Peasant Classes in the Flanaess
Date: Wed, February 16, 2005
Topic: Peoples & Culture

You've seen them out in the fields as your character rides by. They are spat upon by nobles. Ridden down by cavalry. Ravaged by humanoids. Dull. Ignorant. Superstitious. Often drunk. Given to uprisings and quick resort to torches and pitchforks if a spell does more than make some dancing lights appear. They are peasants! And its high time you got to know them. They are everywhere but are pretty easy to ignore. How is one sort different from another and what difference does that make? Find out! Just don't call them serfs!

Peasant Classes in the Flanaess
By: Glenn Vincent Dammerung, aka GVDammerung
Used with Permission. Do not repost without obtaining prior permission from the author, as this article is copyrighted (2005).

The World of Greyhawk, specifically the Flanaess, presupposes a quasi or pseudo medieval setting. At least three factors demand the qualifier. First, as depicted, there are many elements of the Flanaess that are not medieval; while perhaps most elements are susceptible to being identified as medieval, enough are not that one must speak of a quasi-medieval or pseudo-medieval setting. Second, there is an advanced, internationalized money economy that regularly calculates commodity and item prices in gold and silver pieces and sees easy exchanges; the rise of such an economy, of course, helped usher out the actual medieval period, breaking down classic medieval institutions. Third, any consideration of the setting must note the metagame requirement that the societies depicted allow for the regular existence of “adventurers,” and an attendant freedom of social movement – the ready possibility of a “nobodies” rise to prominence – that is quite at odds with a “classic” medieval model, where a lack of equivalent social mobility was much more the norm. (Reference to demi-human and humanoid populations and societies is intentionally excluded but not discounted.)

Within, then, the pseudo-medieval setting of the Flanaess, it is possible to identify a number of social stratifications or classes. The simplest stratification is identifiable in terms of basic personal freedoms. In descending order of such freedoms, there is the nobility or ruling class, a middle or merchant class (that, as described, approaches Renaissance levels of sophistication), a peasant class and a slave class. Standing somewhat outside this hierarchy are the clergy, monks (as defined in the game), mages (a wholly fictional class), thieves (distinct from mere criminals in their high levels of sophistication, prominence, successes and even quasi-acceptance) and, of course, “adventurers” (who bear some resemblance to mercenaries but are also substantially distinct from both mercenaries and the “adventurers’” basic or base classes, which might otherwise fall within one of the above categories).

Looking just to be basic hierarchy identified, it is possible to oversimplify and say that these social classes exist within a feudal framework, supported by a manorial economic system. This is an oversimplification because the Flanaess has so great a number of variations, or outright differences, from classic feudalism and manorialism that the exceptions all but swallow the rule. Still, these are useful terms, if for no other reason than that they appear “natural” to the pseudo-medieval model.

The Peasant Class

Given this preamble, how then can one best understand the largest population group, which may be recognized as the peasant class? While reference will be made to actual historic periods, it is understood that the World of Greyhawk is in no way bound to actual history; the World of Greyhawk is not historically accurate in its essence or in the application of “real world” models to the setting. It is not purely a simulation of real world history or models.

The peasant class may be first divided into a free peasantry and a servile peasantry.

Free peasants are inherently tied to neither the land nor a landholder. While of the generalized peasant class, they retain substantial freedoms under the law, unfettered by the duties and obligations attendant upon the servile peasantry. Socmen, yeoman, churls (ceorls) and franklins are classically free peasants.

Servile peasants are often identified as either “peasants,” without consideration of freemen who yet remain in the peasant class, or “serfs,” without consideration of the subdivisions present within the servile peasantry. Both usages, however common, are necessarily generalizations and inaccurate if used too broadly. Indeed, such is the case with the title of this article, which should more accurately speak of Servile Peasant Classes within the Flanaess. Shorthand references are convenient but sacrifice some accuracy for ease of usage and quick understanding.

Servile peasants, most commonly called villeins (even though that term has its specific origin in England), are either regardant or in gross.

Villeins regardant are tied to the land to such an extent that they pass with title to the land, much like a fixture or improvement – a barn, a pond etc. Villeins regardant may not be “sold” as persons; they are only “sold” if the land they are tied to or attached to is sold. They go with the land.

Villeins regardant also have specific rights that the landowner cannot abridge without violating the law. Villeins regardant are not chattel or slaves (or, as shall be seen, “serfs”). The rights of a villein regardant are dependent upon their further sub-categorization as cottars, bordars or villeins proper (these are common terms but there are any number of synonyms, as well as variations on the theme). Cottars possess no land much other than their cottage; they have no specific fields (rows) to possess and have the greatest duties and obligations as well as the fewest rights. Bordars possess a cottage and some small amount of acreage in fields (rows); their obligations and duties are less than those of the cottar, while their rights are greater. Villeins proper possess the greatest extent of fields (rows), enough to subsist and to produce an excess; they have the greatest rights and the least obligations and duties. Exact measurements of possessed fields (rows) will vary, country by country and according to land type (hills vs woodland vs plains etc.). The enumeration of peasant obligations and duties is extensive enough to be beyond the scope of this introductory article.

