Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: feudalism

Retinue Versus Followers

September 3, 2022

The retinue did not consist of only soldiers…but also of servants, artisans, professionals, estate officials, treasurers, stewards, lawyers and generally all that was needed by the normal operation of society. And, as the lord grew in status, so did the retinue; so that a sort of “bastard feudalism” developed, in which middle ranking figures under a king or major noble would compete for money, offices or influence…. The collective name for these retainers was “affinity,” which also happens to be a word that began in c. 1300 [C.E.] as “relation by marriage.” In a sense, the retinue were “kin,” or part of the “neighbourhood,” words that have developed other meanings over time. For this post, [we will] go on using the word retinue and retainer, but try to keep affinity in mind….

Obviously, this would mean that many persons outside the retinue would always be seeking to be a part of it, if they had no affinity of their own. This meant that outside the retinue were an amorphous group of general supporters and contacts, most of them completely unknown to the lord, but known to the various members of the retinue. Thus, even a minor lord could potentially affect hundreds, even thousands of persons, simply by their existence at the heart of his or her retinue. This made political maneuverings and the raising of an huge army a realistic possibility…. In [Dungeons & Dragons], we tend to think that to raise an army, we need to scatter out agents and interview people. In fact, the more likely truth is that there would be large numbers predisposed to our cause; we would need only to canvas our own connections, gain the support of other nobles and let them canvas their connections, and thus through specific persons already in our employ, we would dredge up the very people we needed from both our lands and from those wanting to be part of our lands. Thus, every war begins with a promise of land—which we will naturally take from the losers, when we win.

All this makes the retainer far, far more valuable than the follower—though, it must be said the retainer has less reason to be directly loyal. Ultimately, the retainer serves the office, not the individual. A lord is sure to be surrounded by trusted, reliable followers and henchmen, the “inner circle,” while sorting out the trusted members of the retinue from those not quite so trusted. In general, the retinue is expected to fall in line because the lord has the retinue’s general welfare at heart; if the lord fights to preserve the lord’s lands, he or she also fights to preserve the retinue’s lands. So all join together in the common cause.

Retinue vs. Followers – The Tao of D&D

Author’s emphases are in italics. Mine are in bold.

A Period In Which Politics Did Not Exist

August 4, 2022

When we retreat from the early modern age into the Middle Ages the distinction between government, army, and people becomes more tenuous still. The term “feudal” implies this was a period in which politics did not exist (the very concept had yet to be invented, and dates back only as far as the sixteenth century [C.E.]) So closely intertwined were a man’s political power and his personal status that his ability to conclude alliances could well depend on the number of marriageable daughters he had sired. Politics were entangled with military, social, religious, and, above everything else, legal considerations; feudalism before it was anything else comprised a network of mutual rights and obligations. The resulting witches’-brew was utterly different from the one we are familiar with today, so that to use the word politics probably does more harm than good. The medieval context hardly even makes it possible to speak of governments, let alone of states….

The Transformation of War, p. 52

Emphasis mine.

The Air of the Town Makes You Free

May 2, 2022

Into [European feudalism’s] backward-looking, ritualistic, rigidly structured life, the growing economic forces at work in the new towns brought stress. As the trade in surplus goods increased, merchants found that the raw materials they needed were controlled by feudal lords who neither understood nor cared about commerce. Transportation of goods through their lands was both dangerous and costly. Alternative sites for commerce had to be found and the towns seemed to offer the best alternative.

Free from the feudal bonds of the countryside, the urban dweller was envied by his peasant counterpart. ‘Stadtluft machtfrei’ (the air of the town makes you free), they said in eleventh-century Germany, because after a statutory period of residence there a serf would automatically become a freedman. Soon enough the townspeople, with their economic strength and their craftsmen supported by the general surplus, began to demand from kings and emperors those statutes which would reinforce their freedom in law. Merchants who had no place in the feudal pyramid of serf, knight, priest and king now had the money to buy social status.

As the aristocrats began to commute their serfs’ dues from service to cash, money began to weaken the old social structure. Ambition began to express itself in outward show. ‘It is too easy to change your station now’ complained the Italian, Thomasin of Zirclaria. ‘Nobody keeps his place!’ The word ‘ambition’ took on common usage for the first time.

The Day the Universe Changed, p. 31

Emphasis mine.

Violent Logic of Feudalism

April 1, 2022

So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. “The economy” is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and—by the way—you’re in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we’ll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like “feudalism” makes sense.

It’s how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don’t have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It’s also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I’m pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can’t actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I’ll let you take charge of a chunk of “my territory,” and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up “his territory” for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel…the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East…. “Feudalism” was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call “feudalism” makes a very coherent in-setting response—though it might take a million different forms….

The Logic of Feudalism – Gundobad Games

Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.

Retinue of Retinues

January 25, 2022

The phrase I drill into my student’s heads about the structure of medieval armies is that they are a retinue of retinues. What I mean by this is that the way a medieval king raises his armies is that he has a bunch of military aristocrats (read: nobles) who owe him military service (they are his ‘vassals’) – his retinue. When he goes to war, the king calls on all of his vassals to show up. But each of those vassals also have their own bunch of military aristocrats who are their vassals – their retinue. And this repeats down the line, even down to an individual knight, who likely has a handful of non-nobles as his retinue (perhaps a few of his peasants, or maybe he’s hired a mercenary or two on retainer).

…The average retinue…was five men although significant lords (like earls) might have hundreds of men in their retinues (which were in turn comprised of the retinues of their own retainers). So the noble’s retinue is the combined retinues of all of his retainers, and the king’s army is the combined total of everyone’s retainer’s retainers, if that make sense. Thus: a retinue of retinues.

How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part I – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

Author’s emphases both italics and bold.