A Quick and Dirty Guide to Feudal Nobility
Updated: May 2, 2022
How people took power in the middle ages.
Members of Florencia 13, one of the most powerful gangs in LA
Americans have a deep fascination with royalty and no shortage of misconceptions to go with it. One of the most common mistakes fantasy authors--and patrons at Renaissance Faires--make is addressing everyone and everything as “m’lord.” Not everyone is a lord; that notion defies the most basic grasp of economics. There are different kinds of lords, especially in different periods, and there are specific ways to address each type depending on who you are.
Not everyone is a lord; that notion defies the most basic grasp of economics.
Detailing every type of feudal lord that ever existed is a Herculean task already undertaken by numerous (very dry) textbooks, so this episode aims to break down the underlying reasoning behind the system. We’ll focus primarily on European hierarchies, and touch a little bit on the medieval muslim world as well, then give some examples to help aspiring fantasy authors create a consistent system of their own.
Part One: Not Everyone Was A Lord
The fundamental premise of feudalism was: 'those who could take something, did.' The Norman Conquest was exactly what it sounded like: William, Duc de Normandie, trumped up a claim to England, sailed over from France, and took it. That wasn’t the first time, either; William wasn’t French. 'Norman' is a contraction of 'Norseman' or 'Nordmann' (which modern Norwegians still call themselves.) It’s 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 they wanted via the cunning use of flags.
The fundamental premise of feudalism was: 'those who could take something, did.'
Of course, if a conqueror spent all his time taking things, he was too busy to grow his own food. He had to convince farmers to give him a share of their crops–by showing up with his sword-toting buddies and taking it. By now, you’re hopefully starting to picture the king and all his peers a lot less like dandies in frilly lace collars and a lot more like heavily armed thugs. This is where we get the concept of a ‘landlord’: all land belongs to the lord who conquered it. He permits tenants known as ‘villeins’ to live there in exchange for ‘tithe’, an income tax in the form of a share of their harvest. There were also free farmers who owned their own small plots of land, but they were too busy growing things to become professional fighters. If a free man wasn’t packing enough heat to kill the lord and his thugs, it was best to enter their protection racket instead.
Marlon Brando as Don Carlone in 'The Godfather'
As these protection rackets grew, the Lord couldn’t manage all his tenants directly, so he would tap some of his favourite armed thug buddies to run parts of it for him. He would ‘create’ them to a feudal title: the Comté, the Jarl, the Duc, etc, of a given area. His newly-promoted muscle got to live large in exchange for managing, taxing, and defending his new turf. A Lord is essentially a cartel boss. The Don, el Jefe, what have you.
A Lord is essentially a cartel boss. By nature, there aren't very many of them.
By nature, there aren’t very many cartel bosses. In England as of 1307, there was still only one type of lord below the king: an Earl, and there were only eleven of them. England may not look very big on a map, but 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 they were born. They knew they had a lord, theoretically, and a king somewhere, but nothing about either of them.
Here’s a comparison for modern Americans: unless you live in Washington, DC and work in a relevant business, have you ever actually met a US President in person? Perhaps you saw one of them once in your life at some official event, when they came to visit your school to make an endowment. Have you met the governor of your home state? Do you even know your governor’s name? There are five times as many American governors now as there were British earls in the 13th century, but the average American doesn’t walk around seriously expecting to bump into one on the street. That’s how many lords vs non-lords you should have in your fantasy world.
Part Two: The System Keeps Changing
The fun part about systems made up at the whim of a single mob boss is that the rules keep changing. It’s not just you–the organisation of feudal lords across history is inconsistent and confusing. As we mentioned earlier, William the Conqueror started England off with only Earls below him. 300 years later, for no apparent reason other than he felt like it, Edward III declared his son the Black Prince to be the Duke of Cornwall. In his newly-created rule set, an English duke was below the king but above an Earl.
Perhaps it was because they’d already had Ducs in France for centuries. The rules there were entirely different, and even more haphazard. Over the 10th and 11th centuries various Frankish comtés and Norse jarls–what we call ‘counts’ and ‘earls’ in English–began arbitrarily styling themselves ‘Duc’ as a matter of personal aggrandisement. Many times, their power surpassed that of whomever was nominally king at the time. Remember: these are all fancy terms for heavily armed thugs. If one wanted to move up the hierarchy or obtain land belonging to one’s neighbour, one
could always accomplish that by bigger army diplomacy.
