Feudal Systems for Writers by Alma Boykin
So you want to write a medieval setting, fantasy or space-feudalism in sci-fi, or an alien society with a feudal system. All you need some peasants, a few knights, some nobles of various flavors, and ladies, and a castle or two and you are good to go. Right? Because everyone knows how feudal systems worked. You saw a few medieval-themed movies and went to a RenFest, so you have all the material you need.
Screeeeeech! Crash! Tinkletinkle rollrollroll. That was your story as it collided with readers’ expectations and patience.
I’m not an expert. However, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about medieval and other feudal systems, and I’d like to give you a few ideas and hints, so you don’t end up with knightmares of angry readers.
Which time period and place are you basing your feudal system on? France in the 1100s was different from China in the 300s-800s from Japan in the 1300s-1800 from England from the German-speaking lands from Poland from… Yes, all those times and places had a version of what most people think of as a feudal system. And there is material out there if you look for it, although you may end up approaching your topic a little sideways. For example, I had no idea China had a true feudal system until very recently, because it disappeared after around 900 or so and was replaced by the scholar-bureaucrats.
So, what exactly is a feudal system? There are about two dozen definitions that I’ve seen, but a rule of thumb is that they all have reciprocal duties, and include land ownership based on military duties of some kind. Many start with the assumption that the top feudal overlord, let’s call him a king, owns the land through divine right or descent or marriage (or because his ancestors beat the daylights out of the other claimants). He allocates either the land, or revenue from that land, to vassals in exchange for military service and council. The portions of land or land-based revenue are called fiefs, and to have one is to be enfeoffed. The king has the duty to provide justice among his vassals, and to protect them if they are attacked. The great vassals, let’s call them princes or dukes, in turn have subordinate vassals, and so down to peasants and serfs or slaves. The peasants have some duties of defense in exchange for owning or renting the land, but they are free to move (usually) and have more rights of justice than do serfs and slaves. Each layer has duties to those above and those below, and in theory, when a liege fails his duty to a vassal, the vassal has the right to jump ranks and complain, or to leave and go his own way. In theory.
Actual feudal systems are far messier, and more complicated, and varied across time and place. To use the German-speaking lands as an example, you had some churchmen, bishops and archbishops and some abbots of very rich and/or powerful abbeys and monasteries who were feudal vassals of the German Kings/ Holy Roman Emperors. But they also were subordinates to the Pope. Most of the time this was not a big deal. But when the king and the pope got cross-threaded, what’s a bishop to do? And bishops were not supposed to shed blood in warfare, so how could they uphold their duty to defense? A few, Bishop Odo of Normandy comes to mind, used a war-hammer or club instead of a sword. Others, who were bishops of knightly orders, had different rules. And women could be war leaders if necessary, especially in the earlier days of feudalism or in the German-speaking lands, where family ties were more important for longer.
Oh, and there were people who were outside the feudal system, who were acknowledged sometimes and punished sometimes. The “free city” developed out of the need to re-start trade after the period-formerly-known-as-the-Dark Ages, roughly AD 450-800 CE in Europe. The Italian city-states developed a little earlier and were a bit like little tiny countries centered on an urban area, like Florence, Sienna, Venice, Turin, or Pisa. The free cities were exempt from feudal control and owed their allegiance and tax money only to the Holy Roman Emperor as King of the Germans, and later just as HRE. Citizens of the free cities, places like Frankfurt, Nuremburg, Speyer, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bruges (sort of. Bruges is complicated) governed themselves and while they acknowledged that the nobles had armies and needed to be treated with a little diplomatic care, the free cities didn’t owe them feudal dues. The free cities could sign treaties, make alliances, and act without consulting any noble other than the Holy Roman Emperor, and even then it was often after the fact.
Not everyone liked the outside-inside position of the free cities, and a lot of attempts were made to bring them under feudal subjugation, sometimes successfully. Because the feudal system was about station and place. Everyone had a place and station, assigned by accident of birth and the will of [$DEITY$], and anyone outside that hierarchy was suspect. For example, churchmen in Europe, and nobles, and rich city residents, complained about lower sorts dressing and acting like “their betters.” That happened elsewhere, and it was a rare feudal system (or post-feudal China) that did not have sumptuary laws to ensure that the commoners looked like commoners, no matter how much money they might have had. Feudal systems all share the idea of group identity. You were born a peasant, you were raised a peasant, and you acted like a peasant. You respected those above you no matter how incompetent they might be, because that’s how the world worked. Unless you were carried off into slavery somewhere, or you happened to live in a feudal system with more flexibility, like England or the German-speaking lands.
Because there were always exceptions, especially in Europe. The more sermons and laws against conspicuous consumption and trade that were written, the more people consumed and traded. People found ways around the system, at least once the early pressures of outside threat and interior anarchy receded. The competent commoner might earn his way up the ladder over a few generations. Or he might succeed in obtaining residency, then citizenship in a city and be able to earn more respect and money and eventually join the patrician ranks. Or he might slide back down into the common mass.
The western feudal systems eventually led to parliaments and limited monarchies, sort of. But not always. The eastern feudal systems… China’s nobility of birth pretty much vanished after 880, when many of them were massacred during a rebellion. The scholar-bureaucrats replaced them in the government, swinging the focus of government from military exploits to civil management in the process. The titles were still around, in various forms, but the power never returned to hereditary nobles. The Japanese feudal system shifted around until the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Tokugawa Ieyasa and his successors de-fanged the nobility, disarmed the commoners (or tried to) and locked society into place for several hundred years. Mostly. As long as you didn’t look at the merchants and the “floating world.”
I’ve written three feudal variants. One is the Azdhag Empire, where heredity plus competence are required to be in the aristocracy. And you have the Pack, the gene-level bond between the Azdhagi that makes Rada Ni Drako’s fur stand on end. The Azdhagi are based on Japanese, Chinese, and imaginary systems. There is the Eastern Empire of the Colplatschki Chronicles, which is a loose nod towards the later Holy Roman Empire and draws on recent scholarship about how the HRE really functioned. And there is the world of Tycho Gaalnar Rhonarida, a free merchant from the free-city of Rhonari who must navigate free cities and feudal cities and who nods to the Great Northern Emperor, a ruler who has not been seen or heard for five generations.* Although all the series are set in recognizable feudal systems, all are different in how they function and all have grown in different directions from how I first imagined them. When I started the Azdhagi, I didn’t know about the Pack. But it explains a great deal about the society and why it is so stable despite economic and technological changes.
Land in exchange for service. Mutual obligations of support, defense, and justice. A well-known hierarchy of social orders that is enforced and encouraged. Once you have those established, the variations are almost endless. Out of inner perversity, my characters seem to like knowing those orders and those places, especially when they can climb the ranks. Tycho is different, but his complaint is less with the fact of society being feudal than when counts and dukes take his goods without paying. He’s not going to turn into a wild-eyed rebel calling for the equality of all men. He likes being a patrician, thank-you-very-much.
Now go forth and create your own worlds, or write a story set in Thirteenth Century Gascony. Just do a little research first, please. Your readers will thank you.
*The Great Northern Emperor shows up in the sequel. A lot of people are surprised. Not always pleasantly surprised.