looking for book(s) that deeply explain a feudal society systemtically
February 23, 2022 7:58 AM   Subscribe

looking for such books about japan (ideally japanese, english ok), china (ideally mandarin, english ok), or really any country if you happen to know of a particularly well done analysis. more on what I'm interested in within!

basically, I want a broad analysis of what makes feudalism tick day today. in the case of china I'm particularly interested in the imperial bureaucracies of some particular point in time...what were the ministries? what were they supposed to do? what did they actually do? what was the federation of power like? how did that look like? relatedly, things like the distribution of power, power relationships between different areas, between emperor/king and the aristrocracy, or the wealthy, or generals, and on and on. layered on it'd be great to have an economic analysis as well of how money flowed through it all. basically, I want to get as cross-cutting as possible a view of a feudal society, it's structure, and it's function.

I realize that this is a tall order! which is why I said it might be books :P but if you get the general idea and there is a book that sort of relates to this even if not perfectly, then I'm still interested. I've struggled to find anything at all and while I'm certain it has to exist, I think it may be because I'm not describing this in terms that researchers or historians use for, well, whatever this sort of analysis is called. (incidentally any tips on how to more accurately describe this sort of request are also welcome!)
posted by wooh to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not books, but I'm a huge fan of The Great Courses, especially their history titles. And while I don't remember anything specifically about feudalism, I know I've listened to courses that cover the subject and it wouldn't surprise me if they had a course specifically on the subject.

Anyhow, check out The Great Courses. You can buy them directly from their website, but you can also get them (usually for much less) through Audible.
posted by jdroth at 8:02 AM on February 23, 2022

Some libraries can also get you free access to The Great Courses via the Kanopy streaming service.

How recent do you need? Susan Reynolds' Fiefs and Vassels is from the mid-90s but is an important work and was a big part of the pivot towards questioning how European feudalism actually worked, the dark ages weren't so dark, etc. She dug deep into source material to try and figure out what types of power relationships actually existed in medieval Europe, and questioned the reality of the classic "land in exchange for military service" model of vassalage.

Several years ago r/askhistorians did an AMA looking at the historiography around this question, again mainly for Europe.

For China maybe Li Feng at Columbia might be a good place to look? Bureaucracy and the State in Early China: Governing the Western Zhou does dig into how the bureaucracy in one specific time and place worked.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:26 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

"Administrative history" might be a useful phrase to search.
posted by praemunire at 8:37 AM on February 23, 2022

I really liked Mote’s Imperial China: 900-1800, which I clearly remember covering government structures at several scales. I don’t remember as much about economic patterns except as reflected in tax and currency flows, but that was a lot.
posted by clew at 10:05 AM on February 23, 2022

There is a huge famous pair of books, the two volumes of Feudal Society by Marc Bloch, published in French in 1939 and in English translation in 1961. I think they are still in print in paperback, you could probably find them new or used in a college bookstore. Bloch was known for his then-novel approach to history, examining the whole of society rather than just the aristocrats. I don't know how historians regard these books now.

I stumbled across them in a library when I was in high school and found parts of them quite accessible.
I remember how vividly he described the effects of living with endemic warfare, and the importance of family and blood relations in what we would consider politics and economics.

More details about Bloch and Feudal Society in the linked Wikipedia article. It mentions that the books discuss feudalism in Japan.
posted by JonJacky at 10:23 AM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

One thing that will make it harder for you to find good books would be that classic "feudalism" really was a European phenomenon (and well described in Bloch's book). But for Japanese feudalism, I would look for something more specific to that location - and China really wasn't feudalist ever, no matter what a Marxist interpretation might claim. It was aristocratic in the Han period, but from the Song on, they had really different power structures than the feudalism of medieval Europe, maybe more like the landed aristocracies of Europe from c1500-1800.

(And now I apologise for not being able to offer good titles for Japan or China, but I majored in European history with a minor in modern Chinese history (1800-1980), and went to graduate school in European history. The only Chinese history book coming to my mind is the textbook by Jonathan Spence - The Search for Modern China - which does cover the government in the 18th and 19th centuries and is not a bad place to start for basic history, but you may be well beyond that).
posted by jb at 1:35 PM on February 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

I want a broad analysis of what makes feudalism tick day today.

Going back to your question: do you mean how contemporary historians understand how feudalism worked, or how contemporary feudalism currently works? Because I may be too Euro-centric, but I can't think of anywhere on the planet where there is any feudalism today. (Please do correct me - maybe some regions with warlords could be correctly described as "feudal").
posted by jb at 1:37 PM on February 23, 2022

Acoup! By the immensely talented Bret Devereaux
posted by Jacen at 4:04 PM on February 23, 2022

Response by poster: jb: I mean contemporary research/explanations of how feudalism worked at some specific region and point in time (ostensibly in the past because yeah I mean, feudalism doesn't really exist today).

Thanks for the suggestions all. Of course, invite any others to keep making some :)

To the note about feudalism in China: well put, though I hope that people will understand the intent of the question. If Japan and China didn't have true feudalism then that is cool and good to know, but what I want then is a detailed description of their bureaucracy and political system, no matter what it is called. In the case of China, though, in Chinese at least they do call it feudalism but I can understand if that is a Marxist understanding that historians may disagree with etc. Still, I hope the intent of the question is clear...
posted by wooh at 5:58 PM on February 23, 2022

The thing about Japan is that you have the ritsuryo system established with the Taika Reforms, you have its decay to the shoen system of later eras, you have the bakufu from the Kamakura shogunate and its devolution into daimyo fiefdoms of the Sengoku era (which is what European observers first described as "feudal") and you have the bakuhan system from the Edo period. All of them are different and all of them could be described as "feudal" in different ways, because "feudal" is a very slippery term and tbh Japan never worked much like France in the 11th century or whatever.

FWIW I'd just go to Mikiso Hane's "Premodern Japan" or Conrad Totman's "Japan Before Perry". They're both very good books about the history of Japan that explain all of its different political developments.
posted by sukeban at 7:20 AM on February 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

In the case of China, though, in Chinese at least they do call it feudalism but I can understand if that is a Marxist understanding that historians may disagree with etc. Still, I hope the intent of the question is clear...

Yes, any description of Chinese society as "feudal" would be a Marxist imposition on the real history, though it has been adopted by the Chinese government for political reasons. I have a Vietnamese friend who was also raised to believe that Vietnam was "feudal" at one point for the same reason. There certainly were landed gentry in China right into the 19th/early 20th century, but landed gentry living off cash or in-kind rents is not feudal; notably, Britain was also dominated by a non-feudal landed gentry into the 20th century. Feudalism was a very different system which involved ties of loyalty (and expectations of service) for the landed, and labour service for their tenants/serfs. It had really different incentives, especially in the relationships between landlords and tenants (the end of the system I'm most familiar with), and the movement away from feudal tenancies into capitalist (aka cash) tenancies had a huge impact on social organization in the English, and later Scottish countryside (which experienced the shift as part of the Highland clearances). As far as I know, in China there were cash rents much, much earlier (e.g., during the European middle ages, or earlier).

(Now I'm wishing I had been able to learn more about pre-modern Chinese land organization systems - because I'm certain that there were massive regions variations. But I learned my Chinese history from a specialist in 19th and 20th century Education, and my English history from an expert on common land usage and the capitalization of the English countryside.)
posted by jb at 2:48 PM on February 24, 2022

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