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Noble Fiefs


This is something that another thread got me thinking about.

I take a different approach to Imperial fiefs IMTU.

Fiefs are not grants of real property; they are the grant of the right to collect taxes on an area for the Imperium (like the Ottoman timar system). Nobles get to keep a portion of the taxes collected for themselves as a privilege of their title and to cover the expenses of collecting them. The wealth of most noble families comes from real property they own outside the fief, but for new members of the nobility the income from the fief is what may allow them to acquire large amounts of real property or investments.

Fiefs can be classified as either low or high maintenance. Low maintenance means that the planet is well developed economically and the local planetary government is well organized and effective at collecting taxes, which the Imperium’s share of is simply passes on to the local nobility. In this case the Title is essentially an honorific with a large income attached. A high maintenance fief is one where the planetary government is weak or balkanized or poorly developed economically. Nobles much get directly involved in government to improve the economy (and by doing so their own income) and organizing tax collection. This type of fief involves a lot of effort to get the maximum value out of it.

Titles pass through a system of semi inheritance. Since the Fief is not real property but a granting of privilege by the Emperor (or his designated representative) they can not be inherited. Tradition holds though that the right of first refusal of a title passes to the oldest child of the title holder provided they are “of good character” and have a record of service to the Imperium. Refused titles go to the next eldest in succession. If all eligible children refuse or the title holder dies heirless, then the title becomes open for granting to anyone eligible.

This system takes the Imperial government out of the business of property law and inheritance. All private property must be registered to a local government, and local law governs inheritance without interfering with the functions of the Nobility and granting of titles.

Any other thoughts people want to add?
Well developed idea, but there are two problems that personally would bother me.

First, most tax-farming schemes like this, historically speaking, tend to be failures. The reason is there is little incentive for the "noble" to encourage development of the fief; a raise in proceeds yields little additional benefit to tax-farmer, especially vis-a-vis privately-owned properties elsewhere. There is also a problem where the tax system becomes divorced from local conditions; that is, the "grant" is based on X amount of taxes collected--regardless of whether the local economy can afford it or not. The traditional trajectory of such systems are increased exploitation of the local population, followed by replacement of the tax farmer, and then a repetition until a revolt or the collapse of the local economy occurs.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I always envisioned the whole Imperial feudal system to be predicated on the necessity of maintaining order, not the tax base. The role of the local noble would certainly be to collect imperial taxes, but more importantly to represent the Imperium to the local population and address threats to order before they require imperial intervention that might literally take months to organize. I would even go as far to contend that majority of the tax base of the Imperium comes not from direct taxes assessed on planetary population, but indirect taxes on everything from interstellar cartage taxes, ship and cargo registry fees, service surcharges, etc. (as well as the revenues of the Imperial domains--remember, the Roman Emperor ruled partially because he was the prime social service provider, paid for with tax revenues from Egypt, which was the emperor's personal domain); this would help explain why the Imperium insists on the vitality of trade lines. An appointed governor directly tied to the fiefdom would be able to assert the proper authority, develop the local economy (since his wealth is dependent on it directly), represent the best interests of his/her fief (since, theoretically, they are her/his interest as well), and speak with some authenticity within the community since they are effectively part of it. Finally, the hereditary aspect serves two purposes: first, it reduces the "uncertainity" time in switching rulers, all important in a situation where communications are limited; secondly, like some theories of British agricultural modernization hold, hereditary families allow long-term development projects to be pursued, because the necessity of short-term maximization of profits is reduced.
If I may offer a suggestion? David Weber of the Harrington series offers one possible solution. That noble grants are collected by the crown as part of the regular tax burden and distributed by the government. It's certainly an interesting idea.