overlook the role of ecclesiastic officials in medieval society. The pope at various points in time had his own armies, extensive lands and a direct mandate from God that translated into great political influence over other monarchs. In short, he was a king as much as any other. Cardinals were not called “princes of the Church” without good reason. And powerful abbots might have controlled several manors, even a dozen or more, from their abbeys; in England, France, Germany and Italy, such Church officials were often the equivalent of barons or better, and could wield great economic power within a state and political power at court.
In some states, political power was sometimes held jointly with ecclesiastic power. For example, the rulers of the mountain city-state of Salzburg in Austria were called “prince-bishops.” Military power might also have been wielded by churchmen, and there are numerous examples of bishops and priests of other ranks leading troops into battle. One of the earliest examples of this is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, the chronicle of the Norman conquest of England.
The basic hierarchy of the Church was based upon three sorts of churchmen, priests and bishops, and the pope.
abbot (abbess): An abbot, from the Hebrew abba, or father, was the head of an autonomous community of monks. Such communities were usually founded by the members of a monastic order, such as the Benedictines. In the Church hierarchy, an abbot was on about the same level as a bishop and tended to have at least as much political power as a baron. The community he controlled was called an abbey, which consisted of one or more monasteries.
An abbot was expected to govern his monks with both compassion and firmness, and, as Christ’s deputy, his flock was expected to show him reverence and obedience. Abbots were usually elected for life by the senior members of the community from among a pool of qualified candidates, an appointment that usually required confirmation from the papacy or the head of the order.
Basilian monks usually called a leader of one of their communities a hegumen, while Russian and other eastern orders used the term archimandrite.
Like her male counterpart, an abbess was the head of one or more convents or cloisters of nuns. Historically, they did not tend to wield the same political power as abbots, who controlled powerful estates.
archbishop: Such churchmen were responsible for large areas, called provinces in England, with several bishops under them. For example, England has two archbishops – the Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Church of England) and the Archbishop of York. Such figures often had great influence, even beyond death. For example, when Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was slain by four knights of King Henry II, the site of his assassination almost immediately became a major pilgrimage center, and he was canonized a saint.
bishop: From the Greek word for “overseer,” bishops were regional church leaders and had a cathedral as their seat. Cathedrals were among the most impressive and labor-intensive structures built in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it was indicative of the political, spiritual and economic power of a bishop who could muster the resources to have one built.
The ecclesiastic area governed by a bishop was known as a diocese; a political area ruled by bishop was known as a bishopric.
cardinal: Originally, the term cardinal was applied to bishops whose dioceses had been overrun by barbarians in the sixth century and who were subsequently assigned vacant dioceses by the pope. Later, senior priests of certain parishes in Rome came to be known as cardinals. By the eleventh century, these churchmen had developed into the sacred College of Cardinals, and served as assistants and counselors to the pope. In 1059, cardinals became the church officers empowered to elect a new pope, and later in the eleventh century, bishops outside of Rome began to be appointed cardinals.
deacon (deaconess): Such ordained churchmen, immediately subordinate to priests, were responsible for serving as their assistants, in charge of the purification ceremonies connected with preparation for baptism and charged with the care of the poor and unfortunate.
Deaconesses, probably ordained just like their male counterparts, were principally responsible for assisting at the baptism of women and in helping them to prepare for that sacrament, and also administered to the women of Christian communities. In western Europe, such female officers were active until about the eleventh century; in eastern Europe, they continued to function for somewhat longer, and among certain sects in the Middle East, served throughout the Middle Ages.
pope: Head of the Catholic church. During the Middle Ages, the pope was also the head of western Christendom. (In the east, the patriarch of Constantinople was generally acknowledged as the supreme authority.) The pope was believed to be in a direct line from Saint Peter, who was believed to have received his authority directly from Christ. The seat of his authority was Rome as opposed to Vatican City, a relatively modern state.
In addition to the direct political authority the pope wielded over Rome and its environs, essentially as a king, he also had much influence over other states. For example, the pope crowned the heads of the Holy Roman Empire, and could call upon the monarchs of Europe to launch crusades – and not just upon Muslims in the Holy Land, but also heretical communities within Europe itself, as in the case of the Albigensians of southern France, who were largely annihilated by a force of Norman crusaders.
