Perseus’s subsequent trials and triumphs, like those of his great-grandson Herakles, are too epic in scope, covering most of the known world, Hell included, and too teeming with exploits to go into in any detail here. Most significant, however, was the way in which the deeds of both heroes were reflections of their father’s battles against Gaia—which is to say, of the Greeks’ ongoing struggle to subsume the Pelasgians’ old, earthbound, chthonic cults into the brave new world of patriarchal Olympian dominance. Thus, Perseus’s most renowned exploit would be his beheading of that superbly demonized version of the Great Mother, Medusa, the terrible, snake-haired Gorgon who dwelled with her equally hideous sisters in a seaside cave near the opening to the Underworld.
— Zeus, p. 123
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….
Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.
Shortly after [the battle of] Sagrajas [in 1086 C.E.,] Rodrigo [Diaz, called El Cid] and [King Alfonso VI of Castile] were reconciled…. We do not know who took the initiative. What is fairly clear is that Rodrigo could make his own terms. The king was desperate, and was prepared—or could be brought—to pay Rodrigo handsomely for returning to his service. The author of the Historia Roderici tells us that
the king gave him the castle of Duáñez with its dependents, and the castle of Gormaz, and Ibia and Campóo and Eguña and Briviesca, and Langa which is in the western parts, together with all their territories and inhabitants.
He may have been quoting from a royal charter. The word ‘gave’ (dedit) is probably to be taken as meaning ‘entrusted the defence and/or administration of’ to Rodrigo. The king was not alienating chunks of territory but giving his vassal responsible and lucrative employment. Duáñez, Gormaz and Langa were important strong-points in the network of defences which guarded the Duero valley. Ibia, Campóo and Eguña were districts in the extreme north of Castile. Briviesca, to the north-east of Burgos, was contiguous to the Riojan territories of Count Garcia Ordóñez. This was not all. His biographer goes on thus:
Furthermore, King Alfonso gave him this concession and privilege in his kingdom, written and confirmed under seal, by which all the land or castles which he himself might acquire from the Saracens in the land of the Saracens should be absolutely his in full ownership, not only his but also his sons’ and daughters’ and all his descendants.
This remarkable concession has caused much perplexity to commentators…. [The author does] not see why the passage should not be accepted at its face value, as a summary of—possibly a quotation from—a royal charter granting to the Cid a very unusual gift. We should remember that the circumstances were unusual. Alfonso needed skilled commanders, and in the hard bargaining which was the essence of the lord-vassal relationship he held a weak hand. It was a vassal’s market. Rodrigo could call the tune.
All samurai had duties and were paid stipends, and from this they had to buy whatever of their equipment wasn’t issued and furnish their household (if they had one). The basis for the economy was rice, and a unit of rice that could feed a man for a year, called a koku, was the universal measure of wealth. Fiefs and estates were described in the terms of how many koku of rice they produced. One koku is 120 litres. The lowest samurai received a little less than a koku (assuming his meals were all on his lord’s estate’s books).
Middling lords, and castle commanders, might receive a stipend of several hundred koku, and with that he had to pay the samurai in his service, supply his garrison, feed his horses, pay his servants, etc. For convenience sake, hard cash was used to make payments, but ultimately it was a rice-based economy. Even the Takeda of Kai, who sat on the most valuable gold mines in the nation, needed rice to feed their soldiers.
“…I’m your Transporteer. Do you know what that means?”
“…No. Will you tell me?”
Tirian nodded gravely. “Of course, zan Vrenn. My duty is to keep you safe while you are aboard any vehicle. If you travel by particle transporter, I will set the controls, that you may be properly reassembled. It may also become my duty to inform you of desirable or undesirable actions while in transit; as my master, you must decide how to act upon this information. Is this explanation sufficient?”
…It was more than sufficient. A Captain lent his life to the one he trusted as transporter operator, each time he used the machine: the one chosen must be of special quality. It was reasonable that an Admiral should have a special officer for the purpose—and a kuve one, who could have no ambition.
— The Final Reflection, Chapter 2
In structure, each [Japanese] clan consisted of a central, dominating house or family, which gave the clan its name, and various affiliated units known as tomo or be. Other categories of subjects also appear, confusedly, in the records, between those two classes of clansmen and the serfs or slaves known as jakko at the very bottom of the ladder (who bore no family name). All were subject to the power of a headman (uji-no-osa), who was the absolute and undisputed leader and master of the clan….
