Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Logic of Feudalism

Feudalism. It's in many - most? - fantasy RPGs, sometimes just taken for granted as part of the default setting. Even its absence often reflects a conscious reaction to D&D's perceived saturation with medieval European trappings. That being said...good ol' feudalism is often misunderstood. Mixed in with a lot of good conversations are online discussions that misrepresent feudalism - or, perhaps more importantly, fail to exploit what feudalism can and should say about a game setting. This may be old hat to some of you, but if not...please read on.

Feudalism, in its myriad forms, arose out of a specific historical context across western Eurasia. What we may call feudal political structures responded to particular conditions and reflected both the coherent logic and the inherent vulnerabilities of that context. Once the context changed, feudal structures made less sense, and additional problems emerged. I'm not going to do anything ground-breaking here, but I want to articulate the following: "feudalism" is most effectively [read: I'm finding a polite way to say 'best'] used in fantasy settings that somehow share the real-world context in which "feudalisms" emerged. This does not mean it must be limited to fantasy-Europe-clones. I'm not arguing about slavish obedience to canonical details...I'm talking about the underlying logic of social dynamics for which forms of 'feudalism' provided a coherent response. I'll also suggest that feudalism came pre-packaged with its own problems, which savvy world-builders and GMs can exploit. Finally, I'll talk about how evolution away from feudal forms involved other dynamics and other (exploitable) problems, and I'll close with some adventure seeds tailored to these various social problems.

This post is not intended as a finger-pointing exercise, but to say "hey, GMs, make sure you understand feudalism's contextual basis before you dismiss it as just vanilla; and if this is new to you, consider some fun ways to make your setting feel more coherent - and troubled..."


A long, long time ago, in an undergraduate program far, far away, I started down the road to professional pre-modern Nerd status at a time when "feudalism" itself was in doubt. Susan Reynolds' scholarship had deconstructed the authority of feudalism as a meaningful concept, and scholars/students playfully (or was that anger/despair?) had a new definition for "the F word." The field has moved on, a little; by the time I was a PhD student, the basic utility of "feudalism" was, again, ok, but now with the essential caveat that what we may call feudalism was incredibly diverse, differed in form and function from place to place, and should not really be thought of as "the" feudal system, or perhaps not until quite late in the process of development, and only in certain places. Whew!

Recognizing that diversity, I'm going to ignore discussion of manorialism and some specifics of land-management across Europe; let's move our scope out from just western Europe, and note that somewhat parallel social-political structures (with a lot of internal difference) emerged from the Atlantic into central Asia during the early Middle Ages. This isn't about copying medieval Europe; it's about how powerful people responded when the ancient governing institutions of the Roman and Persian empires largely fell apart in late antiquity.

The Romans, for example, maintained something of a bureaucratic "state" (to use that word apart from its modern connotations). To be clear, this was nothing like a modern bureaucracy. In 2016, Canada had 259,000 federal service employees, not counting the RCMP and military. That year, the United States, global hegemon that it is (was?), employed 2.1 million civilian federal civil servants.

At its height, under the Principate, the corresponding number for the Roman Empire would be "a few thousand." Maybe three-thousand civilian 'bureaucrats.' In the late empire, when Roman imperial government grew and grew and grew, the number mushroomed to around ten times that - still pitifully small in comparison to any modern Western nation's civil service. Rome could pull it off because the empire delegated so much day-to-day governance to local, community-level elites, but, still, the emperors found it useful to maintain a corps of some thousands of skilled clerk-administrators, with whose help they (more or less) governed the entire Mediterranean world.

Now, think about how ludicrously low those numbers seem to our modern eyes...and then ponder this: by the early Middle Ages, especially in the West, only tattered shreds of that imperial bureaucracy remained available for exploitation by political leaders. Then (in the West) the Carolingians try to rebuild...only to fall apart again in the mess of the 9th-10th centuries.


So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. "The economy" is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and - by the way - you're in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we'll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like "feudalism" makes sense.

Ooh, Borderlands! Let's add a keep...but who will hold it for me?
(Art credit: my wife!)

