It’s Hard Out Here for a Knight, Pt. 1

When he's tryin' to get his money for the rent...

When he's tryin' to get his money for the rent...

Ryk Perry digs into the economic realities of life as a knight in Medieval Europe, and what it means for your newly landed PC. It ain’t all ale and princesses, that’s for sure.

Baron Harkenwald had always respected your father’s prowess and loyalty as his vassal. In your father’s waning years, as a favor to him (and in no small part to your own prowess) the Baron agreed to allow you to inherit your father’s estate. In the days after your father’s death, the Baron summoned you to his holdings for your formal investiture. After a day of fasting and a night long vigil you were escorted by Sir Eglemore to the hall where the Baron waited. Harkenwald instructed you to kneel before him and repeat your oath: “I will to my lord be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns.” As you finished the final words he struck you across the face to ensure that your oath was remembered with pain.

After the feasting and celebrations, he rode out with you to your lands, circling about the bounds and metes of your estate and surveying the plowed fields, pastures and wastes. You then returned to the manor where many of the peasants had gathered along with the members of your father’s household. There the Baron presented you with a clod of earth that he scooped from the ground and declared “by this livery of seisen you are seised of this land to hold and defend in my name as you see fit.” And with that statement you were a landholder in your own right with the powers of law and war over your own small demense, so long as you upheld your lord’s will.

Have you ever wondered how much land a knight would be expected to hold? How much that land would generate in revenue? In D&D the knight used to be one of the prototypical warriors, so much so that the first two editions contemplated fighters becoming lords of their own domains with their own retinues that showed up right about name level (how many of you remember what that means?).

The recent editions have stepped away from the concept of players having their own strongholds and small armies but they can still be a solid part of heroic fantasy or grittier, more historically based campaigns. Obviously D&D is not a game of medieval agrarian simulation and the information presented is not intended to be used so. However details of a specific fief could be used as general background information for a character or NPC or as window dressing for the next adventure you write.

Assumptions:

Translating crop yields and prices into terms for D&D is not the simplest conversion to make, particularly because D&D uses a gold piece standard for its economy which is not designed to be historically accurate (not even a teeny bit). Western Europe on the other hand (particularly before the discovery of the new world) tended to use a silver standard for its economy. In addition, D&D’s focus on weapons and equipment for adventurers (particularly in 4e) makes it somewhat more difficult to get reliable prices for the agricultural products that would form the basis of the income from the knight’s manor. So the incomes presented here are based on some of the following assumptions:

  • Your campaign is generally based on a Western European theme
  • The local society has adopted the three field system of crop rotation
  • Wheat is sold at 1 cp/lb (as presented in 3e PHB) and 2 cp/lb for flour
  • Most prices are based on 3e values, or if not available, Aurora’s Catalog (2e) prices
  • 1 GP tends to translate roughly to 1/3 of an English shilling (at approximately 1100 AD)
  • This initial calculation is based on 8 hides of land (approximately 960 acres – 4 square miles for mapping), which is the low end to sustain a (poor) knight. 12 hides would be for a knight of average wealth and 16 hides would be for and affluent knight.

The Basics:

The knight has a fief of 8 hides (960 acres or 4 square miles) that is worked by about 135 peasants comprising about 30 households. The knight himself has a household of 4-6 people who perform basic tasks around the manor and maintain the knight’s estate in his absence. This manor consists of a basic hall made of timber, likely with a thatched roof and possibly a single room for the lord’s sleeping quarters at the back of the hall. The lord’s retainers sleep in the hall itself. Other outbuildings house the servants as well as the lord’s personal livestock (most of the livestock on the manor).

This fief is considered to be about the minimum that could sustain a knight and the owner would be amongst the poorest of the gentry (other knights don’t really care about your net worth, just how much land you own – which is a rough estimation of wealth). A knight with 16 hides would be rather wealthy for an individual knight. More property means the knight would have the ability to grant a fief to a vassal knight, making the liege knight a bannerette (a knight who can summon other knights to fight under his own banner).

The fief is the most common form of land holding in a feudal system (at least for gentry). It is a grant from a higher lord to his vassal of the rights and revenues of a piece of land in return for military service as well as “aid and counsel.” Traditionally this meant that a knight had to serve 40-60 days on campaign per year for his lord. The knight might also be required to serve up to 3 months in garrison duty at one of his lord’s castles. When designing a PC’s fief, it is important to keep in mind that the concept here was essentially ‘freedom of contract.’ There could be (and frequently was) wide variation in the duties that were owed on from a particular patch of land.

