I’ve heard many people decry the tendency for historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy to concern itself with the actions of the nobility. Such people have a valid point, but they also ought to understand that in order for an individual peasant, let us say, to have a significant effect on his or her world requires either some sort of inherent magical gift (which has its own problems), or else to ignore everything we know of history. The peasantry as a class is not in a position to independently transform society; so much the less is the individual peasant able to effect the sort of sweeping changes we often want in our stories. In order to permit the freedom of action we need from the protagonist of a fantasy story set in medieval, renaissance, or even reformation Europe (or its analog), that protagonist pretty much has to be of the upper class. And yes, there are exceptions.
For Americans there is an element of the romantic and the exotic about titles of nobility, about Baron Soandso, or Count Thisandsuch, that I suspect is missing, or at any rate different, for who were raised in places where a feudal aristocracy was part of history.. In reality, the feudal landlords were vicious bloodsuckers—when not for personal reasons, than simply because of the nature of the property relations that ultimately defined everyone’s life. What I am not about to do is suggest is that American fantasy writers ignore the exotic and romantic elements—your readers have them in their heads, and unless you see your job is primarily pedagogical (which I do not), what is in the reader’s head is key: it is easier to play with the reader’s head if you work with what you know is rattling around in there.
What I want to point out is that the tension between the actual nature of the nobility and this sense of the romantic and exotic is something that, if we’re aware of it, we can play with to produce interesting effects. Just a few subtle hints about the reality, while still permitting the swirling capes and Byronic posturing, can really bring home the world and the character, and add a sense of depth. That is, be aware of the reality and of the feelings of the reader.
It’s another thing to play with.