© Walter Jardine 2018

Origins

Feudalism was brought to Britain by the Normans. At the time, Gaels, Picts, Britons, Angles, and Saxons had their own systems, similar to each other in many ways, but all different from the Normans. The Norse were different again (see Norse Life). Feudalism was in common practice across Europe from the 9th century onwards, based around three fundamental concepts: Lord a person who has authority or power over others. Vassal a person who has entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch (who themselves may be a vassal). Fief heritable property or rights granted by an overlord in return for allegiance or service. All those in the social hierarchy below the monarch and above the serfs (see Norman life), were referred to by the general term “vassal”. Serfs (the lowest level in society), were not vassals as they did not swear allegiance; their loyalty was taken for granted and they could be punished for not honouring their obligations as tenants.

The Feudal System

The term “feudal” first began to be used by historians around the 16th or 17th century, and then only in its Latin form. So “feudal” and “feudalism” are relatively modern terms not known to the people of the 12th century. Some historians are now calling into question whether there was ever a feudal “system”. The practices described here, did happen in Norman times so I will continue to call them collectively as “feudalism” or the “feudal system”.

Lord

A lord is any person who has “ownership” of land. At the top is the king who owns all the land in his kingdom. Below him will be the most senior lords who have been granted land rights by the king in return for swearing their loyalty to him in a religious ceremony. That loyalty is backed up by payments in service, goods, food and cash. This land is known as a “fief”, “fiefdom” or “manor”. The senior lords in their turn can subdivide their fief, granting rights to lower lords or knights on a similar basis to that on which they obtained those rights from their overlord. The process could be repeated to several layers, depending on the size of the original fief and its capacity to support life.

Vassal

A vassal is a person who has entered into a mutual obligation with an overlord or monarch, including military support and mutual protection, in exchange for privileges such as the grant of land held as a fiefdom. The vassal would pay “homage” to his overlord at a formal ceremony. This commitment was carried upward to include his overlord’s overlord, through to the monarch. In return for this loyalty, the overlord granted rights such as the use of land or other form of support. After the act of homage in which the vassal became his overlord’s “man”, the vassal then swore “fealty” in which he committed himself to providing services or other provisions as required by the overlord. The oaths of homage (from the French word for “man”) and fealty were taken as part of a religious ceremony, over a Bible or relic of a saint. Thus they were taken before God and carried great weight in the minds of all participants.

Fief/Manor

Holding a fief did not confer what we would now think of as ownership of the freehold of a property on the vassal, only the usage rights. This enabled an overlord (at any level) to withdraw those rights should the vassal have, in some way, not honoured his obligations to his overlord. A fiefdom was normally awarded for the lifetime of the vassal (assuming they committed no crime in the eyes of the overlord). By the 12th century a fiefdom could be passed on to descendants of the deceased vassal, provided that the receiving lord repeated the oaths taken by his predecessor.
© Walter Jardine 2018

Origins

Feudalism was brought to Britain by the Normans. At the time, Gaels, Picts, Britons, Angles, and Saxons had their own systems, similar to each other in many ways, but all different from the Normans. The Norse were different again (see Norse Life). Feudalism was in common practice across Europe from the 9th century onwards, based around three fundamental concepts: Lord a person who has authority or power over others. Vassal a person who has entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch (who themselves may be a vassal). Fief heritable property or rights granted by an overlord in return for allegiance or service. All those in the social hierarchy below the monarch and above the serfs (see Norman life), were referred to by the general term “vassal”. Serfs (the lowest level in society), were not vassals as they did not swear allegiance; their loyalty was taken for granted and they could be punished for not honouring their obligations as tenants.

The Feudal System

The term “feudal” first began to be used by historians around the 16th or 17th century, and then only in its Latin form. So “feudal” and “feudalism” are relatively modern terms not known to the people of the 12th century. Some historians are now calling into question whether there was ever a feudal “system”. The practices described here, did happen in Norman times so I will continue to call them collectively as “feudalism” or the “feudal system”.

Lord

A lord is any person who has “ownership” of land. At the top is the king who owns all the land in his kingdom. Below him will be the most senior lords who have been granted land rights by the king in return for swearing their loyalty to him in a religious ceremony. That loyalty is backed up by payments in service, goods, food and cash. This land is known as a “fief”, “fiefdom” or “manor”. The senior lords in their turn can subdivide their fief, granting rights to lower lords or knights on a similar basis to that on which they obtained those rights from their overlord. The process could be repeated to several layers, depending on the size of the original fief and its capacity to support life.

Vassal

A vassal is a person who has entered into a mutual obligation with an overlord or monarch, including military support and mutual protection, in exchange for privileges such as the grant of land held as a fiefdom. The vassal would pay “homage” to his overlord at a formal ceremony. This commitment was carried upward to include his overlord’s overlord, through to the monarch. In return for this loyalty, the overlord granted rights such as the use of land or other form of support. After the act of homage in which the vassal became his overlord’s “man”, the vassal then swore “fealty” in which he committed himself to providing services or other provisions as required by the overlord. The oaths of homage (from the French word for “man”) and fealty were taken as part of a religious ceremony, over a Bible or relic of a saint. Thus they were taken before God and carried great weight in the minds of all participants.

Fief/Manor

Holding a fief did not confer what we would now think of as ownership of the freehold of a property on the vassal, only the usage rights. This enabled an overlord (at any level) to withdraw those rights should the vassal have, in some way, not honoured his obligations to his overlord. A fiefdom was normally awarded for the lifetime of the vassal (assuming they committed no crime in the eyes of the overlord). By the 12th century a fiefdom could be passed on to descendants of the deceased vassal, provided that the receiving lord repeated the oaths taken by his predecessor.

Walter Jardine

Normans

Feudalism

Walter Jardine

Normans

Feudalism