Social Class: The Golden Chain of Medieval Society
Medieval society is based on the religious theory of the “Golden Chain” – that every thing and every one has a right and proper appointed place and function or role to fill in the world according to a Divine Plan, and that everyone should know their place and function and stick to it. The medieval world is all about maintaining the status quo. The world is generally believed to be in its perfect form according to the Will of the Light, simply in need of a little maintenance. Between this popular theology and the practices of feudalism and the manorial signeurial system, society in the period of the game is divided between three basic elements known as the “Three Estates”.
The Three Estates are composed of:
- Those Who Fight: The Noble Class (whose duty it is to defend the land and it’s people),
- Those Who Pray: The Clergy Class (whose duty it is to care for the souls of the people),
- Those Who Work: The Common Classes (everyone else, whose duty it is to produce the food and goods that all must have to live).
Click through the links to take a look at what it means to be a member of each of these classes.
In the period of the game, however, the Nobility and the Clergy are having to deal with the growth of a class of wealthy freeman – wealthy franklins often descended from cadet lines of knightly houses in the rural districts and merchants and the institutions of their chartered towns, members of the free commonalty who work and are beginning to wield great economic power. Despite the principle of the Golden Chain there is actually a fair amount of fluidity to social class in the medieval England on which the game worlds of RoM are modeled, opportunities for the meek to rise and be recognized and rewarded, and for the great to be betrayed by Fate and/or Vice and fall down to the commons, as well.
The Church has sought the protection of the First Estate in trying to strengthen it’s own position, still new in the Dark Ages prior to the period of the game. The Church emerged from that era well provided-for by the members of the First Estate with vast lands of their own, so they will not be troubled by such worldly concerns as how to provide for their needs, so they might go about their business of attending to the spiritual needs of the people, especially in praying for the souls of the First Estate, their noble benefactors. The endowment of the Churches by the noble class is the origins of the nobles commonly having the right of “advowson”, or the right to nominate the priest who is to be appointed to the churches and chapels in their demesnes.
The Crown is the ultimate source from which flows nobility of blood, noble landed estates, and the place of the nobility in the governing of the realm. The nobles and their estates and their rights over those who dwell there are arranged in hierarchical order from greatest to least, but ties of homage and vassalage run also between many of similar social standing, and between those from all corners of the realm, as well, resulting in a tangled web of responsibility and interrelations ultimately centered on the king. These relationships are very close and personal in nature, and the oaths on which they are based are held sacred and binding. For fear of his immortal soul, no nobleman will break an oath to his lord outright with out extreme provocation first and the release from his oath by the Church, second. The tenure of land ownership and social relationships among the classes below the nobility share the same general pattern and character of the greater feudal system, so the whole society came to be described as “feudal”. Many equate medieval society wholly with feudalism as a result. However, that narrow a view is very misleading, especially when it comes to trying to achieve the general understanding of medieval society needed to roleplay in such an environment and make it work. While feudalism remains a central and very important aspect of medieval society, there is so much more to it than Crown and nobles and the common men beneath them, as is shown in the Station tables that follow for the various Classes.
The Three Estates are the broadest classifications of the Social Classes that determine one’s wealth and influence.
This makes social class very simple, but there are some additional factors of importance that can significantly affect a character’s opportunities in career and skills. There is a great deal of difference in the way of life in the rural countryside and the society within the towns. The society of the towns is distinguished as a social arena with its own characteristics and singular set of opportunities. The humble Freeman Commoner origins, particularly those from a rural district, but including the rural districts surrounding towns and belonging to them for their support, represents the largest portion of any medieval era population, demographically.
The nobility comprise only 1%, members of the Clergy actually sworn to vows in the service of the Church only 2%, while Freeman Commoners specifically dwelling in towns account for only 10%. The landbound class accounts for 15-25% of the population from one shire (county) to the next, so this still leaves 72-83% as rural Freemen Commoners.
It is truly an agrarian world.
The Nobility and the Clergy of the period of the game must also deal with the growth of a class of wealthy freeman – wealthy franklins (large-scale farmers) often descended from cadet lines of knightly houses in the rural districts and the wealthy merchants and the institutions of their chartered towns, both members of the free commonalty who work and are beginning to wield great economic power. These can be seen in the breakdown of family stations within the classes. Land is wealth, and the nobility and the Church are the greatest landholders across the realms. Both the nobility and the Church maintain strong presences in the towns as well as circulating among their estates, the nobility especially in the capital of the realm and the chief shire towns where they hold lands so they can maintain access to the local royal courts and also in order to attend the monarch as a part of his court. Town-fiefs are jealously guarded among the nobles for the great amount of revenue they can provide.
Each of the social classes is, in turn, divided into a series of Family Stations, the specific level within the class that the character’s family occupies. The following tables embody the stations into which the character may be born. The player must understand that the station he chooses now is the level of society his parents have achieved in life, under whose customs and morés he was raised, the level of society that recognizes the PC as one of their own. Knowing one’s place in the world is VERY important in the context of medieval game world society. If desired, the player may work his character into a position where his station may be improved, and perhaps in time, even his class. But such goals are for the long-term only, for characters the player is sure use in regular play for some time.
The social class and specific station indicate the extent of the resources to be drawn on in getting started in life, on which he may call when he has exhausted what he has (so long as the family is willing), and what the character stands to inherit after his older male siblings have all passed away (non-humans may be subject to different inheritance traditions). Only in some cases will the character be expected to step in and assume control of the family estate/fortune after any other heirs are exhausted (i.e., noble/royal heritage), and those factors are completely under the player’s control here in the Background section, at least in regards to Custom Method characters. The Background options available to new characters, at least as a starting point, have been chosen to leave the character as much freedom as possible in the context of the medieval milieu to go and become whomever he wishes, to travel and pursue his own agenda and adventures rather than being tied to one locality in home and hearth and family obligations. But then again, adventuring in one’s own backyard can strengthen one’s value to the family, and can provide an opportunity to get to know and explore familiar territory and local society until the players come to know them intimately.
The entries one the Station tables have been arranged from greatest to least by rank in social precedence, and so may be of use as a reference during play. This is a general rule that was followed in compiling them, however, in some cases, especially in regards to the Freeman tables, many of the entries grouped closely together may be equivalent in terms of social precedence.
It is not wise to press issues of precedence when roleplaying freemen PC’s among freeman NPC’s, as the waters are not so clear as among nobles or churchmen, between the classes from which the stations are derived (1st vs. 2nd vs. 3rd Estates).
The Stations of the Nobility
The Stations of the Clergy