We begin the study of modern political systems with feudalism. This is not as unusual as it may seem at first glance for over time there is a great deal of continuity in the social, economic, and political structures of developing nations. The primary mechanism of this continuity is the desire of those more fortunate segments of society to insure that their offspring also enjoy privileged positions. Given this phenomenon, it is not surprising to find that today's present political systems have their roots in feudalism. It is the purpose of this chapter to describe the ecological and other factors accounting for the differences in feudal systems. The chapter also shows how these differences influenced the political systems of the industrial societies that followed.

Feudalism was a phase of agricultural societies. In this type of society, a small number of nobles owned large sections of land that were relatively self-contained economic units. Within each unit, the noble acted as a virtual king. There were, of course, many varieties of feudalism, especially in the varied relationships between feudal nobility and king.

In Europe, early feudalism existed from around 500 to 1000 A.D. The landed estates, often called manors, developed out of the late Roman latifundia or great estates. Seeking protection during the troubled times of Roman decline and barbarian invasions, once-free small land owners turned their lands over to the owners of large estates. In 814, the death of the Frankish king Charlemagne and the disintegration of his empire accelerated the process of feudalization in central Europe. Those in power needed to make concessions to the nobles in order to get men and money to carry out various wars. These concessions meant that the lords of the manors gained full feudal status. By about 1000, this feudal status became hereditary and full feudalism became established.

Manorial systems varied in their severity. In some, the tenants were farmers and herdsmen with homesteads of their own. Nevertheless, they usually had to work for part of each week without pay on the lord's land, and also pay him a percentage of their own crops as well. Feudalism also varied in the degree to which the lord of the manor owned the land. Often he did not own his manor (or manors) in our modern sense of ownership. It was not really his estate, for he was himself a tenant. Another variation in European feudalism was the degree to which parts of lands were not under feudalism. Even in highly feudalized France, some pieces of land always remained outside feudalism. These were termed allods, and they were in effect fully owned by the individuals who occupied them.

An important variation in European feudalism was the degree to which the nobles and kings abused the peasants. In places like Russia, the serfs were virtual slaves. Although none of the serfs' positions were enviable ones, in many countries the serfs were far from being enslaved because they could not be dispossessed unless they failed to live up to their obligations. In some countries peasants were actually freemen. Such was the case in England where freemen were called "franklins." These men virtually owned the land they worked.

Nobles Balance King: the Case of England

As previously mentioned, England was truly blessed by its geographical position. The result was a rather mild form of feudalism. Of course, no nation has an easy time in developing towards modernization, and England was no exception. Many armed struggles took place within the country. These disputes, however, never seriously challenged the underlying unity of the English people. A brief review of English history will show how democracy gradually developed in that fortunate country.

In 1066, William the Conqueror and his Norman forces defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. William the Conqueror then became King William I of England (1066-1087). Once on the throne, William set up a feudal system backed by a substantial feudal army, which was a new phenomenon in the country. The king gave about half of his lands to his Norman barons and, in return, they provided military service. At the time of William I's death, the English monarchy was very strong. In fact, it would take the French monarchy another two hundred years to reach a similar level of development.

Henry II, one of England's greatest monarchs, ruled from 1154 to 1189. He was the first king since the Norman Conquest to be fully literate. One of his greatest accomplishments was the reestablishment of the jury system. The royal courts provided a kind of judicial review over the feudal courts and eventually came to replace these feudal courts. Through this process, one common law emerged in England, making Henry II the true founder of the famous English common law.

As early as 1213, there were signs that the nobles would eventually move to limit the powers of the English monarchy. One such incident involved King John (1196-1216), who argued with the Pope over who would be the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this dispute the Pope excommunicated John. In 1213 John surrendered, accepting the Pope's candidate as Archbishop. Encouraged by King John's defeat, later that same year a group of barons defiantly met at St. Paul's Church where they read aloud Henry I's coronation charter. A year later the barons, mostly from the north, refused to pay the scutage demanded by John, and early in 1215 they gathered under arms at Stamford.