Remember: these are all fancy terms for heavily armed thugs. If one wanted to move up the hierarchy, one could always use bigger army diplomacy.
Titles that seemed too spurious were sometimes refused. In 1385, Richard II of England created Robert de Vere the 1st Marquis of Dublin. The term “Marquis” is a reference to the “marches,” or a border territory, which Robert was defending. But the new ruleset didn’t stick: the next Marquis, created 1397, refused to use the title, saying a made-up honour carried no weight. It went unused for nearly fifty years after.
Given how inconsistent usage of titles was across history and in different countries, a fantasy author has flexibility in how many titles they include in their own system. There are trends across cultures as to which titles were considered equal, superior, or inferior to each other, so as a loose guide for your own fantasy world, the British hierarchy as of 1700 went:
● Earl (which was equivalent to a Count on the continent)
Variations on this were fairly obvious in their implication: a Grand Duke would be above a regular Duke, a Baronet below a Baron. The female styles in English are mostly related, eg Duke/Duchess, Baron/Baroness, though Earl’s wives were still called Countess (probably because Earless sounds like something that happened to Van Gogh.)
It’s important to realise that Kings were not the only type of sovereign–that is, a ruler with no one above them. There were and still are some sovereign duchies, in which the Duke is the top of the line. Nor did calling yourself a ‘King’ mean you were necessarily in charge of a particularly large area. Before the 10th century, 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 history. The Iliad 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 ‘Shah-an-shahs’. All these constructions imply that there were a large number of petty kings controlled by a sort of Over-King. ‘Prince’ was not always a word for a 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’: a general mishmash
of men with claim to some territory, whether they specifically styled themselves Duke, Emir, Shah, or what have you. For an exhaustive list of examples to create your fantasy hierarchy from, Wikipedia has an excellent page on royal and noble ranks.
Part Three: Specific Forms of Address
The rules vary by time period and country, but in general, a top-of-the-line ruler such as a king or queen is addressed as 'your Majesty' or 'your Grace', and the King may be called 'sire.' An Emperor or equivalent--a King of Kings--would be 'your Imperial Majesty', to specify that they have conquered other smaller kings. A Prince or Princess is 'your Highness,' Everything below that is 'your Lordship or Ladyship.' ‘Your Excellency’ came much later, and was used for a chancellor or prime minister.
Moving on to the Muslim world, the Arabic word 'Emir' (literally 'commander') refers very broadly to all princes, both sovereign rulers and their sons. One addresses an Emir as 'Sayyidi-al-Emir'. 'Sultan', meaning 'power' or 'authority’, is largely interchangeable with ‘Emir’. Both have political authority but do not have religious authority: that's the 'Caliph' or 'Khalifa', the successor to the Prophet. Who exactly that successor should be, and whether he holds more power than local Emirs and Sultans, has been a big argument historically. Using these words with nuance can be a great way to show entwined religious and political struggles in a fantasy novel. One addresses Caliphs as 'Emir al-Mu'mineen' ('Commander of the Faithful.')
It’s common to refer to someone by the name of the land they own, because if you pick a fight with that man, you’ve picked a fight with his whole country.
'Shah' is a uniquely Persian term for a king, and also used in Persian-adjacent cultures like the Ottomans, Mughals, and Bengals. An Emperor or over-king in a Persianate culture might be called Shah-an-shah, literally meaning 'king of kings' or Padi-shah, meaning 'master king'. 'Shah-banu' or 'lady king' is a term for the Queen Consort or Empress Consort. 'Bahnbishin', a more general term for 'queen', denotes sisters, daughters, and lesser wives of the Shah, and a miscellaneous noblewoman can be called 'Khonum', or 'Lady'. The ending ‘-zadeh” means '-descended from' and Shah-zadeh would be the term for the king’s children.
Abd ar-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba
After the 7th century Arabic conquest of Iran, lesser princes also came to be called by the Arabic word 'Emir', but the titles are not from the same language family and can be kept apart in your fantasy world unless you purposely want to show a religious culture conquering and intermixing with a more secular one. 'Shah' is not a religious term, although from the Safavi dynasty onwards it was used by Muslim rulers. For the observant readers noticing that one of the creators has the surname ‘Safavi’, yes, it’s an imperial name, and her father was styled 'Mirza'. Mirza is a combination of the Arabic term ‘Emir’ and the Persianate suffix ‘-zadeh’, implying male-line descent from the imperial families of Persia.
