I've got a setting in a low-fantasy world roughly at the technology level of late 15th century Earth. You have ocean-going sailboats and gunpowder, but no steam power or telescopes, and the world is rife with feudal and theocratic states.

A little additional info: to be clear, this is not set on Earth. This world is more interconnected, and it developed far more slowly. That means that the entire planet has long been mapped out by the historic nations in their peaceful or violent engagements, and technology and society is mildly more homogeneous. But only mildly so. Perhaps compare this planet as a whole, culturally and socially speaking, to the patchwork of civilisations from Rome to Bengal in the mentioned era: diverse as a Pollok painting, but generally aware of one other and they can all be called civilisations. Scale-wise though this planet is not much smaller than Earth.

Now, the story requires a world government. But, not a tyrannic emperor with a totalitarian regime with faceless goons dedicated to bring about universal suffering. To make this setting more plausible, and possibly more interesting, I am stretching the definition of "government" to refer to an organ with only the following powers:

  • Cultural influence. The opinion of the guy on top is very important to even the lowest peasants.
  • Arbitership. Not that there's world peace in the 1400's, but this institution regularly prevents wars and resolves disputes through some form of intervention, and as a whole the world is more peaceful and prosperous than before they came to be. Everyone can agree on that.

So, that means that they do not actually have to administer every continent, necessarily. It is more like a UN, except that its power is derived from something besides its allegiant nations, and people actually respect it :)

Furthermore, the following properties are required to still consider them a "world government":

  • They "reign" over the whole world. Or at least enough of it to say that they rule the world. That includes people of vastly different cultures, beliefs and heritage than the government or the leader.
  • They have lasted for at least 50 years, went through multiple generations of leaders (otherwise it wouldn't be considered an institution), and show no sign of weakening.

Other qualities which I would personally like to see:

  • The institution is almost universally respected, and seen as benign. Few states are trying to leave its influence, and those that do are seen the way the EU sees Brexiteers.
  • Though the setting is low fantasy, there's no hallucination or hypnosis magic to manipulate everyone into doing their bidding. In fact, I would prefer for the guy on top to be a muggle, and openly so.

So, what options do I have, for an authority that is respected by kings and countrymen alike? Religion is the obvious answer, and the powers I described were held by the Pope in this era, to various degrees in different parts of Europe. However, the Pope's reach was continental at best; I need it to be global. Furthermore, you can only have a Pope-like figure when everyone already shares a religion, and that would make this world too homogeneous. I would rather it be diverse, and the goal of this institution to be to homogenise it over time.

I was personally thinking of a huge bank; the Medici family on steroids. They would have started out as regular bankers who lent a large loan to a nation at war, with one of its provinces as contingency. The nation unexpectedly lost the war, went bankrupt, and the bankers got worldly possessions. From there they expanded their wealth and power, until they owned the majority of gold in the world and can coerce kings and emperors to make peace, lest they lose the funding they need to stay in power. In the middle of their reign, they invented the printing press (and kept it to themselves), and the guy on top has cultural influence because every book in the world was written by him.

But, I can see nations become envious of this bank's massive wealth, so this may not be stable for fifty years. That's why I'm asking for other ways to make this government, or one with similar powers, work. Even though this is not Earth at all; for inspiration I do like to play with a historic entity, and just make it as powerful as it logically can be. However, pure fantasy ideas are fine too.

  • $\begingroup$ 15th century world had no oceanic travel. Columbus and his crew were the pioneers. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ I did say the late 15th century. Columbus began doing his thing in the 1490's. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Late 15th century is around that time. 3 ships don't make "oceanic travel" $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that oceanic travel is the biggest problem your world government will face, but only because it took so damn long back then. It took Columbus about two months to get from Spain to the Caribbean, and another two months to get back. $\endgroup$
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ As a an aggressive and charismatic megalomaniac, I really like this concept of a moderate and feckless world government. Corrupting and co-opting it seems a fairly obvious and reasonable easy route to absolute power! Mua ha ha ha! $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


I think your mention of the EU and bankers in the question frames a good avenue to explore for your solution. The multinational organisational frameworks we have today are largely trade bodies - the EU being a perfectly good example, although in the case of the EU there is a good deal more integration than is strictly necessary between members of a trade treaty. The EEC which was the precursor to the EU did also originally grow out of a specific desire to foster co-operation among the European nations in such a deep rooted way that it made a repeat of WW2 impossible.

So I think that for the idea of such a world government to catch on in your world you may need 2 factors, though the importance you assign to each may not be equal: well connected trade around your world, and a legacy of horrific inter-state or inter-bloc wars.