Trouble in France aggravated the situation for King John. In 1214, the French won the Battle of Bouvines, defeating an army of Germans and English under the leadership of Emperor Otto IV, King John's ally. The defeat ended John's hopes of recovering those French lands once controlled by England. The catastrophe of Bouvines eventually led to the famous Magna Carta agreement which limited the powers of the English king. John quarreled with perhaps one-third of the English barons. The quarrels arose from John's ruthlessness in raising money for his campaigns in France and from his habit of punishing vassals without trial. The church, the lesser feudal aristocracy, and the towns soon joined with the nobles in opposition. John, seeing defeat as inevitable, agreed to meet the barons at the meadow of Runneymede by the Thames. On June 15, 1215 the participants signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede.

The most famous document of English history, Magna Carta is in part a written redefinition of the feudal contract between the lord, King John, and his vassals, the barons of the realm. Historians regard the document as the foundation stone of English liberties, but it must be remembered that the charter was really a feudal document, a defense of the interests of a feudal class (Roberts and Roberts 1980:120). There are no references to man's inalienable rights or to the freedom and equality of all men. It did, however, enunciate the principle that the King was not above the law and certainly laid the foundation for English democracy. The medieval kings of England reissued the charter with modifications some forty times. Thus, England never went through the stage of divine-right absolute monarchy experienced by most of the continental states.

John's son, Henry III (1216-1272), tried to win back royal power, but the barons persisted to ensure that he was not successful. Henry's efforts only led to the Provisions of Oxford of 1258. At a Great Council held at Oxford, a confederation of barons and knights forced upon Henry a reform program. Among other things, the provisions established a permanent council of fifteen, consisting largely of barons, whose advice the king had to follow in all affairs of state. The Great Council, whose meeting was now called a "parliament," was to meet three times a year.

It was actually the fiscal duties of Parliament that transformed that body from an aristocratic assembly into a representative institution. And it was the growing scale and costs of war that created those fiscal duties. Finding the old revenue sources insufficient, in the thirteenth century, the kings of England turned to taxes that were national, not feudal. The parliament under Henry's son Edward I (1272-1307) is called the "Model Parliament" because it included all classes of the kingdom. Not only did barons, higher clergy, knights of the shire, and burgesses attend, but so did the representatives of the lower clergy. In 1297 and 1311, the barons forced the English kings to reaffirm Magna Carta and virtually reenacted the Provisions of Oxford of 1258.

In the sixteenth century, the Tudor monarchy (1485-1603) largely ignored the Magna Carta, and Englishmen did not appeal to it until the revolt against the Stuarts in the seventeenth century. But the charter was by no means forgotten.

Under the Tudors, the English became even more united. In 1534 Henry VIII (1509-1547) broke with the Catholic church through the Act of Supremacy. This act established the king as supreme head of the Church in England. Under the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England experienced the Renaissance. During this entire period, the barons worked well with the rising middle class to limit further the powers of the monarchy.

James Stuart, already King of Scotland as James VI, became James I (1603-1625) of England and Scotland, thus bringing the two countries together. Charles I (1625-1649) succeeded James I. Both men had sought to move England toward the divine-right monarchy of the continental type. In 1629 Charles I dissolved Parliament, an act that eventually led to civil war.

In 1640, Charles I, needing money to help fight the rebellious Scots, called Parliament back into session. This Short Parliament was dissolved at once, but Charles had to call Parliament back because he had promised money to the Scots for their cooperation. This session, called the Long Parliament, put through a series of reforms. As a result, Charles I left for the north, and, in the summer of 1642, rallied an army at Nottingham. Parliament simply took over the central government, and civil war raged from 1642 to 1649. In 1649, the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell gained control of the government. The period of Puritan rule lasted only from 1649 to 1660.

The country rid itself of the Cromwellians and in 1649 Charles II (1649-1685) stepped to the throne. This, however, did not mean that English democracy had suffered a death blow, for the nobles overthrew King James II (1685-1688), a declared Catholic. In 1688, an incident known as the Glorious Revolution occurred. The nobles established as their king, William III (husband of James's daughter Mary). Before giving the crown to William and Mary, Parliament first secured their assent to a Declaration of Rights. This declaration subsequently became the Bill of Rights. In 1690, Parliament voted William and Mary the customs revenues for only four years, not for life. It deliberately voted an inadequate revenue to the two monarchs in order to secure frequent Parliaments and to insure the continuance of English democracy.

