This is the second part of a four-part (I) series examining the historical assumptions of the popular historical grand strategy game Crusader Kings III, by Paradox Interactive. Last time we opened by discussing how CKIII attempts to simulate and represent the distinctly personal character of rule and decision-making in the Middle Ages and how this contrasted with both Paradox’s other grand strategy titles, which are far more state-oriented.
This week we’re going to turn from the person of the ruler to the structure of polity that CKIII envisages. Fundamentally, Crusader Kings III is a game about political fragmentation and decentralization, in a way that few other strategy games are. As we noted last week, most of Paradox’s titles adopt a broadly neo-realist framework when thinking about international relations, which tends (in its most common forms) to treat states as largely unitary – a single entity with a single set of interests. But there are no states as such in CKIII. The polities that do exist are highly fragmented, with power shared between a liege and many vassals who essentially function as states-within-a-state, who may contribute revenue and levies to their liege but may also oppose them and actively work against the liege’s goals and strategies.
This post ended up being very long so I have split it into two parts. This week’s part will look at how the game models ‘feudal’ vassalage in Christian Europe, while next week’s second half will look at how the game modifies those systems to try and model different forms of political fragmentation in Islamic polities, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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One more thing to note before we dive in. The same as last week there is going to be a lot of ‘when we get to it’ notes as we go through here. CKIII‘s core mechanics (characters, vassal-liege relations, opinion-bonuses, religion and culture) are all fairly tightly intertwined (because they all impact character’s opinions of other characters), so teasing them apart for the purpose of analysis is at best a bit imperfect. The next post in the series will be dealing with norms (both cultural and religious) along with the broader concept of legitimacy, so all of those issues will be returned to in more detail then.
We should start by clarifying some terms. In its current for, CKIII distinguishes between three government types: feudal governments (mostly the Christian polities of Europe as well as the polities of south Asia), clan governments (mostly but not entirely Islamic polities) and tribal governments (mostly Steppe and Baltic peoples with decidedly non-state polities, and also some, but not all, of the West African polities).1 Veteran readers of the blog will already know that I generally avoid the terms ‘feudal’ and ‘feudalism,’ as do many medievalists these days. The problem is that ‘feudalism’ comes to conflate two very different systems: manorialism, the economic system which structured the relations between peasant farmers (mostly serfs) and their elite landlords, and vassalage, the political system which structured relations between elites. But these systems and the relationships they structured were very different and their conflation together as a single system is a modern, not medieval, construction. Consequently I will talk about vassalage and manorialism as two distinct systems which often (but not always) co-existed, rather than a single system called ‘feudalism.’ This post is almost entirely on the vassalage half of this formulation; we’ll discuss the game’s treatment of manorialism in the final part of this series.
And indeed, the in-game definition of feudalism engages in that conflation, declaring that “the feudal system is based on the relationship between the landholder and those who provide services and labor in order to live there,” which treats together the provision of farm service and military service which we ought probably to think about separately. Nevertheless it is hard to fault a game made for the public for using a term that is almost exclusively the one used by the general public and still in use by some scholars. And the definition being used here doesn’t come out of nowhere, rather it is the definition of feudalism (which includes both vasslage and manoralism) advanced by Marc Bloch in La Société Féodale (1939; known in English as Feudal Society), one of those magisterial foundational classics of scholarship. So while these aren’t the terms I’d use in a class, it makes sense to use them in the context of a game and they are well-rooted in scholarship (albeit also well contested in the more recent scholarship).
The great challenge of any game set in the European Middle Ages (or a fantasy variant thereof) is to represent a political system whereby ‘state capacity’ was very limited and as a result political power was extremely fragmented.
While this system (vassalage, in particular) is often associated in public thinking broadly with the whole of the Middle Ages in Europe, it only really emerged in the 9th century (the Middle Ages are generally taken to have begun in the 5th century) and arrived in different places at different times. Fundamentally, the system of vassalage we see being represented in CKIII was a product of the Carolingian Empire trying to make do with extremely limited administration.