Then for it to be practical you need reasonable communications among states. You say that your world is not Earth: in that case, you may be able to improve the ability of states to communicate by altering the distribution of continents to avoid having them separated by colossal oceans - at the time period you compare with on Earth there was reasonable communication within land masses - certainly within Europe and within East Asia (though communication between Europe and East Asia was poorer because of the harsh mountainous territory encountered in between, i,e, the Silk Road) - but almost no communication across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

As to how it exerts its influence, I suspect for it to work along the parameters you have suggested, it does not do so militarily to any significant degree. Maybe a bit of UN-style peacekeeping, but mostly by legal enforcement of the members' treaty obligations backed up by sanctions where states go rogue. States would almost certainly still have armed organisations for defence of the territory (just in case...) and for controlling their own populace, but the main defence against aggression would be that the entire world would cut off the aggressor as a pariah state and inflict huge economic suffering. So, yes, in the end, bankers on steroids. But not just one clique of bankers like the Medicis on steroids, but a clique of all the individual rulers and heads of national banks who want to ensure their continued profits, and while some degree of conflict can be profitable large scale devastating wars may not be, and at the very least are hugely risky - you might lose...

This kind of thing works much better in a world where there are extensive trade relationships (globalisation, if you like) than one where every nation is more-or-less self sufficient maybe except for a few luxuries like spices from abroad, which probably also fits in with your concept of a world that has developed slowly to a state of maturity.

  • $\begingroup$ So a world government that derives its power from a conspiracy of bankers? That's another wrinkle, and I like it. Thanks for the answer! I suppose I would have to make a different question for what would drive the global economy in a more slowly developing, but still late medieval world. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ I think in the end it all comes down to the money :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 19:32

This can work, but you have to use Magic.

The problem is that a government can only function if it can communicate with all its distributed elements, and that communication has to be a LOT more rapid than 15th century technology allows in order to function on a global level. It also needs to be able to react to events more quickly than 15th century communication and transportation technology permits.

At the very least your world government would need to have something roughly on par with the telegraph in terms of reliability and speed of communication, and an infrastructure that at the very least includes all the regional capitals, so you're talking about a global network of at least several dozen major cities, if not a hundred or more.

Your world government also has to have the capability of deploying massive military force fairly quickly in the event of localized rebellion. Even if it's mostly recognized as benevolent, there are always going to be local tensions and bad actors who will want to rely on being too far away for anybody to care about to carve out their own areas of regional dominance. Your government needs to have AT LEAST the PERCEIVED ability of being able to crush this kind of thing. This can be accomplished in a lot of different ways including teleportation, wormhole gates, or even the magical equivalent of an ICBM that they can use to apply localized devastation from a long, long way off.

TLDR, your centralized government needs to be able to A: find out what's going on thousands of miles away and B: do something about it within timeframes of days or weeks, not months or years.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @alexgbelov the Romans HAD rapid communication within the limits of what I'm talking about. That's what the roads were for, and the limits of communication and response I'm talking about are the biggest reason the Roman Empire never got any bigger than it did, and why long-distance conquests like Alexander's march into near Asia or the Mongolians on Eastern Europe didn't stick. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ @alexgbelov If you want to scale up from 4,000km from your furthest provinces to your capital to more than 16,000km, your horse needs to be four times as fast too. And it has to be able to run on water. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Rome to Paris is about 1400 km. This web site claims 1800 miles in 10 days for the Pony Express. nps.gov/poex/learn/historyculture/index.htm So the main part of Europe could probably receive mail from/to Rome in under two weeks. Ocean trips to the other side of the world would be a lot longer than that, and often much riskier. $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_march#In_the_Roman_Army Claims about 30 km/day for a Roman legion. I have walked 30 km/day for 4 days running, with full camping gear. They would have horses for heavy gear and supplies. So Rome to Paris in under 2 months. $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @puppetsock exactly, so by that standard my thinking is you'd need to be able to get messages from Sydney or Capetown to New York or Paris in less than a month, and deploy troops the other direction in large numbers (or some equivalent military deterrent) in 8-10 weeks. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 20:09

You are concentrating on the wrong continent.

That is, the question is formulated in a terribly Euro-centric way.

In the 15th century, western Europe was not the center of power on Earth. It was not even an important center of power. It wanted to become a center of power, and was busy exploring and doing its best to get ahead, but was yet very far from its goal.

The western European society, with its decaying feudal system, its neatly ordered religious hierarchy, and its upwardly mobile merchant class was not typical of the world.

You may want to consider that in the process of becoming the world center of power, western Europe had to discard this social structure: feudalism doesn't scale, and the specifically western European feudal structure doesn't scale well at all.

