It has been suggested that I change the word 'slave' to something else, perhaps 'servant'? My intention is to describe a person who is required to work for someone else with no pay. There is no desire for inhumane behaviour to be endemic - undoubtedly some people will want to take advantage of the system more than others.

I reserve the right to change the word if necessary. It won't change the nature of the question.


In this medieval society there is a class of slaves. Let's call them S.

The S are servants of the R and the R in turn are servants of the Q.

The S are masters of the T and the T are masters of the U.

Thus every group known about by the S is both enslaved to one group and master to another in a hierarchy.

The catch

What nobody knows about is that this is a ploy by the Grand Wizard. He has created a circular city of huge proportions and the masters/slaves are distributed around it. They are not allowed to travel far and so they don't realise that the system is actually circular. Thus the A are the servants of the Z. This means that every single group is both slave and master.

There are no chairs in the following picture

Each person is supporting the one in front. If you were to put an opaque cylinder in the middle and tell everyone there was a chair supporting 'the last person', they could easily all believe it. enter image description here


I'm certain that some people would find personal loopholes, e.g. working lazily for a weak master while being simultaneously a tyrant to those below them.

However apart from this unevenness, what, if anything, could stop this circular system of master/slave from working?


  1. It is not allowed for a servant given a task by a master to pass that task on to one of their own slaves. They must do it themselves and get their own slaves to do their tasks for them so that they can fulfil their masters' wishes.

  2. People must perform their own duties as well as serving others. Thus they can be accountants and gardeners. Some can also be craftspeople or artists in their spare time and make extra money. They pay taxes to the Grand Wizard.

  3. Some people having been objecting in comments that you can't serve someone else and have another occupation. Yes you can!! You have a slave to help you. Look at it this way. In modern society most people who work full time also have to come home and do their own laundry, vacuuming, tidying, paperwork etc. Instead you come home from work but do your master's laundry, vacuuming, tidying, paperwork etc. (or whatever they prefer you to do). Thus no-one necessarily works more in total than an average person would. Of course some people will exploit the system but that's true of any system.


My master tells me to polish his boots. I must do it myself. Therefore I instruct my slave to polish my boots (or iron my shirt or whatever), so that I have time to polish my master's boots. This continues around the circle. Note that each of us also has their day job.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Feb 21, 2019 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ "Thus every group known about by the S is both enslaved to one group and master to another in a hierarchy." Are you sure? Who are the Q enslaved to? Who are the U masters of? To each other? $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2019 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Ville Niemi - Everyone is slave to the person who precedes them in the alphabet and master to the person who follows them in the alphabet. When you get to Z, then Z is slave to Y and Z is master to A so it continues around the circle. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2019 at 15:14

3 Answers 3


this doesn't work. it breaks down instantly.

Social tiers work because people do different things, there are farmers and people who can tell farmers what to do. Division of labor is inescapable and absolutely essential to the existence of a city. The system breaks down almost instantly as no one wants to farm. So the first group ordered to farm gets stuck with the lard labor and whomever they can order become an aristocracy. Because the farmers can't actually offload any labor. Some jobs are inherently less desirable, with less free time and harder labor, this is especially true prior to industrialization.

Cities are not self sufficient they need a steady influx of food from farms. but a farmer has to produce more food than they can eat otherwise there is not other jobs, everyone is a farmer, no one is backsmith, or a guard. And that means you don't have a city anymore. The backbone of feudalism is the people who farm vs the people who control farmers. This division happens almost immediately in your scenario.

If you give up on the idea of a city they everyone farms just enough to feed the next person in line, but that means that is all they do, they are all subsistence farmers with a weird sharing mechanism. Farming efficiency scales drastically, that is growing half a acre of crops does not take half the labor, in fact it takes substantially more than half. If everyone farms just enough to feed the next guy in line, there ARE no other jobs, and there is no city just circular ring of farms, up until the first shortage, then there is just a war.

As Alex points out, the only way you can have both is if the "slave" part of your daily activities are some minor they don't really impact your job, AKA you can't order someone to farm or anything specialized only things everyone does. In which case your back to not having a system supporting specialized labor. You then need real slaves and serfs to do the undesirable jobs.