It's how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don't have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It's also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I'm pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can't actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I'll let you take charge of a chunk of "my territory," and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up "his territory" for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel...the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East. One attempted solution was to surround the personal bond between lord-vassal in as much ritual and spiritual weight as possible - and this had real effect; the body-posture that a vassal adopted when entering into this relationship, in the ritual of commendatio, became the assumed default position for prayer in western Europe for centuries, as believers approached a Creator they had come to see as the ultimate feudal lord (the underlying social relations also shaped Anselm of Canterbury's highly influential reframing of Christian atonement theory). Germany's savvy rulers understood that giving away land-rights to would-be dynasts was dangerous, so they avoided France's anarchy by designating heir-free churchmen as feudal lords. An elegant solution...but it raised its own problems when bishops' dual loyalties to crown and church inevitably clashed (see: the investiture contest). "Feudalism" was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call "feudalism" makes a very coherent in-setting response - though it might take a million different forms, and appear in many different cultures. The Imperium of Warhammer 40k, for example, bloated anachronistic pastiche that it is, makes sense as a feudal or semi-feudal society - not because the Emperor has no bureaucracy, but because even that advanced bureaucracy can't grapple with the galaxy-spanning scope of their dominion. In the same way, it makes contextual sense that a 'feudal' response in a space empire eventually would threaten that polity's stability as much as it upholds it.

If your setting does not or has not suffered from these dynamics, then feudalism honestly makes a poor choice, an implausible choice, for how the locals have taken to managing themselves. Or perhaps your society once turned to these forms but now is humming along after rebuilding. In that case, different problems emerge.


By the time society is stable enough for most scraps of land to be delegated, developed, and exploited, and for a "feudal" arrangement to really come into its own, then ironically those feudal arrangements stop providing the most efficient way to manage society...yet now they are locked in as part of the culture's expected social order. Along with the medieval story of recovery from ancient collapse is the other side: building something new. By the high and late Middle Ages, kings were raising up new, increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic structures which were more and more capable of administering lands directly. Free towns, granted autonomy and a place outside the "feudal" ordering of the landscape, hosted both notable militias and bustling, productive market economies. Early stirrings of new industries like finance made those developing economies even more interesting. And warfare...well, to be frank, powerful kings were no longer interested in part-time vassal armies that needed to head back home soon to look after the crops. No, they wanted professional, seasoned, full-time soldiers who would follow orders and kill efficiently and stay in the field as long as they were paid. Mercenaries, in other words.

Enter "grasping" kings (like England's John) who push their feudal vassals "too far" to fund ongoing wars against distant enemies. Kings like John tried to exploit and squeeze old feudal ties, but their royal ambitions now looked beyond what earlier kings had been capable of. Parliaments arose (and grew) because kings wanted cold cash, fast, now, and more next year, and they increasingly felt willing to make concessions at the expense of old feudal ties in order to maintain new kinds of armies. In the late 15th century, the king of France went so far as to create new units consciously modeled on Roman legions. To boost recruitment, he promised to excuse his feudal vassals from all their feudal obligations if, instead, they would hire into his new army as professional soldiers. In a stable, settled, late-feudal context, monarchs should be feeling frustrated with the limits of "feudalism," and they should be looking for creative ways to twist or even manipulate it to fund things they're now capable of. Likewise, vassals should be complaining that their feudal vows don't include whatever XYZ is being demanded of them, etc., etc., and they should be looking for creative ways to twist out of new obligations. Yet again, many vassals may feel that the new order of things threatens their once-secure status as "nobles," and they may busily look for new ways to signal their own dignities despite "people these days."


In closing, here are some adventure seeds meant to exploit the logic and limits of "early" and "late" feudalism.

EARLY (d3):

1. Karl, third Baron Dunguildenschwann, has claimed yet again that the wagon full of his feudal tithes for the king was seized by inhuman bandits along the King's Highway, and that he can't possibly be held to account for a second assessment this year if the crown won't keep the roads open. Somewhat suspicious, the king sends the PCs to explore along the highway, determine just how dangerous it has actually become, and - if possible - find that blasted wagon...

