Friday, September 12, 2008

Social Classes in Sword and Sorcery

Medieval life within the manor setting: a perfect study in not only how people lived, but also how social classes related to one another. High fantasy writers weave such medieval historical bits with imaginative threads to create new, unique and fantastic realities. Here magical swords sing, knights fight ogres, evil sorcerers cast spells, and dragons with many heads haunt the land. The magic also allows a poor man with integrity to change his world. However, before we get to the magic, it's important to know the history.

During King Richard's reign, every man's goal was to own land. The strongest warrior became lord of conquered land and reigned over the manor in service to the king. A great lord might have several manors under his charge.

A Self-sufficient Manor

A manor functioned like a self-sufficient country. It usually incorporated open lands like meadows, woods, fields, rivers, and pastures for livestock and farming as well as a mill (sometimes small enough to be run by one person) to grind grain into flour, an oven, wine press, and church.

The castle where the lord of the manor lived worked like the capital of the self-contained manor. Within his castle walls, skilled craftsmen worked as paid servants. This included bakers, carpenters, millers, smiths, leather workers, etc. For their services, this skilled labor force received payment. Pay included money, food and lodging. For writers of fantasy, this scenario opens the door to a variety of plots as the mixture of families and social classes lived under one roof.


Poorer peasants worked the lord's farms. In return for their hard work, they received strips of land on which they raised crops to feed their own families. Under the feudal system, these poor peasants lived as members of a class of partially-free persons known as villeins. Villeins held positions as serfs with respect to their lord. However, they maintained rights and privileges of freemen in their dealings with others.

Villeins lived in huts made of mud and wattle. These huts more often than not consisted of two rooms. Thatched roofs protected occupants from the elements and one window (known as the wind's eye) lit the typical villein's hut. Fire burned on a stone slab situated in the middle of the earthen floor for warmth and cooking.

Onions, dried herbs, and strips of meat hung from rafters, while tools used in service to the lord perched along the walls. Villeins paid taxes in the form of produce raised on the strip of land provided by the lord, while also working in service to the lord at jobs such as repairing bridges and roads about two or three days a week.

Villeins lived under a set of strict rules, one being the fact they could not leave the manor without the lord's permission. This restriction may seem unfair by today's standards, but remember the lord allowed the peasants to live on his land as a way to provide for the family. It was an agreement. Villeins lived on this strip of land, and had a garden, house, livestock and tools. The harder a villein worked, the better off his situation would be. However, social class and structure many times trapped worthy people in a mundane existence, while raising others less deserving to a life of opulence.

Manor Life Under the Feudal System

Manor life under the feudal system provides a rich history for the fantasy writer to tap into. Consider the wealth of possibilities. A young villein who hates farming may escape life in the manor and strike out on his own, or he may work hard and buy his freedom. He could even join a band of outlaws that live in the forest, such as in Robin Hood.

In Howard Pyle's Men of Iron a lord is accused of treason and lives in refuge in the sanctuary of a church for years. His son becomes a page and squire and redeems the family name. On the other hand, consider the footloose hooligan pulling a prank in Robert E. Howard's Gates of the Empire who flees to the Holy Land to avoid the consequences. Fantasy stories based on life in the manor are fraught with interesting characters and provide a variety of plot choices set in a unique social structure and quaint locale. Add a daub of magic and ta-da, you've created sword and sorcery high fantasy.

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