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Alternatives to feudal system

Discussion in 'Research' started by Aldarion, Nov 6, 2019.

  1. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    OK, I might write an article about this someday...

    Feudalism is well-known in fantasy settings, as that is what western barbarians came up with after sacking Western Roman Empire. It also appeared in Japan and few other places. In fantasy, however, almost every medieval-ish state is feudal: exceptions are few and far between. Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are feudal, Nohr and Hoshido from Fire Emblem are feudal.

    However, medieval does not mean feudal. There are alternatives, but all of them require a certain level of continuity between setting's antiquity and present. In other words, feudalism historically often (though not always) forms when there is a break between ancient and medieval periods which results in forced simplification of political system.

    Most obvious alternative is the simple continuation of ancient society. In real world, we see this in Eastern Roman Empire after fall of the West, as well as pre-Islamic-invasion Frankish Kingdom of Merovingian dynasty, and pre-Justinianic-reconquest Ostrogothic Kingdom. All these states maintained sophisticated state apparatus of the Ancient Roman Empire, including educational system, centralized state bureocracy and so on. In the East, China always had a very sophisticated state apparatus.

    Second possibility is state-controlled decentralization. This is what we see in Roman (Byzantine) Empire after islamic invasions of 7th century. The Emperor and state bureocracy still maintained control and ability to - in theory at least - make and unmake provincial governors / thematic generals at will. At the same time however, those governors received significantly greater powers so as to better deal with islamic invasions.

    Third possibility is state feudalism. We see this in Roman (Byzantine) Empire of Komneni period. Empire in this period was feudal, but almost all major families had personal connections to the ruling dynasty. In fact, rank within state hierarchy was determined by kinship to the Emperor. Many feudal lords actually were members of the Komneni family. As a result, they aimed to fulfill their ambitions primarily within the system. However, once Komneni family was replaced by Angeloi, and especially after sack of Constantinople in 1204. (but even before that), there was little to nothing to prevent them from carving out their kingdoms. Further, fact that pronoia grants could be passed onto inheritors meant that, much like in Western feudal models, many troops simply refused to appear for service.
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    As I see it, Feudalism [however you define it personally] is often the go-to setting because it doesn't require complex world-building for a reader to understand. Power being held and passed down from Nation to Regional to Local to the Personal [or not] is an easy line to draw.
    If your story isn't about a struggle for power [political, geographic etc.], then it can be little more than a pretty backdrop to sage the story in front of.
    I liked the way the D&L Eddings had many different forms of societal structure in their Belgariad World. Pseudo -Viking, -Roman, -French/English Medieval, -Mongol and others were all there rubbing up against one another.
    And I've been watching a series on the history of China, that shows that things could be very differently organised.
     
  3. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    I'm intrigued by having a setting work on a Bronze Age palace economy. Which is somewhat challenging to research, but seems to have a lot of similarity with communist dictatorships. it's a planned economy where all agricultural harvest goes to the palace and then apparently gets distributed to the people, and industry is state owned as well. These forms of government preceded the appearance of money, though continued well after that too.
    Which raises great questions about how travelling heroes who are not visiting dignitaries get their food and supplies. Are there even stores and markets in such a world? Do taverns exist?
     
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  4. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    Indeed. Although I should note here that possibly the fantasy series of all time - Lord of the Rings - includes absolutely no feudal societies. Gondor uses Byzantine system I discussed above, Rohan is a tribal monarchy, maybe even chiefdom. Rivendell is a city-state, Beornings appear to have some kind of tribal organization. Mordor is a theocracy but is otherwise similar to Gondor. And so on.
     
  5. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    The shire is an anarcho-syndicalist commune...

    You could say that this is one of the shortcomings of the worldbuilding in Middle-Earth that tries to hide socially controversial aspects of the book's message. There is never any indication of how government actually works and how society is structured. It's a simplistic, and I would personally even say naive narrative of "When we get a proper king again, everything will be fine like in the good old days." No mention of what that actually means for non-nobles. Sauron and Saruman want to modernize and pursue progress, and in this black and white world this is the full explanation for why they are evil and kill and destroy everything in their path.
    The Lord of the Rings does never say anything about the way normal people are governed. Either because Tolkien thought they do not matter, or because it would have spoiled his shining white vision of how absolute monarchy is the solution to all problems. I am trying to think really hard, and I can only one think of one character who is a commoner, which is Sam. Who is a simpleton who can't think of anything more important and rewarding in live than serving his master.
    Nobody can dispute the historical significance of The Lord of the Rings but when you start thinking critically about socio-economic worldbuilding and portrayals of power and governance, the implications are pretty appalling.
    I think it's prime example of the importance to put real thought into the political system of your world, especially when the story is about good and bad rulers.
     
