Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


28.2.07
  Feudalism 101 (Part 2)

Carolingian Times (8th-10h centuries)

Subsequently, the oath of obedience changed into an oath of fealty, and therewith the system of entourage into the genuine feudal system.

Not all the retainers could live at the court, so they were given a piece of land as beneficium (French fief), and they were only called into service on special occassions. The dependence of the vassals towards their lord was lessened, at the same time the social status of the vasalls developed into membership of a special group with increasingly high standing that would become the knights. A disadvantage of this development resulted in the king and the lords somewhat losing the grip on their vasalls.

During the reign of Charlemagne, feudality developed into a veritable system by uniting the originally independent institutions of the personal bound by commendation and the landloan of the beneficium. Vassalage thus became the prerequisite for receiving a beneficium. The act of making a vasall was formalized: the first step was the commendation or manumission ('handgang' - the vasall put his hands into the hands of the lord), followed by an oath of fealty. Touching of a reliquar was also often part of it.

The importance of the oath was enhanced the moment the institution of the antrustiones went into decline. A possible reason for this was the fact that the oath was legally binding for both parties and it could only take part between freeborn men. It thus gave a counterweight to the act of the commendation that stressed the dependant situation of the vasall. Successively, vassalage became acceptable even for persons of high standing.

Obedience was no longer neccesarily included in the oath formula. "By this oath I promise to be faithful to my lord, the very pious Emperor Charles, as according to custom and right a vasall owns faith towards his lord, to guard his realm and protect his rights. And I will keep this my sworn oath henceforth as is in my power, and may God, Creator of heaven and earth, and these holy relics help me." (1) Often the oath of fealty is defined in a 'negative' way: not to do anything that may give harm or disadvantage to the lord, "...to ensure the king by an oath of fidelity not to do anything against his life and his body, and not to take him prisoner to his disadvantage..." (2) The lord, too, had duties towards his vasalls, besides fidelity from his side it was mostly protection in form of military aid in case the vasall was attacked, and maintenance, fe. by giving him a beneficium. In addition to the afore mentioned fidelty, the vasall owed his lord consilium et auxilium, ie. he had to visit his lord on days of council and judgement and function as an advisor. Auxilium meant military aid as a mounted knight, together with his retainers, if he had; but it also could involve payment of ransom, or giving financial support in case of great celebrations such as marriage. High standing vasalls of a king could be asked to bring 500 or 1000 warriors to a war, part of them fully equipped kinghts. Therefore, vassalty was mostly a military institution.

Commendation and oath-taking both founded the personal relationship between vasall and lord, and a contract made in that way could not be broken or annulated save by the death of one of the parties. Later on, failure of one of the parties to keep the mutual promise of succour by the vasall and protection by the lord could also lead to annulation of the feudal bond. We have to keep in mind that personal bonds were the only way to somewhat regulate the misuse of power in a society without a 'modern' political system of legislative and courts of justice. Added to this, religion in Mediaeval society had a very strong influence and oath-breaking was considered as a major sacrilege leading directly towards condamnation.

Third part of the ceremony of making a vasall was the so-called investiture: the vasall was given the right over his beneficium by handing over of a symbolic object, fe. a staff. The sequence and importance ot the three elements of commendation, oath, and investiture changed within time.

Originally, the beneficium fell back to the lord after the vasall died. But the heirs of a vasall were, of course, interested in keeping the fief. Often the lord agreed to this and the usual way was to reenact the whole ceremony to make the new bond legal. In the second half of the 9th century heritage became the accepted way of transferring a fief.

The feudal pyramid - that means the system of lesser lords bound to dukes and counts, and these bound to the king - was weakened by the fact that an increasing number of minor vasalls and subsequently even the higher ones gave their alliance to several lords for different fiefs. This resulted in a lessened bond towards the king, the oath-taking became a mere formality. At the end of the millenium the feudal system was close to a collapse, a development accelerated by the weakening of the position of the king during the late Carolingian period (there were often several sons fighting over the heritage and the lands). But still the value of the oath had some effect and kept the feudal system and with it the empire from collapsing.

Footnotes
(1) Annales Regni Francorum 802
(2) Actes des comtes de Flandre; part of the oath sworn by Count Robert II of Flanders to King Henry I of England in 1101

Picture: Roland swearing fealty to Charlemagne, from the mss. of a chanson de geste - Public Domain (could not find out which particular manuscript)
 
Comments:
Comments made in my other blog:

Anonymous said...
French kids don't much like Charlemagne - credited with starting the first schools in France.
:-)
February 17, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
*grin*

It's strange how Charlemagne has become more or less Karl der Grosse despite the fact his realm encompassed parts of both todays Germany and France, and the legends about him started in the French vernacular. Not to mention the Capet kings sneaked him into their family tree.
February 17, 2007

Constance said...
Nifty information in both posts, Gabriele, thanks. It gives me some ideas for other things.

Dang, your blog is just awash in plot bunnies!
February 17, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
Thank you, Constance.

Awash with plotbunnies? *looks all innocent*

But yes, the feudal system had a lot of conflict built in, and transfering it to a Fantasy setting could be fun. :)

Carla said...
Fascinating, Gabriele, thank you.
If the feudal system was close to collapse in 1000 AD or thereabouts, how come it seems to have carried on during the High Middle Ages? Did it adapt, or were rumours of its death exaggerated? (Or is that Part 3?)

Gabriele C. said...
Carla,
it did adapt, and yes, it will be part 3.

I have some 250 double sided, postcard-sized cards with notes from books about feudalism. I didn't remember it was so many. :)

Alianore said...
I have some 250 double sided, postcard-sized cards with notes from books about feudalism. I didn't remember it was so many. :)

*Has horrible flashback to about five zillion dry and dull university lectures on the subject of feudalism*
*Shudders*

Seriously, if it had been explained as well and as interestingly as you've done it here, I wouldn't have had any problems with it! ;)
February 19, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
I'm glad you like my essasys better. :) Thank you for the kind words.

I wasn't enthused about the way historiy was presented at school, either.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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