A multi-state feudalistic medieval society manages to accomplish certain advancements (directly agricultural and supportive), specifically discovering/refining/implementing:

  • Crop rotation
  • "Modern" plough
  • Transportation infrastructures, such as improved roads and canals
  • Land conversion, land drains and reclamation
  • Increase in farm size
  • Selective breeding
  • Drilling and sowing
  • Enclosure
  • Modern irrigation techniques
  • Agricultural specialization

Over the next few hundred years, would feudalism realistically survive? As a sub point, assuming >95% of the population was involved in agriculture (directly, or supportive such as trade) before, roughly where might the percentage settle to?

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    $\begingroup$ I think you possibly misunderstand feudalism, or are using the popular image of it as lords and mistreated serfs. But it's really a set of mutual obligations running through all levels of the society. It would certainly be possible to imagine feudalism & modern agriculture coexisting, or even feudalism & modern industry. Japanese industry, for instance, tended to be rather feudal up until roughly the beginning of this century. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 25, 2016 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ everything you've listed existed on the almohadic (700-900) and pseudo-visigothic ( there's a big discussion wether the visigothic invasion is a thing) hispania, and it worked quite well for them to the point their irrigation channels and models are still used. $\endgroup$
    – CptEric
    Oct 25, 2016 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ This question seems to have a hidden assumption that technological innovation is the sole driver of social change. Or that more advanced technologies necessarily entail more advanced social structures. More often, both social and technological change interplay with each other. $\endgroup$
    – user151841
    Oct 25, 2016 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ You've basically described all the advances that middle-age Europe went through. As food got more varied and cheaper, labour could shift from agriculture to manufacture and services, and there was more labour available in total. Feudal lords only controlled agriculture (don't mistake serfdom for feudalism - a feudal contract was a normal contract, not really different from today's contract work or even capitalism; you rented a piece of land and worked it). That said, you could argue that the burgeois (where manufacture and services were most advanced) weren't really much different. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @user151841: Though to be brutally accurate, democracy is hardly a modern social structure, having its roots in ancient Greece :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 25, 2016 at 18:00

10 Answers 10


Unfortunately, this question is difficult to answer, as many of the techniques you speak of go back long before feudalism. Several of these were known in the medieval period in Europe--some of them were known in Roman times, or even earlier.

Crop rotation

Crop rotation was practiced in the Middle East as early as 6000 BCE.

Land conversion, land drains and reclamation

The Romans used stone-lined land drains both to direct springs to a desired destination, and to drain lands for agriculture.

Selective breeding

Selective breeding goes back to pre-history.

Drilling and sowing

The Sumerians used a single-tube seed drill. The Chinese used a multi-tube seed drill.


In the agricultural sense, enclosure goes back at least to the 13th c. in England.

All of the mentions I mention from your list were in use in medieval times.

Now, would feudalism have survived the other things on your list? I don't foresee problems with a modern plough, improved transportation infrastructure, improved irrigation, or with larger farm sizes. The biggest factors that would lead to the end of feudalism would be agricultural specialization.

The feudal system was economically based on farming, but it also had a social basis: a commitment to provide certain things for the other party. The workers (the serfs) provided labor, the lord provided protection and care for the workers. What led to the end of feudalism in Europe was a break-down of the social order and the loss of that sense of mutual obligation.

We see a similar economic relationship (without the sense of mutual obligation) in sharecropping in the American south-east. After slavery was ended in the United States, agricultural labor became a surplus on the market: property owners persuaded many former slaves to engage in sharecropping arrangements that were little better than their previous slavery. The freedmen who worked these farms were not legally tied to the land (as the serfs were in Europe), but most were economically unable to break free of the sharecropping agreement. Often the sharecroppers were paid barely enough to survive, and they became dependent upon the landowners for survival (meager survival though it frequently was).

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    $\begingroup$ What could make it problematic with Feudalism is the succession laws. Let's say you're Mr. Pepin. You have two sons, Karl and Carloman. Let's say that you, Pepin decide to initiate crop rotoation. If your succession laws are Primogeniture, Seniority, or anything that isn't Gavelkind, your successor will inherit the whole estate, and thus be able to continue your work. But if it's gavelkind.. well, now your sons are going to share. But in that case, crop rotation is extremely hard IF they disagree on how to do so. So in the end Karl has to ask his mom to kill Carloman so he's known as "great" $\endgroup$
    – Oak
    Oct 26, 2016 at 8:02
  • $\begingroup$ Gavelkind made things complicated, that's for sure--and not just on the scale of a kingdom. Too many generations, and what was once a stable and successful farm is now a motley collection of barely arable strips. $\endgroup$ Oct 26, 2016 at 15:49

If your world is about agricultural economy, you could easily explain feudalism in your story by keeping the population at Malthusian trap thus preventing surplus accumulation. Actually de facto feudalism was still alive in most of the world till the very recent age, check The Peasant Betrayed how various land reforms fared, both socialist & capitalist. The places where land reforms succeeded are usually known as success stories, the places where land reforms failed and landlords kept their powers or socialist government put everybody in collective farms, are known as failures. Since countries without any significant export resource have to skim the agriculture.