Let’s back up for a moment. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the Late Roman Empire (particularly after Diocletian) developed a large, complex centralized bureaucracy quite different from the generally fairly ‘light’ system of Roman governance in the Early Empire. So when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, this system – with its complex bureaucracies and officials appointed from among the landholding magnate class to offices they held at the pleasure of the emperor or king – this was the system that the ‘barbarian’ successor-states inherited. But the vibrant urban culture which produced the literate bureaucrats required to make that system work had largely faded with the empire, leaving the successor-states with a bureaucratic top-down model of governance with few bureaucrats to run it. In the immediate aftermath, they turned to the large landholders – many of them the old Roman-era aristocrats – to try to ‘farm out’ the job of administration. Each kingdom’s system was subtly different but broadly these kings hoovered up wealth and used it through a ‘gift economy’ to get their elites to do the job of administering, in some minimal way, the territories the king notionally controlled. Nevertheless these posts are still appointed posts, so a big landholder who wants these sorts of jobs needs the king’s favor to get them (and the royal ‘gifts’ that come with faithful service).
That is already a system where power is heavily fragmented, but there’s a final step necessary which comes with the Carolingians. Usurping the Merovingian kings of the Franks, the Carolingians over three generations (Charles Martel, his son Pepin and then Pepin’s sons Carloman and especially Charles (Charlemagne)) assembled a vast empire covering what is today France, Germany, Northern Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia and parts of northern Spain. At no point in those vast conquests did they conquer a state which had developed a functional political bureaucracy, while the separation of secular authority (Charlemagne) and religious authority (the Pope) meant that the well developed religious bureaucracy was not generally available for large-scale administration.
In order to administer those conquests – flung widely enough that even the itinerant court could not visit them all – the Carolingians developed (and I am greatly simplifying this system) a system of royal officials drawn from the landed aristocracy and occasionally the church. The empire was divided into military-administrative districts, each of which got a leader called a comes (pronounced ‘co-MAce,’ plural comites) a Latin word meaning ‘companion’ in the sense of a military retainer of a king (like the Late Roman army which moved with the emperor, the comitatenses), which in French was comte which gives us our word ‘count’ and ‘county.’2 These comes were appointed officials who were responsible for overseeing tax collection, recruitment, and justice in their districts as well as being local military commanders in a pinch. Notionally they were then overseen by roving officials called the Missi Dominici (‘Ruler’s envoys’) to ensure they were doing their job well and effectively. Which, at least in principle serves as an extension of the appointment system the Merovingians had been using prior.
After Charlemagne, however, the strength of central Carolingian rule begins to wane. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious was frequently at war with his own ambitious sons,3 who after his death warred with each other. At a deeper level, Charlemagne’s administrative system was probably unworkable from the beginning; the division of authority between the comes and the missi was never clear and the steady shift in military emphasis from an infantry-focused army of militia-farmers to an army focused on aristocratic cavalry shifted power towards the aristocrats and away from central government.
In either case, what we see in the 9th century is that the comites are increasingly able to secure their positions to their sons, leading to the positions to become hereditary, with the temporary administration of lands becoming a hereditary right or even ownership of those lands. Of course once those nobles (and we can start calling them that at this point) no longer need to rely on royal appointment to legitimate their control over their chunk of the kingdom, the king’s position relative to his nobles – now properly his vassals – grew weaker. At the same time, especially in the context of military strains both internal (civil war) and external (VIKINGS!) on the Carolingian Empire, this system – while it had negative long-term consequences for royal power – was very effective at raising the kind of military power that was needed in the moment, which was increasingly elites on horses (though a clear socially defined ‘knighthood’ is still many years away from forming).
That system in turn spread out unevenly from wreckage of the Carolingian Empire (which split into three after the death of Louis the Pious). In Germany, the Eastern chunk of the Carolingian Empire (East Francia) eventually became the Holy Roman Empire and so spread those institutions even as the Carolingian line there failed in the early 10th century, replaced by a series of dynasties with a mix of hereditary and elective traditions. Across the channel, meanwhile, the English kingdom at this time was actually quite differently organized and more effectively centralized; ‘feudalism’ only really arrives in England with William the Conqueror (of Normandy), who after seizing the English throne in 1066 imposed a more ‘French’-style system of governance.4 And of course that same sort of system would arrive in the Levant through the creation of the Crusader States in the 1090s.