2. Vulkarot Dross, half-hobgoblin warlord, has sworn fealty to the king, promising to end his decade-long campaign of destruction along the borderland in exchange for control of the prosperous Glimmer Valley. Though their own strength is uncertain, the other barons refuse to believe that the vile Dross will accept terms of peace, but the king insists that they welcome the humanoid chieftain as a fellow-vassal. The lords are grumbling and there is even talk of rebellion on the king's own behalf. Facing a no-win situation, one of the lords quietly sends the PCs to assassinate Dross - but make it look like a fellow brigand did it...

3. One outmoded stricture of the Paladin's sacred oath is to respect the property and commands of the King. This is usually not very relevant, frankly, as the king and his messengers rarely operate more than a day's ride from the court-city anymore, given the lawless anarchy into which rebellious lords have plunged the countryside. Somewhat awkwardly, however, the party has gained custody of a powerful artifact that belongs by right to the crown, and standing law dictates that it must be returned to the king if found. Unless they are willing to dissolve their Paladin's oath, PC paladins must escort the object 100 miles to the court-city and return it to His Majesty. Rumors about the artifact are already spreading, and multiple feudal lords en route will fight bitterly to wrest it from the party.

LATE (d3):

1. The PCs have learned that the tomb of a senior bureaucrat from the Old Empire, probably loaded with unimaginable treasures, is hidden on property X. The king desperately needs $$$ for his pending war against Uppguildenstern; he is happy to sell the feudal rights for Property X to a player character, with no questions asked, in exchange for 10,000 gp next week. How can the players put together the down-payment for their investment?

2. The resentful, old-fashioned Karl, eleventh Baron Dunguildenschwann, is encouraging his retainers to beat up merchants heading to the market-fair at a nearby free town. The town council hires the PCs to make sure something happens to the feudal retainers; the town will pay well, and then offer free sanctuary within the city walls for one year, after which prosecution attempts by the Baron will be legally void (the town has paid good $$ to the king for its sanctuary status). After this mission, of course, the PCs will discover that the town is home to a murderous cult of were-toads, but if they flee too soon, they will resume legal peril.

3. Sir Rufus "Blood-Eye" is not only heir-designate to the prosperous Duchy of Vimplat in a neighboring kingdom; he is also the vicious, highly competent mercenary condottiere currently winning Uppguildenstern's border war against our beloved king. The king has just learned that Rufus technically holds status as sub-vassal of one of the barons on our side, though Rufus abandoned any pretense of feudal management here long ago. The king sends the player characters to press charges before a sympathetic episcopal court, asking the Church to reassign land-rights to Vimplat unless Rufus returns "home" to meet his oath-sworn feudal obligations. In the unlikely event that Rufus appears in court personally to defend his financial inheritance at Vimplat, the players are (naturally) expected to kidnap the mercenary captain.

Happy gaming!


  1. My impression of Reynolds' theory was that she denied the similarities in order to highlight the differences in how warlords (broadly speaking) self-legitimize in the graveyards of a previous social order.

    Excellent work and great plot suggestions!

  2. Remove the "Literacy rates are low." line and I think the post applies equally well to feudal Japan (at least some eras).

    1. I think you're right...but it's been quite a while since I read much on medieval Japan (a big interest of mine when I was younger) so I deliberately didn't go there. My impression, like yours it sounds, is that some but not all of the dynamics I mentioned applied there.

  3. It's interesting that people cling so tightly to the idea that traditional fantasy words are medieval, i.e. feudal. D&D, for example, is much more early modern. Point is I can see a deeper engagment with 'vanilla fantasy' go 2 ways: you focus on the feudal like this post does or you lean into early modernity. Personally, I would like to see a more authentic early modern setting, complete with the first stirrings of capitalism and perhaps an ascendant bourgeoisie.

    1. Do you read "Joseph Manola"'s blog, Against the Wicked City? Really, really fantastic stuff for a deep, coherent, fantastic, early modern, Central Asian-themed fantasy setting. Into the Odd's default setting is also early modern, but much more gonzo.

    2. If the New World were discovered and exploited by Normans in 1066 they would have seen an influx of wealth and a loosing of class rules for the highly skilled explorers. Would they have become late medieval in their systems or early modern? Do these things make one early modern or was it more that that was the next step in social/economic/tech development for the renaissance era nations that explored and exploited the new world?