  6. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    Actually, Tolkien never goes into much detail because (surprise surprise) his sources never go into much detail. You have to understand that Tolkien, as much pain as he went through to make his world at least plausible if not realistic, was still writing mythology, not history. Because of that, he also used typical mythological / mythical / fairy tale tropes: heroes and heroic combat (combat scenes from Middle Earth read less like historical combat and more like Illiad or other heroic epics), good king returns (Aragorn) and so on. This includes lack of specific details: not going into GRRM-esque detailling of the world not only helps flow of the story, but also helps develop that sense of a mythical times long past. But there is enough to understand his inspirations and draw from there. For example, it is mentioned somewhere (either by JRR or Christopher Tolkien) that King of Numenor and later of Gondor was legally limited only by tradition and his duties as understood. Even Council was primarily advisory body. To modern mind, that sounds preposterous and dangerous both, as whole system of governance is basically in hands of one person; there is no division of power (legislative/executive/judiciary triade). But historically, in Roman (Byzantine) Empire which was an actual inspiration for such a system, matters were much more complex: while legal limitations were nonexistent, there existed significant cultural and customary limitations on ruler's powers. Rulers were expected to hold to a certain standard; divine right to rule - Emperor was God's emissary on Earth - was not only a right but also an obligation, as Emperor had to be just. Emperors defined legal system but were also limited by it. Emperor was always watched - by the Senate, by the army, by the people (of capital and provinces alike), and if he was seen as not fulfilling his duties, he would be quickly replaced. In Gondor, likewise, if King was believed to not be in the right, he could be limited through extralegal means - even if that includes rebellion. And when King died without a clear heir, Council could elect one: Council of Gondor crowned Earnil instead of Arvedui, and after Earnur died they did not elect new king as they feared a civil war.

    That "naive narrative" you mention is a conscious choice of emulating precisely the sort of heroic epic that Lord of the Rings is based on. We have enough sources of "good king returns": Odyssey where eponymous character returns to reestablish law and order on Ithaca; King Arthur returned to claim the throne of England, albeit as a boy; there is also Horus in Egyptian religion, and of course Jesus who will return at the end of the time.

    Tolkien also empathically does not hold absolute monarchy as a solution to all problems. I have already explained how King of Gondor was not an absolute monarch in practice, even if he was one in theory. We also see this in other places: when Fingolfin wanted to attack Angband, he was voted against and the attack was abandoned; that is very much not absolute monarchy, in either theory or practice. In Nargothrond, Finrod was reluctant to help Beren because he feared his people would not follow him, and he was right - it seems that Nargothrondrim had rather Byzantine understanding of monarchy where people had right to remove theoretically absolute power of the monarch whenever they felt the need to. Later on, they disobeyed orders of another king to bring down the bridge. Gondolin does have close-to-absolute monarchy, but anything serious still requires consent of both King and the Crown Prince, as Hurin and Huor needed permission of both Turgon and Maeglin to leave. Tolkien's monarchs in general are limited by the common law, like in (perhaps mythical) Anglo-Saxon England before Norman invasions. And in Brethil, Hurin gets jury trial, and they appear to have no real monarch.

    And one place which is actually Tolkien's vision of idealized world, Shire, is not absolute monarchy in either theory or practice:
    • The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms; but as muster and moot were only held in times of emergency, which no longer occurred, the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.
    • The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Midsummer. As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals.

    You may want to read these as well:
    Gondor, Byzantium, and feudalism
    A Discussion of Law in Middle-earth

    Of Thegns and Kings and Rangers and Things

    This is what Tolkien himself had to say on the topic of monarchy:
    A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays
    The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'd add, too, that the notion of an absolute monarch was a late development. Or, more correctly, there were claims made by Roman emperors that were carried on in the east but which were heavily modified in the west. The whole "I am the state" thing dates to the 17th century. Medieval kings were far more limited, but in theory and in practice, as Aldarion notes. Indeed, parts of what we accept as normal (and just) government would have been called tyranny in the Middle Ages. To which I have to append my standard medieval disclaimer: it all varied wildly by time and place.
     