The pope could also excommunicate individuals or even entire countries, making them ineligible to receive the sacraments until reconciled with the Church. To most modern minds, this holds little meaning. To the medieval man or woman, such a prospect was horrible and held the threat of eternal damnation. Of course, the power to censure secular rulers through excommunication could backfire with dire consequences. For example, after being excommunicated for divorcing his wife without papal consent, King Henry VIII of England, once called “Defender of the Faith” because of his devotion to the Church, founded the Church of England rather than beg the pope for mercy.
Knights were frequently organized into orders of knighthood, many of which were fraternal or military associations of armed, armored and mounted expert soldiers fervently dedicated to God to some other noble cause. Just as such organizations can evoke colorful and powerful images of their role in history, so too can they be used to evoke powerful images in works of fantasy.
Some orders of knighthood owed allegiance to a specific sovereign, others received support from a variety of sources (e.g., the Hospitalers received men, money and material from several Christian states), while others were wholly independent and even established states for themselves (e.g., the Teutonic knights, who carved the state of Prussia out of pagan eastern Europe).
The head of an order might have one of several titles, including Grand Master, Knight Grand Commander and Knight Grand Cross. The second highest member of an order was usually styled Knight Commander. Various other members might have held titles that denoted some office within the order, for example, Sergeant-at-Arms. Most of the other members of an order would likely simply hold the title of Knight.
Most orders of knighthood were very religious and ritualistic, like militarized sects, and many even had a cultlike quality, with complex initiations, sacred mysteries and increasing degrees of arcane knowledge.
Among the oldest and most distinguished of the historic orders of knighthood are the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George, founded in A.D. 312; the Sovereign Religious Order of the Knights of Saint Catherine of Sinai, founded in 737; the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, founded in 1113; the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348; and the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded in 1429.
The following orders were especially representative, colorful or influential. All were formed in the Holy Land during the Crusades, but each evolved in different ways and is remembered for different accomplishments.
Hospitalers were members of the Knights Hospitaler of Saint John of Jerusalem, an order formed by crusaders in the eleventh century for clergy attacked to a hospital that tended to sick and needy pilgrims to the Holy Land.
In the twelfth century, the order was reorganized and began to participate in military operations on behalf of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1187, Jerusalem fell to the Muslims and the order moved to Acre, a fortified coastal city, from which it continued to care for the sick, patrol the roads and crusade against the infidel. In 1291, Acre fell and the Hospitalers moved to Cyprus. A few decades later, in 1310, it moved to the Greek island of Rhodes, which it ruled as an independent state until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1522.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the island of Malta to the order in 1530. They successfully defended it against repeated and numerically superior assaults by Turkish forces, and remained there until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte ejected them from the island. After that, the Hospitalers entered a period of decline. Nonetheless, they still exist today, as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Knights Templar were members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, who were also formed during the crusades. Many nobles joined the order, and it quickly became a powerful, rich, proficient military organization. A grand master and a general council presided over the order, which was divided into knights, sergeants, chaplains and craftsmen.
Distinguishing characteristics of the knights included white cloaks emblazoned with red crosses, round churches and commanderies that they often used as banks. Indeed, after 1291, when the European crusaders were driven from the Holy Land, the main worldly pursuit of the Templars became banking and moneylending. Such was their financial influence upon the nations of Europe that they drew the envy and enmity of both secular rulers and clergy.
Beginning in 1307, monarchs in France, England and Spain raided and shut down the Templar headquarters. They arrested the knights and charged them with heresy, immorality and witchcraft, and sought to support these charges with confessions extracted by torture. The pope initially championed the Templars, but eventually renounced them for cynically political reasons. In 1314, the leadership of the Templars was burned at the stake in Paris. The charges against the Templars now appear to have been relatively fabricated, and the order driven to extinction because of their success rather than their crimes.
The Teutonic Knights were founded in 1190 as the Brothers of the Hospital of Saint Mary of the Teutons in Jerusalem for the purpose of serving in a hospital during the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. Despite its origins as a crusader order in the Holy Land, the knights forged a name for themselves thousands of miles away in Germany.
Within a decade, the Teutonic Knights had become a military order of nobles who took vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. In the thirteenth century, they relocated to Europe and began the work it became known for: unrelenting warfare against the pagan peoples of eastern Europe. Moving eastward, the knights conquered and colonized the state of Prussia, playing an important role in the expansion of German culture and influence.
