From the time 10 thousand years ago mankind developed agrarian settled societies, a general form of organization came into being. A pyramid with a relatively small ruling class at the top and the masses at the bottom. Royalty, military and religious leaders backed by their staffs and bureaucracies directed the lives of those below. Needed Artisans often had a special rung. The wild card were the merchants who facilitated the exchange of goods within the society and with others. Altogether they constituted a relativity small minority, supported by a base of the multitudes that provided the basic substance of life. Whatever we gained “more” through trade, increased labor or innovation the “more” mostly went to to those toward the top of the pyramid. The upper classes gained in better food & drink, shelter, clothing and adornment and maybe most important time. From 10,000BC to 1,500 AD, the masses across the world lived relatively short lives with the barest of necessities while providing the basics for mankind.
One could argue that this was a very unfair, but the fact that this type of pyramid spread across the world meant that it had a certain utility. Agrarian production took an enormous amount of raw human labor. It needed to be organized and to that end needed educated people.. Reading writing and math were needed so whatever was learned could be retained and passed on. Word of mouth could only take humanity so far. Even moving from clay tablets to to papyrus and parchment left writing materials very expensive and scarce. Just copying what was already written was incredibly time consuming. Many monks spent their whole lives creating a very small number of bibles.
Across the world a class system became the norm. A small educated and armed upper class never more than a third of a given society and usually much less controlling the 2/3 or more laboring at the bottom. History is the story of this upper class. Life for the masses remained near subsistence throughout. No matter who their current overlords were their lives stayed pretty the same. Those of us who have been able to visit the sites of past civilizations are amazed by palaces and religious edifices. What we fail to see is the sameness of the structures for the masses. How different was a Russian Serf’s cottage from slave quarters in our Antebellum South? Did anything change for the tillers of the land if York or Lancaster were on top? Was society in China much different under the Mongol Kublai Khan than the Chinese Jin Dynasty. However, the Mongol conquests and rule made the famous Silk Road possible. This route across Asia brought goodies to Europe including the name sake product. This provided “More” for the people at the top of the Pyramid but added little to the well being of those at the bottom. Did any of the masses ever wear silk?
Again this made sense. Given that each camel can carry at best around 500 lbs and each needs a handler only the highest value by weight goods could be be transported. Closer to home, Indians of the American Southwest were found to have feathers and shells from Mexico and Central America that could have only have come from trade probably for Turquoise. What wasn’t found were metal implements from the same areas that could’ve advanced these peoples. Having hunted small horses and Woolly Mammoths to extinction had left North America without large potential draft animals. (Why the Bison were never domesticated always puzzled us. We’ve been told they were just too ornery but water buffalo weren’t? But we digress.) This limited trade in this case to only only what humans could carry. The Romans and Incas could build roads to anywhere but couldn’t get around low carrying capacity of humans and draft animals. Only the things people at the top of the pyramid valued the highest were actually traded. This limited gains in “More” through overland trade. Add to this tolls, taxes and bandits along the trade routes and “More” for the masses through land trade was limited to impossible.
More promising were water routes. Boats were far superior in moving bulk goods such as grain, metals & wine. Sails could be used at times rather than high consumption human or animal power. Unfortunately wind blows when and where it want to, water routes are only where they are and there were pirates and others to take what you have. The Phoenicians the great sea traders of their time still depended on land routes with all their drawbacks to assemble goods. Their boats still had oars hence at times lots of people were needed to row. In any case they were small in relation to the number of people they needed.
If trade with its ability to disseminate innovation was limited in its ability to greatly increase “More”, we were left maybe gains in population and taking it from someone else as the only other ways to for someone to get “More.” Unfortunately theft is is a zero some game and slow population gains only widened the base supporting the few at top. Everyone needed protection against someone taking their stuff or even them. Even merchants needed protection. Unfortunately those who could protect you also can take your stuff. Taxes and tariffs did just that. If too onerous merchants could possibly move to a more favorable Realm but most of the rest couldn’t were stuck where they were. Beyond protection, society needed an educated elite just to function. Water systems, when to plant or where to put a road all needed knowledge. With people’s natural inclination favor their own, the classes became largely hereditary. Patricians, Plebeians and slaves in Rome to the strict classes in India, birth largely determined your place in the Pyramid. Untouchables in India could never think about rising. Even those nearer the top needed the favor of those higher up to get “More”. Top down governance was then the rule. Humans were most successful species on earth and they were organized with an elite at the top directing the masses below. In a world where gains in “More” came very slowly this form became deeply embedded. The elites close to the top surely found it to their benefit and didn’t really see much need for change except for their distance from the very top. This was the natural order of things and your place was clearly defined. So it was for 10,000 years.
But what if gains in “More” went from little to great? Could a top down rule by elites still work? When the Fifteenth Century began it didn’t look much different than it’s 100 predecessors. When it ended this question looked for an answer.