Necessity of a King to Provide Unity: France

France was much less unified than England and needed a strong king to provide some degree of continuity. This will become readily apparent as we review French history. Clearly, one of the most important figures in early French history was that of Charlemagne (771-814), whose vision was to hold together and protect all western Christendom. (Actually, he was not a king of France, but rather a ruler of the Frankish lands, whose centers were in Germany and Gaul.)

With the death of Charlemagne in 814, the great Frankish empire fell into anarchy and disruption, so that by 843 the grandsons of Charlemagne partitioned the empire. Louis the German took most of the areas in which the residents spoke a Teutonic language, while Charles the Bald (843-876) took the lands in which the Romance languages prevailed.

France had a much less centralized feudal system than England. In fact, France became a loose collection of feudal lordships, each disputing with the others. Charles the Bald was unable to defend his kingdom effectively. Therefore, every noble had to seek a new protector. As a result, the country became covered with noble strongholds. Another decentralizing force was that both counts and viscounts endeavored to enlarge their own authority at the expense of their overlords. Hence, the reign of Charles the Bald saw a great increase in the power of the nobles at the expense of royal authority.

It was from the weak and much-reduced duchy of Francia that the French state ultimately emerged. In 987, the nobles elected to the kingship Hugh Capet, duke of Francia. The ensuing Capetian dynasty continued to rule France for the next 300 years. The powers of the Capetian kings were very limited. Hugh Capet himself was simply a fellow noble, and each of the provincial units was comparable in strength with that over which Hugh ruled. In fact, the Capetian kings promised to take no step without consulting the tenants-in-chief of the realm.

Unlike England, the feudal lords in France were too weak and divided in order to cooperate to offset the powers of the king. In fact, the nobles were so divided that it was important to have a strong king in order to establish order in the country. Still another weakening factor in France was that at different times the English occupied French territory. The wars with England led to the passing of the Ordnance of 1439 that gave the French king the power to levy a tax for the support of a permanent army. This proved to be the start of the French absolute monarchy.

While the French monarchy became more and more absolute, France itself remained divided. More divisions occurred with the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that lasted from 1562 to 1629. In 1572 Charles IX sanctioned the St. Bartholomew massacre of the Protestant Huguenots in Paris. Other towns followed the example of Paris, and altogether nearly 20,000 victims fell.

Following the Hundred Years War, the centralized monarchy, which grew under Louis XI (1461-1483) and his successors, strengthened royal rule by dividing France into local governments. The governors' functions were mainly military, but they did represent the interest of the king against the disruptive feudal nobility.

There followed additional administrative reforms under Richelieu (1624-1642), the chief minister of Louis XII (1498- 1515). Richelieu increased centralization by placing administrative powers in the hands of intendants, thereby reducing the powers of the governors. The new system created a permanent civil service that helped centralize absolute power at the expense of local authority. This further divided the opposition to the king.

Colbert and Louis XIV (1643-1715) carried out further centralizing policies. Unity, however, was never completely attained in France. It remained for the revolution of 1789 to centralize France.

The scenario leading to revolution started with the need for radical reform of the fiscal system. In 1788, during the reign of Louis XVI (1765-1793), the King decided to summon the States-General to give the authorization for the required work of fiscal reform. Usually the kings would play off the peasants against the nobles, but Louis XVI failed to support the radical demands of the Third Estate. This ineptitude set in motion a series of events that lead to the French Revolution.

The first revolutionary act occurred when members of the Third Estate declared themselves the sovereign of France. Eventually, mobs gained control of the government and the armed insurrection of 1789 drove the revolution ever to the left. Through violence, France finally achieved a degree of unity that England had obtained through the blessings of ecology.

As we have seen, ecology helped keep Germany divided. In this section, we discuss how political events also helped divide the German nation. In fact, there were so many divisions within the nation that Germany did not even unite as a state until very late.

The divisions in German society allowed the Catholic church the opportunity to become deeply involved in German politics. This involvement, in turn, further divided Germany and contributed to the Protestant Revolution and the subsequent religious wars. Unfortunately for the world, when unity finally came to Germany, it came under the influence of the military-minded province of Prussia.