The clan, as a primary social unit, had achieved self-sufficiency through the cultivation of its own rice paddies and the production of its own artifacts, textiles, agricultural instruments, and, naturally, weapons. From the very beginning, the history of these clans was not one of peaceful coexistence. The archaic weapons found in the mounds and dolmens of the period from 250 [B.C.E.] to 560 [C.E.] indicate that, as was true during every other national age of formation, warfare was the predominant condition….
— Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 39-40
The Assyrian king, like other Mesopotamian kings, was expected to glorify the god of the Assyrians—Ashur—by conquering for him as much territory as he could and by bringing back to his temple (and his kingdom) as much loot as he could. In the 300 years of the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries [B.C.E.], the Assyrian kings could pride themselves on how much they had pleased Ashur—they were the supreme power of the Near East.
The [ancient Egyptian] kings had to take their army out every year to punish those who had rebelled and to intimidate those who had not. They trained their heirs to shoot the bow and work the chariot, to become the foremost warrior of Egypt, to command the army, and the professional officer corps. During campaigning season the kings were absent from Egypt and they depended upon their queens (who had the authority to rule but who could not supplant the king) to supervise the vizier and break him if he appeared to be a threat to the king. This system worked as long as the king was strong enough to check the power of vizier, queen, and priest.
Agamemnon’s kingdom was typical of its times; it was less a state than an estate, that is, it was essentially a big household. The royal palace had grand staterooms but most of its space was devoted to workshops, storerooms, and armories. It was a manor that produced luxury goods for the wanax [an ancient word for king used by Homer] to trade or give as gifts. Raw materials for the workshops were siphoned off the king’s subjects as taxation.
More important, from the military point of view, the palace produced bronze breastplates and arrowheads, manufactured and maintained chariots, and stabled horses. The wanax controlled a corps of charioteers and bowmen and possibly one of infantrymen, too. In any case, as powerful as he was, the wanax probably had no monopoly on the kingdom’s military force.
The royal writ was strongest on the king’s landholdings, concentrated around the palace. The rest of the territory was run by local big men or basileis, each no doubt with his own armed followers. The wanax could muster an army and navy out of his own men, but for a really big campaign he would need the support of the basileis. In short, the wanax was only as strong as his ability to dominate the basileis, be it by persuasion or force.
Hunting animals was the absolute passion of the medieval upper class, and the only activity recognized as a real recreation. It served several social functions. It confirmed power, wealth, status, and prestige as the king or aristocrat went out with his retainers, horses, dogs, and, sometimes, trained falcons. It brought men of similar social background together and was good training for medieval warfare, keeping men and horses fit. It developed strategic thinking as the men hunted elusive and often dangerous quarries, such as wild boar, bears, wolves, and red deer. Late summer and, especially, autumn were the usual times for hunting, which was often dangerous. Accidents were common, especially among immature, testosterone-driven, risk-taking young men. The Annals of Saint-Bertin reports that in 864 [C.E.] the sixteen-year-old Charles of Aquitaine, the son of King (later Emperor) Charles the Bald
whom his father had recently received from Aquitaine and taken with him to Compiegne, was returning one night from hunting in the forest of Guise [nowadays Cuise-la-Motte near Compiegne]. While he meant only to enjoy some horseplay with some other young men of his own age, by the devil’s action he was struck in the head with a sword by a youth called Albuin. The blow penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone and jaw…. He suffered from epileptic fits for a long time, and then on 29 September  he died.
Hunting accidents were also convenient ways of eliminating rivals and were sometimes used as plausible covers for assassinations.
Medieval people were particularly vulnerable to weather. They depended on a subsistence economy, had limited storage facilities, and lacked the infrastructure to move food staples around quickly. Severe, destructive weather events could mean the difference between eating and starving, and severe winters, such as those of 873-874 or 939-940 [C.E.], caused high mortality among both humans and animals and resulted in widespread famine.
