This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific concepts pervasive in sci-fi or cultural/historical topics relevant to fantasy, with input from a real-world expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Jerry Quinn is a classical actor and history buff with a special interest in 10th-12th century Normandy. He’s spent a dozen years performing at Renaissance Faire, where he’s learned both how to pick up a prostitute in Shakespearean English and when it’s okay to let go of obsessive historical accuracy for the sake of making sense to the audience.
He’s also the editorial administrator of the Ubergroup on scribophile.com, the “most productive writer’s group on the internet,” where he herds a little over 150
cats writers and preaches the dramatic principles of Lajos Egri.
He’s currently living abroad in France and Morocco, which is a fancy way of saying “drifting about doing itinerant manual labour” and “giving apocryphal advice in an authoritative tone” on his travel blog.
A Quick And Dirty Guide To Feudal Nobility
Nothing drives me crazier than authors—or patrons at Renaissance Faires—addressing everyone and everything as “mi’loooooooord.” Firstly, no one outside of possibly a few British comedians in the 1970s has ever pronounced the word “my” that way. Secondly, not everyone is a lord; that notion defies the most basic grasp of economics. Thirdly, there are different kinds of lords, especially in different periods—the system was constantly evolving. Finally, there are specific ways to address each type depending on who you are.
Detailing every type of feudal lord that ever existed is a Herculean task already undertaken by numerous (very dry) textbooks, so today I’m going to break down the underlying reasoning behind the system. As fantasy authors, you do not need to cleave to any existing real world system, as long as yours is created with a reasonable, self-consistent logic. For this mini lesson, I’m going to focus primarily on the English system from the Norman Conquest to the War of the Roses.
Rule 1: Not Everyone Was A Lord
Let’s start with the fundaments of feudalism. As I said in my last lesson, the basic premise was that “those who could take something, did.” The Norman Conquest was exactly what it sounded like: William, Duke of Normandy, trumped up a claim to England, then sailed over from France and took it. That wasn’t the first time, either; William wasn’t French. “Norman,” or “North-man,” was the French word for the Vikings who sailed down from Scandinavia and took half of France, thus starting a long tradition of the English taking whatever the hell they wanted.
The economics functioned as follows: if you were spending all your time practising with your sword to get better at taking things, you weren’t able to grow your own food. You had to convince the farmers to give you a share of their crops, in the original form of income tax: tithe. How to accomplish that? Show up at their houses with all your sword-toting buddies and take it. By now, you’re hopefully starting to picture the king and all his peers a lot less like this: And a lot more like this: Enter the concept of the landlord. Yes, this is from whence modern word originates. Technically, all the land belongs to the king. He permits the farmers to live there and work it for him in exchange for tithe. Since he can’t manage it all directly, he leases big chunks of it to his favourite armed thug buddies, known as “creating” them the Earl, Duke, etc, of a given area. They then receive tithe for their portion, and owe him military service in exchange for the hookup. A lord was functionally the local cartel boss. The Don, the Jefe, however you like it. By nature, there aren’t very many of them.
As of 1307, there was still only one type of lord below the king: an Earl, from Old Norse Jarl. And there were only eleven of them. England may not look very big on a map, but next time you visit, try walking from London to York with only the clothes on your back and as much food as you can carry. To the average person of the era, it was a serious undertaking to get beyond the borders of the Earldom in which you were born. They knew they had a Lord, theoretically, receiving all their taxes, and a king somewhere, but nothing about either of them.
Modern Americans: unless you live in the capitol and work in a relevant business… have you ever actually met the President? Or even the governor of your home state? Do you even know your governor’s name without googling it? There are literally five times as many American governors now as there were British earls in the 13th century, and you don’t walk around seriously expecting to bump into one on the street.
Rule 2: The System Keeps Changing
The fun part about things made up at the whim of a single guy is that the rules keep changing. During the reign of William I, there were exactly three types of nobility: King, Earl, and Baron. The first British duke was created in 1337, when Edward II made the Black Prince Duke of Cornwall. A duke was below the king but above an earl.
