Medieval Japan versus Medieval England in the Fourteenth Century

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crécy, courtesy of Wikipedia
Samurai of the Muromachi Period (14th-15th centuries), also courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, and it’s triggered some memories of my studies in college about medieval Japan, plus things I learned over the years from writing blogs. So, this post is a fun comparison between fourteenth century Japan and England. This is not an exhaustive review, and may have some historical inaccuracies, so take this as a fun thought-exercise more than a reference.

Medieval Society at a Glance

In the Time Traveler’s Guide above, the author explains that medieval English society was basically broken up into 3 groups:

  • Those who fight – kings, knights, etc.
  • Those who pray – bishops, monks, clergy, etc.
  • Those who work – farmers, laborers, etc.

In theory, each one supports one another: those who fight defend the others from invaders, those who pray bring solace and spiritual guidance to the other groups, and those who work support the other two.

With such a broad structure, you can easily fit the same model on medieval Japan:

  • Those who fight – the shōgun, samurai, soldiers
  • Those who pray – Buddhist monks, Shinto priests (called kannushi)
  • Those who work – farmers, laborers, etc.

This probably accounts for 99% of medieval Japanese society at the same time, except for one small hitch. Japan also had, in my opinion, a fourth class: those who reign. The emperor and the elite aristocracy based in Kyoto, the capitol at the time, were a leftover from an earlier “classical” period of Japanese history, and were never really overthrown, but had ceased to exercise any real power. The samurai had originally started as lower-class soldiery, but had gradually seized more power over the centuries until the old Imperial Court was basically window-dressing. The Imperial Court and its noble families (the Tachibana, the various branches of the Fujiwara, etc) had mostly ceremonial power, but even the highest-ranking samurai still deferred to them for legitimacy.

One other interesting note is that medieval Japan was heavily influenced by Confucian thinking from China, which had a different theoretical model (in descending order):

  • nobility and scholars (e.g. educated literati)
  • laborers, farmers, etc.
  • artisans
  • merchants

Confucius felt that a successful society would be harmonious if men educated in virtue ran the government, with the laborers held in fairly high esteem because of their obvious contributions to society. Conversely, merchants were seen as very lowly due to their exploitative nature.

While this was the model for Japanese society as Japanese probably saw it back then, in practice, the three-part model we saw above: those who fight, pray and reign, provides another helpful way to look at it. The military samurai class in Japan really did function as “those who fight” and depending heavily on rice output from “those who work”. But then again, so did the Buddhist/Shinto clergy.

This leads us to another facet of medieval society…


The book above provides a very nice breakdown of peasant life in medieval England, and contrary to our view of a large, miserable class of “serfs” working for a lord, the picture was actually more nuanced.

Medieval English society had a few different classes of “those who work”, including:

  • franklins (landholding peasants, a.k.a. “freemen”)
  • yeomen (military attendants)
  • villein (those who were tied to the land)

As weird as it might sound, being a franklin / freeman wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be, since income was pretty meager for most, and you were basically on your own. Some did attain a fair amount of wealth, and were able to not only own land, but become a somewhat prosperous “middle class”, but this was definitely exception, not the rule. On the other hand, being a villein wasn’t all that great either: you were basically property of the local lord, and were pretty tied to the land. Even your children had to work the land, and if they married off (i.e. daughters), you had to pay your lord a fine to cover the lost labor. Then again, as part of your lord’s property, you did enjoy protection that freemen didn’t.

Either way, life was pretty hard.

Interestingly, those in England who survived the Black Death of the 14th century saw that since labor was now in great shortage (since 1/3 of the population basically died), villeins would run off and work under a different lord who might offer better wages. Thus, laborers ended up with more bargaining power than they had before.

