Do not adjust your sets. You’ve read that right. I plan on getting into further detail about this at some future point, but for now here’s some basic thoughts.
Even when you factor in my perhaps inherent bias as a Medievalist, the more I think about the basics of Feudalism, the more I find myself concluding that it can be regarded the same way as many other forms of government.
Namely: When it functions the way it is supposed to, it is quite workable. The trouble comes when it doesn’t.
When you boil it down, Feudalism is essentially a reciprocal arrangement between specialists for mutual benefit. Let’s use the medieval model just for a case study. The ‘lord’ specializes in war and administration. What he needs is abundant time and resources. This allows for his extensive training in personal combat, leading others in combat, implementing effective defensive infrastructure, economics, and governance to name a few. None of these are quick to acquire or cheap if they’re being done right. Consequently, there’s not a lot of time for growing food and other such necessaries. The lord may govern the land, but he is not always able to live off of it.
The ‘peasant’ possesses specialist knowledge in agriculture and certain other crafts; tending to the land and surviving off of it. What they lack is the ability to defend themselves against anything significant. Small scale raids can potentially be dealt with within the village, and this is basically where militias come from. But anything larger, and the peasant simply doesn’t have the skills or resources to put up much of a fight. The Battle of Visby in 1361 is a good example of what happens when peasants go up against a substantial military force.
So a symbiosis is reached. The ‘peasants’ agree to tend the land and provide a share of their products for the ‘lord’ in exchange for his protection and governance of the territory. Both have skills the other requires, and providing both sides hold up their ends of the bargain without ‘taking the piss’, things work out alright.
I have to think that there were more cases of this working than those of oppressive lords sucking the peasantry dry while they cower in fear. The trouble, as with all things, is that the bad cases tend to be ‘louder’ in the historical narrative than the normal, functioning ones. We hear more about greedy and corrupt barons than the lord of the manor that acted justly and was generally respected by his people. More research is required before I can make any substantial claims to this, but I still think it’s a strong hypothesis.
Let me make this clear: I am suggesting that this may be a workable form of government in some circumstances, not the one type that will suit all circumstances. I think we’re getting beyond the ‘one government fits all’ view these days, and if we haven’t, we’d best start to.
I’m hoping that this will manifest in a more fleshed-out form in the book of essays. In the meantime, let’s chat about it, shall we?