Feudalism and Vassalage


Feudalism describes a combination of legal, military and social customs that flourished in Europe  between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.

Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralisation of an empire: especially in the Carolingian empires which both lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support cavalry without the ability to allocate land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land and over those who tended the fields in that area and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres.

These acquired powers significantly diminished unitary power in these empires. Only when the infrastructure existed to maintain unitary power— with  the arrival of European monarchies  —did feudalism begin to yield to this new power structure and eventually disappear.

Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces. Fealty denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord.

The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was to “aid”, or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court. (Source:Wikipedia)

The concept of vassalage also evolved in other regions,  in the 6th century the Persian Emperor did exactly the same and also paid his knights (dekkans) in land, creating a new class of landowners. After the collapse of this Empire, this system of vassalage was adopted by the new Arab rulers and from here also entered  Spain.

On the other-side the system didn’t develop into full blown feudalism in England. Here the military service were similarly provided by ‘fyrds’ grouping of households who had to provide military services, but the English didn’t develop the vassal on horseback. The fyrds remained directly under the order of the king.


Proto-feudal period

Under Roman emperor Diocletianus large landowners – which largely comprised members of the senatorial aristocracy – and their estates  (latifundia) were given certain rights under public law and in this way governance, justice and tax collection became linked to landownership. In this way private property title resulted in rights under public law. For fiscal reasons farmers were linked to their land.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire – which started in north western Europe when  the Roman withdrew its troops from the Limes in 402, the Franks started to take control over the areas left vacant by the Romans.  Most of the time still in the name of the Empire. The Roman ‘comes civitatis’ – the military commanders in the districts-   incorporated the German foederati troops and many of their chiefs (or kings) were able to increase their own power in these districts and together with the remaining Roman landowners became  part of the  nobility (counts and dukes).

Without effective central control the power of the landowners as well as other powerful local people increased. The Empire could no longer maintain its global scale (over stretch) and with these developments around the local landowners we now see a localisation of power. They started to take the law into their own hands, though their ‘patronage’  where they surrounded themselves with groups of followers and hangers-on who were called clients.

In the latter days of the Empire the Roman army had mainly become a cavalry force. However, once the Empire started to crumble the various Germanic people were unable to maintain a standing army. They revered back to their more traditional form of warfare on foot adjusted to their forest environments , their main weapon was the francisca – a short battle axe – that was hurdled towards their enemies just before contact was made.

Feudalism an answer to military needs

The collapse of these system’s became clear when a large band of Frankish fighters – the size of an army – in 554 by Casilinum (Capua) – was totally annihilated by a far more superior force from Constantinople. The disorganised  Franks fighting their traditional battle through personal brute force was no match to the cavalry and archers of the Byzantines. Yet even after this defeat they were slow to develop better systems.

Once mores structure returned during the Merovingian times, also the military service became more structured again.  All free people were obliged to provide military services as required by the king. In an agrarian society this was linked to landholding. For this purpose clusters of households were pulled together to form a ‘mansi’ a more or less fiscal unit to provide a man for military service with arms and equipment.  A vassal was required to provide his military service on horseback (only vassals were allowed to fight on horseback). The free serving men (landwehr) operated under the command of the vassal, the local count, being the representative of the king. But increasingly also others of the nobility, based on the shear fact that they rode a horse started to became part of the feudal system and claimed their own lands, often not much more than a village and the fields around it.

Slowly the military ‘system started to change from landwehr to cavalry, however in big battles the landwehr was still needed. A vassal of the king would generally be required to provide his military services for a period of 40 to 60 days a year.

By the time Charlemagne ruled there were some 400 counts (large landowners) that were of significant importance to maintain the integrity of the Frankish Empire under his leadership.  From now no, also in name, this was no longer part of the larger Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople. While there is no clear continuity between the Roman estates (latifundia) and the new estates that started to evolve in the latter part of the Early Middle Ages, they were largely styled on these litifundia.  Also the 400 territories were largely formed along the old Roman administrative system of pagi.

The collapse of the Carolingian empire happened through a range of civil wars between the successors of Charlemagne, It is during these  Dark Ages of  the 9th and 10th centuries that we saw- apart from the existing vassals – the arrival of hundreds and hundreds of war lords all over north-western Europe. Many of them had until that time been miles (cavalry soldiers) working on behalf of the Carolingian nobility. Rather than providing these feudal services to the king, feudal powers were assumed or usurped by the local war lords who granted their own fiefs to their own followers. During this period not much more than lip services were provided to the distant kings or emperors.

From the collapse of the Carolingian Empire military feudalism started to emerge. Despite the many civil wars that followed the death of Charlemagne, the king was seen as God’s secular representative on earth. He had the right to grant land and other privileges and as such was able to tie the war lords to him. In exchange for military services benefices were provided to these lords.