And it has to be noted that CKIII is somewhat ‘fudging’ the extent of this system at both of its start dates (867 and 1066, but especially the former). Interesting at this year’s PDXCON the CKIII team was asked at their Q&A if they would consider earlier start-dates and they responded no, on the grounds that they were already ‘stretching it’ to push feudalism (their word) so early, noting that many of the recommended starting lords in the 867 start were in fact the first nobles to make their positions hereditary rather than appointed. We’ll come back to this later but part of the struggle here is that CKIII doesn’t have good systems for centralized governments or for having centralized governments de-consolidate, which makes the ‘fudge’ of having feudalism in England a bit earlier than it should and the refusal to push an earlier start date than 867 make a lot of sense, even if the developers are fairly open that these are necessary ‘fudges’ for gameplay (much the way European states are a lot more unitary in the first decades of EUIV than they ought to be).
Vasslage as a Game System
The consequence of this progressive fragmentation as the rule of comites – by now we can really call them ‘counts’ (and other similar nobles) – became hereditary was that the power of kings was diminished. Kings increasingly only exerted direct rule over their personal lands; attempting to interfere in a vassal’s administration of their lands – which was, you will recall, the point of Charlemagne’s missi – could be seen as an infringement on the traditional rights of those vassals. And the ‘royal lands’ could be very small indeed, because kings were expected to dole out lands as gifts for military service and also because partible inheritance repeatedly fragmented the royal domains, especially in France.
In theory the king still held all of the land and was merely granting it out to his vassals (thus becoming the vassal’s liege) in exchange for their military and political support but in practice the various counts (and by now dukes (from the Latin, dux, ‘leader’) and other nobles) controlled their territories directly, with the king as first among equals expected to resolve disputes between vassals and to direct the kingdom’s military affairs beyond its borders. The land the vassal holds is a fief, the process of it being granted (or its grant being recognized when it was inherited) is called enfeoffment, all of which are generally thought to derive from the Latin foedum, meaning a treaty or solemn agreement. The vassal, receiving a title either in fact (because it is the initial grant of land) or symbolically (because he has already inherited the land and the king is merely recognizing this) did so with a ritual oath of either homage or fealty (with homage being the notionally stronger form; one could swear fealty to multiple lieges, but homage in theory only to one).
Now as you can see on the map above, many of the vassals of the King of France themselves controlled vast territories, the vastness of which replicated the exact same problem that the Carolingians had confronted: how do administer a large territory when your society lacks the bureaucratic apparatus to do so directly. And so they replicated the system downward, with higher nobles (like dukes and counts) offering fiefs to lower nobles (barons, earls, and castellans; there’s a wide array of titles for these lower nobles) under the same terms: take this land in exchange for owing me military support which you will raise and supply form the revenues the land (and its peasants) generate for you. It should be noted that the peasantry is not part of this system; a peasant is not a vassal. That’s why we generally separate vassalage as a system from manoralism, the rules are different. That said, there could be non-noble vassals, most often towns that were either under the governance of a bishop (a survival or replication of Roman-era church administration) or were self-governing.
So how does CKIII simulate this complex system?
Regardless of government type (tribal, clan, feudal), every polity is composed of an independent lord (often, but not always, a king or emperor), and their collection of vassals and the vassals of their vassals and so on. Each noble in the chain raises two kinds of resources from their holding, taxes and levies. Each vassal then sends a percentage of those taxes and levies upward one level in the chain to their de facto liege (not their de jure liege if the two are different); for feudal vassals, the percentages are fixed by the formal obligations in their contract, inherited from one generation to the next, rather than subject to vassal opinion, though contributions are reduced if the vassal’s de facto liege is not also their de jure liege (it’s hard to insist on someone fully carrying out their ancestral obligations to you if they don’t, technically, have any ancestral obligations).
