(Kurtzhau’s friend DeeM is planning to GM Maelstrom Doomesday, a game set in 11th century England. This is in answer to some of his questions.)
Suppose your setting is a village or – more likely – group of little settlements called hamlets. If things are neat, they might work like this:
Three maps: Government, Feudal and Shire
The village is part of three different maps!
First, there’s the government map. The village is part of a Hundred, roughly an area big enough to support one hundred families. All freemen in the Hundred gather at the Hundred Court — often just a tree or a mound in a field — to settle disputes, hear the news, and deal with local crime, usually by getting people to pay compensation to each other. One of the freemen may also be a “constable” appointed by the sheriff to keep order and drill the militia.
Every freeman in the Hundred has a duty to fight for the King or his Sheriff, but not the lord (the king tends to stamp on private war ). However, the king usually orders the lord to lead the militia in time of war.
The Hundred is part of a Shire, a large area ruled for the King by the Sheriff, who is usually a local baron. Big crimes, including murder, usually end up being tried by the Sheriff. However, the Sheriff relies on his own men and help from the local barons to keep order.
Next, there’s the feudal* map. The village belongs to a Manor owned by a lord who owns the local manor house or small castle. The Manor and the Hundred are often the same.
The lord may be a knight with just one manor, a baron with several, or an earl with plenty. Where a lord owns more than one manor, these tend to be scattered and not side-by-side unless they are an earl, who may own big blocks of land in his home shire. Lords who own lots of manors are always travelling between their different manors. If the lord doesn’t live in the manor, a steward–usually a nobleman–runs it for him.
The lord is usually a “vassal” meaning he has a baron or an earl as an overlord. A vassal must serve his overlord in war and help guard his castles, or pay money instead. If the vassal dies, the eldest male child always inherits the manor so that he can be a knight. The lord sends a steward to run his manor until the heir is grown up. This does not always go well. The overlord usually gets to pick the husband or wife for the heir.
All the peasants on the Manor pay rent to the lord, usually with food or labour and go to the Manor Court to settle disputes over work and land. Serfs, that is unfree peasants, cannot leave the land and usually have to work for the lord several days each week. They can’t use the Hundred Court. Instead they can only use the Manor Court. Serfs don’t fight in armies. A reeve, usually a rich peasant, does the organising for the lord.
Finally, there’s the church map. The village is part of a Parish belonging to a church, served by a priest. The Hundred and Parish are often the same.
Everybody pays a kind of tax to the priest called a “tithe”, and also fees for things like burials and marriages. The Parish may belong to a monastery or to a bishop. The Bishop usually lives in the same town as the Sheriff and is in charge of all church things in an area called a Bishopric, usually the same as a Shire.
So the village belongs to a Hundred with a Constable and Hundred Court, a Manor with a reeve and Manor Court, and a Parish with a Priest and Church.
If you stick to this, then your campaign setting won’t be wrong.
Things that mess up this neat picture
However, things can be much much messier than that, which can set up interesting problems for the characters.
There may be small manors about the size of a farm breaking up the overlord’s land. Some of these may belong to a bishop or a monastery who must then provide men to the king just like any other lord. Sometimes the overlord is a monastery and the abbot may have to lead the militia, or find a knight to do it.
In some areas, each manor may own scattered chunks of different kinds of land, e.g. some forest, some grazing, some river, some hills.
Hundreds and manors don’t have to match up. Sometimes manors never matched the hundred. Sometimes the manor was broken up between female heirs and added to other manors. This can mean that people in the same village have different overlords, or that two lords share a reeve.
*Note on Feudalism
Feudalism is the name for the system in which people receive land in return for service.
The King owns everything. He hands out land to his barons. In return, they provide knights. In turn, the barons hand out manors to knights and sergeants (half knights) in return for their service. Sometimes sergeants are not fighters but instead do other kinds of jobs, e.g. forester or huntsman.