The greatest powers on Earth were in Asia, specifically the Chinese, Persian and Ottoman Empires. (As an aside, they are the reason why western Europeans were so busy exploring -- they wanted to go around the Turks and the Persians.) The thing is, the social structures of the Chinese, Persian and Ottoman Empires were vastly different from what western Europe had...

  • "I've got a setting in a low-fantasy world roughly at the technology level of late 15th century Earth."

    I assume you mean the technology level of late 15th century Old World. It is meaningless to speak of a technology level of the entire Earth at that point in time.

  • "They "reign" over the whole world. Or at least enough of it to say that they rule the world."

    That's the Emperor of China. He and his bureaucrats were indeed supposed to rule over the entire world, and, to the limit of their practical capacity to contact distant peoples, they actually did. The Chinese were vaguely aware that somewhere far far away in the distant west there might have been some barbarians who did not bow to the Son of Heaven, but that was surely only because of the great distance separating them from civilization.

  • "The powers I described were held by the Pope in this era."

    Oh no they weren't. The Pope of Rome held sway over parts of western Europe only, mostly the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. In the Germanies his power was quite restricted (he most certainly had little political power there), and in Great Britain and France it was greatly diminished bordering on the immaterial. His influence was of course completely non-existent in eastern Europe.

  • "That includes people of vastly different cultures, beliefs and heritage than the government or the leader."

    This means that you don't have Christianity and Islam in this world... In the 15th century those two powerful religions were very powerful indeed, and they most certainly did not envisage a path to peaceful coexistence.

  • "This institution regularly prevents wars and resolves disputes through some form of intervention."

    That's... so unlike the 15th century it's comical. There was no power in the 15th century who could prevent war and resolve disputes within a thousand miles, and you want one to preside over the entire world?

So, to summarize:

  • This world has a social structure which in the real 15th century prevailed over a very small part of the real world.

  • The most powerful religions of the real 15th century world don't exist in this fictional world.

  • There is a political power in this fictional world which is vastly more powerful than any political power which actually existed in the real 15th century world.

If you are serious about developing this idea, the only way to do it is to base the world on the Chinese Empire. Not western Europe -- too fractious, too unruly, too bigotted, and, in the end, too weak and poor. Not the Ottoman Empire -- too bigotted, too autocratic, too violent, too remote from the rule of law. Base it on the Chinese Empire.

It was large. It was stable-ish. It was based on the rule of law.

Moreover, the Chinese Empire did not have actual borders; its power decreased gradually as one got farther and farther away, morphing from hard power to soft power to cultural influence. It did have the notion that they were (or at least that they ought to be) the central power over the entire world. It did try to rule sort-of by consensus. It certainly lasted for more than 50 years.

But... It didn't really go exploring. You need to change this. While it did have the technology to make ocean-going vessels, it mostly didn't use it. You may want to change this. It was already showing signs of economic decay; you definitely want to change this. It was actually surprisingly weak; in real history it was actually taken over by the semi-barbarian Manchurians in the 17th century.

  • $\begingroup$ Just... a handful of things. Yes, I am very well aware that 15th-century Europe =/= 15th century Earth. That was just to establish some point of reference. This entity I'm imagining was indeed vastly more powerful than any historic 15th-century entity; that's the whole point. But I cannot imagine an "emperor of the world" to make sense due to the distances involved; I want an international arbiter that people everywhere respect. And the way I want to achieve that is to take a historic entity, and put it on steroids. This is not Earth, it is not even an alt history. It's low fantasy. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ That said, I can see why what I wrote can give the wrong impression. I didn't want to make it too lengthy, or fall in the trap of "you are asking for a plot within your world" trap which happens when one overspecifies it. I thank you for your input, and will update the question to make it more clear how this planet differs from ours, physically and culturally. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ "He and his bureaucrats were indeed supposed to rule over the entire world, and, to the limit of their practical capacity to contact distant peoples, they actually did" I'm not sure how happy Koreans or Japanese would be about that statement. Right on Beijing's door, and not very much under its influence politically. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Cullen
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 3:35

You don't really need a world 'government' in the current sense of the world. Catholicism* has won and is the only religion left. Every single person from emperor to peasent is quite concerned about the pope*'s opinion because it determines wheter he goes to heaven and hell. From that position the church can also easily take on arbiter duties. And the inroads the catholic church made into exercising temporal power as well as theological and the conflicts with worldly rulers fill books already.

To be air I doubt it's not gonna be an incredibly stable state of the world, but for a few centuries you should be fine.

*Of course it's not actual catholicism or the pope, adjust to your own needs the beliefs and structures.


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