Labor in a medieval society require specialization, but different "jobs" have different desirabilities and labor requirements. If people can be ordered to do undesirable jobs then people are getting stuck at the bottom and you have real stratification, If they can't be ordered to do such things then this has no impact on division of labor, and little impact on task period, so you need a different system for division of labor.

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    $\begingroup$ (a) I have clarified this in Note 3. (b) Example: If I did my neighbour's laundry and my neighbour did my laundry then both of us would have done some laundry. That's no different form each of us doing our own laundry so no-one has worked any harder. That is a circle of two. I have simply made it a circle of 26. A circle of one is of course doing your own laundry. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ This does not actually address the problem. city societies are not held up by people doing laundry, it is supported by people farming, mining, lumberjacking, labor intensive jobs, jobs with little free time. jobs that can't be evenly divided and allow for other jobs due to scaling. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @John People STILL do all of these things. What differs is how they are DIRECTED to do all of these things - by the state, by their master, by themselves, or by an 'employer'. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly from UK this is Ok if "slaves" need to contribute only a fraction of their time to serve their masters. If slaving becomes a full-time employment, system breaks in the way John has described. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Feb 21, 2019 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ Alexanders explanation is it in a nut shell, it only works if a majority of the labor does not involve slave tasks. but then you are right back to feudalism with a weird extra thing tacked on that has little impact on daily life. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 19:05

A picture is beginning to form of this society. It is interesting, and it has a weak spot.

The idea of paying money for the time of another person (employee-employer relationship) is just a recent (17th century) phenomena. Previously, one was either an independent merchant/businessman or a slave. Most slaves were either apprentices (intending one day to be their own independent merchant/craftsman) or household servants. It was the success of the individual merchant/craftsman that determined the level of 'maintenance' of his servants. The exceptions were people who worked for the court - armies, bureaucrats, pencil pushers - who were necessary for the huge operation of the state. Servants (or 'slaves', same thing) were maintained by their masters, but the numbers of state 'servants' were so vast that they were 'paid' in lieu of being 'maintained' (they could not all be 'fed' by one person). A hierarchy of 'ownership', where the king maintained those in the court, who maintained those bureaucrats below them, who maintained the remote bureaucrats, who maintained the 'go-fors' below them, and so forth. (The beginning of the 'framework' of the modern corporation).

Your system seems to completely eliminate the individual craftsman/merchant. Everything is made or done for the person 'above' you. And they sell it at market for the person above them. (Much like in a huge corporation today - the fruits of your labour are for the benefit of the person above you, and you are simply 'maintained' (paid) by the corporation for doing so, except that there is no one at the top of the food chain, no 'Mr. Big'.) The wealth of the economy just keeps going around in a circle. Indeed, everyone would be maintained, and in turn maintain, someone else.

But no matter how you make it a 'circle', it belies the point that everyone is indeed working for the Grand Wizard, who is the ultimate planner.

EDIT It would seem that, the 'office of the Wizard' would need 'injection points' throughout the circle. That is, agents of the Wizard who would appear to be normally part of the master-slave chain, but who would indeed be under the direction of the Wizard, to inject planning, scheduling, and grand objectives equally around the circle, so that there were no signs of an ultimate 'head office' except some nebulous 'way above my servant-grade level' that remained forever at an unreachable 'corporate' level. This system would work only if the agents of the Wizard Head Office' were completely hidden from the public. END EDIT

In such a scenario, there would not seem to be any room for the independent craftsman/merchant, the person who makes something and then sells it at the market. He neither takes direction from a 'master' nor does he maintain a 'slave'.

So your weakness would be in the rise of this category.

As more and more of this 'special group' arose, they would start to break the chain. Although they would have slaves themselves, they would not have masters. It was, in fact, the rise of the merchant class that caused the demise of the British monarchical system, and the subjugation of the monarch to the whims of the newly wealthy merchantmen.

The continuation of the system would, indeed, seem to depend on the ability of the Grand Wizard to prevent this independence, and to somehow heavily 'consequence' anyone if they became independent of the chain.


