Less than 3% of the United States labor force works in farming or farming-related occupations, yet that small percentage of the American population feeds most of the population of the country with a lot of surplus to export to feed other parts of the world.
This is in stark contrast to life in the Middle Ages. It is estimated that between 80 to 90% of Europe’s population lived on the land and devoted all their time to the production of food. The remaining 10 to 20% of the population was engaged in various small and relatively simple trades and crafts in the towns, providing personal services to the nobility, or were Catholic Church clergy.
Throughout most of Medieval Europe, agriculture was organized around the manorial system. The local social units revolved around the residence of the “Lord,” who owned all the land and ruled over its use and the people on it through possessing a high degree of power and legitimacy.
German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer (The State (1915)) and American economist Mancur Olson (Power and Prosperity (2000)) argued that the modern State emerged out of the conquest of territory by marauding bands who decided to permanently settle down and rule over those they had conquered and plundered. The State became the political institutional structure that provided legitimacy to the conquering bands by rationalizing their rule as an ongoing extortion racket for their own enrichment dressed up as beneficial to the ruled and plundered due to the conqueror providing them with law and order and some useful infrastructure projects.
Each manor ultimately served as a mostly self-sufficient economic entity, in which all production for the local members was performed. The manors grew their own food, raised livestock, milled their own grain for bread, spun thread to make their own clothing, and produced and maintained most of their own farm and manufacturing implements.
The manors unified political and economic activities in one institution, making extensive use of forced labor for the performance of many tasks and duties; and they were extremely self-sufficient.
The manorial system was part of the wider feudal order. Feudalism represented a system in which the occupants and users of the land they lived and worked on were not the owners; they were “tenants” of the “sovereign” (lord of the manor) who legitimized his authority by claiming to offer protection to the occupants in the form of military service.
The distinguishing aspect of the lord of the manor was that he was both political leader and economic employer, and the two roles were not considered separate. As the French historian, Marc Bloch, explained in his book, The Feudal Society (1939),
The lord did not merely draw from his peasants valuable revenues and an equally valuable labor force. Not only was he rentier of the soil and beneficiary of the services; he was also a judge, often – if he did his duty – protector, and always a chief, whom apart from any more binding and more personal tie, to whom those who “held” their land from him or lived on his land were bound, by a very general but very real obligation, to help and obey.
Thus, the seigneurie was not simply an economic enterprise by which profits accumulated in a strong man’s hands. It was also a unit of authority, in the widest sense of the word; for the powers of the chief were not confined, as in principle they are in capitalist enterprises, to work done on his “business premises,” but affected a man’s whole life and acted concurrently with, or even in place of, the power of the state and the family.
Like all higher organized social cells, the seigneurie had its own law, as a rule customary, which determined the relations of the subjects with the lord and defined precisely the limits of the little group on which these traditional rules were binding.
In writing a fantasy based in a Medieval world, I had to decide what the social and political structure of the society would resemble and feudalism works well because it allows for connections among wide classes of people. The difference in my world is that my peasants are not bound to the land. They are free to move if they so choose. They can find unused land somewhere and farm it. They can buy and sell farmsteads. The rigs of my story do not technically own all of the land in their demesnes. They have manorial lands where tenant farmers do work, but for the most part, the peasants own their land. Fealty for them means that they give part of their crop and the promise of military service to their lord in exchange for protection from outsides and the provision of justice. That’s the ideal, though results vary with the lord.