Sunday, November 7, 2010

Historical Resources - Fief: A Look at Medieval Society from Its Lower Rungs

Fief: A Look at Medieval Society from Its Lower Rungs by Lisa J. Steele provides an excellent overview of historical Norman manorial society in the Middle Ages. The material covers England and northern France, and mentions Norman Sicily as well, from roughly the 10th to 14th centuries. The author touches upon nearly every subject from defining the Three Orders to agriculture and architecture through governance, society, the parish, and even warfare.

Where Ms. Steele hits her material with appreciable breadth, she doesn't penetrate too deeply into any one subject. The introduction states the book is a "primer on medieval life for fantasy gamers, SCA enthusiasts, and others interested in knowing what made society tick in the days of crusading knights and the Black Plague." That accurately describes the content of the book. For those who have never shown an interest in looking at the actual historical framework that D&D assumes, this is an amazing introduction to the material. For those looking for deep analysis, usable figures, and concrete game material, this book would require further research and work.

For example, there are price lists for common items, fines and fees for transgressions of manorial laws, and even upkeep fees for knights attending tournaments. However, the numbers are mostly presented as is, without explanation as to why prices can widely vary (up to a factor of 10) between certain years. It is certainly good fodder to work with, but nothing that can be used as is.

Personally, the material provides good reinforcement for what I already know. The time period and location depicted are outside of the scope of my Early Modern Period campaign. Yet, manorialism was still strong in the Holy Roman Empire at the time my campaign is set. So the material is still pertinent.


  1. To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed. Steele's work reads like the worst sort of historical trash, with the glossary mixed from multiple languages, when each language had in fact their own specific word. Her stats are necessarily vague, and necessarily arise from a variety of dates which likely have nothing to do with one another, given that they come randomly from periods before and after the Black Plague, wars, and once again vastly different cultures (Apennine Italy has data posted side by side with Midlands England, over and over again).

    A more damning criticism would be that a player would do better to return to Steele's sources, for there are thousands of books written by legitimate historiographers who only lack the D&D cachet that Steele only vaguely applies to her material. I would definitely recommend not investigating this work, but rather more in depth materials written to more severe standards.

    Finally, let me add that in this day and age, a methodical application of Steele's index (or any index, from any book) will be more fruitful if applied to the Internet, where vast materials exist on every subject attempted in Steele's work. Fief was originally published in 1996 and has definitely been made redundant by the considerable work that has been made publically available, for free.

  2. I think the only thing that saves any semblance of rigor in her work is the fact that she at least states her aim is towards enthusiasts and gamers. If she tried to pass this off as something actually scholarly, I would shit all over it like you do. It wouldn't even pass peer review.

    But overall, I agree. If I were reviewing it from a professional perspective, your analysis is spot on. For the majority of gamers who are as woefully ignorant of history as the average Yankee, it seems like this low level summation of history would be a decent introduction point. So long as said theoretical gamer went further in their research from this point.

  3. I agree, and thank you for taking my comments in the spirit they were intended. I'd like to add that a better introduction would be looking up "feudalism" on wikipedia and following every link.