I’ve mentioned this before but to reiterate, the tiers of titles are baron (of a single holding), count, duke, king and emperor in order of lowest to highest. A ruler is considered to have the status of the tier of their highest title. Vassals must be a lower tier than lieges, no vassal may have more than one liege (we’ll come back to that) making the system a fairly strict pyramid. Moreover, vassal contracts are unique to them (though inherited by their heirs) and may specify non-standard levy or tax obligations, lock in certain inheritance rules, provide special privileges and so on, making each liege-vassal relationship effectively unique.
There is a necessary bit of ahistorical standardization in this model of clearly delineated titles with clear ranks; in actual historical practice titles were not nearly so standardized – indeed, much of the standardization of ‘standard’ systems of titles happened later as the titles were increasingly detached from actual direct governance of territory. By way of example, the game titles Matilda of Tuscany as a Duchess, which fairly reflects her territory and position in the empire, but not her actual historical title as la Gran Contessa (‘the great countess’). But Tuscany was not a county either, nor yet a duchy. Tuscany’s status as a ‘Grand Duchy’ is a later phenomenon of the 16th century. Instead to the best I can tell it was regarded as a Margraviate (from the German Markgraf or ‘March-Lord,’ with ‘march’ here meaning ‘a boarder military district’) in this period. The game works in some recognition of these complexities with culture-specific variations on titles, so lords with ducal-level titles might go by a wide range of names: Petty-king (various feudal), Grand Prince (Russian), High Chieftain (various tribal), Mahasamanta (Indian), Atabeg (Oghuz Turkic), Emir (various Muslim), Doux (Greek) and so on. I think that, combined with the gameplay impacts of religion and culture (next time!) serve to alert the player to at least some degree that there’s a lot of variety here being compressed for gameplay’s sake.
A core part of this system in turn are factions, which reflect informal coalitions of vassals within a single polity trying to achieve political objectives. At present, vassals have four factions to choose from: independence (aiming to break away from the kingdom), dissolution (aiming to dissolve the kingdom entirely), liberty (aiming to lower ‘crown authority’ – essentially pushing the rights of vassals over the prerogatives of kings) and claimant (pushing for a different ruler). A faction with enough military power between all of its vassals will make demands and if refused, rise in revolt to enforce those demands. Keeping vassals out of factions thus becomes crucial to maintaining the coherence of large realms (we’ll get into next week some of those strategies), but the upshot here is that even though vassal opinion doesn’t modify levies or taxes for feudal lords, its role in the faction system means it cannot be ignored. A liege must keep most of their vassals happy.
Because vassals only provide a percentage of their military strength to their liege but will field all of their strength in the event they rebel (typically through forming a faction whose demands are refused), large realms can be dangerously unstable unless the ruler can maintain a large personal territory (the demesne) from which they can draw the backbone of their own army independent of their vassals; doing so under partible inheritance is particularly hard (as you can see concerns about keeping the royal possessions together dominating a lot of my House al-Yiliq strategy). Consequently to maintain stability, rulers have to keep their vassals happy (through mechanisms we’ll be exploring mostly next week. Meanwhile vassal holdings are, as noted last week, personal, meaning they may bear relatively little relation to the de jure internal divisions of a kingdom. ‘Double-dukes’ (ducal-level vassals controlled two duchies) are particularly common and such large and powerful vassals become major movers in internal politics because of the tremendous amount of power they can deliver to a faction if they join it.
In addition, rulers need to stock a series of administrative and military positions. For king and emperor-level rulers, those are the five members of their council (one each for the game’s major attributes), plus a selection of ‘knights’ (here effectively unit and army commanders, whereas household knights are reflected in men-at-arms regiments) and typically at least a few court positions. Some of those positions can be filled with landless courtiers, but generally the major vassals expect these jobs, will be angry if they don’t get some of them and in any event reflect the largest pool of talent for them. Consequently in addition to handling the extraction of revenues locally, vassals are also the largest source of the king’s subordinates in the very limited central government.
Finally, there is ‘crown authority,’ which reflects in an abstract way the level of centralization a kingdom has. Lower levels of crown authority make vassals happier and higher levels make them actively unhappy (which will funnel them into the ‘liberty’ faction to lower crown authority). At the same time, higher crown authority raises substantially the levies and money vassals owe to their liege (improving the king’s power at the expense of vassals) and provides more powerful options for shaping who-owns-what, like title revocation and the ability at maximum crown authority to designate an heir in defiance of inheritance norms. Just about every polity starts with very low crown authority; over time rulers are going to try to increase that while vassals will attempt to keep it low.