In 1237, the Teutonic order merged with the Livonian Knights, an order than had carved out a domain for themselves along the Baltic coast. This combined order continued its eastward expansion, but in 1240 was defeated by a force led by Russian national hero Alexander Nevsky (who, incidentially, was a sworn vassal of the Mughal Empire, which at that time held Russia in the “Mughal yoke”).
For the next two centuries, the order continued to war against Lithuania, Poland and Russia, but suffered as many defeats as victories. The order ceased to exist as a military force in 1525, when its grand master converted to Lutheranism and declared the militarized, monastic state of Prussia a secular duchy.
Throughout the Middle Ages, a great variety of political entities were founded, existed and disappeared. In addition to innumerable tiny kingdoms, principalities and lesser states, several significant states and organizations emerged. Descriptions of the following eneities are not intended to give a complete view of medieval Europe, but rather to give writers ideas for the kind of organization that might have a place in their worlds.
The Holy Roman Empire governed most of Germany, Burgundy and Italy for almost one thousand years, from A.D. 962 to 1806. Many of the great institutions of the Middle Ages were either founded within this great state, or greatly influenced by it. Two great precepts provided the moral foundation of the empire: the idea of a hierarchical political organization with a single ruler at its head, and the idea that all Christians were united.
In 800, Charles the Great – Charlemagne – became emperor of what he called the Roman Empire when he was crowned by the pope in Rome. This state, an ostensible restoration and continuation of the empire that fell more than three centuries earlier, lasted until 925, when it fragmented into a series of successor states.
In 962, Otto I of Germany and Pope John the IXX collaborated to resurrect Charlemagne’s Roman Empire (the adjective “Holy” was added in the twelfth century to emphasize its ostensible importance to Christiandom). All of the successive Holy Roman Emperors were similarly kings of Germany, elected to the post by the region’s princes.
Although the Holy Roman Empire was not really an empire, holy or Roman, its kings often had great influence throughout Europe, in no small part because of the respect for the concept of the empire and its leader. Because of this, German kings expended much financial and political capital to see themselves elected to the post and crowned in Rome.
The Holy Roman Empire declined with the end of the Middle Ages and was broken up by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 when he conquered Germany.
Crusader States, many no longer than fortified cities and their environs, were founded throughout the Holy Land, the Levant (modern-day Lebanon), Syria and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) by western European Crusaders in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Among the most significant of these were the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople.
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was founded in 1099 by the commanders of the First Crusade and included Palestine (modern-day Israel), Beirut and Antioch. The Crusaders elected Godfrey of Bouillon the first king of Jerusalem, although he used only the title “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre.” Jerusalem itself was lost to the Muslims in 1187, and the Latins were unable to recapture it, despite financial aid from Europe and the professional military assistance of various orders of knighthood. The kingdom was gradually whittled away and finally collapsed in 1291, when the fortified port city of Acre fell to the Muslim Mamelukes of Egypt.
The Latin Kingdom of Constantinople was founded in 1204 when a force of French and Italian Crusaders overran and sacked the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and chose Count Baldwin IX of Flanders to be Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople. Dependant on French and Italian financial aid and requiring Venetian naval support, the state functioned as little more than a military camp during the six decades of its existence. It was also reviled in some circles because it had been established at the expense of the great Christian, albeit Orthodox, state in the east. In 1261, soldiers of the Byzantine emperor in exile recaptured the city and ejected the remaining Latins.
The Hanseatic League was a commercial alliance of Baltic and North Sea German cities that was gradually formed between 1250 and 1350. Leading members of the league included Danzig, Hamburg, Bremen and Riga, and the Teutonic Knights and the state of Prussia also cooperated with it. The league maintained offices (kontors) in non-German cities that included Bergen, Bruges, London and Novgorod where its merchants lived and traded.
Essentially a coalition of regional groups, which met regularly in a diet from 1356 to 1669, some two hundred different cities were members of the organization throughout its history, and about three dozen were part of the organization at any given time. Accomplishments of the league included suppressing piracy, defending members against aggression, lobbying for passage of beneficial commercial laws, preparing charts and other navigational aids, and obtaining valuable concessions for its members.
Enemies of the Hanseatic League included Denmark, which the league defeated in naval combat in 1370, and in the later Middle Ages, the Netherlands and England, which competed against the league commercially and curtailed its rights in their territories.
The league began to decline after 1500, and although never officially disbanded, effectively ceased to exist after 1669.