The state also had very large effect on creating the capitalism, for example by enclosing the commons

"Suppose for argument's sake, 20 five-acre farms, cultivated by spade husbandry, together were more productive than a single 100-acre farm using machinery. This did not mean that the landowners would get more rent from them — far from it. As each 5 acre farm might support a farmer and his family, the surplus available for tenants to pay in rent would be small. The single tenant farmer, hiring labourers when he needed them, might have a lower yield, from his hundred acres, but he would have a larger net profit — and it was from net profit that rent was derived. That was why landlords preferred consolidation."

And if you want today's data check Guinea & Lao both over 70% agricultural population


It depends on which of the common definitions of "Feudalism" you're talking about. Pure Feudalism? Or specifically the European implementation of Feudalism during the Middle Ages?

Pure Feudalism is simply a contract-law approach to government. You've got a bunch of population centers of various sizes, and they make agreements with each other to achieve their collective goals.

For example, a slightly stronger manor or village goes to is neighbors and negotiates that if those neighbors agree to each provide 40 men on demand for up to three months, the stronger party will use them for the common defence to repel invaders and brigands. This would be how the local lord gets started. Note that the deal goes both ways though: if the lord doesn't fulfil his obligation to defend the territory, he'll find that his neighbors stop sending him troops when he calls for aid, and probably pick someone else to be the regional commander. He may or may not, at that point, be able to convince them to let him back into the defence pact, it depends on how badly he screwed up.

These contracts aren't limited to defence, they can include trade, road usage and maintenance, and anything else necessary to organize a society.

Slavery and Serfdom are not an inherent part of a feudal system of government, rather they were an artifice of the low level of economic development at the time. As the technology level increased, free-holdings and townships became more common until the Industrial Revolution made them the dominant social force (largely due to the traditional lords being unwilling to adapt to the new society.)

So yes, you could have a feudalistic society with modern technology, and to the cursory view, it wouldn't be much different than the modern state. The most visible difference would be that when a city or a county or a state or whatever level you choose to look at does something it is forbidden to do (or fails to deliver on its promises), instead of some people complaining, and the courts telling the government that they can't do that, but leaving the same people in charge and imposing no real penalty, the contract would be voided (possibly with penalties for the violating side) and the "government" would then have to beg the lower organizational levels for its power back, with a high probability that someone else would be chosen.

You could even have elected representatives and all the trappings of modern "democracy". It's simply a matter of structuring the contracts between the different levels of organization in a way that keeps everyone happy.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Actually, feudalism was quite democratic on the local level. On the higher level, of course, the common people didn't have much to say in who gets to be the leader or what policies got enacted, but on the local level they could choose their own leadership, and if a town or village paid its taxes and fulfilled its obligations properly, the lord didn't meddle into their internal affairs. Free cities had lots of privileges, and could even enact their own laws. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 25, 2016 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz Yes, that's often overlooked - not only was it quite democratic, there was also a lot of personal freedom. Feudal contracts were just that - contracts. It's just that in some places and at some points in history, you got serfdom rather than feudalism - and some people get confused between the two (England is a fun example of serfdom and feudalism coëxisting for a long time). And when your feudal lord got abusive, you talked to his lord - since your lord also only had the land rented, rather than owned, and could have it revoked at any time legally. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz: "...common people didn't have much to say..." And this is different from contemporary western democracy? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 25, 2016 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf : Yes, it is different it the form of medieval peasants knowing for sure they have no word in the affairs of the central government, and people in modern democracies mistakenly believing they have. :P $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 25, 2016 at 18:23

Feudalism ended due to Lords realizing that they can make more money from renting than by having serfs and peasants that they rule. In other words, the realized that they do better and lose less by "freeing" people. This is why the industrial age brought more freedom as well. The wealthy realized that if they promised only some given sum they could pay overall pay less.

Advanced farming techniques would have only sped up the process by moving farmers into the non-farming labor classes that could be switched to renting more easily, but ultimately the farming techniques have nothing to do with feudalism per se. If the Lords didn't see renting as more valuable then regardless of how advanced farming would get the Lord would not move people on to renting.