    3. Keep in mind that the Normans DID travel to and then exploit lands that gave them wealth and freedom from others' expectations (Normandy, England, Sicily, etc. ... one even threatened to conquer Byzantium for a brief, terrible moment...). And the scope of early modern changes affected far more than the conquistadores themselves in the Americas, but also transformed European society (among others of course). So I wouldn't say that simply traveling to a new continent would make medieval explorers become "early modern" - that transition was part of a much more complex, multi-faceted process. Additionally, to an extent often unrecognized by the public, medieval Europeans were already practicing things that look a lot (if you squint just a little) like proto-colonialism all around the edges of Europe - during the Middle Ages.

    4. I do actually see D&D applying to the early medieval setting. Consider Henry the Fowler (876-936). If I remember, the enmity between the Saxons/Germans (christian) and the Wenns (pagan) could be considered the 'other' enemy that the orcs play in D&D. Henry clearly would be a PC, exchanging land/fiefs in Swabia for what he was told was the Spear of Destiny (can't recall if this was Constantine's Spear or the Spear that pierced jesus's side according to the stories). He wanted it for the legitimacy it would give him for an alliance against the Wenns and the morale it would give his vassals/etc. Which is one of those data points you could use for pricing magical items ;) As Henry fathered Otto who would be proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor, today you can still see what the Hapsburgs (last claim to HRE) claimed to be the Spear of Destiny in Vienna.
      This gets back to all the problematic applications of D&D stereotypes of orcs onto people with a different cultures, of course.
      But the reclaimation of the glory and holiness of the fallen empire against the pagans maps to D&D pretty well.

  4. Fascinating stuff. Any chance you could you write a follow up post explaining the transition to early modern and the development of the state?

    1. Thanks! Hmm, I'll think about it...the early modern transitions are further from my areas of professional expertise and thus also a bit further from my passions :-). I can say some stuff about them (see comment reply above e.g.). Here's another hearty endorsement for Manola's early-modern-central-Asian-fantasy blog, "Against the Wicked City."

  5. Great piece.

    Real history and cultural information with a coat of fantasy paint almost always makes for more compelling gaming content then yet another Tolkien rehash. I do wonder how the existence of sorcery and divine miracles effect feudalism? Are they the product of deep learning and excessive bureaucracy and thus greatly in decline - the return of a crude age of iron and horseflesh? When you hand over a huge chunk of land to a bishop are you getting someone on your side who can literally summon a legion of angels and are those angels any weaker then they were when empires could field 100,000 soldier armies? With wizards, presumably their ability to personally destroy large groups of armed retainers with terrifying firestorms and such makes them really hard to keep in line - are they all mercenaries? Does every land hungry lord really want to learn necromancy because the walking dead don't require upkeep and land grants but are maybe even better at collecting taxes? What about liches - who doesn't want to grant land to a lich, power, stability of rule?

    Needless to say I wish more fantasy addressed these issues rather then relying on an odd pastiche of Tolkien's lost generation lamentation and A Fistful of Dollars

    1. I tend to favor low-magic settings, partly because of these issues! I agree - the more magic you mix into a setting, the more one ought to think through the implications for political, economic, and social affairs.

      Or just go full-on sword and sorcery, grab a battle-axe, and declare all sorcerers vile and arcane enemies. That works too. ;-)

  6. Some of this information is also good ideas for Science Fiction Neo-Feudalism. The plot seeds I can easily take to the BattleTech Succession Wars era, or any other setting where trust in inferiors and communications lags abound.

  7. Gundobad, after reading this excellent article I sought others and found this one: https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2017/09/thinking-medieval-seeking-endarkenment.html
    Here the author says lack of talent and idleness were considered virtues among the nobility, is it true? I find it hard to believe as my understanding is that despite all the prejudices we have against them, the nobility had to be effective leaders versed both in courtly matters and military ones to survive the political realities of the time. However, I'm but a layman so I'm not sure what to believe. Maybe it's something in the middle, with occasional talented leaders followed by talentless heirs surviving thanks to the "inertia" of his forefather's accomplishments?

