I can't help but notice that when a kingdom/empire/nation reaches a certain level of development, they seem to change their administration to feudalism. Europe, Japan and China are examples of what I am saying. It seems like feudalism is a "programmed event".

Has there been a reason for this or is it just coincidence?

PS. I, by no means, intend to disparage any nations in my question.

  • 4
    You'd have to define feudalism first, but I don't think China's an example. More generally speaking, I think one might justifiably say feudalism tends to appear under some conditions. I would say it isn't something that appear due to becoming more developed, though.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 4:02
  • You are soliciting opinions here, which is off topic. This site is for answering factual questions, not theoretical ones. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 8:48
  • 2
    Not necessarily. If "feudalism" was the stage between this and that in every civilizations growth, that would be an historical fact. If that was disprovable, even once, it would not be a required historical period of said growth. If it only happened in, say, four civilizations out of 100, it wouldn't be normal. All of that should be historically provable, yes?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 17:19
  • according to Hegel, yes.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 0:27
  • 3
    What is "feudalism"? What is "programmed"? if you mean "is there a period in most states where power is consolidated in the center but partially devolved to local agents?" then the answer is probably "yes", but you've abstracted the question to "What are techniques to control a state larger than your attention".
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:27

4 Answers 4


First, note that feudalism is a term with no agreed-upon definition. At its strictest, it is limited to Europe, but at its broadest, it can even include Antebellum USA. For my answer, I'm taking a rather broad interpretation, that of a system of government that has the following features: a lord, vassals, and fiefs; the lord has nominal ownership of land but grants the right to govern parts of it to vassals. Under this relationship, vassals enjoy broad powers and autonomy (otherwise it becomes impossible to distinguish them from governors or ministers).

In this sense, yes, it is a system of government that arises naturally mainly due to the size of a state and its technological limitations. Specifically, once a state has reached a size but without adequate means to centrally administer it, it must rely on regional administrators, who tend to have a large degree of de facto autonomy from the central authority. If the state becomes too big or if vassals become too powerful, the central authority loses the ability to control its vassals and risks being divided. If the state shrinks or becomes powerful relative to its vassals, it can afford to exercise more direct control and strip powers from its vassals, so the arrangement no longer resembles feudalism.

To take China as an example, its feudal era began in the Zhou dynasty, when fiefs were granted in order to administer the large (for its time) kingdom. The vassals were hereditary and enjoyed tremendous power - they were able to raise armies, levy taxes and create laws - such that some of the more powerful vassals rivalled the Zhou itself in prestige, and within 300 years the kingdom ceased to exist as an effective political entity, and the vassals fought against each other in perpetual war. By most accounts the Chinese feudal era ended when the state of Qin unified China*, but in the proceeding Han dynasty, the government did revert in some aspects to a feudal-like state, with hereditary kings having the power to raise taxes and mint their own currency. Historically, this was a temporary arrangement, and as bureaucracy and infrastructure improved, the vassals were replaced with centrally-appointed, non-hereditary, and usually civilian governors and administrators.

In order to administer a large state without feudalism, you need things such as a strong legalist tradition, good infrastructure for communication and transport, and a large bureaucracy. The Roman empire was blessed with the Mediterranean - cheap and fast transport across its empire. China built expensive infrastructure such as the Grand Canal. The Mongol empire had a large postal service which involved tens of thousands of horses, an unthinkable expense to most. Without a strong entity capable of setting up such systems, it is therefore natural for most large states to stick to feudalism.

*Note that those influenced by Marxism might equate feudal China with imperial China but that is not a POV shared by most scholars, see this for details: Why is the Qing Dynasty in China considered Feudalistic?


It would depend, first place, on a working definition of "feudalism". This is far from consensual, with several not very compatible "definitions" being used and abused without much intellectual effort to clarify the issue.

Let's start from these commonsensical definitions, and by criticising them, attempt to reach some conclusions.

One common idea is that "feudalism" is a widely appliable label that can describe almost anything that a) is pre-industrial; b) is no longer egalitarian such as hunter-gatherer societies; and c) doesn't have slavery as a central social feature.

Another common idea is to equate "feudalism" with either "extreme decentralisation without democracy" or outright disorder.