As a simulation of vassalage-based political organization, the system is broadly effective. Most games – and even much fantasy long-form fiction – continues to imagine medieval polities as unified states or at most as divided into only a handful of constituent parts which are not themselves then subdivided further. CKIII is one of the few games that leans into the complexity of actual political systems; having dozens of direct vassals and hundreds of indirect vassals is not uncommon for large realms. To take one example, Emperor Henry IV (in game as Kaiser Heinrich IV; I love the culture-specific titles and names in the game, by the by), begins the game in the 1066 start with sixty-one direct vassals, including more than a dozen dukes with their own large collections of vassals (as many as fifteen direct vassals for some). When it comes to scheming and politics, all of these figures matter, though some matter more than others (historically minded players beginning at this start will especially note the powerful Duchess of Tuscany, Matilda and realize the trouble she could cause, as indeed historically she did).
Adding to this complexity is that while the king may be a feudal lord, that does not mean all of his vassals are. Indeed, ‘republic’-type vassals, reflecting the civic governments of towns, will be a factor in almost every polity (albeit these aren’t as extensively developed in-game yet) and theocratic vassals – reflecting territories controlled by bishops or monasteries – will be a factor in most. And it is entirely possible for a feudal polity to end up with some vassals whose government is clan or tribal in nature. That complexity is actually a fairly good representation of the often very complex polities this system created, where each liege-vassal relationship was a unique and bespoke bilateral relationship.
Moreover, the system of ‘crown authority’ provides a framework – if abstract – for two related tensions that defined a lot of the politics in the period. For vassals that are the de jure subjects of their liege, the normal channel of discontent is towards factions to lower crown authority (which the liege is going to keep trying to raise), creating the cycle of tensions between central authority and vassals which defined much of the politics in the period. Rather than attempting to simulate every small dispute (which might get properly difficult from both a gameplay and a game development standpoint), the abstraction of crown authority and struggles to decrease it can cover a wide range of such conflicts like the Baron’s Wars in England, or the wars related to the Investiture Controversy (which had as much to do with the powers the King could wield as it did the religious position of bishops).
At the same time as the game advances, for most of these polities the opportunities for power-centralization will grow, leading to a slow, halting march towards progressively more centralized polities. Crown authority levels are gated by innovations which are gated by years (more on this later) and in general the progression through innovations, realm development (building new holdings or expanding old ones) and so on will tend over time give rulers more of a margin on the opinion and power of their vassals, which they will naturally ‘consume’ by raising crown authority. That creates a noticeable ebb-and-flow, since poor rulers or unlucky succession (especially where the heir is a minor) will create windows for vassals to push crown authority back down (by force, if necessary), but over time more effectively centralized realms will emerge. And because of the levy benefits of those more centralized regimes, they will tend to be stronger than their neighbors and thus expand although expansion increases the number of vassals as compared to the largely static royal demesne, increasing the risk of factions and potentially re-fracturing the kingdom.
We’ll come back to this point in the last part of this series but I think this system works better for some polities than for others. It does a good job of reflecting, for instance, the steady centralization of power within the Kingdom of France under the Capetians; France went from a badly fragmented, highly decentralized kingdom where the king’s powers were extremely limited in the 10th century to a substantially more centralized and effective kingdom by the 14th century and that process of very early stage state-formation is fairly well reflected in the systems here. But the steady pressure towards state centralization doesn’t seem quite as effective in modeling the Holy Roman Empire which spent much of this period (especially following 1200 or so) making the same journey in the opposite direction, steadily becoming more fragmented and less centralized. The culprit here is the innovation system, which pushed many of the game’s systems towards a fairly teleological chronology where innovations must come to all cultures in a fairly set sequence. Put a pin in that, we’ll be back to it in a couple of weeks.