Germany became a political part of the west largely through the Carolingian expansion. We already met Charles the Great (known in France as Charlemagne), who was a major figure both in French and German history. A complicating factor for German politics was the close connection between the power of the Holy Roman emperor and the German princes. In the year 800 Pope Leo III gave Charlemagne the title of Augustus, the old name of Roman emperors. According to Dill (1970), by such actions the Germans were early beset with grandiose visions of great empire.

When Charlemagne's empire broke up in the ninth century, succeeding Carolingian rulers could not hold the eastern part of the empire (the future Germany) together. By the tenth century large local units, such as the duchies of Saxony, Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia, gained strength. To the east, states like Brandenburg and Austria grew up amid constant struggles with neighboring Slavs.

Somewhat similar to the situation in France, the rivalry of the German duchies made a solid kingship impossible until the appearance of an extremely able person, the Saxon, King Otto I, the Great (936-973), who defeated rival dukes for the kingship. One of the new king's solutions to prevent further civil strife in Germany was to have great future importance. This was the system of depending on churchmen to carry out political duties. Otto the Great granted large and wealthy fiefs to bishops and abbots. He, thereby, founded the institution of the ecclesiastical principality, independent of any secular rule except the emperor's, which persisted in Germany until the nineteenth century. Given the increased power of the church in Germany, when the church regained political power, it asserted that since the functions of the bishops were primarily spiritual, they should be named from Rome. Dill (1970) writes that here lay the roots of the investiture controversy, which plagued German history for centuries.

At this time, Germany, unlike France, was not yet a fully feudalized country. The dukes were not feudal lords. Rather, free men could own both large and small estates. Technically, land that was still free in this sense was called an allod and allods were far more numerous in Germany than elsewhere.

This lack of a completely feudal system was a threat to the German monarchy. In the eleventh-century, the free landowners, a class that had no exact counterpart in France or England, attacked the German monarchy. The freemen further strengthened their position by becoming the guardians of the monasteries. To keep the new monastic foundations (a source of much wealth and power) out of royal hands, the German nobles often made them the legal property of the pope, who was far away and could not interfere as readily as could the king. Thus, there was not only a "royal" church, but a "noble" church based largely on monastic foundations. In Saxony in 1073, the nobles rose against Henry IV. By 1075, Henry crushed the uprising, but the papacy intervened on the side of the rebels.

In 1077, the Investiture Controversy began. This controversy lasted half a century and ended in the ruin of the German monarchy. King Henry crossed the Alps in midwinter and stood in the snow in front of a castle in which Pope Gregory resided to ask admission and absolution. Henry knew that the pope as a priest, could not refuse absolution. He thereby kept Pope Gregory out of Germany. Henry also received papal support in his wars with his rebellious nobles.

As a result of these struggles, Germany became feudalized. The resultant feudalism, however, was very decentralized, as the nobles acted as if there were no monarchy. Lesser nobles became dependent on the great ones, feudal castles multiplied, and free peasants became serfs.

By this time, the old duchies had largely disintegrated, and western Germany became divided into little feudal principalities, both lay and ecclesiastical. Thus, there arose a new nobility. This new class became the source of the feudal armies and of either support or opposition to the emperors. According to Dill (19 :10), the allodial nobility, the investiture controversy, and political preoccupation with Italy ensured that the princes would emerge as the real rulers of Germany.

During the reign of Charles IV (1347-1378), the principle of elective monarchy fully triumphed. In 1356 this victory became embodied in the famous Golden Bull that maintained that the German electoral princes would choose the emperor. The Golden Bull regulated imperial elections until the end of the empire in 1806.

Meanwhile, a new dynasty arose in Germany. The Hapsburgs began their rule in 1438. These rulers tried to unite Germany, but to little avail. Instead, there occurred growing religious divisions within Germany. In 1517, Martin Luther broke with the Catholic church. German princes saw the Lutheran movement as an opportunity to assert themselves further. Indeed, many princes used Lutheranism to justify the seizure of the possessions and incomes of the Catholic church. With the creation of Lutheran states, the tendency developed among both Catholics and Lutherans to form separate religious leagues. These leagues paved the way for the tragic wars of religion.