It is easy to see that under the first "definition", a society can only avoid a "feudal" "stage" if it instead bases its pre-industrial inequalities upon slavery. In this sense, yes, any industrial society will have to pass through a "feudal stage" in its way from chipped silex to silicium chips, unless it could someway transition from slavery to capitalism. In that sense, "feudalism" could be seen as a "programmed" event - if you think that humans are bound to superate primitive living conditions.

Conversely, under the second "definition", it is either a non-programmed event, or, if you think that human societies necessarily undergo "cycles" of expansion-stagnation-decadence, a "programmed" event in a circular, rather than linear, "program".

Problem is, these definitions, besides being trite and intellectually insatisfactory, do not describe the same phenomena. One who adheres to the first "definition" would see feudalism in Imperial China, but not (at least not without several qualifications) in China when dominated by warlords. The other would conversely see feudalism in lordwarring China, but not in well ordered Imperial periods of Chinese history.

So what is feudalism?

If we start from history, instead of abstractions, feudalism is, first place, the system that developed in Europe from about the 9th or 10th century on. As such, it features some characteristics that may be absent or present in other societies, such as mediaeval Japan, India, China, Middle East or Africa. Those characteristics may be listed as follows:

  1. Most agricultural production was provided by individual peasant families. Those would have to share their product with landlords, through different mechanisms, namely labour rents (the peasants' access to their land parcels implied the obligation to work in the lord's fields for a given number of days per week) and sharecropping (the peasants' acces to their land parcels implied the payment of a rent in the form of a part of their harvests to the landlord).

  2. These peasants were not slaves (ie, they could not be sold or rented or otherwise treated as property), but they were often serfs, ie, they were bound to land, which they could not leave without express permission of their lords (and, conversely, from which they could not be legally expelled at the lord's whim).

  3. There was a marked social division between rural and urban sectors of society. While there were plenty of rural or itinerant artisans, cities concentrated most of the crafts, and the production there was organised in a remarkably different way. Basically, the common artisan was either a journeyman or an apprentice; both earned wages. Their masters were guild members, and typically were artisans themselves; the guild was an organisation that regulated most of the production and commercial practices, even fixing prices and wages. In theory, apprenticeship was a way for the young artisan to become a master himself; in practice, masters could keep apprentices in such a condition for a very long time, thus maintaing them in dependence.

  4. Both in countryside and city, but more conspicously in the former, there was a characteristic fusion of ownership and political functions. Landlords were typically not only owners of their land, but also it's governors and judges.

  5. The landlords, as a class, were organised in a hierarchic way. Typically, land ownership was a concession from above; a landlord's ownership was inseparable from his relation to a higher landlord (thence a hierarchy of barons, viscounts, counts, dukes, kings, towering above the lower layer of untitled lords), and such relation was a one of political loyalty, implying military duties (mainly meaning the obligation to provide armed men at the overlord's request). That relation between property and poltical-military loyalty constitutes the fief - an extent of land owned conditionally to a fealty tie (and, of course, "fief" is etymologically related to "feudalism").

  6. Estates were in principle indivisible, leading to the huge importance of primogeniture, and to a permanent problem of what to do with further children. This favoured re-centralising tendencies within the system, as higher lords could place those landless noblemen at their service.

  7. The State was paired by the characteristic intitution of Church, which remained basically independent from the hierarchical nobility, provided another outlet for "second sons", a upward social mobility way to integrate exceptional commoners into the ruling classes, and generally worked as a "check and balance" structure to the power of the nobility.

Now, let's see what in this arrangement is merely a quirk of European history, and what is necessary for an unequal society that relies mostly in agriculture.

First, a pesantry organised in individual families (instead of clans), is by no means a given. Most societies transitioned from hunter-gathering into agriculture and husbandry without breaking the clanic systems. And some went hierarchic without such a break either. In places such as the Inca Empire or India, the peasantry remained organised in clans (and some historians would say that this is characteristic of a non-feudal social formation, that they would diversely label as "Asiatic" or "tributary"). So, this feature seems to be not necessary for a hierarchic but pre-industrial society.

But it seems that, barring slavery, the organisation of production in the basis of an exchange of rent for land access cannot be avoided. Wages can only become generalised in agriculture once quite stronger urban markets develop, which is only possible post-industrialisation.

