Boyars, Nobles, and Other Animals

Since the word “boyar” has been popping up more and more in the webcomic, I think it’s time to talk here about the social structure of Bereg. And, naturally, about the historical inspiration behind it 🙂

We won’t touch the commoners today (surprisingly, they’re even more complicated), but we are going to talk about the upper classes, since they currently have a direct bearing on the story. 

The upper class pyramid in Bereg looks thus:

The Gosudar

The gosudar, at the top, is the easiest: it’s the monarch. The word is derived from the Old East Slavic gosudarĭ, meaning “sovereign”. Historically it has been used in Russia to refer to the tsar. I’m not using “tsar” for Bereg because “tsar” etymologically comes from “Caesar” (who didn’t exist in this world as a historical figure), and I’m not using “king” or “emperor” because those are giving me distinctly Western European vibes. 

Pictured: the current Gosudar of Bereg, Boleslav Strezimir of the Swan House. He hasn’t appeared “on screen” (yet), though he’s already managed to spark some conflict and has been mentioned several times. He’s been orphaned—and crowned—very young, and has an unfortunately explosive temper.

The Boyars

The boyars are a direct reference to the historical boyar title which existed in several Eastern European countries. I wouldn’t say that the boyars in Bereg are exactly like the historical boyars – mostly because that title could mean different things in different places and time periods. It always implied the highest rank, but what that rank entailed varied. 

In Bereg specifically, the boyars are aristocratic families who own their lands rather than hold them as fief from an overlord. What ties them to the monarch (and the rest of the realm) is a personal oath of allegiance, which must be renewed whenever the head of the house or the monarch changes. Because of this, the boyars enjoy many freedoms and privileges—among them the freedom to practice battle magic as they see fit. 

There are eight boyar families in Bereg, all named after a bird: Swan, Eagle, Raven, Crane, Hawk, Dove, Owl, and Nightingale. 

The first of these – the Swan House – is actually the royal family, but since the Bereghin royals started out as the first among equals, they are a sort of honorary boyars. The gosudars also intermarry with the boyars a lot, as a tactic to ensure their loyalty. 

Pictured: Polada Vereya of the Eagle House, the current Great Hunter of Bereg, and the current gosudar’s maternal aunt. Bana-Polada hasn’t appeared on screen yet either, though, again, she has been mentioned several times: she’s a big proponent of the aristocratic privilege and tends not to see eye-to-eye with Prince Meled. 

The Princes

The Bereghin princes come in two flavours: 

  1. princes of blood, aka the gosudar’s relatives;
  2. vassal princes—hereditary rulers of large Bereghin provinces; the difference between them and the boyars is that the princes hold their principalities as fief, and the gosudar, in theory, is allowed to take those lands back

There are currently six principalities of the latter type (Istan’, Isnev, Kema, Tregorie, Zarunie, and Oren), and one prince of blood, who, for dynastic reasons, also happens to be a vassal prince.

Pictured: Prince Meled Karislav of Tregorie, the Great Rider of Bereg. As the gosudar’s cousin and sole living relative, he is a prince of blood. He was the regent during the gosudar’s minority, and, until the gosudar produces children, is the heir to the throne. Tregorie, however, is a fief, and Prince Meled holds it as fief from the crown, which makes him simultaneously a prince of blood and a vassal prince.

The Nobles

The nobles of Bereg somewhat resemble Polish szlachta in the sense that they are all legally equal, without subdivisions into barons, counts, dukes, etc, and there’s a single correct form of address for everybody (bann/bana) without any graces or excellencies. 

That same form of address, by the way, is in use for all upper classes, with the exception of the gosudar (who gets addressed at gosudar/gosudaryna or sire/mother) and the princes (who get addressed as prince/princess or sire/mother). 

Unlike the Polish szlachta, however, the overwhelming majority of the Bereghin nobles are feudal rather than allodial – like the princes, they hold their lands as fief (from the crown, the boyars, or the princes) rather than own them. That means that they are somewhat less rowdy and inclined to mutiny that the historical szlachta.

Legal equality doesn’t, of course, mean equality in practice. 

Pictured: Yarosvet, an example of what elsewhere would be called a petty noble. Yarik’s family’s lands are very small and he makes his living as a knight-descrier, through service to the crown.  

The Boyar Children

Not to be confused with young boyars 🙂 This is a noble rank vaguely inspired by the historical boyar children, which the historians seem still unclear on anyway.

The Bereghin boyar children, simply put, are nobles licensed to practice battle magic. The reason they’re called is because historically only the boyars and their actual offspring were allowed to practice battle magic in Bereg. However:

  1. Magicians, no matter what specialty, must be trained from as early an age as possible
  2. Once trained, they must not have children
  3. Due to functional gender equality and family planning, the very few boyar families tend to have 2-3 children maximum, and are rarely willing to let them learn magic

This meant that throughout most history there was maybe one or two battle mage per generation. This state of affairs was, of course, satisfactory while battle mages were rare everywhere. However, eventually the Republic had a revolution, opened up battle magic to commoners, and was suddenly fielding dozens of battle mages per battle. 

Therefore, a compromise was reached in Bereg: any noble who wished to practice battle magic could be symbolically accepted into a boyar family and receive the status of a “boyar child” without legally being a boyar in any other sense. Bereghin battle mages are still rare, but not as vanishingly rare as they used to be. 

For the Bereghins, a “boyar child” is now synonymous with “battle mage”. So after watching Ivolga use magic aggressively Molchan naturally assumed she must be a boyar daughter. 

The Sorcerers

The Bereghin sorcerers are magicians who practice magic other than battle magic. These are the healers, the artefactors, the seers, the alchemists, and so on. Their status is similar to the medieval clergy: anyone can become a sorcerer given the training, but the sorcerer status cannot be passed on to one’s children (since sorcerers aren’t allowed children). 

However, given once again the availability of family planning, most sorcerers are children of well-to-do commoners, such as merchants or artisans. Nobles, who are fewer in numbers and have the option to become boyar children instead, make up only a small percentage of sorcerers. Still, they do exist, and sorcerers on the whole play a huge part in the Bereghin economy. In the social ladder they are considered to be equal to the nobles. 

Ivolga, Prince Meled’s court seer, has the sorceress status regardless of the status of her birth family. 

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