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Feudalism: A Brief Explanation

The ‘Feudal System’ in England, as it is taught in schools, seems fairly simple and consistent, the result of the imposition by a small conquering minority of a system already developed beyond these shores, and modified even as it was imposed. But even in England it was extremely complex, developing fairly rapidly from the hour of its introduction, modified by the adoption of Saxon law and custom and by changing conditions within the kingdom, and even now still open to re-interpretation in many of its features. On the Continent, however, it differed greatly from country to country depending on the circumstances under which it developed. In those areas which have been studied, custom and feudal law varied widely and it would be quite impractical to try to cover the whole of Europe except in the most general terms. Outside northern France and those lands where feudalism was deliberately imported, England, Sicily and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, many variations are found. Almost everywhere else, even in France south of the Loire, some allodial land remained, that is land held free of any overlord, and the frequency and complexities of vassalage varied from place to place. For instance, in parts of the south of France vassalage was established by a simple oath of fealty, a promise not to harm the lord or his interests in any way, without any question of homage; that is, without the ceremony of clasping hands and the statement of willingness by the vassal and acceptance by the lord. In northern Italy homage disappeared by the twelfth century and vassalage was established by an oath of fealty only. The special class of unfree knights, called ministeriales, found in Germany and the Low Countries, did not perform homage since they were already regarded as the property of their lord.

In Russia, Scandinavia, Castile and León, a few feudal customs were found but the system never developed fully in these lands. Even feudal terminology was not uniform all over Europe. For instance, the word vavassor refers in France to a sub-vassal of lowly rank, sometimes serving with incomplete armour; in northern Italy a sub-vassal of the crown; while in England it could imply a freeman owing military service, not necessarily a vassal at all. In northern Italy, the power and organization of the great mercantile cities and the tradition of urban life going back to Roman times always outshone feudalism which is an institution based essentially on land and rural communities. The wealth of the cities over-shadowed that of the feudatories. The Italian nobility, many of whom were heavily engaged in trade, tended to live in the towns, sometimes in fortified houses like those of many-towered San Gimignano. Similarly in Germany, relatively free from the devastation of the Norsemen, and with a series of strong kings able to assert themselves and to prevent the chaos which rent France during the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire, a rather different social system developed.

In general, the essence of the system, as we have seen, was protection in exchange for service. Even as late as the four-teenth century the exchange of services between knight and peasant, inherent in the earliest stages of feudalism, was still recognized. The peasant in Piers Plowman says that he will work and sweat for the knight who in turn will protect him and Holy Church from evildoers, and protect the land from vermin large and small. In France, the cradle of feudalism, one can add to this the phrase ‘no land without a lord, no lord without a fief.’

All land was regarded as belonging to the king under God. The greater nobles, the tenants-in-chief, held their land, now beginning to be called a fief rather than a benefice, in return for auxilium and consilium; the duty of serving the king with a stipulated number of knights (servicium debitum), and the duty of assisting the king with their advice in all matters on which the king required it. The tenants-in-chief in turn granted part of their fief to sub-tenants who helped to make up the quota of knights owed by them to the king, by personal military service and, if their tenement was large, by providing an additional fixed number of knights. The lord in return must protect his vassal, which on the Continent might mean going to war on his behalf, and defend him in the courts of law, even in the royal courts. He must also advise him and maintain him, which usually entailed the granting of a fief. Many vassals are recorded in France holding very small fiefs and owing military service less than knight’s service, that is, not fully armed. The vassal without a fief still existed in the twelfth century and was maintained in his lord’s household but was becoming increasingly rare. The centrifugal force of feudalism was so great in France under the very weak kings that the dukes and counts managed to force many originally royal vassals to do homage to them instead. By the eleventh century the dukes of Burgundy were able to prevent the building of castles on allods within their sphere of influence, and the allod had to be converted into a fief held of the duke before permission was granted.

The land remained the possession of the overlord, to whom the payment of a ‘relief’ was due before the heir could take possession. If the tenant died without heirs or failed in his feudal duty, the fief returned to the grantor who could either retain it or grant it to another vassal. The overlord had the right of ‘wardship’, that is, the right to administer the fief and enjoy its profits during the minority of the heir or heiress, and the right to dispose of him or her in marriage. Similarly, he could dispose of the widow of a tenant in marriage. Two clauses in Magna Carta (1215) seek to prevent the abuse of the estates of minors, while another prevents a widow from being forced to remarry against her will. In the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the heiress of a great feudatory was allowed to choose from three suitable candidates for her hand selected by the king. In parts of France wardship was replaced by a system in which a close kinsman of the heir was appointed baillie and did homage and was invested with the fief during the minority. In Germany very high reliefs, fixed arbitrarily, were normal for important fiefs, but for smaller ones relief often consisted of a horse and arms, a practice going back to the return of the gifts made by his lord in the man’s lifetime, during the era of the war-bands of early times. By the late twelfth century, relief was fixed in France at one year’s revenue of the fief. In England, Magna Carta fixed relief for an earl at 100 l. and for a knight at 100 s., and less for those who held less land.

Originally, the lord had the right to an arbitrary tax from his vassals whenever he wished, but this was gradually reduced to the three customary ‘aids’ which could be demanded at the knighting of the lord’s eldest son, the wedding of his eldest daughter for the first time, and to pay his own ransom if he was captured in war. Even these aids were not universal in Italy and the German lands. A similar tax from the unfree was called tallage.

The tenants and sub-tenants had a duty to the peasants on their land to administer justice in the local courts, and to defend them from raiders, robbers, and enemies human and animal, in return for agricultural labour on the lord’s own demesne lands, carriage of his goods, and payments of food and produce. The right to administer justice developed from the power of a man to judge his own slaves, from the need to keep order among a lord’s dependants, and from simple usurpation of royal rights as the Carolingian Empire broke up. Medieval justice, resting largely upon fines, was profitable to those who administered it. To those judged, justice of any sort is better than no justice at all.

Many offices, such as those of duke, count, and in Germany of some bishops, were held as fiefs, but alongside these were many very minor offices and even duties which were held in this way; for instance the mayor of a town, the constable of a castle, or the right to tolls of a certain bridge or ferry.

The money fief or fief-rente was a device by which homage was rendered and stipulated military service was supplied in exchange, not for a fief, but for an annual fixed payment, sometimes secured on a particular tax or custom due. The best known example is the agreement with the Count of Flanders to supply troops to the Norman kings which lasted, with interruptions, until the death of Henry I or even later. This type of vassalage in return for an annuity was much more common later and was found particularly useful by Edward III and his Low Country allies.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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