Feudalism consists in a hierarchical system of direct interrelations between individuals.

These relations are built upon asymmetric down-top deference and fidelity. Each rank owes mutual obligations: military protection, money, resources.

A Code of Honor (chivalry code in Europe) is supposed to regulate the behavior (in particular the violence) of the individuals involved in military activities.

In the feudal world, power is based on land property.

In the feudal world, many such groups fight against one another, in order to acquire more lands. So we can find expressions were lords (Fr. seigneurs) are called "war professionals".

Was feudalism similar to contemporary mafia (Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, etc.)?

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    The chat for this question is interesting, but let's limit subsequent comments only to "How can this question be revised to fit within scope?"
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 13:01
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    Without objective ways to measure "levels of gratuitous violence" (and in an era without modern crime statistics to boot) that's going to be either opinion, or somebody would have to do a full-blown historical research project, of the kind that should be published and peer-reviewed to make sure their numbers and measurement methodology is somewhat sound. Again, the former is opinion, while the latter is something that historians have either done for us already (and for all I know, someone might have. It'd make for a baller book), or they haven't.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 15:01
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    I'm going to suggest that downvotes be retracted. This is an interesting question, worthy of this site - but likely not answerable for the reasons spelled out above by @T.E.D. I have my opinions on the matter, and could present some arguments to support it; but much of my underlying foundation would be speculative and I can't think of where I'd go for data. Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 15:20
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    A much better example of a mafia-like society is ancient Rome. If you view politics from the late Republic to the early Principate as fighting between mafia families, much will become clear. Julius Caesar made himself Capo die Capo.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 17:23
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    "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime" by Charles Tilly would be a good place to start.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 19:56

3 Answers 3


The short answer is "yes, they are similar".1

All forms of governance (including monarchy, organized crime and other pre-modern governance entities) are similar to one another because they all have to solve similar problems.

I don't have time today to develop a full answer; I'm going to start with some notes and try to build them out later (I have to admit I'm not optimistic, because I haven't read these sources in 25 years or more, and the sources I can't remember don't contain easily referenced quotes. Sometimes the best I can do is to reference a book or an author rather than a quote.)

The term "feudalism" is currently out of vogue2, in part because

There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars Wikipedia:Feudalism

In the interests of brevity, I'll summarize the complex debate by saying that feudalism conflates an economic model with some political concepts. OP appears to be referring to the latter - the system of vassalage, which is part of the European system of monarchy (again, brevity over accuracy).

All forms of governance are ways of collecting and organizing the efforts of a society See Fukuyama, and must solve certain problems

Each of these are complex topics, worth of books.

The key insight however is one for which I can no longer remember the source that governance isn't boolean (successful or not), but rather exists on a spectrum from fully effective to failed state to anarchy. and the spectrum is asymptotic; most states are in the center and pure examples on either end are rare. But where the state is less than fully effective, entities will arise to supplement. These entities can be co-opted (e.g. guilds, some churches) or can be criminal (e.g. mafia))

In my own words, governance grows from the bottom up and is replaced by more successful forms of governance; if the higher level is not fully successful, the underlying forms of governance will persist. This is (according to the thesis) why gangs exist; they provide governance to disenfranchised communities.

This tension - between competition and cooperation is the source of the intrigue that OP references. If I had time and the freedom, it would be fascinating to research the different roles that church, organized crime and fraternal organizations in this dynamic

But even these subordinate entities must solve the same problems.

  • A code of honor serves as a common set of values that harnesses efforts together and creates legitimacy. (I wish that Fukuyama et. al. provide more evidence of this rather than hand waving), This notion of legitimacy is complex, subtle and pervasive. I have neither the erudition nor the skill to treat it fairly, but at least to me, it is a useful tool to analyze OP's question.

  • fealty (OP uses the term "fidelity", but I'm relatively confident that "fealty" was intended ) co-opts (e.g. land power, criminal franchises, etc. ) powerful individuals into cooperation with the state in a power sharing arrangement. ( OP links this with deference and asymmetry; I think this is important, but I can't quite figure out why; I'm open to education )

Responses to comments that I'll develop if I get time

  1. Fizz characterizes my intent as to classify the thesis as sophomoric. The question is flawed (I think OP and I agree on that), But I find the question intriguing; I commented to OP that thinking about it refined my understanding. Despite the flaws, I re-opened the question because (a) others also seemed intrigued and (b) OP echoed an observation that many have voiced - that we aren't as welcoming to newcomers as we might desire. I thought about revising the question (but OP was not interested, and I didn't see an easy path towards success), so I wondered if merely entertaining the question and permitting answers (knowing that there will be flaws), might benefit the site. Did the experiment bear fruit?

