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Alternatives to feudal system

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

  1. The Dark One

    The Dark One Inkling

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    Admittedly I've just skimmed this thread but I have several comments:

    The Roman empire, like most empires of antiquity, had a slave based economy which provided most of the value (resources and leisure) for the ruling elite (including citizens). The Romans didn't need to invent feudalism because they had slaves.

    The medieval period (in Europe) was simply the time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) and the early modern period (approx. 1470 AD, but there are many opinions on this). Feudalism (however understood) is a politico-economic system which has manifested in numerous cultures across the globe at different times. It has many features but the main ones (across time and location) are: a pastoral / agricultural economy requiring land; allocation of land in exchange for fealty/military service; rulership by a warrior caste; a belief system designed to legitimate the socio/political arrangement (ie a divinely appointed order).

    So, the medieval period was a time (in history) but it wasn't necessarily feudal - depending on your location - and there were any number of degrees and types of feudalism over a 1000 years in Europe. Russia was still feudal up to 1917, and having been there last year, I'd suggest it still kinda is outside the two big cities.

    In my view it is the belief system which makes feudalism such a well used trope for fantasy. The feudal mind believed in magic (whether ecclesiastic or non-ecclesiastic - usually both). Accordingly, it is the feudal mind that writers employ when characterising their worlds, and such minds are most believable in an appropriate socio-economic setting with the attendant social arrangements, weapon technology and customs.

    Of course, the realities are far more complex...
     
  2. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    Ancient Romans and medieval people who did not have feudal system (e.g. Byzantines) believed in magic as strongly as people in feudal societies did... nothing special about feudalism there.
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Also, at least among learned Christian theologians in the Middle Ages, there was a strong case made that there was no such thing as magic. Miracles yes, but magic and wizards and witches and such-like were either the superstitions of the ignorant or were deceptions of Satan. Granted the population of "learned Christian theologians" was a rather narrow slice, but it was there.

    But I agree with Aldarion that there's no relationship between a political-economic system (feudalism) and a belief in the supernatural.

    I also agree with The Dark One in that it's the belief system that fantasy writers draw upon, but that it's not the belief system of the Middle Ages. Rather, it's the beliefs we moderns have about the Middle Ages that forms the trope.
     
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  4. The Dark One

    The Dark One Inkling

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    I didn't say other cultures didn't have belief in magic - of course they did. It's just that the age of faith (The High Middle Ages in Europe) probably saw the most intense belief in magic from an authoritative quasi-legal perspective.

    Certainly prior to Aquinas's scholasticism, the church was quite happy to embrace the architecture of pagan belief that was so hard-wired into the populace (to whom they were still evangelising). The paganization of the church included: the creation of patron saints for specific purposes (like the pantheons of the past); prayer as incantation; the re-conception of the crucifixion as a form of sacrifice; and the consumption of the host as symbolic of the consumption of the sacrificed. Very powerful stuff to the medieval mind on the cusp of Germanic/Viking pagan belief/praxis and the monotheism of the Christian church - which needed to be expressed in terms meaningful to minds steeped in centuries of polytheism and a very different relationship with the gods.

    An orthodox version of the paganised church was allowed but the Dominicans and later the Jesuit Inquisition grew ever more ruthless in the extermination of heresy as the monotheistic narrative strengthened.

    So, most medieval historians would tell you that there was a very strong link between feudalism and a belief in the supernatural, whether that be orthodox faith or heretical, non-ecclesiastic magic. Interestingly, the rise of Satanism/witchcraft in this era was (I believe) very much a product of the usual human reflex; ie, wherever you find an extreme, you will always find its antithesis.

    Of course, this is all very complex history and my attempt at a nutshell is a massive over-simplification.
     
  5. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    The classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof(1944), feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.
    Feudalism - Wikipedia

    This is the stereotype that I think of, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this definition, if we must define feudalism. There is a lot of room to play with. Being called up for war, raiding when times were tough, trading horses and training warriors. The problem in fantasy with regards to feudalism is, IMHO, that it’s often used like a stage backdrop. The implications of living in this socio-political setting are ignored. However, this is simply poor world building, not an issue with feudal societies. Many books get away with this however, as it’s not a significant part of the story, and that’s all well and good.

    The thing that really irks me is what I call ‘The Sheriff of Nottingham’ Syndrome. It’s basically the ‘Aristocrats Are Evil’ trope, mixed with a bit of ‘I want your land, lady, and cattle’. The story is invariably about the dispossessed hero reclaiming his inheritance and learning some valuable thing. I want a story about Shire-Reeves, or Sheriffs, chasing Redcaps or responding to domestics involving Kobolds. Or a great general being made a Duke. Or a wizard child befriending the dragon in the moat. Anything but the evil elite. The medieval era has many rich and varied ways that things were done. Why not explore them more?

    The final thing that makes me want to break away is that ‘medieval’ and ‘feudalism’, while actually being two seperate things to me, seem to be thrown in a bag, smashed to bits, plucked out and pieced together on a whim. It does not make for an internally consistent construct for the story, nor for an interesting or original fantasy world. And this seems to get the easy pass too often. Probably because people think they know what it was like, thanks to the saturation of Eurocentric culture, literature, and media. We are becoming a global community, and I believe that to be competitive (if that’s your goal) in the fantasy genre, one must research the vast array of humanity’s attempts to organise and govern themselves. Creating compelling new worlds requires alternatives to counterfeit feudal systems.

    Little Note - I am very tired. I have no idea how much sense I made, if any. Good night.
     
  6. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    "But that's what it's all about! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony."
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I agree, FutharkFuthark. You've hit on a key element, the evil elite. Especially if we add an oppressive and all-powerful religion. I agree, too, that most people regard feudal and medieval as synonyms; they also take manorialism for granted (hah! pun!), so the result is definitely a grab-bag from which the writer draws willy-nilly believing they're being consistent and historical.

    I agree further about wanting stories to be told about other kinds of people in other kinds of situations. Stories that aren't about saving the world, but just saving one city, or one farm, or one child. Stories that are important to the people involved but not necessarily to the rest of the world. One reason why I like writing in Altearth is because the depth and the obscure corners are already there; I need only (only!) write a story that shines a light there.

    I'm not sure if it gets the easy pass, though, or else there would not be so many people asking for "an alternative to feudalism."

    I do have one thing to say about the elite in fantasy, though. They all seem too privileged to me. They're on easy street, and the only time things get bad is because of the Evil Brother or Tyrannical Father or Dangerous Rival messes things up. There are some genuine stories to be told about, say, a noble family that married badly or borrowed too much and have fallen on hard times. The landless knight is a late medieval stereotype. There's wonderful domestic dramas in arranged marriages, especially if the marriage goes too far up or down the social scale. There are tremendous adventures to be had in something like a pilgrimage. In short, there's a richness on which authors can draw. The stereotypes under which most of us labor (I include myself, outside my own areas of knowledge) keep us from seeing and using that richness.

    I think that's why people look for the alternatives. It's not so much alternatives to specific elements of the Middle Ages as it is a search for alternatives to world-building that is shallow and inconsistent enough to leave the reader dissatisfied without quite knowing why.
     
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  8. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    I came across this peace about Social Structure in the Bronze Age. I don't know anything about that site or the author, and there don't seem to be any sources. But nothing of the things that are stated seemed to clash with what I already know on the subject, and it gives very plausible answers to various questions that I had for a while.
    Not a source to quote in academic papers, but I think for fantasy worldbuilding this is really quite good information.

    It seems to be part of a longer series on the development of civilization, but I can't find a list of all articles on that site.
     
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