If successful in battle, those closest to the king were able to receive the largest awards, with money disappearing from the economy awards started to be given in land.  This gave a more solid base to create professional armies. But also put pressure on the king to provide rewards. In 887 Charles the Bald officially confirmed what already had been common practice for a long time  that ‘ every man must have a Lord’.

This required a further division of land in order to facilitate the increase of new land owners (warrior aristocrats) and as a result of this many of the original pagi (such as Bracbatensis) were further divided – in the case of Brabant into four parts, Twente in three parts and so on.

Combined strength was needed to face the raids of the Vikings, the Magyars and the Muslims and these local lords were desperately needed to assist in defending the territory, often without much support from the central powers of those days (East Francia, West Francia, Lotharingia) . Within this power vacuum many local war lords seized the opportunity to also enlarge their own territories. It is within these dynamics that in north western border of the old Carolingian Empire the many new overlords such as the counts and dukes of Flanders, Brabant, Gelre, Holland and Hainault started to emerge.

When every man had to have a Lord, when every official was a landholder, when every holder of a benefice had to serve as a mounted soldier, and when offices, benefices, and military obligations became hereditary, feudalism was complete, at least in practice. [x. Warfare in Feudal Europe 730-1200, John Beeler,  1971]

Around the king elite fighters started to form in groups known as comitati. Those who had enough wealth that allowed them to offer the king their men on horseback became the key warriors in these comitati. In coming centuries these warriors became the early knights and lower nobility.


An Equestrian (Latin, from eques “horseman”, from equus “horse”) was a member of the second highest social class in the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. This class is often translated as “knight”; the medieval knight, however, was called miles in Latin, (which in classical Latin meant “soldier”, normally infantry).

In the Early Medieval period any well-equipped horseman could be described as a ‘knight’ (miles). It was not for centuries later, in the course of the 12th century, that knighthood became a social rank with a distinction being made between ‘milites gregarii’ (non-noble cavalrymen) and milites nobiles (true knights). As the term ‘knight’ became increasingly confined to denoting a social rank, the military role of fully armoured cavalryman gained a separate term, ‘man-at-arms’.  At that same time the term ‘sergeant’ became in use referring to a 2nd class of mounted soldier. Although any Medieval knight going to war would automatically serve as a man-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights. The older Carolingian ceremony of presenting a young man with weapons influenced the emergence of knighthood ceremonies, in which a noble would be ritually given weapons and declared to be a knight, usually amid some festivities.

Around 1250 weapons and amour for an English knight and his horse would cost around 20 pounds, the equivalent of one year income of a manor

Source mainly Wikipedia

The king was also supposed to finance his court and administration from the income generated from his own estates. Also here awards (benefice) were provided to those who would provide services at the court.

Still in a period with little or no overall governance and military integrity, landowners often started to develop their own more or less independent powers and often misused and abused their powers and started to subdue the local population – who they started to treat as their own property  – often with brute force and the assistance of their own militia.

From ring works to motte-and-baily and stone castles

Withing the context of these power-struggles, from the late 9th but more so the 10th and 11th centuries, castles begin to emerge.  They were distinctively different from the ‘burgen’ that started to emerge during the late 8th and early 9th centuries. These were places of protection and allowed for the whole community to take refuge. Castles on the other hand were weapons of warfare.

The early ‘castles’ simply consisted of a ‘ring works’ consisting of a bank and ditch, perhaps with a palisade around it.  In the middle a wooden building would allow for protection of the king, count, duke, etc. As they were easy and cheap to build within no time hundreds of them appeared throughout north western Europe. The next stage was the motte and bailey upgrade, perhaps more structured with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, still surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. It wasn’t until well into the 11th century that stone castles started to emerge. Because of its enormous costs and the skills required to build it.


The complexity of the feudal system

Around the 9th century under the ancient nobility  -allodal or  pre-feudal landlords who had their own original lands –  the more full blown  feudal system of lower landlords started to emerge. Feudalism and vassalage were arrangements between the nobility, which only made up between 1 and 5% of the total population. However, as mentioned above this system started to reach its limitations and  the rewards started to be paid out in the form of land (domains/manors/hoven). Increasingly also privileges (rights) were added along the lines of the immunities issued during Merovingian times to the emerging monasteries.

The new  domains  started to include the farms that were part of the territory (patrimonial/allodial domain) as well as a range of other claims, goods and services –  the first villages.  In order to manage and administer all of this a manor (seigneurie, heerlijkheid) became the centre of the seigneurial system (manorialism). It was also on these domains that the first chapels and churches started to emerge, initially just for the Lord and his family, later also for the parishioners.