In 1385 Richard II created Robert de Vere (already the 9th Earl Oxford) the 1st Marquis of Dublin. “Marquis” is a reference to the “marches,” or borders, as he was defending a border territory. The next marquis, created 1397, refused to use the title because he felt a made-up honour carried no weight. It went unused until Henry VI revived it in 1442. No further titles came into use until the Renaissance. As of 1611, the British hierarchy went:
To make things infinitely more complicated, the rest of Europe followed their own rules. For the most part the terms and hierarchy were comparable, and variations are pretty obvious in the term used: a Grand Duke, for instance, would be above a regular Duke. Making a word diminutive, such as Count/Viscount or Baron/Baronet implies the new position was just below the one from which it is derived. Count, btw, is the continental word for Earl, and Earl’s wives were still called Countess (probably because Earless sounds like something that happened to Van Gogh.)
It’s important to realize that kings were not the only type of sovereign (ruler with no one above them) nor were they necessarily the king of a particularly large area. There were—and still are—some sovereign duchies, in which the Duke is the top of the line. Pre-conquest England was divided up into dozens of small kingdoms, such as Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex, which were eventually consolidated by the usual means of one of the kings beating up his neighbour and taking the land. (This is true throughout most of world history. The Illiad speaks of a “coalition of Greek Kings” of which Agamemnon was High King. Ramses the Great self-described as “King of Kings” as did many Persian “Shahenshah”s.)
Prince was not always a word for king’s son, either: in its broadest sense, “prince” is a generic term for a top-level ruler. One might refer to a collection of “foreign princes” as being a general mishmash of approximately ruling-class men who might have a reasonable claim to a sovereign rule of a country, including Dukes, Emirs, Shahs, and what have you. For an exhaustive list of examples to create your fantasy hierarchy from, see Wikepedia’s entry on royal and noble ranks.
Rule 3: Specific Forms of Address
A king or queen is addressed as “his/her/your Majesty,” a prince or princess as “his/her/your Highness,” and a Duke/Duchess as “his/her/your Grace.” Everything below that is “his/her/your Lordship/Ladyship.” “His/your Excellency” came much later, and was used for a chancellor or prime minister. You can invent more, but make sure they differ from ones that already exist. It’s also extremely common to refer to someone by the name of the land they own, which is NOT the same as their family name. Sir denotes knighthood.
It is a job qualification, and as such, goes with a man’s first name. Being a knight means you get to be called Sir, just as having your PhD means you get to be called Dr. Lord denotes ownership of property. It goes with the land, not a man’s name, because you are saying he owns the land, not his own name. Most Lords happen to also be knights, but that’s sort of like saying “Most of the largest properties in the world are owned by people who have graduate degrees.” It’s an interesting fact, but the degree does NOT bring the land with it. You can have “Sir so-and-so, who doesn’t own anything in particular,” just as completing your phD does not automatically give you a gargantuan estate.
Master is a last-resort polite form of address if someone is landless and not a knight, likely a younger son of petty gentry, or a tradesman. In general, use the most flattering/important title available, unless the character is purposely being familiar or rude. I’ll use examples from my own fictional world: Teagan Chambrer, Knight Commander General, youngest (non-inheriting) son of the Thegn of Duck’s Crossing, could be addressed as:
- Sir Teagan
- General Teagan
- Master Chambrer (but this would be insulting, as it ignores the fact that he is an officer)
- Lord Anything (he’s not.)
- Sir Chambrer (he, Teagan, personally, is the knight, not his entire family.)
William Huntley, 1st Earl Greenford, knight of the realm, could be addressed as:
- Lord Greenford
- Greenford (with no preamble)
- Sir William (but a bit familiar/pretentious to use his personal name, as it implies that his person is more relevant to you than his status as an Earl. Might be used by friend or a woman flirting with him.)
- Master Huntley (but again, insulting.)
- Sir Huntley (he, William, personally, is the knight, not his entire family)
- Sir Greenford (his property is not a knight.)
- Lord Huntly (owner of his family?)
- Lord William (owner of himself?)
Robert Caenid, 2nd Earl Nor’watch, knight of the realm, and Lord Treasurer, could be addressed as:
- Lord Nor’watch
- My Lord Treasurer
- Sir Robert (again, personal)
- Master Caenid (again, insulting)
- Lord Robert (owner of himself?)
- Master Robert (master of himself?)
- Sir Treasurer (the office of treasurer is a knight?)
Stephen fitz Wheelwright (note, “fitz” means “son of” and wheelwright is a profession, such as baker, miller, smith, thatcher, fletcher, cooper, etc. This is a literal statement that his father is the town wheelwright, not a family name.) Captain of the guard, not a knight, could be addressed as:
- Captain Stephen
- the wheelwright’s boy (insulting now that he is an officer. Would have been his form of address formerly.)
- Sir Stephen (he is not.)