For insight into the independent merchant/craftsman, it is useful to research the rise and fall of guilds. For instance The Rise, Persistence and Decline of Merchant Guilds. Re-thinking the Comparative Study of Commercial Institutions in Pre-modern Europe to aid in understanding how the rapid adoption of 'paid employment' and 'vertical integration' of production led to the demise of the independent merchant/craftsman as the main driver of production in the 17th century and beyond.

Specifically from the above reference

It seems appropriate to think about commercial institutions as a continuum along the lines suggested by Williamson. At one end, there is a perfectly atomised market in which anonymous buyers and sellers meet in fleeting encounters of voluntary exchange. At the other end, all risks and decisions are incorporated into one large hierarchically organised and vertically integrated firm. Human ingenuity has produced endless permutations along the continuum between those two points, characterised by more or less anonymity, hierarchy, market control, political involvement and so forth. Following Williamson’s distinction between markets and hierarchies, we view social networks, nations, consulates, guilds, and regulated companies as institutions that perform the same basic economic function – the governance of transactions – and differ merely in the degree of control delegated to fellow merchants. This approach allows us to include merchant communities operating in different parts of Europe over a very long time period (1000-1800) in one data panel.17

It seems that the question is proposing a 'hierarchical' system that ultimately wraps around on itself.


As a side note, it seems the first use of the word 'employ' was in 1580

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    $\begingroup$ "The idea of paying money for the time of another person (employee-employer relationship) is just a recent (17th century) phenomena. " That's about as wrong as you can get. Mercenary soldiers, who are paid for their time and service, are arguably the second-oldest profession. See, for instance, the Anabasis (400 BC). $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ craftsmen it doesn't function if any division of labor exists, which means it can't be a city. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Your 'mercenary soldiers' were agents of the Courts (kings or whatever)" - Sorry, no. You need to look at the history of mercenaries. In general, the mercenary units were hired by the king/city/etc, but the individuals were on payroll, and could walk away at any time. Granted, they did not punch a timeclock, but they were certainly not slaves in any sense. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ except you need a LOT of framers, and farmers can't live in your city. most of your farmers need to live where the farms are. you need multiple farmer per other profession, hundreds of thousands of miles of farm land to support your city, poele that cannot live in the city. the farmer is not maintained by anything the farmer is the one holding everything else up by producing food. They don't really need anything except protection. there is no such thing a a self supporting city. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ cities are giant hoovers suching up massive amounts of resources that have to acquired outside the city, it has undesirable jobs, jobs that require all of a persons time. this is not the modern world with a 80hr work week, this is sun up to sun down every day without stop jobs, jobs where you have to live on site, jobs in which the people doing them are just scraping by. splitting the burden makes it worse becasue they are still producing the same amount of food but now it has to feed more mouths. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 23:57

In addition to other objections, I'd add hierarchy. Not in the sense of who owns who, but of how many slaves an individual master owns. It's clear that, in order to fulfill the OP, on average each person can only own one slave. And it's not at all clear that this is going to make a whole lot of sense.

Somehow, the entire system needs to act like an Escher painting

  • $\begingroup$ Yes. On average each person has one slave. Maybe servant would be a better term. It gives everyone the sense that they are in the middle of the hierarchy (a hierarchy that doesn't exist) and thus keeps them under control for fear of being demoted. There are terrible rumours about what happens if you get to be in the lowest class. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK - "Yes. On average each person has one slave." The problem is, while hierachies imply subordination, I can't think of one (of more than two levels) which has equal populations in each layer. If, for instance, a level-one slave raises enough food for himself, and the master takes it all, if he then orders the level-2 slave to give him all of his food, the master can then take that as well. If the master orders the level-one to work all day in the field, the level-one cannot oversee the level-2 - he's too busy. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ The Escher waterfall is great but it's not relevant. My system is just an extension of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' It is simply a circle of people all scratching each other's backs. I think a more correct picture would be this one. media.gettyimages.com/photos/… $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK - Slavery is not mutual backscratching. And I can't find a more appropriate version of your image (which involves unnatural sexual acts by all of those smiling back-scratchers), but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to post it if I did. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ If you think people sitting on each others' knee is automatically sexual then you've been watching the wrong videos ;-) $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2019 at 21:50

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