Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feudalism Do Over

Ask anyone what they know about Feudalism and they immediately bring up the Dark Ages/Middle Ages in Europe – those glorious days of kings, vassals, and serfs when men were men. The term Feudalism is problematic, however, because it tries to define a general political condition in Europe when, in fact, the European experience was not uniform. Italy, for example, had no “Feudal” experience.

The term Feudal was first used in 1610 by French lawyers to describe traditional obligations between members of a warrior aristocracy and then co-opted later by Montesquieu and others to represent the medieval period in Europe. Since Feudal was not used during the period it describes, there has never been a clear definition of the term and more than one historian refuses to use it.

The word Feudalism has a separate purpose in this post, however, where I will use it to describe stage two of the three stages of development of human society. In my view, this process includes tribal, feudal, and political stages: the latter referring to a society of laws and complex government (democracy, republic).

The stage I’m calling Feudalism is a required step before tribesmen can become citizens. In a tribal society there was a leader who exerted control over the people. Over time, this leader accumulated wealth and then named himself king. The kingship gave him power over an enormous amount of land and a distributed mass of humanity. At some point the king needed to use his wealth to bargain for power. He traded land for loyalty and a feudal society was born. Then, over time, as wealth became more broadly distributed, those with money began to demand rights. At this point we enter stage three with the advent of a legal system and complex government.

In the history of Europe this process had occurred twice: during the time leading up to the classical age and once again after its fall. This twice exercised process is represented in the following chart.

In 476 A.D, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe regressed into a tribal society which served as the foundation for re-building the modern age. What if those thousand years had not have been lost? Where would western society be today?


Ken said...

Compelling thought indeed: what if Rome's fall had not been so complete?

Have you read Millennium, by Tom Holland? It describes at length the progression of events and religious/political/social from the fall of Rome to the end of the first crusade. You realize that despite the moniker "Dark Ages," a lot was happening through those centuries, setting as you said, the stage for the modern era.

More of my thoughts on the book at:

Fausto Levantesi said...

In the Old Kingdom of Egypt, in the Akkadian Empire and in the Roman Principate "there was a leader who exerted control over the people", but nobody would call them "tribal", and nobody would say they were not "complex".