Once these seigneurial  centres started to emerge satellite farming communities were established (hoven).  In general we are still talking about very small communities often not more than one or two extended farming families. This system became the essential base for the feudal wealth system of the nobility.

Within these new structures the village became a legal public entity, with the local lord at its head. The villagers themselves wouldn’t have noticed much of the feudal system, from their perspective what mattered was the seigneurial system, that was the one they were confronted with on a daily basis

The agriculture communities that started to evolve included all three classes the serfs/ free farmers, the clergy and the nobility. From the start there were significant differences within the social structures of these emerging agriculture communities (villages).

As some of the largest landholders – especially under Charlemagne –  the church also  increasingly was brought into this system with military bishops and abbots, their lands were not inheritable ( a system known as prebendal domain), this made it much easier for the king to control the church lands and its income. With ecclesiastical and secular life very much intertwined during the Middle Ages both systems were not mutual exclusive.  One of the developments here was that, in order to run the Bishopric the bishop appointed ministerialis, feudal bureaucrats in charge of the administration of property and feudal rights on behalf of the Bishop. They are sometimes also referred to as serf-knights.

Under the original system the lower nobility were feudal lords to their masters, however many of these lower lords increased their powers and also forged links with other lords.  During the cause of the Middle Ages all of these families became in one way or another intertwined as we will see below.

This resulted in an enormous complex system where the various lords could have certain rights over certain properties in various places and obviously such allegiances could easily change as well, based on favours, money and marriage arrangements.

These secular Lords also often received guardianships over church properties. A complex relationship could look as follows.

The Pope as the ultimate ‘owner’ could have feudal rights relationship with archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, deacons, local priests as well as with abbots, abbesses, deans and canons. Each one of them could provide guardianships over properties and rights (e.g the tithes) to the secular hierarchy of the Emperor, Kings, Dukes, Counts, Barons, Lords, and other local varieties of these titles. Theoretically all of them could play a role in one single conflict, while I am not aware of such complexity; it is not unusual that up to a dozen of them get involved in certain property and feudal rights issues.

This of course was an ideal situation for ongoing conflicts, intrigues and wars. Especially when these overlords started to war with each other, which in our region happened frequently between Brabant, Gelre and  Holland, often dragging in even the larger powers such as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Kings of France and England.

An interesting element of these complex relationships was that many knights fighting on opposing sides would have family and friends across the divide. This also led to relative few fatal casualties in these wars between knights. As the value system of knights (chivalry) across western Europe was identical, there was a great sense of comradeship among the knights, bravery on both sides for example was highly valued, furthermore a live knight could fetch a nice ransom. Knights that had been on opposing sides in a previous war could easily find themselves on the same side at the next campaign.

The political system that evolved around vassalage meant that the ownership of lands and rights was linked to the House of the vassal. Many places had different Lords who held different rights within a town or region, this not only led to exploitation but also to continued conflicts. Misuse, confusion and conflicts in such a system was thriving and special feudal courts were established for disputes in relation to fiefs and privileges. Within the feudal system, juridical privileges were also split so in most places several courts were in operation each one in charge of certain elements of the feudal system.

The system of  Vassalage

After the Germanic tribes started to settle and the tribal kingdoms started to emerge the word gwas/gwasawl was used to describe non-family bonds between the chieftain (king) and their lower dependent members of their court, it means ‘he who serves’. It became the term for a loyal servant, this was latinised to vassas/vassallus.  [1. Middleeeuwen – D.E.H. de Boer, J. van Heerwaarden, J. Scheurkogel, p86] In the northwestern corner it was mixed with the tribal traditions of the Saliers and this lay the basis for the feudal system of  Merovingian system of vassalage.

The old Frankish system of frinlighe (free people) started disappear the most powerful of them became incorporated into this new emerging system of nobility and the rest simple became the new serfs. Vassalage is part of the feudal system that applied to the nobility.

With weak or non exiting central powers the unity of the feudal system of vassalage  was totally based on personal relationships and fitted in well as it remained still largely based on the old tribal system of kinships, marriages and ongoing  negotiations (and gift giving). In this way the ruler was able to create a centralise authority. This process gets more and more refined over the next 500 years.

The principles hat loyal servants were rewarded with land along the lines as described above, was also same applied to monasteries. In the 8th century changes were implemented by Charles Martel, instead of giving away land and privileges (immunities) they from now were given in fief (on a loan basis). In this way the king did not run the risk that he had to give away all of his land as payments for  services to his vassals. In a similar way he also required military services and this became the domain of the dukes. During the Carolingian period most counts and dukes were brought into vassalage through the oath of allegiance which were annual confirmed through the system of homage. In 802 Charlemagne ordered all free males of 12 years and older to swear allegiance to him. This oat became even more important during the following period of anarchy.