In 1529, Archduke Ferdinand called for a Diet at Speyer, at which he read a message calling for no more religious innovations and the immediate calling of a church council. The Catholic majority approved the message, while the Lutherans drew up a "Protest," from which the word Protestant derives. The Diet decreed a return to the very strict prohibition of Lutheran teachings. The Protestant princes responded by leaving the Diet. Further complicating the religious situation were the inroads made by followers of John Calvin. The Lutherans were just as opposed to Calvinism as they were to Catholicism, so the struggle became three-cornered.

Ending the religious wars, in 1555, the Peace of Augsburg established that each prince could freely choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism and could require his subjects to conform to his beliefs. This peace lasted for the next century. The peace, however, encouraged religious segregation by region. By the end of the century, Protestantism hardly existed in Bavaria, Austria, parts of Bohemia, and large sections of the Rhineland.

The divisions along religious lines continued. The Thirty Year's War began in 1618. By 1648 Germany had been defeated, and the Peace of Westphalia reaffirmed the independence of the German states. Foreign nations (e.g., France and Sweden) became members of the German Diet. This ended forever the Hapsburg thrust for a centralized German monarchy.

More than ever, the word Germany was simply a geographical expression. The eighteenth century was to witness the further development of dynastic struggles, which narrowed to a struggle between the south and the north, between Hapsburg and Hohenzollern. The Hohenzollerns provided three rulers of genius to the old state of Brandenburg (later known as the Kingdom of Prussia). These rulers were Frederick William (1640-1688), King Frederick William I (1713-1740), and King Frederick II, the Great (1740-1786). The continued lack of German unity and the rise of the military-minded Prussia was to have profound effects for the future of Germany and the world.

Feudalism Combined with Virtual Slavery: Russia

The Russian model of the state came primarily from the Mongol occupation of that country. The consequent autocratic system in Russia further benefited from the split among the Russian nobility, which the state itself reinforced. We trace these developments below.

The rise of feudalism in Russia is usually dated to 854. In that year, a Danish Viking named Rurik (called in by Novgorod merchants) arrived in Russia. His travels had acquainted him with European feudal systems, and in Russia he organized the administration of the land he possessed along feudalistic lines. He took for himself the title of Grand Duke, and appointed barons, many of whom were his relatives. Rurik then sent these barons to nearby cities with instructions to build castles and to maintain law and order. The system worked so well that within a few years law and order were completely restored. For the first time, a larger area of Russia was no longer divided among many tribes, but had come under one central government. By degrees, the various tribes lost much of their individual identity and became welded together into what was, in many ways, a nation.

By the early years of the thirteenth century, Genghiz Khan succeeded in consolidating under his command a large number of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. In 1223 his forces defeated the combined forces of the Russians and Polovtsy. In 1227 the great khan retreated to Asia where he died, but various members of his family took over where he left off. Batu sacked Moscow in 1237 and Kiev in 1240.

The Mongol occupiers of Russia eventually switched from a policy of occupation to one of indirect exploitation by exacting tribute. Repeatedly, the Russian princes had to confirm their tributary status with their Mongolian overlords. Upon their selection, each prince had to travel to the seat of Mongol power to do homage. Some even had to go all the way to China. The Mongolian domination effectively isolated Russia from the west, thereby increasing the cultural lag between the two areas. Subsequently, Russia suffered two centuries of cultural stagnation.

During these two centuries, the princes of Moscow gradually assumed leadership. As the Mongol occupation weakened, the princes began to take control of the country, and the institution of the tsar became established. The formal government that emerged was a system that had its roots in the Mongolian system. (Another influence on the creation of absolute monarchy in Russia was that nation's constant state of war or preparation for war.) The tsar governed by terror, as the great khans had done, crushing with bestial cruelty any attempts to overthrow the dictatorship. Everyone in the nation became tied in service to the tsar. A new class, the serfs, provided the labor. The serfs, like the serfs of Genghiz Khan, were virtual slaves bound to their overlords for their entire lives.

From the late fifteenth century on, the tsars acted like complete autocrats. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) even thought of the Russian nobles as his personal slaves. He created a special bodyguard resembling the Khan's Imperial Guard. Known as the oprichniks, they protected the tsar from attempts against his life and brutally put down any plot. Because it was their duty to discover plots before they hatched, the oprichniks also became an organization of secret police. Ever since, the rulers of Russia, right down to the Gorbechev regime, protected themselves with a secret police force who, like the KGB of the mid-twentieth century, kept order by terror. These are but a few of the results of the Mongol occupation, but they are enough to show that, had it not taken place, Russia might have been a very different country.

