A Matter of Britain
The rules and laws of feudalism govern the world of Pendragon. The following sections deal with facts and beliefs that were prevalent in the Middle Ages, but which are unknown to most people today.
However, note that the rules and laws of Pendragon are generally based on the considerably more well-known laws of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, not those of 6th-century Britain. Still, they are historical facts—the reality of a brutal and violent world. Players must be at least vaguely familiar with these factors in order to understand their characters fully.
Feudalism begins with the fact that everything belongs to the king, the highest lord of the land. All rights derive from the king, who has distributed some of his rights and responsibilities among his lords; they, in turn, distribute some of these rights and responsibilities to their knights. All obligations are personal, dependent upon the relationship between a lord and his followers. The followers swear fealty to the lord, and afterwards are known as vassals of that lord.
The lord ensures the loyalty of his favored followers by giving them land, the single most valuable and permanent commodity in the realm. To receive gold is a slightly dubious honor, since even a peasant can be bribed with gold. However, a transfer of land is sacred. Two types of land transfer are common:
- A gift is given for the duration of the recipient’s life but upon death reverts to the lord.
- A grant is given for the life of the recipient and his heirs.
A vassal does not really own the land he is given, but he does own all the granted benefits collected from that land. The vassal receives his grant in return for loyalty and services. As long as the knight’s obligations are satisfied, the benefits are legally his and cannot be justly taken away. Typically, a knight’s obligations are to serve loyally in his lord’s military campaigns and to advise his lord on important matters. In return, the lord owes his vassal protection, sustenance, and livelihood. Thus, there is a non-equal but reciprocal agreement between lord and vassal.
Obligations may be changed only if both parties agree. Usually they are only changed when one person has done something significant for the other. If the vassal rescued the king on the battlefield, he might receive his former gift as a permanent grant. If the knight violates his loyalty, he can lose the land he has of the lord. Typical reasons for land to revert to the lord include treason, failure to support the lord, or the lack of an heir when the grant holder dies. Daughters may inherit their father’s grants only if there are no male heirs.
Ranks of feudal vassalage begin with those closest to the king, both in friendship and in wealth. In Pendragon these are the British kings, lords, and office holders. In turn, these men appoint their own vassals. Knights (and squires, as knights-in-training) are the lowest class of noble vassals. They may hold land from the king, a count, a lower lord, or even from another knight; in some rare cases, a knight may become a vassal without a gift or grant of land.
Church officials and monasteries also rely upon land grants to knightly vassals in return for loyal service. Monasteries often became powerful landowners with their own knights to protect them.
An oath is a promise made under the witness of God, the most sacred form of promise, and cannot be broken except with the gravest consequences: To Christians, it implies the threat of eternal damnation in Hell.
Perhaps just as important, though, are the more immediate social consequences. All normal people shun oath-breakers. A man’s sworn word is one of the few possessions that he has after all material goods are taken away. It measures his soul and personality. A breaker of oaths has a shriveled and tiny soul, is not to be trusted, and forfeits the rights that he had as a member of society. Since all of society is based upon oaths and keeping one’s word, anyone who fails in this duty fails to uphold society and, therefore, cannot be part of it.
Oaths can be taken literally or figuratively. However, most common people look to the oath’s spirit to be fulfilled, while intellectuals sometimes allow only the letter to be fulfilled. Such misunderstandings are the cause of much friction between classes. In game terms, oaths are handled using the Honor passion.
HOMAGE AND FEALTY
Every knight but the king is someone’s vassal. Everyone who has a lord has undertaken a ritual (later called a ceremony of commendation) composed of homage and fealty, pledging two free men to an unbreakable, permanent bond of loyalty.
The first part of the ceremony, homage, is ancient, having originated among the Franks and Saxons. Homage is an act of submission. It is the personal oath of an underling to his lord. The vassal kneels and raises his clasped hands to his lord, who encloses them in his own. The vassal gives a brief oath promising aid and counsel. Aid means military assistance, while counsel means support of the lord in his business and the granting of advice. Then the lord gives a similar promise of leadership, and of support expressed as a beneficium, or gift. The beneficium is usually a land grant, or fief. After swearing, the vassal rises, and the men kiss once to seal the oath. This finishes the act of homage.
Fealty is an oath of faithfulness. It is a solemn oath, often sworn upon saints’ relics. Fealty’s most common clause includes a promise never to attack the lord. Unlike homage, which can be sworn only once, a fealty oath is sometimes re-sworn to remind someone of his place, or whenever otherwise felt by the lord to be necessary.
After both of these oaths have been sworn, the vassal is the “man of another man.” He is also sometimes called “a man of hands and mouth.”
Multiple loyalties are possible when a man swears fealty to two (or more) different lords. The issue is confused at court, but currently the most popular solution offered to the problem of multiple lords is the practice of having a liege lord. That is, among all of one’s lords, one is selected to be liege, and he has priority in the vassal’s loyalty in case of conflict.