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    $\begingroup$ Can't believe this is the only answer to mention feudalism being worse for those in power than the alternatives. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2016 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @JaredSmith Depends on what you call feudalism. In the pure form, there's only the feudal contract - no different from any other work contract, rent arrangement or even a loan. Slavery and serfdom are not inherent in feudalism, and most countries had a (different) mix of both. Of course, if you failed your contract, the result was often serfdom or slavery - but that's hardly exclusive to feudalism. When industrialism started in Europe, the remaining aristocracy (long far removed from "feudalism") fought quite hard to retain their labour with force - they weren't competitive employers. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan I would argue that the feudal contract (at least as practiced historically) is different from the others, because the others that you mention are generally more mechanical than the noblese oblige expected of feudal lords... ditching the weight of the (largely implicit) cultural assumptions for more explicit terms was the real win. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2016 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JaredSmith True, but I feel that's just part of the contract. All contracts are binding both sides of the contract, otherwise why would you sign it? Even today, most contracts implicitly include all the relevant laws (and there's quite a few when you're in a sufficiently etatist country :D) - I'm not saying it's exactly the same as the cultural implications of the time, but I wouldn't say is too different either. It's still something you can't choose to avoid, still something that will change existing agreements, still something not decided by the people involved in the contract... $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Durakken although serfs were not slaves in name its worth noting that they were bound to the land they worked... if the land changed ownership the serfs got a new master. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2016 at 14:42

Everything you've listed above has been used by civilizations dating back to before the birth of Christ. And yet, feudalism still existed for hundreds of years.

What you're describing are advanced agricultural techniques, not social reform, which is exactly what you'd need in order to end the effective slavery of the farmers.

In a feudal society, the nobility own the land, and everything which is grown on it. The peasants work the land every day of their miserable lives, and are magnanimously rewarded by their lords and masters with just enough food to stay alive, and maybe a plot of land on which they might grow some personal food stuffs.

Growing more food, using more modern techniques would change nothing other than make the ruling nobles richer, and fatter. And, OK, maybe fewer people would starve to death (although that's not a guarantee, as food storage was still shoddy, and prone to being lost to pests or diseases)

What you'd need in order to alleviate or abolish feudalism is armed rebellion, or that the nobility grow a conscience and willingly give up their power and privilege. You judge which is more likely.

  • $\begingroup$ To add more source info, everything that the OP mentions is discussed as having existed already in the Classical world in this book, with the exception of the 'modern' plow and irrigation (depending on how you define the word 'modern'). This book shows that these things were still around at the Renaissance, again depending on how you define 'modern' irrigation. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Oct 24, 2016 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Feudalism was usually not abolished overnight with an armed rebellion. It was a much more gradual process, tied to the accumulation of wealth in the middle class and a rising merchant/industrialist class. In most European countries nobility as a class persisted well into the 20th century, and their power in politics didn't end with them being deposed in an armed rebellion. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 25, 2016 at 6:19

If I'm understanding you correctly, you're drawing an implied link between feudalism and agriculture, in which the peasantry or serfs need to be inefficient agricultural workers for the institution to survive.

However, this depends entirely on the tradition and context one is discussing. In western Europe serfdom didn't survive the black death. This owes to two factors, firstly that in this region there were upper, lower, and middle classes. The middle class; freemen or yeomanry in an English context, had legal rights and could own land.

This was very important, as it allowed families to accumulate wealth and status down the generations, eventually joining the upper class... perhaps even seeing their grandchildren able to woo royalty. This meant that the mass death caused by the plague rose the cost of labour and allowed the middle and lower classes bargaining power, especially as in England there had been basic constitutional rights granted, restricting the monarchy - monarchs and nobles couldn't just enslave or murder freemen going about their business. They had negotiating power owing to their legal rights as free men.

The situation in eastern Europe, especially Russia, was very different. While the English king agreed to Magna Carta in 1215; thereby limiting his power and increasing the rights of nobles and free men, the lesser known Sobornoye Ulozheniye drafted in 1649, led to greater restrictions on social mobility in Russia.

The latter code merged the lower classes into serfs, making them property. Not only this, but only the nobility could own land, and the serfs were heavily restricted, needing internal passports to travel between towns as they did not have any right to travel.

One was not a serf because they worked the land. There were many "house serfs" who served their lord's estate as household servants. There were many other roles serfs played, from traveling entertainers to soldiers, and all the time they remained property. Their noble masters could do what they liked to them, as the Tsar could do as they liked with anyone.

Increasing agricultural efficiency does not change that, because feudalism is a legal principle and structure. Nobles could put their serfs to work as they pleased, including factory work. See the likes of "The Condition of the Serf Workers in Russia's Metallurgical Industry 1800-1861". Factory serfs did not have life any better than their farmland peers, in fact the argument goes that they had it much worse, proving that technology does not in itself provide social emancipation. Keep in mind that by then, still about half the country regarded the Tsar as a living God, and the aforementioned legal code survived until 1849.

Serfdom as an institution was only abolished in Russia in 1861, but for many the reality remained the same for decades to come. So you need a lot more than just increases in agricultural productivity to have a meaningful effect upon society... much less the abolition of feudalism.