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  8. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    I think in most Germanic cultures, kingship was actually an elected office that was chosen by the hereditary nobles at the second level. Very often the constellation of power and influence that made the old king the best choice carried over to his son who inherited his lands diplomatic relationships who then was the strongest contender to be the new king, so you often got something that seemed like a "royal house".
    Even when the Normans conquered England, the quote "power resides where men believe it to reside" still applied. Being the legal heir of the old king certainly helped a lot, but when a considerable number of the barons really would rather have had someone else, that point was negotiable. Westeros gets the idea across, but I think in practice both England and especially the HRR were much, much more messy than this highly simplified version.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >kingship was actually an elected office that was chosen by the hereditary nobles at the second level.
    Yes. That's why Henry the Fowler was chosen by a collection of barons (as were a good many of the later Carolingian kings). That evolved later into the system of electors in the Holy Roman Empire. Popes were also elected, and that system got formalized in the 11thc, only slightly earlier than the German system. Inheritance became more deeply entrenched in France because of the extraordinary run of the Capetians, who managed to have male heirs for something like three hundred years or more. That was the theory in England, but of course they cheerfully practiced regicide whenever the barons got unhappy.

    Kingship in Leon, Castile, Aragon, Poland, Hungary, Sicily, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Jerusalem, ... there are just so many exceptions and variations and aberrations, it's impossible to say medieval kingship was This or That. The stereotypes persist not because of their historical accuracy but because the accord with a whole modern mindset about the past. A topic for another day.

    (and there was no such thing as feudalism, but that too is best left for a different discussion; this is a fantasy forum, not a history forum!)
     
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  10. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Archmage

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    Personally I am more interested in variations of the feudal system rather than just the standard Norman/French inspired regional warlord.

    For to me the good thing with feudalism is that its very, to my knowledge, personal as power can be wielded with, and for, more personal reasons and motives than say a senatorial or direct democracy system where decisions can't be done, normally, by a single person like that but must be processed through many people before action can be taken.

    Now that don't of course mean that such systems can't be personal in regards to the use of power but I personally find feudalism to be easier to work with.
     
  11. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    You can have history without fantasy, but you cannot have fantasy without history. I started this topic largely to give people ideas for something other than Stereotypical Medieval Monarchy. If you take a look at Lord of the Rings ripoffs (e.g. Inheritance Cycle etc.), most of them fail to duplicate the sheer diversity of political systems utilized in Middle Earth. Which is a pity, because historical sociopolitical systems can be extremely interesting, and even make for good plotlines (as can be seen from Lord of the Rings and rest of Tolkien mythos, for example; Videssos cycle also utilizes not-typical-medieval-monarchy, seeing how titular country is inspired by Byzantine Empire).

    Feudalism is good because it requires very little administration. As a result, it seems to be a usual fallback whenever a society has suffered a catastrophe, or even when it hasn't (Japan managed to develop feudalism without barbarian invasions, might be interesting to look into that process). Many other systems require formalized education to be effective.
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Agreed, AldarionAldarion. But I want historical knowledge to spark ideas and open possibilities. If I insist too much on historical authenticity, it winds up narrowing possibilities. That's not how guilds worked! No such thing as feudalism! Kings had limited powers! and so on. I don't mind providing explanations if asked (or grousing unasked in parentheses <g>), but mostly I'm in the go-for-it camp.

    It does sadden me a trifle to see people eagerly turning to other cultures because medieval Europe is worn out as a source for storytelling. It really isn't. It's just that the Anglo-Norman aspect--and really an odd jumble of 12th-13thcs combined with 17thc bits--utterly dominates people's ideas about what is medieval. It cheered me considerably to read Gavriel's Children of Earth and Sky which puts the reader squarely in the world of the Adriatic, though it's wearing other clothes. That book is an example of the potential lying in places like Sicily or Galicia or Brittany or Silesia or Livonia or ... well, just about any place else in Europe besides jolly old England.

    But it's really okay anyway because *I'm* writing those kinds of stories. So there. <grin twice>
     
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  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I’m not even certain “feudalism” in a classic sense exists in the entirety of my world. Then again, there aren’t any knights either, heh heh. No full plate armor yet, not jousting. Hmm, but all the cultures will develop in as organic manner as I can imagine. I’m sure something will exist of a sort.