The Bronze Age was an era that preferred to put things in personal terms rather than in abstractions. Instead of justice, security, or any of the other issues that would be part of a war debate today, the Bronze Age tended to speak of family and friendship, crime and punishment. Near Eastern kings proclaim in their inscriptions that they fought to take vengeance on their enemies and on rebels; they fought those who boasted or who transgressed their path or who violated the king’s boundaries or raised their bows against royal allies; they fought to widen their borders and bring gifts to their loyal friends. A Hittite king says that his enemies attacked him when he came to the throne because they judged him young and weak—their mistake! Allies are royal vassals, obliged to have the same friends and enemies as the king.
Indeed the medieval magnates had surprisingly little to do with their children. Almost immediately after birth, they were handed over to the care of a nurse whose duties, as described by Bartholomew the Englishman, included not only the physical care of the child, but also the display of affection which is now considered essentially maternal. According to Bartholomew the nurse’s duties were very extensive. She was ordained to nourish and feed the child, to give it suck, to kiss it if it fell, and comfort it if it wept, and to wash it when it was dirty. The nurse was also to teach the child to speak by sounding out the words for him, to dose him with medicines when necessary, and even to chew the toothless child’s meat so that he could swallow it. The mother must have been a rather remote figure. Discipline was always considered the father’s primary duty. Bartholomew specifically insisted that the father must treat his child with harshness and severity. He should teach him with scoldings and beatings, put him under wardens and tutors, and, above all, show "no glad cheer lest the child wax proud". The old adage of "spare the rod and spoil the child" was firmly entrenched in all medieval treatises on the proper upbringing of children.
Like everything else about the Middle Ages, styles of money varied from place to place, and understanding the relationship between denominations can therefore be confusing. In fact, in the thirteenth century [C.E.], there was only one type of coin in existence: a small, silver piece known in England as a penny and in France as a denier. In England, twelve pennies equaled a shilling (although there were no shillings minted, you simply counted out twelve pennies into someone’s hand); in France twelve deniers equaled a sous (although, likewise, there were no sous in existence). There were, in England, 20 shillings or 240 pennies to a pound sterling; in France there were 20 sous or 240 deniers to a livre. Once again, there was no actual coin struck representing a pound or a livre; to payoff the debt of a pound the debtor handed the creditor a sack containing 240 pennies; in France, to pay off the debt of a livre, the sack would contain 240 deniers. In England, just to make the concept as complicated as possible, they also measured silver by a weight measure called the mark. A mark was two-thirds the weight of a pound sterling, so a mark of silver was the same as 160 pennies. But if the debt was in marks, you didn’t have to supply pennies, a person could use any silver he or she happened to have lying around the house, like a silver plate, just so long as it weighed the right number of marks. When [King Henry III of England] and [Queen] Eleanor promised to pay the pope 135,541 marks to fund [their son] Edmund‘s campaign for the kingship of Sicily, they were promising to pay approximately £90,812, or nearly three years’ income, some of which, presumably, could have come in the form of the royal dining service.…
Just like today, French money and English money differed sufficiently so as to require a rate of exchange. In France, the quality and fineness of a denier (and therefore of a livre composed of those deniers) varied so much that the coins were labeled by location, which is why some of the French sums mentioned in [this book] were specified as livres toumois (minted in Tours, of high quality) and others as livres parisis (minted in Paris, of much lower quality).… The exchange rate in 1265 [C.E.] between livres parisis and the pound sterling was 90 sous (or 1,080 deniers) to the pound. To make it easier, there were 4½ livres parisis to a pound sterling, and 3 livres parisis to a mark. The annual French royal income of 250,000 livres (most likely livres parisis) was therefore the equivalent of about £55,556, a much larger sum than was available to their English counterparts. Henry and Eleanor only had an average annual income of about £36,000.
Anyone who wants to go deeper into this subject should definitely read Peter Spufford’s authoritative and comprehensive work, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and its complement, The Handbook of Medieval Exchange.
The Bronze Age generally thought of war as a divine drama of law enforcement: war punished criminals who had offended the gods. The Hittites gave this conception a twist and imagined war as a lawsuit before the gods, who would favor one of the plaintiffs with victory. To the Greeks, Paris [of Troy] had twice violated the gods’ laws, first by committing adultery and second by abusing his host’s generosity. Menelaus’s fellow rulers had a clear responsibility to avenge the gods by going to war against Troy unless Helen and the treasures were returned. Anything less would expose themselves to divine punishment.