  2. @Fizz is entirely correct to point out that OP referenced the mafia, I switched to "organized crime", but I probably should have once again added the "brevity over accuracy tag" Fizz adds a reference. If the answer were to be developed, it would be interesting to discuss both the variety of "organized" criminal organizations, their adherence to their theoretical code of honor, the role they play in organizing society (examining both the "organized" and the "crime" portions.) This is a complex topic, but I haven't the knowledge or the time to treat it fairly


  1. Which is why no H:SE question should violate Betteridge's law)

  2. This is one of the reasons for preliminary research; to find the right terms to express the question.

  • A better answer than the rest, but I could summarize it as "your thesis is sophomoric". I suspect it's for reasons like his that "validate my thesis" Qs have a dedicated close reason here, but I don't frequent the site often enough to be sure. Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 15:10
  • I could add here that to parallel you quibble about the def of 'feudalism' one can add one about the definition of code of conduct for the 'mafia', esp. since the OP construes the latter as broad a "mafia (Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, etc.)" The commonalities between all of those are going to be be very reifying, to say nothing of commonalities between their codes. There is a looong discussion about how [dis]organized various mafias are here: cambridge.org/core/books/mafia-organizations/… Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 15:31

The question correctly points out that feudal lords and mafia godfathers resemble each other in at least one fundamental way: in a word, patrimonialism.

As Roger has laid out in his answer, the question is based on a comparison of two general concepts that mostly apply to different historical contexts. So I don't think you'll find any responsible historian making a decisive yes or no answer to the question posed. The question is simply anachronistic.

I've hinted in comments that historical sociologists are more apt to generalize. I will quote the abstract of a 2011 paper by Randall Collins which is highly relevant:

The historical shift from patrimonialism to bureaucracy is the key organizational transformation of the past thousand years. Classically, patrimonialism was organization based on private households, plus alliances among them. But there are two types of patrimonial organization: expanded households and patrimonial alliances or pseudo-tribes. The latter include ad hoc warrior coalitions, frequently organized as fictive kin. The main historical cause of the shift from patrimonialism to bureaucracy was the military-fiscal revolution and ensuing state penetration into society. But patrimonial politics did not entirely disappear. In some areas, the state fails to penetrate, leaving the possibility of mafia-style organization. Elsewhere, political machines are a mixed form of incomplete bureaucracy. Gangs are patrimonial organizations, growing in dialectical conflict with bureaucratic penetration and efforts at control. Through a comparison of American, Sicilian, and Russian mafias, the questions considered are whether crime organization recapitulates the history of the state, why some gangs become bigger than others, and why organized crime succeeds or fails in varying degrees.

So the question comes out of the perspective of a world in which the modern bureaucratic state generally prevails. Historically, that's a fairly exceptional situation. In comparison almost everything else across much of human history looks patrimonial to some extent. Where modern bureaucratic states fail, various forms of patrimonial forms of authority may pop up to fill in the vacuum. Mafias are generally an example of this pattern.

In an earlier piece of historical sociology, Charles Tilly emphasizes the extent to which states in general and mafias are fundamentally similar things. They are both protection rackets. In that sense, there is nothing special about feudalism. States are mafias and mafias are states. What makes mafias unique is that they exist in a modern context and are considered illegitimate by supporters of the bureaucratic state.


Feudalism and mafia refer to different political, social, economic and historical contexts. They may be similar in some of their external manifestations - like fidelity or the code of honor, but they are not expressions of the same underlying reality. So there is overgeneralization problem here: an eagle can fly and a bat can fly, are they similar?

Feudalism refers to social, economic and political relations that existed mostly in the middle ages, mostly in Europe (although the definition can be extended to Asia and other areas with some adjustments.) The basis for the relationship was land ownership: the serfs/vassals did not belong to the signor as in slave-holder society, but they were tied to the land and less free to move (unlike hired workers in a capitalist system.) This engendered mutual dependence and mutual obligations.

Mafia is organized crime. It can he organized in a variety of ways - people can be held in fear or made dependent via drugs, or be simply hired hands. Thus, options span all the social systems mentioned above - slavery, feudalism, capitalism. We could even liken the street gangs to the pre-historical human society.

I suppose however, that the question deals specifically with the Italian mafia, perhaps even American-Italian mafia, as depicted in films (these depictions though based on many real facts.) This probably indeed grew out of feudal relationships that still survived in Italy in the XIX-th century. So it is worth asking a more specific question, of how, e.g., Sicilian mafia grew out of the feudal relationships in the region, while the mainstream Italy has gone another way. This restricts both feudalism and mafia to the same place and histirical period (e.g., Sicily, but one could also look of at Camorra or another "organization".)

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    What you propose is to start from a diachronic view, instead of starting for a synchronic view; in order that the diachronic view informs the synchronic one: hypothetically, we can find (many?) traces of feudal system in the mafias (because the latter evolved from the former), and this helps drawing similarities between the two. "So it is worth asking a more specific question, of how, e.g., Sicilian mafia grew out of the feudal relationships in the region" And how the Japanese yakuza grew out of the feudal samurai system, maybe
    – Starckman
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 5:28
  • "We could even liken the street gangs to the pre-historical human society", a historian stated that pre-historical violence is just a myth "Thus, the “savagery” of the prehistoric people would only be a myth forged during the second half of the 19th century to reinforce the concept of “civilization” and the discourse on the progress made since the origins." (translation from French, "Non, les hommes n’ont pas toujours fait la guerre", in Le Monde diplomatique, n°62, juillet 2015, monde-diplomatique.fr/2015/07/PATOU_MATHIS/53204)
    – Starckman
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 5:40
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    I think you need to narrow definitions (of feudalism and mafia that you want to explore.) And if these are close to what I say in my answer, they likely evolved from the same source.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 5:44

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