Boyar, courtier, lesser prince
Originally companions and members of the military retinue of a prince, the boyars, along with the servitor princes, have evolved into the aristocratic elite in the lands of Nor’. Typically, boyars possess landed estates, which they acquired as a result of a princely grant, or repossession of land housing indebted peasants. Despite princely claims to the ownership of all the land under their political control, many boyars hold their land as a familial estate, and do not need to perform service to a prince to retain it or to pass it down to their own children. Once granted, the boyar title is hereditary so long as its holder stands in the line of succession. Therefore, proof of lineage in hereditary documents is of the utmost importance, as these documents cannot be created anew (nor do boyars use heraldic devices precisely for this reason – upstart families can design a crest, but they cannot easily forge a genealogy). An additional privilege of boyar status is exemption from taxes, so long as they served within the princely cavalry. To be sure, princes could sideline such hereditary boyars by replacing them with more subservient nobles. Boyars do not necessarily sustain themselves by taxing their own estates. They may, voluntarily, enter a prince’s service in exchange for tax-exempt status and a subvention known as a feeding, which they receive from heretofore untaxed people who live on land now claimed by a prince as a personal estate. Such boyars then become the estate’s temporary administrators, collecting taxes for the prince, and keeping a portion to sustain themselves. Some non-boyars who are dependents of the princely household may qualify for such feedings as well. Such “dependents” on the princely court, or dvor, are called dvoriane (literally, “courtiers”), and are subjected the dvorskii – the head of a princely household who also combines the duties of a chief of staff. The dvoriane are typically lower-status aristocracy and usually perform military functions, staff a nascent princely bureaucracy as clerks, scribes, tax collectors, vice regents, military governors, First Servitors (an analog of a Prime Minister) Masters of Horse, Masters of Arms, or other personal aids of the prince. They lack the social standing of the grand boyars, and often belong to “new families” without a storied past. Thus, upstarts in Bogumil may attain great wealth and influence. In the Krinets Dominion, wealthy merchants may purchase estates and become boyars. To maintain their prestige and unparalleled access to the levers of political power, boyars try to protect their privilege through an elaborate system of precedence known as mestnichestvo has arisen at the leading courts of the Bogumil Grand Princes. This system assigns formal ranks to various boyar and courtier families, which determine seating arrangements during banquets, standing positions during diplomatic events, and order in the awarding of princely presents and citations. This system also determines who has the right to sit on the Boyar Duma – an advisory council similar to the Krinetsite Council of Lords, which often exercises de facto legislative power and sometimes even claims the right to determine succession or to depose a prince in certain circumstances. Though this system is not formally written into any code, it is scrupulously observed, because it helps check princely power, and to maintain order among elite families. Failure to respect mestnichestvo generally results in strife and power struggles at court, and not infrequently, leads to palace coups or bringing in foreign forces to sort out courtly messes. On their estates, boyars and courtiers encounter similar opportunities and problems that princes face on a larger scale in their realms. Some boyars claim to exercise absolute power on their own domain, meting out justice and punishment, collecting taxes, and alienating (or expanding) their holdings as they see fit. However, in order to attract peasants, the majority of whom are formally free, to work their land, they have to offer more attractive terms than princes or their neighbor boyars. This means negotiating terms that may include the right to farm the boyar’s land tax-free for a certain number of years, the right to pay obligations in coin or in kind rather than having to perform corveé labor, the right to sell the land that they farm, and the right to leave the land at will (or during particular times of year). Sometimes, boyars will grant charters that recognize a peasant’s right of appeal to the prince in cases of mistreatment, or particular customs of a community, which a boyar pledged to uphold. Usually, various peasants on a boyar’s estate are subject to different charters, terms, and agreements, depending on the conditions under which a deal was made. Thus, boyars trying to recruit workers after a plague tend to offer attractive packages, while boyars dealing with heavily indebted peasants can afford to tighten the screws and exercise much greater control.