The feudal system was medieval Europe’s prevailing form of political organization. It was based on a hierarchical series of relationships. A noble lord would grant land (called a fief) to a free man, and then the man would swear fealty to his lord. The man then became a vassal, and agreed to provide military service, as well as other obligations, to his lord. This is feudalism in a short, highly generalized nutshell; but to truly understand this or any other system, one must first look at the facets of its composition. The system was subjected to much corruption and little centralization, and resulted in much political, social, and economic reform. By establishing feudal relationships with their lords, aspiring vassals faced the great burdens of obligation and faithfulness. In order to become vassals (feudal tenants who received property in exchange for their services) young men had to go through a specific process, ensuring their utmost loyalty to their respective lords. These lords were typically referred to as liege lords, feudal lords to whom vassals owed their allegiances; however, sometimes, a tenant (vassal) would even form a feudal relationship with his king or a territorial prince. In this instance, the tenant would be referred to as a tenant-in-chief or a baron, but for a young, aspiring vassal, this title was a ways down the road. The very first step on a young man’s quest for vassalage was to attend a commendation ceremony. The procedure of this ceremony was twofold; aspiring vassals would both perform the act of homage, and take an oath of fealty to their lords. During the act of homage, an aspiring vassal would appear before his lord in a submissive manner, swearing his loyalty, commitment, and service. After performing the act of homage, the soon-to-be vassal would take an oath of fealty to his feudal lord. In this oath, the feudal tenant would assure his allegiance, and swear to use his inherited property to serve his lord entirely. Out of the two elements of the commendation ceremony, homage was considered especially important. Unlike the oath of fealty, which could be sworn to several different lords, homage could only be performed to one. This stipulation exemplifies the significance of vassalage, the relationship and mutual agreement between a vassal and his feudal lord.
In exchange for his duty and service to his lords, a vassal received a benefice, or fief. Both terms, in regard to middle-age feudalism, refer to the property to which a vassal was bound in order to satisfy the agreement with his lord. The formal exchange of fiefs from lords to vassals was called investiture, and would happen during the commendation ceremony. The new tenant would take the fief he received via the investiture, and start to produce the necessities of war for the good of his liege lord. In doing so, some vassals would opt for subinfeudation, the leasing of a portion of their already leased fief to a lesser vassal, or “rear vassal.” In the beginning stages of the feudal system, the rules were sort of ambiguous in regard to what a vassal could and could not do with his land; consequently, vassals would attempt to make profits from their fiefs and become lords themselves! However, if at any time a lord felt that his vassal failed to adhere to the oath he had taken, the fief could be seized back through a process called “forfeiture.”
Although much of a vassal’s responsibilities were focused on his use of his fiefdom for his lord’s military security, he also had two other obligations to his lord, both pertaining to situations where the lord was in a rough spot. First, if in court, a lord could call upon his vassals to give him legal advice. The lord would call for the deliberation of his counsel of vassals when considering situations such as criminal offense, capital punishment, and whether or not to go to war. The other obligation vassals had to their lords was in the form of financial...
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