Beyond the borders of western Europe and its institutions of feudalism, manorialism and Christianity, lived many other peoples. To the fantasy writer, these peoples and their lands represent a source of colorful characters, stirring legends and exotic settings for adventures.
There were the pagan peoples, among them the Saxons, the Picts and the Vikings. There were also the Muslims, among them the Saracens and the Moors. Throughout the Middle Ages, all of them were the antagonists of the English, French, Spanish and Germans of Christendom.
Of course, the way such foreign peoples were perceived in contemporary literature and society does not necessarily reflect their true natures, and writers may wish to take this into account. For example, many medieval Europeans believed Islamic culture was a Satanic inverse of Christendom, with an antipope at its head and similarly evil counterparts to all other elements of their own society. Not only was this not true, but many informed rulers and scholars in western states found much to admire in Muslim culture, arts and science.
Several of the more interesting and influential of these peripheral peoples are described below.
The Magyars were a people who originated along the Volga River in northeastern Europe and adopted many of the habits of Turkish tribes they encountered, including their equestrian ways. In the late ninth century, they conquered the Carpathian Basin and then began to launch destructive raids westward into Germany. The mounted Magyar raiders moved further and further west until King Otto I, founder of the Holy Roman Empire, met and defeated them at the Battle of Lechfield in 955. Soon after, the Magyars converted to Christianity and established the Kingdom of Hungary.
The Moors, Muslim Berbers from North Africa, invaded Spain in the eighth century and occupied it for several hundred years. In the late fifteenth century, the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella systematically drove the Moors from Spain, but they were able to hang on in a few fortified cities until the seventeenth century. Moorish troops also invaded France several times early in the Middle Ages, but were always driven back. (A Moorish cavalry army was defeated in 732 by the French infantry under Charles Martel, who ordered his troops to aim the blows of their heavy axes and swords at men and horses alike.)
The Mongols swept into Europe in the thirteenth century, threatening Christiandom and Isalm alike, and even causing the two to briefly unite. Under Ghengis Khan, Mongol cavalrymen conquered much of the Old World, and by the time their great leader died in 1227, their empire stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from Siberia to Tibet. As with Charlemagne’s empire, however, that of the Great Khan could not long survive his death and was divided amongst his sons. By the fourteenth century, most of the Mongol successor Khanates, or kingdoms, had collapsed, and by the beginning of the fifteenth century, their act upon the world stage had ended.
The Normans were the descendants of Viking raiders who settled along the coast of northern France in the tenth century. In 1066, the Normans, under their leader Duke William, conquered England and established a kingdom on either side of the Channel. A tough, martial people, the Normans were called upon by various popes to engage in several crusades, sold their services as mercenaries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, and conquered Sicily.
The Picts were a mysterious people of unknown origin who lived in Scotland from ancient times and battled the Romans along their northern frontier and eventually harassed the English. Covered in blue paint and specializing in ambuscade, Picts are a constant enemy of the noble Prince Valiant. They reached the peak of their power in the mid-eighth century under King Angus, and a century later formed a unified kingdom with the Scots.
The Saracens – a Muslims in general, especially Arabs and Turks, were referred to throughout western Europe and the Byzantine Empire – represented one of the most persistent and real threats to Christiandom. Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire (founded in the 1300s) conquered the Byzantine Empire, the seat of Orthdox Christianity; overran most of southeastern Europe; and menaced Sicily, Italy, France and Austria, being stopped at the gates of Vienna every few centuries. Saracens were also the major opponents of the Crusaders and the villains of popular literature and lore, as in the Song of Roland, the quintessential heroic poem of the Middle Ages (even though in reality, Basques killed the figure Roland is based on).
The Saxons were a fierce Germanic people who conquered many of their neighbors and by the fifth century A.D., occupied Britain and what is now France and northwestern Germany. During the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, the Saxons warred against various French kingdoms. Charlemagne led almost annual campaigns against the Saxons for thirty-two years in an attempt to end their dark pagan practices, which included human sacrifice. Although the Saxon chieftain Widukind opposed the Franks stubbornly, Charlemagne eventually defeated them through warfare, mass deportations and executions.