    1. Hi! Apologies for the long-delayed response to your comment.
      I think the post you linked offers a helpful corrective. Like most correctives, however, it also runs some risk of over-correcting a little. :-) On the one hand, I always want to resist attempts to paint pre-modern generations as just weird or dumb. That's not what that post is doing - if anything, it's arguing "don't call these people crazy!" - but there's still some room (if I remember the quick read clearly enough) for thinking that well, those old aristocrats weren't insane but they sure were dumb ;-). So I would resist over-stressing that picture.
      THAT BEING SAID, in general aristocracies have OFTEN made some form of idleness a virtue. The same was explicitly true in Roman society: otium, "leisure," the freedom to live a peaceful cultured life (while your slaves or servants toiled for you) was the hallmark of the truly civilized. This likely seems a bit ridiculous to our modern ears, but it was taken for granted by well-to-do Roman aristocrats.

    2. Thanks for the reply and absolutely no need to apologize, I just wish you had a pleasant holiday season and wish a happy new year.
      >otium, "leisure," the freedom to live a peaceful cultured life (while your slaves or servants toiled for you) was the hallmark of the truly civilized.
      I think I can understand. It's not the idleness itself, but being able to dedicate one's time to higher pursuits like scholarship, arts, and politics, instead of working like a dog to make ends meet (I hope I'm not coming as condescending. Working hard to feed one's family is a noble goal and it's what sustains a state, but John the Farmer doesn't leave as much legacy as someone like Pericles or Cicero). In other words, virtue lies in that they're people that can learn to fight, to administrate, to develop art and so on, not in them sitting on a throne while picking nose all day.
      Is this correct?

    3. I would say yes...or, rather, that is the way the aristocrats would want everybody to think about the problem. :-) There is another side to the story, to be sure, in which they look much more like exploitative parasites. Even from that perspective, however, aristocrats may use a fair amount of cunning to maintain their position, however unjust it might otherwise be or not be.
      I hope you had a great holiday season as well.

    4. Born to rule! Any critique of aristocrats that misses this essential class feature is lopsided, IMO.

  8. A really enjoyable post, I must add.

  9. Found my way here from your recent post on r/OSR.

    D&D has lead me to read a bit too much medieval history and the fall of Rome without the full background of a history. And like you, I've used that in my setting. Here's one premise I used:

    The Bishop Wars
    Both the Patriarch and the Emperor have appointed a Bishop to Kammendun (K). The Patriach's Bishop (P) has taken control of the city's keep, and has garrisoned the gates of the city and the revenues from tolls from trade. The Emperor's Bishop (E) has assumed his seat at the monastery and controls the port. E gets revenues from the port, which is the most up stream navigable point in a swamp that drains to a river that leads to the sea.
    Both claim legitimacy. Both claim a relic of the town's founding Saint (S). Can't recall the names and they aren't important. The relics were the Thumb Nail and the Oar of the Saint. The Saint's miracle was dispelling a plague of frogs from the town.
    The town in this case had the Barrow Maze, (graves from a civilization that the Old Empire conquered) outside in the swamp, which also contained the Dyson's module, Challenge of the Frog Idol (modified to fit Barrowmaze).
    The Bishops each had intrigues against the other. E had a scheme to raise his legitimacy by securing a plague of frogs (from the frog idol of course) so that he could dispel them with the relic he had (Not knowing that both relics would be required.) P wanted to steal the Saint's Oar from E. Different PCs had for various circumstances started working for each of them. Not my plan but it worked like it was.
    I also threw in an ambassador from the Byzantium stand-in (which was ruled by a lich of course) that was interested in relics from the Barrowmaze. It was amenable to playing off one Bishop against the other. The PCs had sold it some relics, but wondered if the gold was worth dealing/supporting something that was possibly undead.

    1. (meant to say, unlike you, I don't have the full background of history as a profession)

    2. This is really interesting! To me, it suggests a dynamic situation that is in flux and offers lots of potential for action, but presumably isn't stable long-term. It makes me ask questions:
      + why can't (or won't) the Emperor send stronger forces to muscle in and take effective control of the settlement? How did the Patriarch get strong enough to challenge the emperor militarily? What are the limits of the factions' levels of interest in this site (that is, why haven't they pushed harder yet, and what would make them leave or go all-out to seize full control?). How independent are the local agents from their central bosses (Patriarch/Emperor)? Etc.

      Really fun concept with so much room for meaningful PC shenanigans. I like how you've combined your own content with Barrowmaze and then integrated them.