Russian feudalism was unable to develop a united class of nobles to counter-balance the power of the rising monarchy. Instead, the monarchy split the nobility by creating two nobilities. Between 1462 and 1689, the autocracy created a new class of military-service gentry who owed everything to the tsar. Overtime, the two classes of nobles gradually merged in terms of their owning hereditary estates. But more importantly, they still owed service to the tsar.

War Lords: China

The creation of the mandarin class of civil servants in China limited any opposition. This provided an alternative means to power and privilege for the nobility, and, along with the Mongolian invasions and western imperialism, severely retarded China's movements towards modernization.

A typical pattern emerges in Chinese history. A good ruler helps overthrow a corrupt dynasty and establishes a new dynasty. The good ruler is then followed by several generations of heirs that rule well, remaining true to the founder's legacy. Eventually, subsequent rulers become corrupt and neglect the interests of the empire. Peasant rebellions arise, until a new leader ousts the last emperor and establishes a new dynasty. This basic pattern lasted for thousands of years.

A new dimension to the pattern occurred at the time of Confucius (around 500 B.C.). Some members of the lowest level of the aristocracy began to rely on their literacy, rather than their hereditary positions, to advance their careers. Training themselves as writers, thinkers, and experts in history, they became free-lance political advisors to members of the higher aristocracy, and thus broke out of their low-level positions in the feudal hierarchy. Confucius himself stressed that merit was more important than birth in deciding who should hold government office. The meritocratic principle became so thoroughly accepted that the authorities regularly held formal, competitive examinations to choose new civil servants. The Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) created a style of imperial bureaucratic government that, in its basic outlines, endured for over two thousand years. Within the dynasty, there was a gradual replacement of aristocratic power by bureaucratic power. This system provided considerable social mobility as families continually dropped out of the ruling class through laziness or misfortune, while the talented from below rose to positions of power and authority. In theory, the class was one open to talent, even for the great mass of poor peasants. But for most of the poor, the necessary education was too expensive and too hard to acquire for any but the very gifted or persistent. The civil servants (known as mandarins) supported the emperor, and this weakened the ability of the Chinese nobility to oppose royal power.

The presence of bureaucratic career ladders actually worked against the development of a commercial middle class, for merchants, rich farmers, and military officers all wanted their sons to become civil servants. Agricultural land ownership became the foundation of wealth and prestige, and this proved another divisive factor in Chinese society. Rich merchants often invested in land rather than put profits back into their businesses. This obviously retarded the growth of an independent, entrepreneurial merchant class.

Some unification finally came to China when the founder of the Song dynasty united the country to a considerable extent. During this dynasty (960-1279), the support from the mandarins led to increasingly despotic rule on the part of China's emperors, and China's imperial government became increasingly centralized and stagnant.

According to Elvin (1973:69), at this point, Chinese historical evolution began to diverge significantly from that of Europe, to which in one way or another, it had run nearly parallel for over a millennium. Chinese society, like that of Europe at this time, developed in the direction of manorialism; but since the state retained control over defense functions, as it did not in Europe, there was no feudal superstructure, in the sense of a dominant specialist military class disposing of fiefs granted in return for military service and ruling as more or less unquestioned lords. Therefore, in China, there was no strong nobility to offset the powers of the emperors.

In the year 1215, Genghiz Khan sacked the Chinese capital at Beijing, and then turned westward, bringing most of Asia, all the way to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, under Mongol control. By 1234, the invading hordes had wiped out the remaining opposition giving them control over all of northern China. (It was during the Mongol rule that Marco Polo visited China, 1275 to 1292.

The Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644. The Ming, and their successors, the Qing, looked inward, remaining unaware of the extent of European expansion in southern Asia. By the time the Chinese awoke, it was too late to stop the coming onslaught of western imperialism.

Too Much Unity, Combined with Decentralized Feudalism: Japan

We have already discussed how Japan became a highly unified society with a culture emphasizing social cooperation. This unity had an enormous impact on the shaping of feudal Japan. Compared to China, the political situation in Japan was more decentralized. Consequently, rather than there being a struggle between the nobles and the emperor, the nobles that came to power placed their own emperor on the throne and backed him against competing groups of nobles. Chinese society could not afford to be so decentralized for the fear of conquest by others.