- Master Wheelwright (that’s his father.)
Use of a first name in isolation of any title or pet name is extremely personal. No one, regardless of comparable rank, addresses someone by a pet name uninvited, unless they are purposely being rude or overly familiar. It sets the tone of the situation – if my boss were to say, “Morning, Jerry!” I might reply, “Morning, Ben!” but if he were to open with “Good morning, Mr. Quinn,” I sure as hell better retreat behind, “Good morning, Mr. Stirling” unless I want to get in trouble.
Generally, all women married to a knight or better can be referred to as “my Lady,” although you would only attach a name if you would do so for her husband. A lady retains her title after being widowed as a courtesy, even if she remarries a man of lesser station. If there is a new woman who can claim the same title, the word “dowager” will be attached to specify. Eliza Caenid, widow of the former Earl Nor’watch, mother of Robert, the current Earl Nor’watch, could be addressed as:
- My Lady Countess
- the Dowager Countess Nor’watch
- Lady Nor’watch (that’s her daughter-in-law.)
The biggest thing to remember when designing your own system is it’s all about the land. You only get as many lords as you get mob bosses; when too many try to exist in a given area, turf wars occur. Since the land is so important, the form of address almost always makes reference to it, and you certainly wouldn’t treat someone like he ran the place if he didn’t. (Just picture what would happen if the Godfather overheard you calling some other shmuck “boss” instead).
This is only the briefest of overviews, of course, but hopefully it gives you some keywords to plug into Google. If you really want to get into it, some very thorough (and mind you, antique) resources include: A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire by Sir Bernard Burke, A Directory of British Peerges by Francis Leeson, and The genealogy of the existing British peerage, with sketches of the family histories of the nobility by Edmund Lodge.
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I will point out that in English usage, “Your Majesty” was not used before Henry VIII (although it was used on the continent already) and his children did not necessarily use it. “Your Highness” and “Your Grace” would have been more common before 1533 or so. I believe an Italian Cardinal–Campeggio?–started calling him that and Henry was all about keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak.
Quick question: I’ve heard the word “sire” used to refer to men of nobility in several instances, as a term of address similar to just “sir,” or “madam,” or “your highness.” On what occasion would “sire” be used, if at all?
Jerry Quinn says
The earlier you go, the less formal it gets. “Sire,” just means “Father.” You can use it to refer to a literal or figurative father. In a pseudo-medieval milieu, it would be typical to use it for literal human and animal fathers: “She must get her sire’s approval ere she can depart for the castle on the coast,” referring to a girl needed her biological father’s permission to switch residences, “The charger’s sire was the most famously ill-tempered beast on the continent,” referring to the lineage of a war-horse. You could also use it broadly as an address of respect for a man of superior authority, the same way 40s mobsters are called “Daddy-O” or everyone address Don Corlone as “Godfather.” Generally, it should be a significant lord of some kind.
Much later, it was formalised to only be correct for sovereigns, which is also the current rule, but for early medieval fantasy you can use it pretty loosely for any landholder you would address as “My Lord.”
Christy Nicholas says
I’m trying to find the forms of address for 12th century Gaelic nobility (barely pre-Norman invasion) – specifically local Chief of the Name and their tanists. Any idea on a good source? Or do you know already? 🙂
Colleen Prendergast says
‘Fitz’ was a way of titled men acknowledging paternity of illegitimate offspring (particularly sons). The convention is ‘Fitz’ plus the first (given/Christian) name of the father (Fitzwilliam, Fitzmaurice, Fitzherbert etc). NEVER the surname/title, and only for titled men who wished to confer status on illegitimate sons. (An exception to the firstname rule was Henry VIII’s son – Henry Fitzroy – Roy as in King.)
Another example is King Henry II. “Henry Fitz Empress.” Son of the Empress Matilda and Count Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda, daughter and heir of Henry I, first married the Holy Roman Emperor and upon his death married Count Geoffrey.
I have learned so much!!! I am editing my novel based in the year 1483/84. The lead female character is in danger and in hiding and going by an alias. She is truly the daughter of a baron, but doesn’t want the knight who found her to know. The knight’s sister in law is a countess. the runaway, is befriended by a countess, who tells everyone she is, (an unmarried woman) a distant relative and called Lady Anna. So my assumption is that by calling her Lady Anna…the countess is saying she is of high nobility? The pretext is to let everyone know she is a peer, but remaining ambiguous. Reading this made it all the more confusing.