Feudal Systems for Writers by Alma Boykin

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.


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24 responses to “Feudal Systems for Writers by Alma Boykin

  1. paladin3001

    Research, or how I end up banging my head against the wall when an #Idea# goes sideways.
    Thanks for the information.

  2. C4c
    Might comment later.

  3. Christopher M. Chupik

    Pretty sure you could still shed blood with a club or warhammer. You just need to use enough force.

    • Indeed, but it was not a bladed weapon. And the rules varied over time. Eastern Orthodox priests never went to war that I have been able to find, for example.

      • Mary

        Priests are not supposed to act as combat soldiers or any part of the administration of justice involving the death penalty — before or after they are ordained. (How, you ask, did the Inquisition manage? By the legal fiction that they only convicted people, and the secular arm imposed sentence.)

    • A lot of specific wording involved being forbidden ‘the sword’. Some people took that more literally than others.

  4. Noted to follow comments.

  5. Luke

    When I was over in the Oriental side of the world and poking around a bit, it was striking how few and weak the obligations were that liege lords owed to their vassals. And how onerous were the duties most vassals owed their lord.
    Anyone saying that Buddhism variants and Taoism are *nice*, hasn’t thought through the implications, is ignorant of their histories, or is being willfully deceitful.

    Christianity was a blessing to feudalism in Europe. In most other places, feudalism was much more of a curse.
    (At least, in my limited understanding.)

    • Yes. Without anything to temper the tendency to “because I’m bigger, meaner, and have a sword and friends with swords,” feudalism can be horrible for the common and the weak. The samurai are cool, from a long way away and if you don’t look at how they were allowed to treat inferiors.

      • Mary

        Its usual advantage was that the lord and his warriors were ONE band, and generally didn’t want you to starve. As opposed to having multiple bands rampage through and leave scorched earth in their wake.

      • I understand that Japanese feudalism wasn’t all that bad during the Sengoku Jidai, but at that time the peasantry had the right to leave their land and go serve another lord if they wanted to. Indeed, Takeda Shingen was envied because he didn’t have to guard against his people leaving him. Mostly because he had some of the best gold mines in Japan in his realm, and he allowed his peasants to pay off legal fines rather than be beaten or mutilated for it.

        There were also the ‘Ikkis’, groups of local landowners, peasants, jizamurai (either rich peasants or poor samurai depending who you ask), and local temples, that formed for mutual defense. They seem similar to things like the ‘Peace Leagues’ and rural ‘Knightly Leagues’ of medieval western Europe. Some Ikki were very powerful, with the Ikko Ikki taking control of an entire province for a century. They also seem to have developed the ass firepower tactics that Nobunaga later used after he faced them in battle.

  6. And here I thought a feudal system for writers involved writers owing fealty to publishers. 😛

  7. My nonhumans have a feudal system (where genetics determine status, and through assortative mating became accident of birth) both reciprocal and circular: the prince and the peasant have obligations to each other, as well as to those below or above. Any commoner dissatisfied with his local lord can petition the planetary prince (or occasionally, queen). They’d regard taxes as theft, but there are export tariffs all the way down the line, which funds the concurrent level of government. Insufficient surplus for export means the government wastes away, so it’s mostly hands-off, other than the necessary discouragement of smuggling. It’s also a labor-starved economy, so best not mistreat your serfs, or they’ll disappear to the neighboring province, whose lord will turn a blind eye. (OTOH loyalties run thick both to person and place, so desertion is rare.)

    Hmmm. Maybe we should try it!

  8. People don’t understand the basics of the feudal system, for sure. One thing to note is that the geography of your land is going to affect your system; if it’s fertile as heck and has good trade routes, it’s likely to be very different than if it’s hard to make a living and cut off. Also note that good trade routes can also be good invasion routes.

  9. Second Attempt:

    So far I have three fictional Medieval governments set in the 14th Century that aren’t truly feudal. The closest is Bad Guy #2, who recommends making nobles highly dependent on their sovereign. He does not think much of Good Guys’ Kingdom, which is really semi-feudal and may not be feudal at all. It’s sort of a mix between the Swiss Cantons, period France, and countries like Denmark. There are no true serfs, but the dukes run things, and elect a fellow duke to serve as sovereign, but who is more of a head of the council. Still, the idea carries weight, and once elected, the crown tends to stay in that house unless there are no clear heirs or unless a ruler really messes up. Otherwise, it’s a rubber-stamp.

    The third is clearly not feudal, with a system heavily based on northern countries of the time. There is no king, and all power rests with the chieftains.

    There is a fourth, off stage, that is feudal. They don’t have much to do with events – yet.

    There are no sumptuary laws, simply because there’s not enough of an economy to warrant any. Bad Guy #2 would go for it, as he’s very keen on everyone knowing their place. Good Guys’ Kingdom might, but while some look askance at ostentatious merchants, there’s really not enough wealth for bling below the noble level. The other kingdom doesn’t care, and really is more commerce oriented and has the most fluid social order of the three. Not that they have that much bling, either.

    • The second one is not that far off from the actual arrangement of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation between around 1150-1530 or so. You had the title and role bouncing around between several different families, and was truly an elected position based on a number of factors, including the estimated ability to keep peace between the nobles, the free cities, and outside enemies. After Charles V things really changed, although the goals and functionality of the HRE 1.3 stuck around until 1648, when there was another shift in how disputes were settled. That lasted until 1806 and the vote to dissolve the HRE 1.5.

  10. BobtheRegisterredFool

    If someone wants a worked example, the guy who does Psi-Wars, a fan Gurps Star Wars with original worldbuilding, did a fair amount of that in his ‘how do I have space princesses and have them make sense’ stuff.

  11. Castle Guy

    According to one source I’ve seen, in certain parts/times of the European system, you’re not limited to having just one lord. If you taking a fief from one lord, you could still take another fief from another lord, and then either hope that the two lords never fight each other, or actively play one off the other for his own benefit.

    Also, you’re not limited to just the classic ‘lord’. A peasant could also owe service to several different levels of lords, or also to a church official, an abbey, occasionally even to a town. And in fiction so could expand that to a wizard, a society of some sort of sub-species, or even a magical beast. If I ever get around to writing, I’m doing something with that concept.

    • There are as many variations as there are localities, as best I can tell. I’ve been spending far too much time in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, and sheesh, you need a score card just to keep track of the major players (emperor, primary electors, princes), let alone who owes or does not loyalty and dues to whom and when.

  12. Mary

    And when you do all the research, someone will take into his head to lecture you about how it really was and you are doing it wrong. At best because he falsely assumed your kingdom is a carbon copy of the original you used. But also because of assuming the wrong original or even going by the most superficial of modern day stereotypes.

    Still remember being told that the feudalism in Madeleine and the Mists — set in an imaginary kingdom is “wrong.”