A Post About Feudalism

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In the Middle Ages, feudalism was not thought of as a political system or even an economic system. The people using the term, and enforcing the rules, simply looked at it as a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the nobility. The lord or king, granted property, a fief, to a vassal, who then had military or economic obligations to the lord who granted it to him. The property could be land, titles or a right to collect taxes in a certain area of the realm. You’ll note that the peasants were not part of the discussion.

Just because the people ruling over the feudal system had no regard for the peasants, it did not mean the peasants were unimportant. The peasants worked the land, provided men for military service, operated the system of trade and food rents. Modern historians prefer to describe this period as manorialism. This a system that bound the peasants, the nobility and clergy together economically and politically through a hierarchy of economic obligations. Everyone kicked up to someone, in labor, kind or coin.

It’s easy to dismiss this organizational model, but it lasted for six centuries and provided the foundation for later developments like property rights and the rule of law. One big flaw in this system is it transfers the cost of society, and all the risks inherent in the human condition, to the lowest possible level of society. The peasants have to hand over food rents, even when there is a bad harvest or an invasion by barbarians. That’s because the lord of the manor owes his lord food rents or coin, regardless of the harvest.

Probably the biggest defect is it is a zero sum game at the top of society. The king can only have one heir. Similarly, his vassals can only have one heir. Usually, the goal was to have an heir and a spare. The spare served in the military just in case the first born son died or was an idiot. Extra kids and daughters would be sent off to the church. This is good for the church and military as they get high quality people, but the rest of society is locked into a swelling peasant population until nature culls the herd.

In his book A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark argues that Britain experienced an extended period where the peasants died off due to disease and violence. At the same time, members of the ruling class precipitated down to take up the positions in the lower classes. Downward mobility raised the mean IQ of British society until it reached an inflection point where it escaped feudalism and developed a market economy, and eventually the industrial revolution. Downward mobility birthed upward mobility.

Historians have argued that the black plague ended feudalism on the Continent because it knocked the foundation out from under the economic pyramid. When a third of the peasant population was killed by disease, the system ceased to be economically viable. Of course, the disease killed a lot of nobles too. Once the peasants were free to move about, they could go work for the highest bidder. The labor shortage caused by the plague gave the peasantry new economic power and that translated to political power.

The mobility of human capital, vertically as well as horizontally, coincides with the collapse of the feudal system. Whether it was the collapse of the system that unleashed this mobility or it was the mobility that undermined the system is debatable. Perhaps some combination of both. As the system became more fragile, mobility increased, which in turn made the system more fragile. The waves of plague that decimated the population finished off the process that started much earlier.

something similar happened in America in the 17th and 18th century. The second and third sons of land owners headed west looking for land. Of course, ambitious and talented men like Ben Franklin could literally go from rags to riches. Similarly, the post WW2 period was a time of high social mobility in America. Ambitious men could move up into the middle class or move west looking for a shot to make their fortune. It’s not an accident that the U-Haul Company started after the war. Americans are not moving much anymore.

Another interesting reality of the feudal system is that it was a rentier system. The people at the top did not make anything or improve anything. They were not particularly inventive or creative. The slow progress in agricultural technology is a good example of the technological stagnation. The nobles and the church lived off the rake. They skimmed from every layer of society. Feudalism was  a pyramid scheme, where each layer paid the layer above a portion of their take. It operated a lot like the modern financial system.

The real key to the system, the point of system, was the protection of asset values, which mostly meant land, but also mines, ports and fisheries. The chief concern of the nobles was the preservation of the asset base. Owning land meant owning rents, which meant a permanent place in the ruling class. Feudalism was, at its heart, a way to protect land from external threats, as well as internal ones. In the modern age, the monetary system works the same way. It’s primary purpose is to protect and promote asset values.

The challenge of the feudal system was not a lot different from the challenges of the current age, at least for those who sit atop the social system The key was maintaining the balance between the social layers of the pyramid. Too many people in the managerial class means too many idle hands doing the devil’s work. They could also start complaining about their economic status. Maybe they would try to rally the lower classes to support their demands for a bigger share of the skim.

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19 Comments on "A Post About Feudalism"

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Alex
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The Gilded Age was a function of the destruction of the Civil War combined with massive (relatively) USG spending and technologies nurtured before the war but heavily invested in during and immediately after (rail, oil, telegraph, etc.)