Jumping back to European conventions, it’s common to refer to someone by the name of the land they own, because if you pick a fight with that man, you’ve picked a fight with his whole country. To use an historical example from our forthcoming costume drama ‘Berserker Queen’: Gilbert, Duc de Lorraine, can be referred to simply as ‘Lorraine’; If you pick a fight with Gilbert--say, by hurting his daughter--he can defend her using the state military of Lorraine. He can also be called ‘my Lord of Lorraine,’ and most people, even his relatives, will refer to him as some version of that in public. His daughter might say ‘my Father of Lorraine will not tolerate that behaviour’; or his brother, the Comté de Hainaut, might say ‘I stand with my Brother of Lorraine.’ He would only be addressed by his personal name in private, by people he specifically invited to do so.
‘Sir’ denotes knighthood. It’s a job qualification. Most knights are not Lords, because being knighted does not automatically put you in charge of a large swath of land, just as getting your doctorate does not automatically make you the governor of a state.
The prefix ‘Sir’ denotes knighthood. It’s a job qualification and goes with a man’s first name. Being a knight means you get to be called Sir, just as finishing a doctorate means you get to be called Dr. Most knights are not Lords, because being knighted does not automatically put you in charge of a large swath of land, just as getting your PhD does not automatically make you the governor of a state. Sirs are much more common than Lords–by the 10th century, every heavily armed cavalryman was considered a knight and could be called Sir. Even if the Lord of a given land was a qualified fighter–which they all were up to Richard III, the last English king to die in combat–it would be a rude understatement to address a Lord by merely his knighthood. It was much more important to mention that he was in charge. Lord of [wherever] is for the big boss; Sir [so-and-so] is for all his muscle.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in "The Hollow Crown"
Master, Mistress, Goodman, and Goodwife are a last-resort polite form of address if someone is landless and not a knight, such as a younger son of petty gentry or a tradesman. In general, use the most flattering or important title available, unless the character is purposely being familiar or rude.
Section Four: Examples
The following are fictional names based on real-world titles, consistent with all the rules above.
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)
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Lord Anything (he’s not.)
● Sir Chambrer (as he personally is the knight, not his entire family.)
William ‘Shortpate’ Huntley, 1st Earl of Greenford, knight of the realm, could be addressed as:
● Lord Greenford (since he is the cartel boss of the territory of Greenford)
● Greenford (with no preamble)
● Sir William (but it's a bit familiar to use his personal name, as it implies that his person is more relevant to you than his status as an Earl. It might be used by a friend or a woman flirting with him. If someone has a rank or title, use of their first name or pet
name alone is extremely personal, you must be invited to use it, and you only
use it in private. No one, regardless of comparable rank, addresses someone by a pet
name uninvited, unless they are purposely being rude or overly familiar.)
● Master Huntley (but again, this is insulting.)
● William Shortpate (History has a surfeit of Williams, and epithets are nicknames used to tell them apart. The same applies for Henrys, Johns, Richards, and so on. Some are
aggrandizing, ie the Great or the Fearless, and some are insulting, ie the Fat, the Bald, or
or the Stammerer. With a potentially insulting one like Shortpate, it would be a clear
character choice whether someone used this nickname to his face or only behind his back.)
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Sir Huntley (He personally, is the knight, not his entire family)
● Sir Greenford (His property is not a knight.)
● Lord Huntly (Owner… of his family? Awfully grand preamble for a very small range of control.)
● Lord William (Owner of himself?)
History has a surfeit of Williams, and epithets are nicknames used to tell them apart.
Robert Caenid, 2nd Earl of Nor’watch, knight of the realm, and Lord Treasurer, could be addressed as:
● Lord Nor’watch
● My Lord Treasurer
● Sir Robert (which is accurate but very personal)
● Master Caenid (which is accurate but insulting)
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Lord Robert (owner of himself)
● Master Robert (master of himself)
● Sir Treasurer (which implies the office of treasurer can fight on horseback.)