Another type of land holding was called an alod. This was a freely held piece of land, where the knight (or other land holder) had no duty to a higher lord, though he was still subject to the general laws of the realm. Whichever type of holding a person had, the revenues would have been substantially the same.

On an average year, the knight’s fief (of 8 hides) brings in 200 gp in summer, and 240 gp in early winter from the sale of the knight’s portion of the harvests. The estate would also generate about 10 gp every month from the sale of meat, cheeses and other dairy, wool etc. That is a total income of about 560 gp per year. Show me the money!

But Wait! A knight would have considerable expenses too. A knight who didn’t want to answer his lord’s call to arms would have to pay scutage of 45 gp per month (the cost to hire a knight for a like period) or be an oath breaker and outlaw. For the adventuring knight, who doesn’t stay at home to mind the store so to speak, a steward would have to be hired to manage the estate to the tune of about 30 gp per month. The rest of the household would cost about an additional 9 gp per month.

So the knight would have to expend 60 gp for scutage (40 days at 15 gp/month) 360 gp for the steward’s salary and 108 gp for the rest of the household, totaling 528 gp/year. Of course, this all assumes that the knight’s steward is honest, dragons aren’t eating oxen, etc.

So the adventuring knight really has about 32 gp per year as his own income, not including the cost of buying new equipment and horses etc. While a knight would obviously get free room and board on his own estate, he would have to pay out of pocket for food and lodging while out adventuring (for himself and his squire). Obviously 8 hides does not translate into a particularly wealthy individual, perhaps the reason the knight took up adventuring in the first place.

What’s on the Manor:

Land:

8 Hides (960 Acres – approx. 4 sq. miles)

192 acres for grazing/woods/wasteland

256 acres fallow

256 acres for fall planting (wheat, barley and rye)

256 acres for spring planting (oats, barley and peas)

Livestock:

32 Oxen (to plow, 4/hide)

8 Cattle (dairy, meat and replenishment of the oxen, 1-2/hide)

32 Goats (dairy and meat, 4/ hide)

32 Pigs (lots of meat, 4/hide)

64 Sheep (meat and wool, 8/hide)

0 Horses (the knight has to buy what he needs, but the estate can maintain 2/hide)

320 Chickens (eggs and meat, 40/hide)

People:

Peasants

135 peasants (approximately 30 families)

Household

1 Steward

1 Huntsman

1 Cook

1 Groom

Wife and children

This list is a generalization about what could be found on an average 8 hide fief. Obviously there could be other retainers, more detailed discussions of industry etc. but that is a discussion for another day.

Next week, Part 2 will feature some adventure and campaign ideas for incorporating a realistic fief into a fantasy RPG, along with some knight-specific 4e feats and powers.

6 Responses to It’s Hard Out Here for a Knight, Pt. 1

  1. Although the math, and conversions, and all the like are almost completely lost on me, reading this kinda made me want to try a D&D campaign more grounded in realism. Maybe not to this degree (Math hurt head), but playing D&D where there’s no magic, or fantasy creatures, and one could own land in this manner, and be forced to protect it. Same mechanics, but done based in a real world setting. It could even still be called D&D, but it would probably stand for, “Dungeons and Destriers,” or something.

  2. Everybody, thanks for the kudos!

    Eric, I agree you could definitely run a real world roleplaying game if you wanted to. A lot of the historical fiction I read almost calls out for such a game. But you can also use this model in a regular D&D game (which is the point really). You just have to make your own determinatons about verisimilitude (did i spell that right?).

    For instance is the mounted warrior the most prevalent, most powerful combatant on the field of war? or are mages common enough that they might need to be granted fief of their own? lots of questions to consider and maybe we’ll see some of them discussed next week or in a future article.

    As for the calculations, I was never happy with just picking an arbitrary number for a knight’s income, so I actually did a lot of research primarily in my own D&D library to find something that felt at least a bit authentic for both the game and the real world.

    The calculations are also meant to be very simplified as presented here (you should see my notes) for supporting basic idea of a PC knight’s fief. but even so, what if the knight wants to hire a priest as his chaplain as Ed suggested to me. That would change the salaries of the household and therefore the income for the adventuring knight etc. A more detailed discussion in that vein may be forthcoming in the future cuz I love this stuff.

  3. I don’t even know what “verisimilitude” means, but I know you spelled it right.

    It definitely raises a lot of questions as far as how all this would work in the D&D world (At least it does for me.) My mind is not made for fathoming this kind of stuff, but it seems like it would be fun to play around with it once all the mechanics had been banged out by somebody else.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more on the subject in the future.

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