Scale/scope of the mundane medieval power hierarchy

My players may not care in the slightest but I'm thinking of locating their covenant in the Black Forest in what was the Duchy of Swabia. I'm now curious about what they can expect to encounter in terms of the secular hierarchy below the Duke. (My reading says that in 1220, the Dukedom is held by the emperor's son (Henry) and that he eventually comes to a bad end.)

Maps and other material I've found on Wikipedia suggest that Swabia is divided into various gau or pagi (see Each supposedly has a corresponding count, or Graf. I'm now wondering how many barons you would expect to see under each Graf.

In general, if not in Swabia specifically, how far do you have to travel between baronial seats? How many serfs does a baron sit in control over? Where do a baron's immediate underlings (knights?) live? How many are there? Do they get to hold land and serfs?

What is the population of Strasbourg (largest town in the area I guess) in this period?

Analogous questions about the theological hierarchy apply of course. Are there obvious books to consult? Wikipedia is a cool starting point, but hard details like this seem to be hard to come by. Thanks for any and all pointers!

Around 10000 inhabitants already in 1200 AD, and growing.

The best single book to understand the organization of the Holy Roman Empire's nobility and its law around 1220 is the Sachsenspiegel from about that time. It got translated into many languages and thus might quite easily be available to you, even via Internet.

The real hierachy tree in a given area at a given time you can only reconstruct by using local history and genealogy, and good manuals like the Dehio.

The Black Forest is relatively sparsely populated, and in Germany even counts and bishops from areas off the main roads can be picturesquely poor. Starting from GotF p.49 and researching place after place - especially monasteries like Hirsau and Beuron - around your covenant site is likely the best procedure.


I wanted to point out that the link above does not work for me!

I would add that, in general, in medieval times the power hierarchy can be really, really convoluted. A situation like "under the Duke there are six Barons, each controlling twenty knights" is too "clean" to be considered even remotely typical. Some knights hold their land directly from a king; some from a noble who holds it from another noble who holds it from another noble who holds it from the king. Some nobles have multiple lieges; some have as their liege another noble who is their vassal (i.e. noble A holds fief X for his liege B, while noble B holds fief Y for his liege A)! Also, in general what "being someone's vassal/subject" means can vary tremendously even in the same region, as laws, tradition, treaties, inheritances etc. intersect in an incredibly complex web.

Also, we have relatively little information about who held what below duke/baron level in 1220. The upside is this: you can probably make up whatever you want!

One good guideline to keep in mind is that the "initial" form of feudalism is about splitting your lands, which are too big for you to administer, between your buddies (the buddyness often reinforced through marriages). In exchange, they'll provide you with some goodies, but most of all with troops, that is the basic unit not just of power but also of status. For obvious reasons, you really, really want to ask them to provide as many troops as they can; and they want to do the same, because the more troops they provide, the better they look both to you and to other nobles (meaning less likely aggression, more likely "promotion" etc.). Since this division percolates down to the "basic" unit of feudal warfare, the knight (with a squire and a handful of loyal footmen), the typical "basic" unit of land is a "knight's fee" i.e. just enough land to maintain one knight and a handful of men at arms. This is something that varies widely, but something between 1000 and 2000 acres of mostly farmable land would be considered "typical", with perhaps a hundred to several hundred people living on it. Just to give an idea, in 1200 there are several thousand such fiefs in England.

In general, a noble does not control more than a few dozen vassals directly; this makes things too messy compared to selecting a few good, trusted buddies, and giving them large lands and the task to find how to split them. So, there's at least one intermediate level, and most likely two, between the Duke of Swabia and most of his knights. Too few vassals are, however, also a liability, since then they tend to be powerful and challenge the power of their liege (one excellent way to ameliorate this problem is to give your vassals land in a lot of "crumbles" rather than in a single chunk, so they'll have a hard time building a power base if they do decide to rebel).

Finally, the fact that, by 1200, a lot of the military obligations have been changed into "scutage" (money payments, with which the liege can hire mercenaries directly loyal to himself, or do other stuff), and a lot of the original fiefs got split and recombined passing hands as inheritances, dowries, objects of litigation etc. makes things really complicated: some knight fees have been split into fractions of fees, some knights hold multiple fees (sometimes more than some barons!), under the most a fantastic set of obligations. A typical example would then be a baron, who holds from the local duke 25 and 1/2 knight fees (split between the baron itself, 3 close relatives, 8 other knights, another duke who's the baron's vassal for 2 of those fees, a widow of a powerful knight, and the young daughter of another knight who is the ward of another baron and heirress to other lands) and 8 more fees from the local archbishop (with a tangle of agreements about supporting a local abbey); and he also holds 2 and 1/3 knight fees from the Teutonic Order, and 1 more knight fee in another kingdom; plus, toll rights on a certain road, taxation on some specific goods entering a certain town, the right to operate a certain mine etc. etc.

Then try it this way: click , and then enter 'dehio' into its upper left search field. You should then get a list of the planned, available and formerly available volumes of the Dehio.

That Dehio is a very big manual of all the works of architecture and the art they contain in Germany. If a noble family has left some interesting building or ruin, or even just a good tombstone, you should find it there, together with some hints about that family. You need to be able to tackle German books, though. Nobody would translate the Dehio.


Thanks for these answers and the pointers! I certainly appreciate the comments about things being unlikely to be super clean hierarchies.

I suppose the question about spatial density ultimately comes down to: my players are at a baronial seat. They travel for a day on foot along the Kinzigtalstrasse (old Roman road). After that day's travel, are they still in land controlled by that first baron? If so, how much further do they have to go to leave those lands? If not, are they a day away from the next baron's seat, or is the next one just around the corner? Or are they in the land of a knight who is beholden to the first baron? Etc.

Thanks again

If you are mainly interested in the places along the Kinzigtalstra├če, you can start with this wiki entry or its weaker English translation, and then look up place after place from there. Most of them in their German wiki entries have hints to the old castles, founding families and first mentions in medieval documents. The English versions are a lot less comprehensive, though.

In any case, this should give you historical data about the nobles along road and river, and their liege lords.


There is an URL easier to handle for the Dehio: . The British equivalent is the Pevsner.


I've been looking into something similar to this. I'm in the early stages of a Rhine campaign and the players have just chosen to settle on an island in the middle of the river (see "Guardians of the Forests", chapter 12). Because of this, and guided by the "Rulers of the Middle Rhine" insert on page 121, I've been using Wikipedia and other bits of the 'net to try and understand the mundane authorities in the area. I can't say that I can point at any particular source but letting Google Translate work its questionable magic on German Wikipedia pages has been quite helpful.

What I've taken away from this is: it's damnably complicated. In that particular area, one could float down the river for a day and pass by the holdings of several differnet nobles, some of them petty barons who own one castle and one village, others are the scattered holdings of the Archbishop, etc. Some of those nobles are part of a long chain of vassalage; others answer directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, even if they are only tiny holdings.

Consequently, I'm going to play up the intricate nature of local politics. Baron X might be powerful beyond his notional rank while Count Y might actually have very few vassals. This will make it important to develop good Area Lore and Organisation Lore skills if they want to stay on top of the local situation.