Stephen Fitz Wheelwright, Captain of the guard, a common infantryman who is not a knight, could be addressed as:
● Captain Stephen
● the wheelwright’s boy (‘Fitz’ means ‘son of’ and wheelwright is a profession, such as baker or miller. This would have been his form of address as a child, though it’s insulting to use now that he’s an officer. )
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Sir Stephen (he is not a qualified heavy cavalry fighter)
● Master Wheelwright (that’s his father)
In a Muslim-inspired world, Ahmad ibn Rahsin al-Nazir, Khalif of Quo’roba, Defender of God’s Faith and Prince of all the Western Realms, could be addressed as:
● Emir al-Mu’mineen (This would be the most respectful, as his position implies that he
prioritises his religious role.)
● Sayyidi-al-Emir (This is correct, but lesser and potentially insulting.)
● Lord of Quo’roba
● Ahmad al-Nazir (al-Nazir means ‘the Victorious’. Arabic is just as full of epithets used to tell rulers apart, however, unlike in English and French, they are not commonly insulting.)
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Lord Rahsin (‘ibn means ‘son of’ and Rahsin is his father’s first name. This construction implies he’s the owner of his dead father.)
● Khalif Rahsin (Despite technically being the successor of his father, the term is religious and refers to the line of the Prophet.)
● Khalifat Ahmad ibn Rahsin (This common mistake is particularly absurd. Khalifat or Caliphate is the territory held by a Khalif or Caliph, the same way a Kingdom is held by a King. This is like saying ‘Kingdom Louis the Sixth of France’.)
Arabic is just as full of epithets used to tell rulers apart, however, unlike in English and French, they are not commonly insulting.
Soltan Esmael Mirza Ashfari, oldest son of Artaxerxes Shah-an-shah Ashfari the Magnificent and heir apparent to the Four Corners Of The Universe, can be addressed as:
● Esmael Mirza (‘Mirza’ as the honorific for a prince goes after the given name in
● Soltan Esmael Mirza (‘Soltan’ in the Persian case means ‘captain’ or ‘governor’, a job title like Sir. One would still mention that this particular captain is also a hereditary prince.)
● Prince Esmael
He would NOT be addressed as:
● Soltan Ashfari (the suffix -i or -avi is dynastic, so ‘Ashfari’ means ‘of the dynasty of Ashfar’. ‘Governor of the Ashfar dynasty’ is redundant; every male in a dynastic family governed something.)
● Prince Mirza (Prince-Prince! Like ATM machine and rice paddy)
● Prince Soltan (Prince-Captain!)
Regarding female titles, 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 the widow to differentiate.
Eliza Caenid, widow of the former Earl of Nor’watch, mother of Robert, the current Earl of Nor’watch, could be addressed as:
● My Lady Countess
● the Dowager Countess Nor’watch
She would NOT be addressed as:
● Lady Nor’watch (that’s her daughter-in-law.)
A lady retains her title after being widowed as a courtesy, with the word “dowager” attached.
Leila Ashfari, second wife of Artaxerxes Shah-an-shah, could be addressed as:
● Leila Banbishin (Banbishin is the term for a lesser queen, not the empress or queen consort.)
● Leila Khonum (Khonum is the generic respectful term for ‘Lady’, still used in modern Farsi as ‘ma’am.’)
● Lady Leila
She would NOT be addressed as:
● Leila Shah-banu (which is reserved for the first wife or queen consort.)
● Lady Ashfari (she’s married into the dynasty, and she is certainly not the only one who ever has been.)
The biggest thing to remember when designing your own system is that it’s all about the land. Feudal lords are like mob bosses; when too many 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’.
The biggest thing to remember is that it’s all about the land.
This is only the briefest of overviews, of course, but hopefully it gives you some keywords to plug into Google. More specific resources:
‘A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire’ by Sir Bernard Burke is thorough but very antique.
‘Dictionnaire de la Noblesse de la France’ is in French and equally antique, but also thorough and available free online.
The ‘Shahnameh’ by Ferdowsi is the national epic of Iran and the original source text for everything on this topic,
but ‘The Persian Empire’ by Mehrdad Kia PhD is a modern encyclopaedia and not written in poetry.
‘Arabs: a 3000 years history of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires’ by Tim Mackintosh-Smith is modern and more readable.
‘God’s Shadow’ by Alan Mikhail is specifically Ottoman.
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The content of this article was originally gathered for Fact in Fantasy (Penguin 2022). Special thanks to Dr Rachel Schine for verifying the correct usage of Arabic titles.
Thank you for reading and good luck with your worldbuilding!