A guide to nobility, for fantasy writers

High fantasy tends to feature a lot of nobles. More often than not, authors pull inspiration from the feudal and courtly nobility of medieval Europe. However, honestly, it can be confusing to research with so many conflicting traditions, not to mention how they changed over time too. As a result, fantasy sometimes leans on not very accurate pop-culture ideas of medieval nobility. After researching for my own novels, I thought some of you might have the same questions I started with, and I might be able to answer them. So this is my guide to nobility for fantasy writers.

I am not an expert in nobility, just a fascinated amateur. There were hundreds (probably thousands) of royal, princely and ducal courts throughout the medieval era of Europe. Not to mention the bishoprics and religious nobility. Everything probably had an exception somewhere, and many courts had unique traditions around noble titles. This is not intended to be a history or guide to nobility in Europe, but a guide for fantasy (or even sci-fi) writers who want to insert systems of nobility into their worlds.

What sets nobility apart?

Nobility are largely set apart by legal rights and privileges. These rights vary by nation and time period, but might include 

  • Right to a family coat of arms
  • Entitlement to special forms of address (Sir, My Lord, Your Grace, etc)
  • Special tax privileges
  • The right to vote when others can’t
  • The ability to sit in parliament or advise a monarch
  • The right to specific land, or the right to exclusively hunt, harvest or farm certain land
  • Holding public office
  • Presiding as a judge in courts
  • Being an officer or general in the military
  • The right to wage private war or blood feuds

These rights are traditionally hereditary. Some nations have non-hereditary nobility, but this is mostly a modern tradition. Collectively, the possession of these rights is usually what makes you a noble. Or do the privileges come from being a noble? Chicken and the egg, I suppose.

What about Aristocracy?

Aristocracy is a word referring to the rule of the many by a small privileged upper class (the Aristocratic class). This can refer to the feudal landholders, but your fantasy aristocracy doesn’t have to be feudal in nature. Many aristocratic systems were formed by a different sort of upper class – the military elite. Sparta is everyone’s favourite go-to example of a society ruled by a military class.

Priests were often part of the aristocracy in Europe, though they maintained some level of distance between themselves and the mere landowning nobility. In other societies, such as some kingdoms in Africa, religious individuals formed an even larger part of the aristocracy. In a famous example, Egypt’s powerful priests formed part of the Egyptian aristocracy.

Therefore, Aristocracy is a more general catch-all term, which includes nobility.

What about the Feudal system?

The earliest form of a feudal system was a personal oath from the vassal to his lord. It might be thought of as similar to a military oath, and in many ways, it was. 

A man bows before a king dressed in blue and gold while others look on

Image: Rene, King of Jerusalem and Sicily, Duke of Bar, etc, receiving homage from a vassal. 1469 illumination on parchment. Public domain.

The feudal system, boiled down to its basics, is a hierarchy where a monarch sits at the top, and grants their subjects the right to hold land in return for doing a service to the monarch. This usually meant providing men to fight in times of war. This wasn’t the only way one got the right to hold feudal land – for example, the manor of Addington in England was held in return for serving soup at the coronation of each monarch. Some simply paid rent, or a percentage of their income in tribute.

It is important to know that Nobility is not synonymous with the feudal system. Societies existed with nobility and no feudal system, sometimes simultaneously with ones that used the feudal system.

The complexity, and rigidity, of the feudal system varied across time and place. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t always so strictly adhered to in real life, and there were many exceptions to this concept. It was at its height from the 9th to 15th centuries. The holders of land in such feudal societies usually formed the society’s nobility.

Do nobles need titles?

The prevalence of the British system as inspiration for pop culture nobility is probably why a lot of people associate nobility with titles. In Britain, it is definitely true that much of the nobility had titles. But many didn’t. The landed gentry were a noble class in England, Wales and Scotland, and they developed as the feudal system weakened. Though they had no title, they owned land, and with it came social and legal rights. 

Modern militaries meant that the role of the feudal lords was less and less important to providing for the national militaries, which changed the power relationship. However, even as the feudal system broke down, owning land remained a good way to have status. 

Up until the industrial revolution, the ownership of large amounts of agricultural land was one of the most important status symbols, and sources of power. The only real requirement to be a member of the landed gentry was the ability to live off the income of your land without a job or owning businesses.