Your character has only one lord to begin, which creates no problem. However, if he acquires lands elsewhere, the character will eventually have to choose one as liege.
Society consists of three strictly separate social classes—nobles, clergy, and commoners. Everyone participates in this system. People are born into a specific class and enter the same occupation as their parents. People do not usually expect to change their status.
This seems shocking to us today, when individual freedom is the highest ideal. Members of our modern, democratic society have difficulty understanding the class system which dominated medieval society, but an understanding of it is necessary to capture the feel and meaning of the literature and events of the Middle Ages.
Strict social classes are not inherently wrong or bad. Many people find comfort in avoiding responsibilities and knowing that their daily routine will be predictable and unchanging. It is not being in a caste which is bad, but rather being in an exploited and abused caste. Thus, although many miserable serfs would like to have their condition improved, they know they will always be serfs, with all the advantages and disadvantages of being a man or woman of the soil.
The ruling class of nobles jealously holds its prerogatives. So insistent are noblemen on maintaining class differences that a knight is likely to lose his status for engaging in non-knightly behavior, such as physical labor or money lending. The inarguable belief in “might makes right” allows noblemen to maintain their prerogative at everyone else’s expense.
It is important, however, to remember that these are social classes, not strictly hard castes. For instance, any knight may attain the status of lord by being richly rewarded by his own lord. Furthermore, even a lowly commoner may attain knighthood through prowess of arms displayed on the battlefield. Finally, the clergy fill their ranks from people of all classes.
Admittedly, every age has people who do not fit into their class. Such people are exceptional and, like exceptional people in any time, will find a way through or around the system to their advantage. In the Middle Ages, exceptional commoners usually join the Church, or become personal employees of a nobleman. Exceptional members of the ruling class may become saints, like St. Francis, or heroes, like King Arthur.
THE NOBLE CLASS
The nobility is the upper class. Nobles are the leaders and warriors of society. They do not work for their own maintenance, but acquire the food and goods of their life from others.
However, within this class not all persons are equal. Two distinct divisions exist, commonly called the higher and lower nobility. The lower nobility are the knights. The higher nobility are called lords. Lords include all knights who have their own vassals, and includes all hereditary landholders. Lords are also knights, of course, but are usually referred to by their higher rank.
This division is common among most feudal cultures. In English, the terms for higher and lower nobility are lords (higher) and gentry (lower); in French, they are barons and chevaliers; in German, Herren and Ritter; and in Spanish, grandes and hidalgos.
Further, within the category of lord are several ranks of noblemen. Among the British, these are ranged from lowest to highest as follows: banneret, baron, earl, duke, king.
The knights’ primary responsibility is to serve as the military force for their lord. They have many privileges and freedoms which are not available to the lower classes, gained in exchange for the pledge to die, if necessary, for their lord.
Knights fill the most advantaged class, and thus have the greatest freedom and most privileges of anyone else in the game. Pendragon concerns itself primarily with this class of men.
THE CLERICAL CLASS
The clergy includes all members of the Christian Church, a powerful institution which owns considerable lands and has many rights of its own. Churchmen are exempt from most ordinary laws and claim loyalty to God, a higher authority than the king—a claim which is a source of great conflict between clergy and royalty.
The clergy, supposed to be chaste, can hardly be expected to reproduce itself, so it draws members from both the nobility and the commoners. It is not unusual for younger sons of the nobility to join the clergy rather than be landless knights, seeking whatever opportunity the Church can give them. For bright and ambitious commoners, the Church provides the best opportunity for advancement.
Churchmen may be secular clergy or monastics. Secular clergy includes bishops and the village priests who administer the sacraments to commoners, and who oversee the spiritual development of their parishioners. Monastics are men or women who have taken the religious path of isolation and joined special communities that practice devotion apart from the ways of ordinary mankind.
THE COMMON CLASS
Everyone who is not of the nobility or clergy is a commoner. Commoners are the basis for society, and make up 95% of the population. They are the ordinary people who provide the food and goods that allow noblemen and clergy to pursue their specialized functions. Commoners are mostly farmers, whether poor serfs without any freedom or rich landholders who maintain the right to change lords at will. However, the artisans who populate cities and make their wares are also commoners, as are the merchants who act as middlemen and brokers for trade across Britain.
Members of the nobility can become commoners. A squire’s sons are considered commoners, though of good status within the broad spectrum of commoners.
Commoners can sometimes enter the ranks of knighthood, as well. Anyone who can acquire weapons and employment in the ranks of mercenaries might rise from soldier or sergeant to squire or knight through recognition by his leader. Commoners who perform outstandingly, even off the battlefield, can be raised to the status of squires or even knights by their grateful lords. Sometimes lords desperate for money sell knighthood to rich men. More often, though, lords’ daughters marry wealthy commoners, who thus share their wealth with the lord in return for the chance for their own children to become noble.