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Basic Information

Feudalism is a blanket term used to describe the forms of government common to Europe during the middle ages] (although similar forms existed in other places at other times). Central to the concept of feudalism is the concept of holding land in return for military service - indeed the name derives from the Latin foedus, meaning "treaty" or "agreement". Much of the structure of a feudal state typically derived from its head (normally the king) letting land to his immediate followers ("tenants in chief", often referred to as Barons) in return for specified (normally military1) service, who then sublet portions of that land to tenants of their own in return for service (known as subinfeudation). A feudal state also usually observed a "three caste" structure, with a noble "warrior caste" - who formed the majority of those in feudal land tenures, a "religious caste" of priests and monks - also holding land but generally without the military aspects and a "worker caste" of commoners who did practically everything else. Naturally enough, this was not an entirely clear set of distinctions - a serf held land in return for service, but was emphatically not part of the warrior caste, and land could also be rented in return for payment rather than service, but on the whole the model overall was applicable2.

Technically this meant that all - or most - of the land in the country belonged to the king: any land not held in respect of a feudal duty was termed an allod (as opposed to a fief, which was and demesne3 - which was that part of a landholding not sublet to tenants). Also, given that the concept of a "country" tended to be recursant on "land the belongs to king X" it was entirely possible for a given tenant to hold land from two (or more) different kings, and, indeed for a king in one country to be a tenant in another. A key feature of feudalism was (once again) the foedus - the personal and reciprocal arrangement between lord and vassal, of loyal service in return for reward, very much rooted in the tribal warband cultures from which it had evolved. Land held by organisations (typically the Church) was far more problematic and something that most medieval cultures struggled with to some degree.

Feudalism was also closely linked to the economic model of manorialism - although some tenants might hold a "money fief" in return for their service (typically a monopoly or rights to gather a specific tax), most feudal tenure was of land and most of that was divided up into manors. Conversely, however, it was entirely possible to hold a "fief" in return for a rent (commonly called a farm) in cash or kind (this was more common in regard of commoners, who at many times were not permitted to bear arms, or were at least limited in what arms they could bear) - as always, it was down to what was agreed between Lord and tenant.

The demise of feudalism tended to occur as kings became more and more willing to accept scutage (roughly "shielding) payments in lieu of service from their tenants - originally an accommodation for those unable to serve it became more and more a normal alternative, which benefitted both sides. By accepting scutage, a king then received a fixed payment with which he could pay professional soldiers who would be at least theoretically loyal to their employer, rather than a feudal levy of unknown quality, primarily loyal to their employer (the tenant) who would disappear at the end of their service period. Once the kings no longer relied on their tenants to raise troops it became increasingly convenient to remove their ability to do so, reducing the chances of revolt by people with troops to hand, and so, with the basic plank of "service for land" pulled out, much of the feudal system fell away.

Despite "feudalism" being considered primarily a European phenomenon, similar systems existed in the Hellenic Empires, Japan, China and various Middle Eastern and African cultures.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Note that feudalism tends towards weak central government (since most of the king's forces are actually commanded by his tenants in chief), conflicting power centres, often based on poorly worded agreements and a heavy reliance on tradition.
    • Private War was relatively common between feudal magnates - as might be expected of men with a concrete answer to the question "you and whose army?" - and ending such a war often depended on either the king or the church expending some form of capital (whether social, financial or moral) to end it.
    • Likewise, the need to hammer out disputes in contracts of tenure created a culture of civil litigation which most European cultures maintain to this day.
  • This is the traditional basis of most fRPGs, although the actual systems of government in their settings rarely resemble anything from the historical middle ages.
  • Note that the (command) structure of a feudal army is likely to be chaotic - there are no officers or enlisted men, just landholders and their tenants (and then their tenants etc.) and the chain of command will depend on who has the largest number of troops and who has the highest status (with conflict likely if the two differ). Woe betide the king who appoints a man to command over someone of higher rank - levels of strategic ability not withstanding - and personal animosity amongst equals can derail almost anything.
    • This gives social specialist PCs an excellent way to disrupt an enemy army by fostering conflict amongst the heads of large contingents - with the wrong men in charge an army may spend more time bickering amongst themselves rather than fighting.
    • Alternatively PCs may be leading a feudal army and forced to deal with bickering subordinates.
    • …and if a commoner PC is placed in command of nobles all bets are off4.
    • The actual formation of a feudal army can be disrupted if the tenants do not feel their own lands are secure enough to take their troops away from - either due to lawlessness or threats from a bordering power5.
  • Note that feudalism makes it hard for a woman to hold land in her own right unless she is fully capable of meeting the same obligations as a male tenant (more common in fiction than reality) - normally a widow or heiress would be assigned a male guardian who would bear the obligations of the fief and receive its benefits until a suitable male heir or husband could take over. This could be quite a lucrative business for a fortunate guardian - and possibly an invitation to wife husbandry in some cases.
    • The usual alternative to a guardian was for the woman to pay a "relief" - essentially a payment in lieu of her obligations, similar to scutage, to allow her to retain autonomy. This was very much by consent of the suzerain only6, but was not unheard of, especially when the relief was a useful source of cash and/or inflated to serve as a bribe.
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