In England in particular, it became a social taboo for the Gentry to engage in work, and only a small number of professions were acceptable for the sons of the gentry to engage in. Mercantile pursuits were acceptable early on, but became more shameful as time passed, and the gentry were mostly expected to live in leisure, and their younger children (who would not inherit land) to concern themselves with military service, religious service, and the public service as diplomats and bureaucrats. Even working as a lawyer or being a scholar was suspect, though not entirely avoided.

While many landowners had no formal title, those who owned land were often the only ones allowed to vote, and may have been given courtesy titles recognising their wealth (such as ‘squire’ in England). They were also often related to the titled lords, and some landed gentry were wealthier than the dukes and earls.

When looking at how nobility works in your fantasy setting, you should look at what confers social, political and military power. Land may still be a large part of that. But as the industrial revolution changed how wealth could be accumulated in England, many of the gentry began to also be industrial magnates.  In contrast, almost all of the nobility in the medieval Republic of Venice were merchants and derived their power from their enormous wealth, control of shipping and the age of their family line (as was common in oligarchic republics, from 1320 no new families were allowed to join the ranks of the nobility).

In different societies, noble families have derived power and prestige from political roles, prestigious academic positions, military prestige, the keeping of a castle, the number of livestock they own, or the ownership of merchant companies. In a setting with magic, you might see power derived from how powerful a family’s magical lineage is, or the ownership of artifacts or magically significant locations.

Does nobility need a King or Emperor?

Nope! Many societies utilized nobility without monarchs, while some monarchs were elected by their nobility. Many Italian republics had nobility, despite operating as oligarchic republics. Similarly, you can have nobility in a theocracy (such as the medieval Papal States), where the head of state is a religious leader instead of a king or queen.

Image: The Doge’s Palace, Venice, by Richard Parkes Bonington. 1826, public domain, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

PS. Monarchs are not nobility. They rank above nobles, as royalty.

What is an order of precedence?

Nobles aren’t all made equal. Precedence determines who is the most important. In systems where titles are commonplace, this is fairly easy (with some caveats). Titles have a hierarchy, and Dukes are just better than Earls.

Not all systems make it so simple, and there are still asterisks even when it comes to Dukes and Earls.

Some basic rules apply to deciding the precedence of a European aristocrat. These generally (but not always) are as follows

  • The older title has precedence over the equivalent younger title
    • The Duke of Norfolk, whose title was created in 1486, is more important than the Duke of Atholl, whose title was created in 1703 
  • A sovereign ruler is always higher in the order of precedence than a non-sovereign title. The Prince of Moravian Serbia was of higher precedence than the Prince of Melfi.
  • Within the Holy Roman Empire, a title with ‘imperial immediacy’ (meaning the holder had no lord above them but the Emperor himself) was of higher precedence than a title with a feudal overlord.
    • For example, the Prince of Liechtenstein was of higher precedence than the Prince of Auersperg, who owed fealty to the Duke of Austria. This made lands with imperial immediacy, no matter how obscure, extremely valuable. The Dukes of Troppau purchased Liechtenstein and never set foot in it for 300 years, simply for the claim to imperial immediacy it offered.

In a famous example, Queen Victoria, despite being the most powerful monarch in the world at the time, was forced to sit lower than various emperors of Europe such as Prussia (her own in-laws in many cases) when meeting them. This was one reason she assumed the title of Empress of India later in her reign.

The older your family was also improved your importance. Among the non-titled gentry of England, how long you’d passed a particular estate through the same family could improve your importance, though it wasn’t formally written down like the order of precedence for titles is. 

For example, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride & Prejudice was likely the descendant of a Norman family. Darcy is derived from a Norman barony (Arcy), and his first name, Fitzwilliam, is Norman and was likely his mother’s maiden name, while his aunt’s surname, de Bough, was also an eminent Norman surname. In the book, this plays a large role in his aunt’s belief that her family is superior to the Bennetts, who themselves were gentry, but neither as wealthy or from as old blood.

Now go, make your own nobility

Have fun inventing different ways that nobility could operate in your world. A kingdom ruled by mage lords? A city republic with a merchant nobility? What about an empire where important magical artifacts handed down in families are crucial to claiming your birthright? 

You can also check out my Guide to European noble titles, which delves into more depth about specific titles, their origins and a lot of rarer titles you might not hear about as much.

Featured image: Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy appointing his officers. Miniature from the Heeresordun, 1473, fol 5. Public domain. Held in the British Library.

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