Second, serfdom does not seem to be a necessary feature. And indeed, European feudalism saw a general tendency towards the abolition of serfdom, which generally predated the end of other "feudal" relations, such as fiefs, vassalic hierarchies, rent, primogeniture, etc. On the other hand, serfdom can well be imposed into a clanic peasantry, so it is quite possible that some societies (again the Incas, ancient Egypt) had institutions similar to serfdom without individualised peasant families.

Third, the peculiar urban/rural divide of Mediaeval Europe seems quite original, not being replicated by most non-European mediaeval societies (with the exception of Japan). This is not to say that those other societies did not have a urban sector; rather, non-European cities tended to be mostly political centres instead of manufacturing poles.

Fourth, the fusion of political power and land ownership seems unavoidable, but its precise form in European feudalism is quite peculiar. In other societies, as again among the Incas, and in most of mediaeval Middle East, the State retained land property, and established its "nobles" as governors ("satrapes" as the Persians called them) but without allowing hereditary ownership. The characteristic European personalisation of the political/ownership fusion seems to have been only fully replicated in Mediaeval Japan.

Fifth, again the fief seems to constitute an European (and Japanese) exclusivity.

Sixth, and intimately related to the two previous issues, if land ownership is not to be divided indefinitely, to the point where it would cease to constitute the apanage of an actual ruling class, either primogeniture or State property of land seem unavoidable. Again Japan joins Europe in the characteristic primogeniture rule, but, although I can't claim enough knowledge of these societies, I suspect that Imperial China, as well as Mediaeval India and at least parts of Africa (namely Ethiopia) were under similar rules.

Seventh, if primogeniture is the rule, "second sons" of the nobility constitute a problem, and institutions that attempt to solve it will be necessary. Evidently, the Mediaeval Catholic Church was unique and totally due to the precise history of Europe. But the Japanese samurai (which more closely relates to the European errant knightship, of course) are another, if less complete, attempt to deal with the problem. And one cannot fail to notice the similarites between Tibetan monasteries and those of Europe, although the evolution of each seems to have been completely independent.

So, in conclusion, feudalism seems to be more than a European peculiarity, but less than a necessary stage in the evolution of all societies. But it is probably no coincidence that an early and internally controled transition to capitalism only happened in Europe, and, to some extent, in Japan. Societies that underwent no feudal "stage" or did so incompletely or dubiously seem to have only "progressed" into capitalism as a direct result of European/North American expansion.

Sorry for the verbose answer, but the question is actually quite complex.

For further reference, Perry Anderson's Passages from antiquity to feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, and Barrington Moore's Social origins of dictatorship and democracy provide in depth study of both European and non-European societies and history, of which the above is in some senses an impoverished summary.

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    Glorious answer. I'm going to hire a botnet just to up-vote this answer a gazillion times.
    – pokep
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 1:27

There is a set of social science theories termed Cultural Evolution that covers that phenomenon. The idea is that certain sizes of societies require certain kinds of organization. Thus relatively diffuse hunter-gatherer societies can get away with a good deal of egalitarianism, but as a society (or "tribe") gets larger and more densely populated, more organization is required and a more stratified society emerges.

Polynesian islands are often put forth as being a natural illustration of this concept, as the origins of the natives (Polynesians) are common and well known, but each island chain is isolated enough to have developed its own local culture. By the time of the first European contacts, the smallest and least fruitful islands were the most egalitarian, while the largest and most fruitful (eg: Samoa, Hawai'i) boasted full-blown feudal-style royalty.

Classic Cultural Evolution theory is a bit out of favor now, as it equated being more socially stratified with being advanced and modern and "more evolved", and was used to justify colonialism and the destruction of native cultures. But if you just take the "size to level of hierarchy" relation for what it is, the observations seem sound.

  • "Guns, Germs and Steel" by J. Diamond is a rather nice book that explores this same concept (among others) in detail.
    – Peteris
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:43

Because feudalism is just simple. It's basically rule armed thugs you pay so other armed thugs don't pick on you, often in barter. All you need for the rise of a feudal society is the breakdown of central authority and widespread violence and the rise of hereditary warrior class.

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    Breakdown of central authority is frequent enough in history, but the rise of a hereditary warrior class is a rather complex phenomenon.... Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 11:23
  • yeah i've explained myself poorly here, Feudalism is simple. It;s easier to organise, the rise of local strongmen is petty normal once central authority collapses and the gelling of that into a system of feudal relations is more likely than others has it is just so simple.
    – pugsville
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 2:55

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