Villeins in gross are not tied or attached to the land; they are separate from the land. The land may be alienated or sold and the villeins in gross do not inherently pass with the land to its new owner. Villeins in gross are said to be tied or attached to the landowner. The landowner may sell villeins in gross, apart from any consideration of the land, much as a slave would be sold. The landowner may determine the marriages of villeins in gross; the landowner may, then, “breed” villeins in gross, much as a slave master might. Villeins in gross are not, however, the equivalent of slaves. While considered all but chattels or property that may be freely sold or alienated, villeins in gross have rights, albeit few with most amounting to physical protections that might be analogized to property laws preventing waste of land or resources.

Serfdom refers to the institutionalization of villeins in gross. Serfs are most accurately understood to be villeins in gross. In the “real world,” this sort of serfdom reached its greatest expression in Czarist Russia, where a formerly free peasantry was by stages transformed into serfs and a system of serfdom established. The serfs of Czarist Russia were virtually slaves, unlike “serfs” in Western Europe, who are more accurately villeins regardant.

The advent of an advanced monetized economy and the Black Plague having created something of a labor shortage in Western Europe, villeins regardant and in gross achieved greater rights until the peasantry was substantially freer, if not yet fully free. Only in Russia, which might be described as being legitimately “backward,” did the more draconian system long survive.

What then of the Flanaess? References to specific social classes are general. Descriptions of particular societies are vague on the point of social class. The extent of the generalizations and vagaries are such that no DM is forced to conclude that the peasantry was necessarily of one sort or another. Neither may any DM dictate to another that a particular peasantry was this way or that. This is likely best for individual visions of the setting will vary and no one is presently forced to admit of one model or another, or quite the setting entirely for its dreary universal serfdom or its merry peasants, free of care.

What follows then are surmises, and preferences, based upon perceived cultural norms, and societal developments.

The Flan Peasantry

The Flan were of two sorts - the northern Flan and the southern Flan.

Peasants as an expression of feudalism/manorialism never existed in northern Flan society, which was clannish and tribal. While there were lower classes, they were not peasants. By a modern accounting of the Flanaess, the lower Flan classes were free men.

The southern Flan created Sulm and its neighbor states as kingdoms and empires, wholly unlike the development of the northern Flan. The southern Flan also had no peasant class and avoided feudalism entirely. Their empires and kingdoms were slaveholding states with advanced, centralized administrative systems. They were neither clannish nor tribal in their governance. Rather than speak of the lower classes as free men, one can legitimately apply the term “citizen” in its broader meaning.

The southern Flan super-states had, of course, all but disappeared prior to the Migrations. The northern Flan that greeted the migrating Suel, Oeridians and Baklunish, were all but wiped out for their trouble. Surviving Flan enclaves frequently adopted alien social models to better “fit-in” and survive. Today, only the Rovers of the Barrens and the Highland Flan of the Rakers preserve anything of the original northern Flan culture. Southern Flan culture is no more.

The Suel Peasantry

Much like the southern Flan, the ancient Suel never knew true feudalism or a dedicated agricultural peasantry. Their’s was a slave holding state that accounted its non-slave native population as “citizens.” The feudalism now seen in Keoland and other Suel dominated areas is a specific reaction to post-Migration conditions that have been encountered. As no surprise, Suel feudalism is substantially variant from purely classic models. It is highly adaptive.

Within modern, feudal Suel cultures, there are no serfs. Lower classes are either some sort of (often empowered) villein regardant, conceived of as a lesser sort of “citizen,” or they are slaves. True serfdom appears illogical to Suel sensibilities. You are either a citizen or a slave. The adoption of a feudal-type system has been problematic and is in no way now ingrained, except so long as it appears practical. Rather, feudalism sits uneasily as a veneer over a Suel impulse to either be free or to enslave. This tension is often palpable. Given Suel racist proclivities, one may hope that “freedom” is not too narrowly delimited when this tension boils over.

The Baklunish Peasantry

The Baklunish, much as the Suel, never knew true feudalism and peasantry. Rather, their society was sharply militaristic, looking to military hierarchies and structures, even while it was not an armed camp of Spartans. In their militarism, the Baklunish produced models very similar in surface detail to feudal icons like knights and nobles. That is where the similarities end, however.

Leavening the militarism, a pronounced Baklunish religiosity, accepting of slavery, also espoused the divine nature of man and an inherent freedom, so long as that divinity was properly recognized and dignified by proper adherence to religious precepts.

The result was a lower class best thought of as possessed of agricultural skills but not military ones. The distinction is in quasi-military terms of those of the sword and those of the plow, to say nothing of other classes present in Baklunish society.

There is also a sharp distinction between urban and nomadic groups in modern Baklunish society. What Easterners would see as a rural or peasant class, the Baklunish see as part of the urban class. This is the result of limited productive agricultural land that is most often found, along with urban concentrations, along water channels. Rural groups in Baklunish society are nomadic herders, not agriculturalists.

As a consequence, there are no Baklunish peasants as Easterners understand the term.

