Feudalism is a social system whereby one party promises to support another in exchange for that other’s protection. Feudalism is pervasive throughout Nova, and is the practical essence of the estate system.
The Feudal Vow
A feudal vow always takes the form of a specific promise of support (for instance, a specified amount of rent) in exchange for a generalized promise of defense. The person who makes the promise of support is variously referred to as the vassal or client, while the person who makes the promise of defense is referred to as the overlord (not to be confused with a lord).
While a vassal’s vow must be specific, it may be quite extensive. For instance, the vows the lords of lesser Houses swear to their overlord in their affiliated greater House may run for pages, describing the vassal’s legal, economic, social, religious, and military obligations. For reasons of practicality, the most extensive or burdensome vows are sworn only by powerful vassals. While feudalism is used as a means to oppress vassals, Novans look down on vassals who are compelled to swear fealty or overlords who ask for vows that their vassals clearly cannot fulfill. Such vows may even be annulled by an Ecclesiarchical court.
Similarly, the extent of an overlord’s vow of defense depends upon his or her power. Overlords are expected to exert themselves in defense of their vassals, but Novan feudalism recognizes that any overlord’s ability to defend his or her vassals has limits. For instance, one way in which a noble lord is supposed to defend his vassals is by appointing chancellors empowered to do justice when the lord’s formal laws will not. An overlord who is a knight of the scout estate has no right to exercise the power of chancery, and so is not expected to appoint chancellors. However, such an overlord might have the obligation to speak for one of his vassals before a chancellor.
Feudalism’s original purpose was to provide a defense against orks. Vassals had a need to be assured that they would not be abandoned to marauders, while military leaders had a need to ensure they could field a large enough force to defeat an ork incursion. Vassals thus swore to serve in their overlords’ armies, and the overlords vowed not to leave their vassals in the lurch. The lord of each great House stood at the top of a vast pyramid of feudal vows that could be used to muster great armies to resist the greatest ork invasions, while lesser invasions could be opposed by lesser overlords who could summon their vassals more quickly.
This military function of the feudal vow persists into the present day as the principal means by which humans raise armies to fight any foe, human or ork. However, feudalism means much more in Novan life than mere military service. Because feudal vows scale with the resources of the vassal and overlord, they are a pervasive feature of Novan life. Merchants use feudal vows to form franchises, families make feudal vows to support their children’s prospects for marriage or in other social situations, and young lovers even sometimes make feudal vows to memorialize their love. While serfs cannot serve as overlords, many scouts serve as “proxy overlords” for a consideration. A few scouts even make their living exclusively in this manner.
Feudal vows do not automatically transfer to an overlord’s overlord. For instance, a vassal who swears to pay his overlord a certain amount of wheat as rent has no obligation to pay extra simply because his overlord has sworn to pay his overlord a certain amount of wheat. However, vassals do sometimes swear to help their overlord meet certain specified vows their overlord may have sworn to somebody else.
Return to the main page