The Vikings, natives of the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and colonizers of Iceland, were certainly the best known, most colorful and most feared of the European pagan peoples. From the ninth to the twelfth centuries, the Vikings raided and traded along the coast and rivers of England and Ireland, and penetrated into Russia, and even made incursions into the Mediterranean, Middle East and North America. Landing along unprotected shores in their dragon-prowed ships, the raiders would sack and burn local villagers, take slaves and sometimes even capture horses and raid inland.
The following terms cover many aspects of life in the Middle Ages, including the legal system that regulated people’s lives under manorialism, and major events and phenomena.
ad censum: Term for the status of serfs who pay their rent in money rather than labor. Such a tenant was referred to as a censuarius (pl. censuarii).
ad opus: Term for the status of serfs who owe payment to a lord in the form of labor.
amercement: A fine.
assart: An area of wasteland or swamp that is reclaimed for agriculture.
assize of bread and ale: A royal law setting prices and standards.
bailiff: The chief official on a lord’s manor.
balk: A raised strip of land left unplowed so as to separate the tracts assigned to serfs.
beadle: A manorial official, usually an assistant to a reeve.
bondman: A serf.
boon-work: The obligation of peasant tenants to provide special labor for a lord, primarily for his harvest.
bylaws: Rules made by open-field peasants to govern farming and grazing.
cellarer: The official of a monastery responsible for provisions.
champion country: Open country, which in the Middle Ages in northern Europe and England was settled by compact villages that were surrounded by their own fields. From the French champagne, or “open field.”
charter: An official document, such as grant of privilege or a deed.
chevage: A payment made annually by a serf living outside the manor.
communitas villae: A term used to refer to the community of the village.
corrody: An old-age pension that provided room, board and incidentals, often purchased from a cloister for an annual premium by peasants.
cotter: The tenant of a cottage, who usually owned little or no land.
Crusade: A holy war called by the pope that was participated in by the military powers of Christiandom. Nine Crusades were launched against the Muslims in the Middle East from 1095 to 1272 in an attempt to drive them from the Holy Land. Most were partially or wholly unsuccessful, largely because of a lack of cooperation between Europeans from opposing states. From the twelfth through the fifteenth century, numerous Crusades were launched against pagans and heretics in Europe.
curia: A courtyard.
custumal: A document listing the rights and obligations of serfs.
Dark Ages: A term for the period from the fall of Rome in the late fifth century A.D. through the ninth or tenth centuries, by various accounts. Although widely considered a period of decline, it was nonetheless a period characterized by some political, social and technological developments.
demesne: The portion of a manor cultivated directly on behalf of a lord, through the obligatory labor of his tenants.
dies amoris: An opportunity given to litigants to reconcile their differences. Also known as love-day.
distraint: An arrest or summons to court.
essoin: A delay permitted to a defendant in a court case, or an excuse for not appearing in court.
estate: The sum total of a lord’s holdings, often consisting of several manors.
extent: A document listing the lands, rents and services of a manor.
eyre: A royal circuit court.
farm: A lease.
fief: Land granted to a vassal in return for services, usually military in nature.
frankpledge: A legal device under which every member of a tithing was responsible for the conduct of other members. An English system that predated the Conquest.
furlong: A subdivision of an arable field.
gersum: An initial fee for taking possession of a tenancy.
glebe: Land designated for the support of the parish church.
gore: An odd-shaped piece of arable land created by irregular terrain or the convergence of plowed strips.
hallmote: A manorial court of justice.
hamlet: A small, agricultural settlement that lacked some of the characteristics of a village, such as permanency. Such communities were typical of the Dark Ages and in frontier areas, or during times of political unrest.
hamsoken: An assault upon a victim in his or her own home, considered more serious than an attack upon neutral ground.
headland: A small section of land left at the end of plowed strips used for turning the plow around.
heriot: A death duty paid to the lord, usually in the form of the deceased’s best animal.
hide: A variable unit of land, in theory one hundred twenty acres, used for purposes of tax assessment.
house hire: The rent paid by a serf for his house. Also heushire.
hue and cry: A system under which all within earshot were required to try to apprehend a suspected criminal.
hundred: An administrative division of an English country theoretically consisting of one hundred hides.
hut, sunken: Characteristic of the early Middle Ages, the sunken hut was the smaller of the two basic peasant structures (the other being the long house). Used as dwellings, workshops and storage rooms, such huts were dug up to a yard into the earth and roofed with A-frame structures of wattle and daub or thatch, and were usually about ten feet wide by twenty feet long.
infangenthef: The right of a lord to prosecute a thief caught on one of his manors and to confiscate his possessions upon execution.
leirwite: A fine levied against an unmarried woman for sexual misconduct.
longhouse: One of the two basic sort of structures built by peasants throughout the Middle Ages (the other being the sunken hut). Village longhouses tended to be some twenty to fifty feet long and perhaps fifteen feet wide, with wooden frames, wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs. They were not very sturdy, and hoodlums often broke into houses simply by battering through a wall. Also byrehouse.