    I will also agree big time with Skip, Europe is not worn out, three’s piles of potential.
     
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Smughitter has a modern feel in a quasi-medieval setting. For politics, that translates to a king, who sends a herald to the city. The herald interviews people and selects five people that he deems capable of ruling, following a careful process. The people then have an election to select one of those people as governor. There are ten governorships, plus two military garrison trade towns. Finally, there's a province that remains feudal, under the terms of the treaty by which it was annexed. They provide military support in exchange for trade opportunities but otherwise remain self-governing.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >not jousting.
    But is there the melee? A melee is way more fun than a joust. But there again, how many times is there an actual joust in a fantasy book? The only good example I can come up with--and by good here I mean described in more than a paragraph--is from The Once and Future King.
     
  16. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    Public perception and common knowledge about the middle ages and really all of history is a product of the 19th century. Which didn't have the purpose to accurately represent those times, but to make the 19th century English, French, and German upper class look like the pinacle of human culture by fabricating lies about anyone else.
     
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  17. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    And that is why historical knowledge is important. By understanding what worked, how any why, you not only have much more options to choose from if you decide to go copy-pasta, but it also allows you to create a plausible system of your own (although, if it works, it generally already has appeared - somewhere, sometime). To me, too-original systems too easily break suspension of disbelief. And to avoid that, one needs to understand mechanics - and comparison helps with that.

    I think most people do not understand medieval Europe very well, if at all. Just to give an example, even today I have found claims that plate armour is "heavy" (properly-made Gothic armour is lighter than mail or lamellar), that European swords are dull (no, they are not) or heavy (European arming sword or longsword is lighter than katana of comparable length). Likewise, the "tyrant king" trope has much more in common with 17th century absolutism (Louis XIV) than with actual medieval monarchy. And that is a problem, because it also projects to modernity. For example, people who believe that A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones is medieval may come to believe that Middle Ages were uniquely violent (no, they were not) or that feudalism is the cause of violence and that such a thing cannot happen today. But in reality, extreme capacity of state for violence is consequence of centralization - violence in Middle Ages was much more frequent than in Antiquity or Modernity, but was also much more limited, precisely because there were no centralized states. For ancient Romans, killing ten to twenty thousand people in a battle was a nine-to-five job, in Middle Ages it was nearly unthinkable - not because of ethics, but because of logistics, as most kings could not call on armies large enough, though there were exceptions. Most warfare in Middle Ages were raids, counter-raids, sieges and chevauchee, not pitched battles - if you want large pitched battles, you need large centralized states - be it Roman Empire vs Persian Empire, "Byzantine" Empire vs Whatever Caliphate or 100-year-war England vs France, capable of raising armies large enough that typical castles or fortresses do not stand a chance. Hungarian kings by comparison could barely hold nobles in line - Bela IV mustered an army of 60 000 for Battle of Mohi, but that was an extreme case - how extreme you can tell by the fact that 25% of population of Hungary was killed by Mongols. In similarly important Battle of Mohacs, Hungarians mustered an army of 30 000 despite timeframe being closer to AsoIAF one (16th century).
     
  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Martin gets into it a bit. Think the prequel shorts do as well. I’m sure I’ve seen some Arthurian-esque old novels that used it, but I don’t recall the names.

    No melee either in my books yet, the yet being key, the cultures just aren’t there. The Silone don’t even have a military structure... yet. It’ll be fun watching the culture evolve once past the first three books.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I don't remember an actual melee in Martin, though I have to confess that after the third book or so it all sort blurs. It's another great opportunity for storytelling, though. There were actual rules, or at least guidelines <g> and the events were formally called and widely attended. William the Marshal famously made quite a career working the circuit in the late 12thc.

    How about a wizard melee? Wheee!
     
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  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Yeah, The Mountain kills off one bloke in a joust and other fun ensues. Seems like there’s an official melee in there at some point, but I also might be blending history, story, and the prequel shorts, heh heh.

    Wizard melee with no magic... (channeling Napoleon in Time Bandits) Little things hitting each other! That’s what I like!

    Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, that’s the Martin book! Very different in tone from ASoIaF, more “fun” and lighthearted in comparison. Pretty good read, actually.
     
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