Feudalism would almost certainly survive. Why? Because the nobles had the most valuable, important thing of the lot: the castle. Now sure, the power of the inner-city merchants and traders would increase drastically and there'd be noticeable market-style reforms, but as long as the nobility have the right to build strong fortresses, their power remains.

The power of the nobility came in large part because of military strength, not economic might. Sure, many of the high-nobility was also rich as sin during the height of feudalism, but they held on to castle castles that would take years of hard effort to be able to breach.

By comparison, the development of the cannon was the single most destructive weapon against the power of the nobility; it rendered previously years-long siege prospects down to a much more manageable time. Worse, the necessary development of gunpowder made heavily-armoured knights increasingly vulnerable to militia with firearms.

By the time feudalism ended, the nobility were mostly riding on old laws that empowered them to the detriment of the commoner. Their old castles looked more and more like mansions while real defences against invasion were unglamorous squat things.

Now as for demographics, historically the British Agricultural Revolution drastically shifted the balance of population. Where before it'd take several farmers to feed one man in a city, several city dwellers could easily be fed by one farmer. Tremendous booms happened in agriculture, allowing people to switch to higher-payout farmings, like sheep (which also depressed the price of unprocessed wool). Enclosures added tremendous economies of scale to formerly subsistence farms.

The surplus farmers largely ended up in urban cities where slums developed. Terrible, in the short term, but the lure of new, cheaper labour en masse along with much cheaper wool helped break the old guilds and lead to new methods, the earliest forms of mass-production, which itself lead straight into the Industrial Revolution.

There would be turmoil though, especially in the early years. Newly impoverished farmers would be angry. The new bourgeoisie would be angry there's a flat ceiling on how far they can rise. Squalid slums would be breeding grounds for diseases, insurrection, and generally awful things.


It is not as much the technological advances that ended feudalism.

It was more the growth of the bourgeoisie. In the start it was merely craftsmen and merchants who did enjoy some influence on the affairs of the local city or borough.

When that class grew in numbers (vastly outnumbering the nobility) and wealth, their requirement for real influence and power outside of the city's affairs could only be met with a huge reduction in the influence of the nobility.

The nobility had earlier been able to keep their influence due to the fact that they delivered the soldiers for the armies, the armies was now a national issue.

Without that powerbase, the bourgeoisie could wrestle the foundation of the wealth away from the nobility, by taking away their right to cheap/free labour and when democracy arrived simply outvote the nobility.

So to keep feudalism in play reduce the power and number of craftsmen and merchants and keep the control of the armies in the hands of the nobility. Perhaps by having all cities controlled by a local feudal lord, not allowing new settlements outside feudal control.


the more technology used for farming advances, the less vassals are required to work the land.

at some point feudal lords would decide to work the land just themselves(extended family included) and former vassals would have nothing to do anymore.

of course that would lead to those people switching to other fields of work like industry. someone has to built those machines that are used to do their former work at least.


Feudalism and innovation do not go together.

Serfs would do all the work and the surplus would go to the landowner, usually a noble or a monastery. The serfs would not innovate, survival would be the goal of the day, month, year. The landowner would not innovate, as agriculture would be entirely beneath notice.

If the yield would fall short, the serfs would be squeezed a little more. They would starve, but there are always more serfs.

There was some activity aimed at crop improvement by monks, for example peas, but this wasn't wide-spread.

Something like a bridge would be used to extract tolls from the users. Quite limiting the positive effect on the economy.

Productivity was low and basically defined by what a person with tools could do. The speed of innovation would be a snail's pace by modern reckoning. What there was of innovative energy would go to the arts, music, warfare and religion.

The main period for feudalism was not called the Middle Ages for nothing. While modern understanding is a bit more balanced, it still was that period in between with less happening than before or since.

It was actually such triggers as the Black Death, which caused the feudal system to break down that allowed yeoman to flourish and unleash many of the innovations you list.


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    $\begingroup$ Rather than answering the question, you are attacking the OP's premise, as well as ignoring the fact that no innovation is needed to implement techniques which were in use for literally thousands of years prior to the Middle Ages. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Oct 24, 2016 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM The middle ages lost a lot. And gained little. $\endgroup$
    – Bookeater
    Oct 24, 2016 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Bookeater - you've got it backward. Check out Rodney Stark's book "How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity". $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2016 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ The middle ages brought rather large amounts of innovation. It's sad that this is entirely ignored. Sure, the fall or Rome meant a loss of many luxuries - but that was mainly due to the fact that Europe could no longer rely on cheap grain from Northern Africa. Most of Europe was a horrible place for agriculture of any kind, and it took a lot of work and innovation to turn it into useable land. Look at the topography of Europe now - you can still easily see that if not for our efforts, it would be half forest, half swamp. Not to mention it got quite a bit warmer over time. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:18

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