In the Iliad‘s heroic world, the attribute of being superior to one’s father is very dangerous, associated above all with usurpation. Zeus, the king of gods, came to power by overthrowing his father, Kronos—as Kronos had overthrown his father before him. Among gods, a son greater in strength than his father, then, can, and usually does, overturn the cosmic order.
Among men, a central tenet of the heroic code is that the younger generation is inferior to the elder, or to the generation of its fathers. Old Nestor’s authority among the Achaeans rests exclusively upon the fact, which he never tires of proclaiming, that he belongs to the age of heroes of old: “‘I fought single-handed, yet against such men no one of the mortals now alive upon earth could do battle.'” In heroic society, a hero is cajoled, bullied, or persuaded into line by being reminded of the illustrious deeds his father committed. Deference to the tenet that the fathers of old are greater than the heroes of today is part of the moral cement that holds heroic society together.
— The War That Killed Achilles, p. 27
In the fifteenth century [C.E.], [the English] one pound sterling (£1) was divided not just into twenty shillings (20s), or two hundred and forty pence (240d), but also into six parts: one sixth (3s 4d) was known as a crown, a third (6s 8d) as a noble and two thirds (13s 4d) as a mark. To give the reader a rough idea of the current values of these sums, I have used figures supplied by the Office for National Statistics, which equate £1 in 1415 with £414 ($666.54) in 1999.
In the century before the fall of Rome, the unwieldy 12-foot-long papyrus scrolls of Alexandria had started to cede room on the shelves to a new form of document: the codex book, so named because it originated from attempts to “codify” the Roman law in a format that supported easier information retrieval. The new format boasted a more navigable interface, featuring leafed pages bound between durable hard covers. Not only was the new format more resilient than the carefully wound scrolls that preceded it, it facilitated a new way of engaging with the text. Scrolls, by their physical nature, demanded linear reading from start to finish. They required a commitment on the part of the reader and resisted attempts to extract individual nuggets of information. But with a codex book, readers could now flip between pages easily to pinpoint any passage in a text. As Hobart and Schiffman write, “The codex had the potential to transform the manuscript from a cumbersome mnemonic aid to a readily accessible information storehouse.”
The new technology of the book ushered in a whole new way of reading: random access. A document no longer had to be read from top to bottom; its pages could be flipped, allowing the reader to move around at will. By letting users move freely from page to page, the new book allowed readers to form their own networks of association within a particular text. Scrolls, on the other hand, encouraged linear reading. The book also had one more considerable advantage over the old scrolls: portability. While collections of papyrus scrolls and codex books coexisted in late Roman libraries, the destruction of the empire saw most of the great old library collections burned, plundered, or scattered. The codex book format proved hardier and more portable than the old scrolls; as a result, many scrolls failed to survive the fall of the Roman empire, and a great deal of the literature that lived on did so between the covers of bound books.
The earliest libraries were first and foremost vessels of political power, consolidating the accumulated intellectual capital of the early nation-states and providing a durable link with the past by invoking religious authority and asserting a relationship to the gods. The gods, by extension, protected the library, and the genealogical relationships of the gods, echoing old folk taxonomies, found a new manifestation in the nested hierarchies of state institutions.
The first libraries existed primarily to support these growing imperial hierarchies. In China, the earliest known library dates to 1400 [B.C.E.]. In Egypt, Rameses II established a sacred library at Thebes in 1225 [B.C.E.]. The first Indian manuscript collections date as far back as 1000 [B.C.E.]. Each of these great imperial civilizations seems to have progressed along a markedly similar (though far from identical) path: Agricultural settlements developed a commercial facility for writing, enabling them to make the transition from tribal societies to nation-states. As some of those nation-states grew into empires, they began producing more varied forms of literature that were eventually gathered into libraries.
The fates of those libraries would prove no less turbulent than the empires that built them. Indeed, the advent of literacy and book making has invariably been accompanied by violence and political turmoil. When the Emperor Shi Huangdi consolidated power over the Chinese Empire in 213 [B.C.E.], he promptly ordered an imperial biblioclasm, commanding the destruction of every book in the kingdom. Soldiers demolished the old royal library, a priceless trove of early Confucian and Taoist texts known as the Heavenly Archives (whose most famous curator was Lao Tzu). After clearing the brush of the prior regime’s intellectual legacy, the emperor created a new library, complete with a new classification system to reflect the new imperial order….