In previous posts, I discussed the development of archaic and tribal religion [here and here]. The use of totems provided the key element of social organization, as it unified large groups of loosely related people behind their totemic representation. In these early societies, the prime totems were an amalgamation of ancestors, animals, and natural forces, taking the shape of what we now call gods.
Feudal society arose out of tribal society with the invention of conquest. The root cause is actually quite simple: one tribe figured out it could conquer and enslave other tribes. The enabling conditions are also quite mundane: agriculture and weapons technology. The dawn of the Bronze Age provided for the dawn of feudalism, by providing the first weapons breakthrough: metal armor and weapons. Agriculture provided both the concentrated nutrition for a large population of slaves to survive on, as well as the work for the slaves to accomplish. We see slavery already entrenched in the social systems and laws of the first civilizations in the Near East and China.
The primary beneficiaries: hunter/herder tribes. Naturally warlike and violent because of their hunting economy, with an eye for effective weapons, they were also the first to tame the horse. Thus, they become the world first mounted cavalry, providing an insurmountable power against the non-mounted non-armored agricultural peasants. From the time of the ancient Aryans, circa 2000 B.C. up until the late medieval period, circa 1500 A.D., the feudal world thrived and grew. The Mongol hordes were the most glorious example of the type and the pattern. The violent hunter tribes would conquer the agriculturalists, setting themselves up as the weapon-wielding nobility. In all feudal systems, the slave-peasants are prohibited from having weapons, reflecting and continuing the pattern of enslavement forced on their conquered ancestors.
These is the origin of human government. The history of kingdoms throughout the world is little more than a history of which tribes were in power. They called themselves dynasties, and a dynasty ended when some other tribe overthrew the tribe in power. The feudal system worked so well, they usually lasted hundreds of years. Overthrow rarely occur from within, but was only accomplished by a vigorous warrior tribe from the outside.
Religion played the key role in the stability of the feudal system. In all feudal systems, the warriors were granted the divine right to rule, willed by the gods, guaranteed by the laws of the universe. Slaves were constrained from rebelling by fear of punishment in the afterlife. Rebellion against the ruling class was considered a crime against nature itself. The slave/serf population always vastly outnumbered the population of the warrior/nobility, but the servant classes usually never even thought of rebellion. The most effective feudal religions, like Hinduism, made the servants fear to even think bad thoughts, because even their bad thoughts would be punished through the laws of karma.
The power of the feudal system was brilliant in its simplicity and fueled its own growth and spread. The warrior tribes are freed from labor by the work of their slaves, allowing them to specialize in war and continue further conquests. The merchant and intellectual classes developed out of the warrior tribes. Merchant activity was a natural outgrowth of the travel and communication that accompanied the scouting of the warriors. Intellectual activity was a natural outgrowth of the activity of the priests, who maintained the laws and scriptures. Writing and mathematics grew out of the joint needs and activities of merchants, lawyers, tax-collectors, and priests.
The feudal expansion pattern of conquest and enslavement would only slow down when bumping up against another slave-supported warrior society. Naturally-enclosed societies, like
An example of this refining process is found with the Arabs, who stumbled upon the single most successful feudal formula, which involved the key ingredient of polygamy. Polygamy has been practiced at all times in all warrior societies, as conquest provided a surplus of girls from conquered populations. However, such polygamy is not usually systemic, as it depends on fresh conquests, and usually it passed out of stable societies as fresh conquests became less available.
However, Arabs formalized and guaranteed permanent polygamy through their religion, and thus introduced a powerful destabilizing element in their own societies. For every rich older man with 4 wives, there are 3 young men with no women available, and the powerful sheiks would collect dozens of wives. I have previously discussed the socially negative effects of a woman shortage, here. This continual and perpetual shortage of women created a continual and perpetual surplus of warriors, fodder for the expansion of the society through conquest.
The logic of this Arabic polygamous feudal culture was completed through an ingenious stratagem utilizing captured slaves as palace guards. In essence, this fully utilized and channeled the destabilizing element created by polygamy. Their scheme was diabolically brilliant: create a surplus of warriors through polygamy, send that warrior surplus on conquering missions, turn the captured slaves into eunuchs or celibates (removing the threat to the harems of surplus women), and use those slaves to administer the government and as elite palace troops! Incidentally, those captured slaves came exclusively from the Christian lands of southern Europe and
The system was like a perpetual motion machine, continually feeding and rewarding aggression, war, and slavetaking. Given this brilliant system, it is hardly surprising that the feudal Islamic empires spread so far, from
Throughout the modern period, Muslim societies were disfunctional messes because they had no outlet for that aggression, it was all inward directed. In the post-modern period of Western self-imposed weakness, the Muslim aggression is again being expressed outwardly, although they are still so weak relative to the rest of the world that most of their aggression is still inward, expressed in civil wars, ethnic conflict, and sectarian violence.
Feudalism was only ended by the democratizing forces that unleashed modernity, forces which I will cover in a subsequent post.