The key characteristics of vassalage is this unequal personal relationship between the Lord and his vassals, cemented in the act of homage. In an age without much writing, this was based on trust and close personal bonds this became a highly ritualised process with many onlookers – even the ordinary people – and the pledge was often sealed with a kiss on the lips. While the vassals accepted their overlords, these vassals  basically operated independently with a ‘licence’ to rule their territories under their private control. Some of them lasted to well into modern times and some can be seen as the precursors of modern counties and councils.

In most countries the ‘allegiance’ formula, in one way or another, still exists.

Rapidly the system of vassalage started to include administrative responsibilities both for the vassal in his own rights as for the kings. They now started to officially install their own vassal  counts  in administrative positions, conveniently based on the ancient ‘royal bannum’ (unlimited royal power). They became the new nobility as separate from the allodal nobility. This proofed to be an effective way for the king to rule a large territory.These counts were also the counselors of the king, these systems were further extended in the 12th and 13th centuries and eventually evolved in to Parliaments.

The high period of feudalism

The 1oth century can be considered as the period of  feudal consolidation. After a turbulent 150 years , Europe was totally fragmented, every piece of land now had it own  lord, there could have been as many as 10,000 of them in north-western Europe alone. The most powerful held a whole pagi but many others just had one or a few domains.

Slowly the Church started to take on the umbrella role over this fragmented situation.  With the increasing entanglement of Church and State, Church dogmas and Church Law (Canon Law) impacted on all elements of society, based on faith rather than reason – which created the infallible medieval belief system. However, the Peace of God also started to offer more protection to the ordinary people against the unbridled excesses of feudal war lords. The Church became a powerful ally of the monarchies

This allowed kings to slowly start to claw back some of their lost or weakened powers. However, they were in constant need of services and the counts and dukes became more and more powerful and eventually kings were forced to make these positions hereditary. Even ecclesiastical positions were extended with secular powers (prince-bishops), all now with their own layer of vassalage underneath them.

We also see that some of the original landowners sometimes had to handover (often for financial reason) their land rights to the king,  who than in exchange often gave it back as a fief in exchange for the protection of the suzerain Lord. As mentioned above, in this way many of the rulers were able to link together  complex systems where they were in one situation a vassal and in another situation a Lord. Land and titles could also be scattered over many independent  counties and  duchies.

Especially in the early stages of this development, when all these lords tried to establish their own little kingdoms,  these powers were often used  against their own population (serfs) as if they were at war with them.

The interdependence between Lords and their vassals was very dynamic; the more wars were fought the more they needed their vassals who in exchange would obtain more privileges in return. When there was a lesser need for their services the overlords used their powers in trying to get some of these rights back. From the 11th  century onward, we slowly start seeing the power moving back to the newly emerging kings of France and Germany with Burgundy holding its own in the middle.

A usual tactic was to challenge a rebel vassal for some of misconduct and request him to appear for the royal curia. If he appeared he would be condemned and his land would be taken by the king. If he didn’t appear the king would mount a campaign and being the weaker force the rebel would retreat in his castle. The king would attack the castle – still mainly of the motte-and-baily type – and if needed several campaigns were conducted in order to subdue these rebel forces. If needed a blockade was set up and wait for hunger to do the job for them. Siege warfare was at this stage not yet used as the cost were too high and the forces to do so were simply not yet available.

At the same time, while rebellions were frequent, this seldom led to battle warfare, as they simply didn’t have the military power for such battles, this period is mainly concentrated around castle warfare.

These early campaigns in the 11th century herald the start of a period of a slow return to centralised power, a process that still would take several centuries to complete.

The royal domain including its monopolies on many aspects of ‘commercial’ activity were firmly back on the king’s control. As mentioned above the king needed his domains to pay for his court – which at this stage also included the administration of his lands. Hunting and fishing rights were needed to provide certain foods and the forest, mining and quarry monopolies were at least also partly needed for military purposes such as building castles, producing arms and so on.

The end of feudalism

With the arrival of cities we also see that these entities start wielding their own power and they are able to get their own rights (town privileges). This started to force the vassal Lords back into the country areas. Slowly we start to see that once state forming starts to take place and the Court gets more and more separated from the State, that the States are becoming the overlord of all vassals. This is in particular the case in the Netherlands, where over the centuries some 1500 vassals had been able to carve out there own little territories.

However in several  territories feudal rights lingered on until the French Revolution, after which most of the feudal systems finally disappeared (see: Conflicts of interests in Ootmarsum).

See also: Villages in the Feudal Ages and Court System and political developments

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)