The Oeridian Peasantry

It is from Oeridian roots, that feudalism principally developed in the Flanaess. Prior to the Migrations, the Oeridians were in large measure settled in clan and tribal groups. Within these groups, the chief ordering force, beyond the family and tribal or clan head, was the relationship between a patron and a client. While similar to the Roman model, the Oeridian patron functioned much more as a mentor and the client as a student. When the mentor/student relationship ended with the advancement or development of the student, there remained a connection of patron and client, but on a much more equivalent footing than the Roman model.

In the crucible of the Migrations, survival favored those with the best support systems of allies. The patron/client relationship evolved from a temporary relationship to a permanent one, without the client ever being able to claim any equivalency, accept in theory. That theory became the origin of feudal obligations through which the client achieved a parity of sorts in the social contract. Experience with the migrating Suel catalyzed this impulse, giving to the patron/client relationship much more of a master/servant character. Regional variations were, however, numerous.

In the North Province of the Great Kingdom, serfdom early developed and has remained a strong tradition. This is partly due to the personality of the early rulers but is also a reaction to an environment wherein humanoid and barbarian raids pushed local rulers to extremes of governance.

In the South Province, a pronounced Suel influence of a more civilized sort than that of the far northeast introduced slavery as an equal option with servile peasantry. Serfdom never developed as it did in the North Province as that role was largely filled by the slave class. The remaining servile peasantry consisted of villein regardants.

Until the line of Overkings became clearly disconnected from the populace, and in many cases unhinged, the vast middle of old Aerdi was a crazy quilt of feudal models. Among the nobility there was a certain democracy with respect to how they managed their fiefdoms. With the increasing centralization of power, and madness, of the Overkings, the worst excesses of serfdom and slavery became the norm, catalyzed by the growing power of the Church of Hextor. When Nyrond broke from the Great Kingdom, there was a social subtext to the purely political maneuvering.

A newly independent Nyrond freed the serfs in that land, although without great fanfare, merely amending existing laws to grant what amounted to villein regardant status to the peasantry. In some sense, there was altruism to these enactments. Practicality, however, played a far greater role. By freeing the serfs from their horrid status, Nyrond popularized the political struggle with the Great Kingdom. The practical consequence was a populace much more ready and willing to support insurrection. The more psychological effect was to pass a point of no return, where reunion with the Great Kingdom would be unthinkable, even practically impossible. Nyrond was to be demonstrably different. Their fight was more than political; it also moral. In the face of the armies of the Great Kingdom, Nyrond needed to see herself as winning and as deserving to win. Nyrond’s ultimate victory was not simply military; it was psychological.

Of all the territories of Old Aerdi, Furyondy and Veluna most deviated from the eastern lands. The Vice-Royalty of Ferrond was sparsely populated to begin with. The benign influence of the resident demi-humans was most keenly felt, while at the same time the evil of the humanoids stood starkly contrasted. And the Flan were more easily absorbed than practically anywhere else, exerting a notable religious influence, most strongly in Veluna. The consequence of these factors coming together was a feudalism that never experienced serfdom, but rather developed villein regardantcy to its highest expression. The success of this more benign feudalism is evident in Furyondy and Veluna’s history. These countries are successful and resilient like no others.

The Rise of the Peasantry

The distinctions between one sort of peasant and another are gradually disappearing, leaving peasants as such, quasi-free citizens. Not serfs. The factors contributing to this are chiefly the ever-increasing mercantile development of the Flanaess, spurred by a mania for roads and the goods that may be exchanged along those roads, and the examples of free individuals and peoples. Of the former, the “adventurer” is now a staple of the popular conception of the Flanaess, fabled in bards’ tales heard in every inn and tavern, and an example that human beings may fulfill their potential outside feudal models. Of the later, Greyhawk stands as a beacon to the entire Flanaess as a free city of free men. Dyvers, Rel Astra, Irongate and other cities are lesser lights but reflect something of Greyhawk’s light in their corners of the Flanaess. It is not now unthinkable to understand the peasants of the Flanaess as a rising class, gaining greater freedoms and assertiveness.

While there are dark corners of ignorance in the land where plots are hatched to press down upon the shoulders of the Flanaess a yoke of wretched serfdom, such has never truly existed in any prominence and, by the day, becomes more improbable. Feudalism itself is becoming a means of social ornamentation as much as an engine of government. Its day has not yet passed but feudalism shall give ground to other models and may best survive in royal and noble titles appended to widely divergent systems of government. Change is inevitable. Progress, social or otherwise, is inevitable. It is innately human and so long as humanity dominates the Flanaess, change and progress cannot be denied or stifled. But it may take hundreds of years for all that.

Author’s Note – This article arose out of a discussion in a Greychat, principally between myself, Samwise and Kirt, wherein we worried the word “serf,” until finally “agreeing” that the gradations of the medieval peasantry were sufficiently numerous to allow for some flexibility in usage, as opposed to a strict literalism. While I thank them for their input and inspiration, and a very interesting chat, the foregoing is my particular take on the matter. Doubtless, both worthies would express themselves after their own fashion, coming to their own take on matters.

This article comes from Canonfire!

The URL for this story is: