In (very oversimplified) feudalism a vassal gets usage of a land and protection from his lord in exchange for loyalty and services. If the piece of land is big enough the vassal can parcel it to his own vassals.

Would a reverse system also work, in which individuals, households or communities own the land and then offer they fealty to a liege in exchange for protection? The liege in turn may need to bend a knee to another more powerful liege.

There would be no cultural bias against "shopping" for a liege or switching allegiance if current liege is not delivering. Likewise inheritance and claims would have much less importance.

To go deeper into details:

  • There is strong cultural preference to the people on the ground "owning" the land instead of some higher figure. Maybe even to the degree of believing that one can only own as much as he can personally use and by using the land one owns it.
  • The various levels of lords are not usually outsiders - they are usually elevated from their peers by being most competent or threatening. So village champion is simply one with best predisposition to kinking ass and taking names, he bands together with others and select one of their own as their leader, the leader in turn is allying with, subjugating or being subjugated by similar local leaders, and so on and so forth.
  • The selection of suzerain is free only in sense that switching sides is frowned upon by bystanders. Usually the choice is only between candidates that already amassed similar marital strength, or in cases where switching sides upset the balance of power (as the lord power comes mostly from his vassals then he is powerless to stop them if they defect en masse).

Would such a system be feasible in the sense that it could naturally evolve and be sustained for at least few generations?

My worry is that such system would either make high level lords too weak to repeal outside threat - making invaders the new ruling class and ending the system, or, to the contrary, making lords powerful enough to change the system, making their positions independent of vassal wishes.

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    $\begingroup$ So hiring mercenaries to protect your land? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs - not necessarily. I was thinking more along the lines of pooling local resources for protection, then selecting local leader for specialization and better use of resources, then the leader participating in bigger pool with its leader, and so on and so forth. $\endgroup$
    – AGrzes
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ What age is this set in? Seeing feudalism gives the assumption of middle ages. $\endgroup$
    – jaskij
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ @AGrzes So like... A capitalistic society governed by elected representatives? $\endgroup$
    – Misha R
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ Not all land was held in fee; allodial estates did exist in the Middle Ages. (Quite unlike the modern age, where most sovereigns arrogate a monopoly on allodial titles, and do not allow ordinary people anything better than freehold in fee simple.) That is, it is not written in stone that a person could only have lands granted by a suzerain. Moreover, powerful lords quite often did shop for a suitable suzerain; it was not at all unheard of. What is the actual question? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 20:25

9 Answers 9


Something very similar to this has in fact happened in the real world.

So yes, it is totally feasible.

This is essentially how saga-period Iceland worked. Free men owned their own land, and generally supported themselves as farmers. The equivalent of a "lord" (a gothi) was not a land owner[1], but someone whom you would contract with to provide taxes or service in exchange for protection and legal representation--and while it might be convenient, there is no actual need for the effective domain of any given gothi to be geographically contiguous.

Being a gothi came with obligations to provide, e.g., a meeting hall for public events, to arbitrate legal disputes, and to represent his constituents in parliament. Like a lordship, the office of gothi was heritable, and there was a limited number of them--you couldn't just make yourself a gothi by getting rich enough. Unlike a typical lordship, however, the right to the office could also be bought and sold.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no extended hierarchy in actual history--gothar reported to the Allthing, and that's it. But I see no particular reason why a similar system couldn't allow for lower-level nobility to contract with higher-level nobility in an arbitrary number of levels, just like feudalism.

[1] Or rather, was not the owner of the land you lived on; not a landlord. He almost certainly owned his own land to farm, just like his clients.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, this was informative! Thanks pal $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ The system eventually broke down partly because the supply of goðorð was fixed and a few families bought them all, if I understand right. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ @AntonSherwood Also because they were conquered. So we'll never know if they would've been able to solve the internal problems, or if they were actually unrecoverable. Still, the system lasted for a pretty long time. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 10:29

While a fair idea in theory, I would foresee trouble with this, due to human nature.

The only way this could work, if this is overseen by a king or government, with a standing uncorruptable army controlling the lords. Uncorruptable, because even when overseen, a bit of money in the right pockets would leave one free reign.

History has mostly favoured the powerful. By default, farmers and vassals don't have much power, hence their need for protection. When they decide they don't like their lord, sure they could switch to another, but that would be income out of the lords' pocket. They would not like that much. Without a controlling government, nothing would stop them from going rogue, and instead of honouring their vasals, terrorise them instead. They could simply take what they need. And if they are the strongest lord around, shopping for another won't do the vassals much good.

When a controlling government is present, this could help, but still things like blackmail or emotional manipulation could deter the vassals from switching.

Also, you would run into the issue of location. If a vassal decided there is a lord they like, but they live several days travel away, then it would be much harder for the lord to provide the promised protection. When you just go with the closest one, despite how terrible they are, at least they can send some soldiers in reasonable time.


Early feudalism was VERY much like this

Let's start off with some context: The Franks who conquered modern day Germany, France, and Northern Italy had different laws regarding inheritance than most early civilizations. In the Frankish kingdom, when a man died, his wealth was distributed evenly amongst his sons instead of all going to the oldest. After Charlemagne built his empire, his 3 grandsons invoked this law not just to apply to belongings, but to land rights themselves; so, they split the empire into 3 parts. And this tradition of splitting land rights carried on for a few centuries, one generation after another, into thousands of much smaller estates that would often amount to little more than small farming communities or even districts within a single township.

During early feudalism in Europe, a lord was just a landowner, typically descended from Charlemagne. His fief was his inheritance and his alone, but fiefdoms became so small that a single boat full of Vikings could have more soldiers in it than many lords could muster. So, lords made choices to form alliances with thier neighbors. Feudalism began as just a system of ad hoc alliances between these independent land owners. You picked your allies as you saw fit.

Over time, those lands that had been the least divided over the generations enjoyed hegemony status. They could raise the largest armies and the most wealth; so, nearby lords would choose to ally themselves to the larger territories. While these lords were free to swear allegiance to whoever they wanted, it was a matter of convenience to ally yourself to your strongest neighbors.

After a while though, three problems emerged:

1 - If you did not choose an alliance, hegemons had enough power to force you into it by threat of force.

2 - Hegemons treated thier allies as assets. An ally's value was measurable in how much wealth, power, and strategic advantage they could contribute. This made giving up an alliance an unacceptable loss in many cases. Moreover, when an alliance matters enough to two hegemons, then the lesser lord's allegiance may be decided for him to either prevent or as a result of war.

3 - Bloodlines die off and a parcel of land would become unowned. To prevent in-fighting within an alliance, the local hegemon would often declare whose land it would become. This created the illusion that it was the higher lord's to give which latter became a matter of tradition.

In short, your scenario is the expected state of things during an early feudal period; however, maintaining it over a long period of time is unlikely.


This is how feudalism actually worked in practice, at least in the Early to High Middle Ages until powerful nation-states were established.

The power behind a feudal lord in actually not land per se, it's the force (military or otherwise) that they can support their ambitions with (that's why they are also called "warlords") and their ability to use it efficiently.

So a sovereign-vassal relationship is a two-way road. If a vassal starts feeling powerful enough -- e.g. could strike an alliance with others, or their liege was weak or in turmoil at the moment (arguments about inheritance were the most common cause), -- they could very well act without regard to their liege.

This is why every large enough country has gone through a period of feudal fragmentation.

I've recently read a book about the Byzantine empire and surrounding regions (incl. South Italy and Near East) in the Crusades era. The lords there, both at home and on the move, were changing allegiance left, right and center depending on how powerful they felt in comparison to others and whose troops were standing at their gates at the moment. E.g. the Byzantine emperor demanded an oath of allegiance from passing crusader lords, which they later disregarded and founded independent crusader states because the empire couldn't project enough force to put them into line.

Only the establishment of nation-states made this practice to decline. The new central powers and new means of logistics could now project enough force quickly enough to put a rogue region lord into line and put measures into place to weaken the regions (e.g. replacing vassals with nobility who had fewer land and limited rights over it). And with establishment of national self-identification and cultural integration (which is effectively the same), is has become even more taxing to split off because cultural and economic ties would now be broken as well (before, every region and even every village was largely self-sufficient).


Citizenship brings obligations.

In your setting, it is not just paying taxes, it includes frequent military reserve callups, jury duty, and so on. But there is a way out for family men who do not want to serve that way. They give part of their political rights to a proxy who takes the matching obligations. This is recognized by the legal system -- the callup, the tax forms, the jury summons go to that proxy.

Pretty soon the professional proxy is serving full time, either in the military or in domestic roles. This lifestyle becomes traditional in some families while the rest of society gets used to not serving and not voting. They still have to pay taxes, of course, but they pay them to their proxy who hands it on to the government. After skimming a little from the top as administrative fees.


What if you flip it in a different direction? One where farmers have all the power.

Let's say for some reason it's very difficult to grow food and only a few people have the ability to grow anything at all. There are relatively few farmers who provide for everyone else. Mercenaries might have the ability to kill or coerce a farmer, but if they do they risk mass starvation because the farmers aren't easily replaceable. So instead you'd end up either with a system where a few farmers are the Nobility and order around the martial forces, or one where the farmers are revered as a special and protected class (holy men e.g.) and are fiercely protected by the rest of the community.

This is a hard one to pull off if you are going for realism, but in a fictional/fantasy setting you could make it work.

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    $\begingroup$ Like an agribusiness with sophisticated systems of interconnected AI networks that provide food to feed everyone? Those actually exist today. Just add mercenaries to when civil unrest occurs, and posit a collapse of government oversight. Presto, corporate feudalism. Corporate bankers take over agribusinesses and automate people out of the loop, while promoting monopoly and providing their own security. "According to a recent report, 92 members of Aguán farmers’ organizations were killed between 2009 and 2012—many linked to mercenaries hired by large landowners." - Foodfirst.org $\endgroup$
    – ggb667
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 17:11

actually pretty common in some portions of the world right now, except the protection part maybe.

in middle europe at least a lot of people own small portions of land for historic reasons but don't work on the land themselves. instead they rent their land to someone else who does this with many others too so he gets a much larger amount of land to work on.

only this way he will be able to make profit due to low food prices. of course this is only possible due to high degree of automation in farming that barely involves manual labour any more.

the protection part, in both ways is done by the government of course.


I think you need to rethink your definition of ownership in a feudal society, ownership is not inviolate and not seperate from violence.

The land is owned by the strongest lord in the vicinity because he is the strongest lord.

So no, your system is not stable because the lords would steal the land in a couple generations.

  • $\begingroup$ You're silly. They would steal the people. $\endgroup$
    – ggb667
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 17:13

The feudal lord you describe is what in Italy during the renaissance was called a Capitano di ventura. The commander of a mercenary army. Sometimes they did their duty, but more often they didn't. The trouble is that when the commander doesn't own the land he has nothing to lose and he won't take enormous efforts to push his soldiers. Not counting some famous exception like Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere, these armies won't be willing to take big risks and on average they will be less effective than the armies of the classic feudal lords.


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