Following the Chinese example, the Japanese accepted the concept of an all powerful monarchy. Indeed, the Japanese emperor took on the dual character and functions of religious leader and secular monarch. The Chinese mandarin idea also influenced Japanese society, but the Japanese viewed this system as too meritocratic and foreign, and never fully accepted it. Family status, rather than individual merit, continued to determine both rank and position in the Japanese bureaucracy.

By the twelfth century, Japan had developed a full-blown feudalistic system that would last for seven centuries. It arose in the following manner. As the authority and power of the central government declined in Japan, various groups of local leaders in the provinces banded together for mutual protection. Since hereditary authority was so important, nothing was more prestigious than imperial descent. Thus, many of the groups came to be led by cadet branches of the imperial family, which moved out to the provinces to make their fortunes as representatives of central authority. Economic and political control slowly devolved to the provincial estate managers who strengthened and held their positions by their military prowess.

Two warrior groups consolidated their control over much of the country, the Minamoto in the region around what is now Tokyo, and the Taira along the Inland Sea from today's Osaka through most of western Honshu. Minamoto Yoritomo took for himself the rank of Shogun (military leader of the emperor's army) and settled in Kamakura, some 30 miles from today's Tokyo. The Minamoto leaders killed each other (extinction of the line occurring by 1219), and the wife's relatives, the Hojo family, took over. The system of government at Kamakura, depending as it did on the personal loyalty of a single warrior band spread thinly throughout the nation, eventually succumbed to the ambitions of others. There was a sudden breakdown of the whole system in the fourteenth century.

The period from 1333 to 1573 is known as the Ashikaga period. Ashikaga Takauji commanded a shogunate army from eastern Japan with orders to put down a western revolt. However, he changed sides in 1333. Ashikaga then drove Emperor Godaigo from Kyoto, named another member of the imperial family emperor, and had himself appointed shogun. Central control disintegrated as the local warrior-lords established effective political units, none paying taxes to Kyoto. The Ashikaga shoguns degenerated into powerless figureheads. In 1467, a prolonged war broke out between the great lords active at the shogun's court in Kyoto, and Japan disintegrated into chaotic fighting that lasted for the next century.

Finally, new leaders, who had established complete control over the warriors of smaller but more tightly held domains, came to the fore. It was these men who became the daimyo, or feudal lords, of later Japanese feudalism. Now Japan became a fully feudal land, more like feudal Europe than China. The warriors of that time, called samurai or servitors, placed great emphasis on the military virtues of bravery, honor, self-discipline, and the stoical acceptance of death.

In 1543 the Portuguese won a trading foothold in Japan. The appearance of the Europeans at this time contributed to the process of unification, because they brought with them a new military technology that made Japanese infighting more effective. In the course of the sixteenth century, the more efficient of the new type of tightly organized feudal domains grew through subjugation and incorporation of less successful ones, until by the end of the century Japan had again become politically unified. From 1600 to 1868, the Tokugawa family were the feudal military rulers of Japan.

A Tale of Disunity: India

We have already discussed how India's terrain and geographic location cursed that nation with so many different groups that considerable disunity was the result. In fact, the disunity was so great that to gain a full understanding of the country, it should not be visualized as a nation-state, but rather as a mixture of states such as existed in Europe. For example, in the sixth century B.C., there were sixteen major kingdoms or tribal republics in just North India alone.

An additional reason for the terrible divisions within India is the caste system, brought to the country by Aryan invaders. (The descendants of the old Aryan warriors are now that country's wealthiest landowners.) In India each individual is born into a kin group known as a "jati" and remains a member of that jati, and that jati only, for the rest of his or her life. Social status and social mobility are determined by and achieved through the jatis. Indeed, the jati determines the individual's choice of a marriage partner, the place in the social hierarchy, and the forms of religious observance. It also greatly influences a person's occupation.

Like slavery, the caste system in India is terribly divisive. It divides the forces of the less fortunate against one another, rather than encouraging them to unite to limit the powers and privileges of the more fortunate. The caste system remains to this day a divisive force in Indian society and politics.


Back to Main Page Table of Contents

Return to Home Page