The situation in Japan wasn’t all that different (minus the Bubonic Plague which never reached Japan until the 19th century). Japan’s land-management system was rapidly changing in the 14th century, from the old Shōen system of absentee lords, to direct ruler-ship by an increasingly powerful military class. The old Shōen system was a super-confusing patchwork of landownership further compounded by various layers of reform (or tax-evasion methods) and provided a steady, often tax-free income, for nobility or Buddhist monasteries due to an old legal loophole that only taxed land that was owned publicly owned by the Emperor. Peasants worked this land through a kind of rental system where they were “renting” the land and payment included a portion of the yearly crops plus some odd labor here or there. Again, due to a quirk in the laws, laws and regulations by the central government did not extend to the Shōen, so peasants were at the mercy of their landowners. If they couldn’t pay their rent, perhaps due to a bad harvest, the landowners could toss them out and directly seize the land.

A century later when this system was totally abolished and samurai daimyō (feudal lords) took direct control of their fiefdoms, peasants became much more like the English villein than before. They gained protection and some other benefits, but instead of the facade of “renting” the land, they were basically tied to the land by force of feudal law. Like the English villein, Japanese peasants rarely traveled around outside their village unless granted permission, and the village “headman” (sonchō 村長) acted as important intermediaries between the ruling samurai class and the peasants compared with earlier “land stewards” (jitō 地頭).

Speaking of military feudal lords…


England, for most of the 14th century, was deeply immersed in a prolonged conflict with France called the Hundred Years War, which saw many battles on the French countryside, and territory changing hands a number of times, not to mention the involvement of Scotland as an ally of France.

Japan around this time was involved in a lengthy civil war called the nanboku-chō (南北朝時代, war between Southern and Northern courts) as the followers of Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to reassert power of the Imperial court, and not the samurai.

In both cases, warfare was very important and the “those who fight” had to mobilize for major warfare.

Welsh longbowmen (right) routing the French-hired mercenaries at the Battle of Crécy.

England at the time was somewhat unusual for relying on very large armies of longbowmen, who could simply fire clouds of arrows from a very long distance, cheaply, at their foes. Both the French and English had more traditional medieval armies, with armored knights, pikemen and so on, but the addition of English longbowmen meant that the longbowmen could pick off the knights and armored calvary easily from a distance while keeping their own forces safely in reserve. This gave the English a major advantage until nearly a century later, when calvary tactics by the French and their allies improved and they could simply mow down the longbowmen.

Further, European armies in general relied heavily on mercenaries. The French army had a large mercenary contingent, and this was by no means unusual. Almost every medieval army hired mercenaries in large numbers, resulting in weird mercenary-on-mercenary warfare.

A painting depicting the 15th, not 14th century, Ōnin War.

Japan, by contrast had neither longbowmen nor mercenaries. By the 14th century, the Japanese samurai class had greatly increased in both power and breadth, and thus the warfare became increasingly “strategic” and less focused on ritual combat. Military technology had also greatly improved as the sword technology had become highly refined, and though archery still remained an essential part of any army, it was not prioritized at the level of say, the English army.

Both England and Japan, being feudal societies, mobilized armies when the sovereign issued a call to war, and the feudal lords under them were required to field armies (or possibly hire them). Thus, unlike modern warfare, where the army was part “of the State”, each feudal lord contributed their own army under a single banner. Of course, the sovereign (e.g. the king of England or shōgun 将軍 of Japan) had a sizeable army of their own both to defeat their foes, but also to assert power over their own vassals (just in case…).

Quality of Life

The quality of life between England and Japan at the 14th century was probably comparable. Both countries, like much of the world, had to deal with famines and diseases, insecure harvests, lack of clean sanitation, medicine that was unreliable, and a considerable difference between rich and poor. For most people, the vast majority of their income went to food (unlike modern times where most people have at least some expendable income) and the average life expectancy was definitely shorter than today. It’s important to note “average” here because a lot of people didn’t live to adulthood, but then again some people lived about as long as people do now. This was true for much for the world, not just England and Japan, by the way.

On the other hand, as the author of Traveler’s Guide points out, apart from the differences in quality of life, customs and such, people of both countries also had a lot in common with people today, and with each other. People are people, after all. 😄

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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