Finally there are some elements where complexity was clearly sacrificed for playability. The most obvious of these is that each vassal can have only one liege. By contrast actual medieval vassals often had multiple lieges, with different titles owing allegiance to different notional lords. The distinction was thus sometimes made historically between homage owed to one’s primary liege and fealty which might be offered to several lords, though the terms and nature of these relationships were not at all standardized. While CKIII opts to stress the personal nature of rule and thus divides polities into rulers rather than titles, the medievals themselves often thought of these questions in terms of titles rather than rulers. Thus as the Duke of Normandy, William of Normandy was the vassal of the King of France, but as the King of England, William the Conqueror (same fellow) was an independent ruler. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is what is sometimes termed the ‘Angevin Empire‘ – the vast territories in France of the Plantagenet kings of England. The contrast between de jure and de facto does provide some simulation of the tensions this creates, since the king of England holding de facto territories which de jure should be under the king of France both creates severe opinion penalties between the two monarchs and also an excuse for war between them. That’s not a terrible representation of the Capetian-Plantagenet conflicts, but also not a perfect one.
Nevertheless as a system for modeling decentralized rule through a system of vassalage as practiced in Western Europe during the high and late Middle Ages, I think Crusader Kings III does better than effectively any other game I have played. The commitment to developing the system in something approaching its full complexity (albeit with some of the sharp edges sanded down a bit) brings home to the player quite effectively just how decentralized these states were. The first time a player realizes they have a troublesome vassal – perhaps an ambitious double-duke – and that they cannot actually get rid of them despite being king (or even emperor!) is a fantastic learning opportunity for understanding the nature of personal rule in a vassalage-based system. Likewise, players working as vassals will find they resort to many of the same inheritance and marriage strategies (backed up by military force) which assembled things like the Angevin Empire in the first place. Quite accurately for the period, the balance of mortality and male-preference succession in much of Christian Europe means that there are bound to be several heiresses or brother-to-brother successions in each generation of aristocrats in any large kingdom, each providing the opportunity for vassals to expand within the kingdom in a way that, again, their king may be powerless to stop.
On to Part IIb!
So while there is certainly some flattening of complexity in CKIII‘s system for representing fragmented European polities – particularly in how the complexity of different titles and vassals with multiple lieges is condensed into a fairly simple pyramid of obligations – overall this system is quite good. In its terminology and implementation it reflects fairly well the older Marc Bloch vision of feudalism as a social system. One thing we haven’t covered here yet is how the game translates this into practical actions the player takes in order to maintain relations with their vassals (that’s in Part III), but this system provides a good foundation for it.
That said when it came to modeling the Christian polities of the period, CKIII had a fairly good starting position; CKII‘s mechanics already did this fairly well. There have certainly been some modifications here in how crown authority works, the way factions function and the role of the council (some of which is implementing as core features things which in CKII were in DLCs), but the CKII bones set the mechanical foundation here pretty clearly.
Next week we’re going to come to the second half of this topic, however, where we look at how well the game handles Muslim polities. CKII‘s system for this was, a bit of a mess, particularly the decadence system, but also innate modifiers like hostility between brothers and bespoke mechanics packed into the ‘Iqta’ government form (tax changes as well as greater latitude to revoke ducal titles) which made Islamic polities more effectively centralized by nature rather than as a consequence of their structure or development (which in turn tended to mean they didn’t fragment to the degree that their historical parallels did). I think it’s fair to say that this was one area of significant player dissatisfaction in the design of CKII (in part because of the feeling that these mechanics were ‘gamey’ and thus ahistorical), so does CKIII do any better on this score?
- West Africa is not my area of expertise, but what I do know about the polities there would make me hesitant to designate many of them as ‘tribal,’ though the game largely reserves the feudal government type there for the most centralized West African states like the Ghana Empire. One hopes a more detailed system with bespoke West African mechanics is on the CKIII DLC to-do list.
- Remember when I said the base political unit of Crusader Kings III was counts?
- The issue being that the birth if his fourth son, Charles (to be Charles the Bald) and Louis’ efforts to provide an inheritance for Charles upset the other three sons (Lothair, Pepin and Louis) leading to conflict
- Once again, we are sliding over a lot of complexity here.