It will be interesting to see how the coming cyber wars will set up the next revolution.

Danny Lemieux
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Excellent article. Describes Chicago to a “t”.

Doug
Guest
I don’t see any fundamental difference between Feudalism and Democracy which has usurped Republican Form of Government. Only in the ruse of how it operates, thru taxation and skimming via administrative tyranny. How does a Susan Rice, working on a federal salary, become a millionaire with a net worth in hundreds of millions in a few short years? How does the Clinton crime syndicate rake in 8 billion bucks? Hoe does 12 banking families get away with skimming 3% of the GDP, aka the much hawked beneficial magical 3% inflation so desperately required for “a healthy economy”, via running the… Read more »
Steve
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Wow, Well put!

Recusant
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A couple of points:

Feudalism had been over in the UK for four hundred years – the mid-14th century – before the Scots-Irish turned up in the Americas.

You seem to be missing out the contributions of the French, Spanish and Dutch to the rebel victory: the Brits were in a state of war with all three at the time of the Revolution. And the British Empire only become the Pax Brittanica, and the biggest power on the planet, well after the revolution, following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

Garr
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Hunh — I have a different perspective; I live in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn (with a heavy, and outwardly tougher but perhaps essentially less dangerous Puerto Rican / Dominican presence) and walk/scoot through Arab and Black districts several times a week, and my impulse is “Man, if only sword-bearing Lords governed these people!”

bob sykes
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hbd chick, now inactive, has an enormous number of posts on the manorial system and its influence on Western genetics and social structure.

Al from da Nort
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An alternative modeling of the historical cycles generated by over-production of elite members might be found in the classical ecology studies of the cycles of predator – pray populations. In short, due to the lag times in reproduction: – predator population increases when food/prey is plentiful; – so multiplying predators over-consume their prey; – so pray population crashes; – so predators then starve for lack of food/prey and their population crashes in turn; – so due to reduced predation, prey population rebounds IAW the carrying capacity off the ecosystem; – so remnant predators stop starving; – so given more to… Read more »
Tim Newman
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The slow progress in agricultural technology is a good example of the technological stagnation.

And that only really happened in 20th century America. Well after WWII Europeans were still ploughing fields with horses, but with the much larger areas to cover the Americans had to mechanise. Hence John Deere, Case International, etc. as well as numerous other smaller companies like Briggs & Stratton.

Member
One thing that I think should be emphasized more is the tying of the peasant to the land or to the occupation. I think this is the key without which the machine doesn’t work. One other thing I don’t think most people realize is that the term “peasant” does not imply someone without ties and living hand to mouth–we tend to equate peasant with proletariat only because of decades of Marxist categorical propaganda. The word peasant means anyone who performs a labor or service other than military in order to make a living. Being liable for military service differing from… Read more »
Garr
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You explain that serfs were bound to the land to prevent their evading conscription, but employer health insurance isn’t instituted with any analogous intention, is it? Also, the explicit character of the feudal system — you knew who was tied to and responsible for whom — seems to make it extremely different from what we have now from a subjective point of view, the point of view of those experiencing it. Now, you don’t know who to turn to for help in exchange for service; you don’t know who can harm you. In fact, it seems as though no one… Read more »
Steve Ryan
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Here’s a little etymological background on the word peasant; quite interesting. Thanks for such a well-written response, very enlightening!

jdallen
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Americans are no longer moving so much because there is no longer anywhere to go. Everywhere you go there’s too damn many people. Seems like most of the six or seven billion are all either in the USA or trying to get here. There’s bound to be a population die-off at some point. I’m not a Malthusian, quite, but you must admit that excessive population leads to increasing probability of some catastrophic form of relief.

Member

Good article Z ( and comments) As I was reading main post, I was thinking, he’s gonna get into property taxes! Ha. In a way though, it’s just the same old same old. Not too much sense in getting too bent about it I guess.

CaptDMO
Guest

In a sour grapes/envy sort of way, I’ve always seen the bestowal of
Title of Nobility, to “artists”, as a reflection of how much they ultimately added to the Treasury, through income taxes as well as “sales”.

SoCalMike
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And again, I’m getting smarter by reading Z’s blog and the comments.

Steve Ryan
Guest

I can’t wait for Warren’s book – I love real Native-American authors sharing their unique experiences…

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