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..."
OH DEAR, NOT ANOTHER -ISM...
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.
GOVERNING A POINTS-OF-LIGHT SETTING - WITH "FEUDALISM"
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.
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.
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.