Magna Carta: The document signed under duress by King John Lackland of England in 1215, guaranteeing various political and social liberties to freemen and the nobility. Considerably more than half the population were not freemen, however, and thus did not benefit at all from the “Great Charter.”
manor: An area consisting of a lord’s demesne and the land allotted to his serfs.
merchet: A fee paid to a lord by a serf when his daughter married.
messor: A minor manorial official, the assistant to a reeve. Also hayward.
messuage: A house and its yard.
Middle Ages: The period in Europe between antiquity and the Renaissance, generally reckoned as the millennium from the fall of Rome in A.D. 476 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
mortuary: A death duty paid to the parish church upon the death of a serf, typically his second-best beast. Compare with heriot.
multure: A portion of flour kept by a miller as payment for grinding grain.
Norman Conquest: The 1066 invasion of Saxon England by Duke William of Normandy, possibly the most formative event in the nation’s history. The Normans defeated the Saxons at Hastings and established a Norman dynasty.
open-field system: An agricultural system of northwestern Europe and England characterized by nucleated agricultural communities; i.e., compact villages where farmfolk dwelled, surrounded by their fields.
pannage: A fee paid by peasants to a lord to allow their pigs to forage in the wooded area.
pinfold: A lord’s stockade for stray animals.
pledging: A legal device by which one peasant guaranteed the conduct of another (e.g., the payment of a debt, appearance in court, good conduct).
plague: Various epidemics ravaged Europe throughout the Middle Ages, especially in areas of relatively dense population. Major visitations of the plague began in A.D. 767 and reached a horrifying peak in the Black Death (bubonic plague) epidemics of the fourteenth century, which slew from one-quarter to one-half of the continent’s population. Fleas, borne by rats, carried the diseases.
quarter: A unit of volume equal to eight bushels.
reeve: The main manorial official under a bailiff, always a serf.
ring: A unit of volume equal to four bushels.
seisin: Legal ownership of a property.
selion: A narrow strip of plowable land, up to several hundred yards in length.
serf: A manorial peasant with obligations that included merchet, tallage and week-work.
steward: The supervisor of a lord’s manors and the chief official of his estate. Also seneschal.
tallage: A tax levied annually by a lord upon a serf.
tally stick: A notched stick used by a reeve to account for a manor’s deliveries, expenditures, production and receipts.
tithe: A payment to a church equalling one-tenth of agricultural produce, sometimes including a monetary levy for other things such as livestock.
tithing: A unit of ten or twelve village men mutually responsible for one another’s conduct.
toft: The yard of a house in a village, usually facing the street, surrounded by a fence or ditch and containing pens and buildings for animals and their fodder.
tota villata: A term for the body of all the people in the village.
village: A permanent, organized farming community of the Middle Ages that also included some craftspeople, which began to appear from about the tenth century onwards. From the Roman villa, the agricultural estates that were the center of many settlements in the early Middle Ages (cira A.D. 500to 900). In England and northwestern Europe, the village buildings tended to cluster around the manor house and the church were surrounded by fields. In Mediterranean countries, the village tended to be built within the walls of fortified hilltops, with fields, vineyards and animal pens on the plain below.
villein: Term used in England for a serf.
virgate: A unit of land, ranging in size from eighteen to thirty-two acres, ostensibly sufficient to support a peasant family.
wardens of the autumn: Officials appointed by a lord was the reap-reeve.
wardship: The right of guardianship exercised over a minor by a lord.
wattle and daub: A lattice work of wooden sticks coated with clay and used for the walls of peasant huts throughout medieval Europe.
week-work: The main labor obligation of a manorial serf.
woodland country: Forested areas that in the Middle Ages were settled by isolated farmsteads, hamlets and non-nucleated or spread out villages. Woodland areas were often settled as a first step in clearing them for more intensive agriculture.
woodward: A manorial official in charge of a lord’s wooded areas.