Vassalage Relations –

As we have explained in our previous article on feudalism in the Middle Ages, in this socioeconomic system there were two predominant forms of social bond: serfdom relationships and vassalage relationships. We will talk about the latter in this section.

Vassalage Relations -also called fief-vassal relations- they were established between a nobleman of great power (Feudal Lord) and another nobleman of lesser power (vassal).

By virtue of the vassalage relationship, the Feudal Lord gives the vassal:

  • Protection
  • Maintenance
  • Domain over a set of lands (called fiefdoms or manor) and over its inhabitants (serfs) who will be forced to work for it.

In In return, the vassal must provide his Lord with military support and fidelity.

When a vassal received a fief of important dimensions, he could in turn give part of it to another or other nobles of lower rank than he, establishing with them a new relationship of vassalage. In this case he would take the role of Feudal Lord and those who receive the fief are his vassals.

How vassalage relations were established

In the schematic below we can clearly see how these links are established, which generates a plot of several levels of vassalage relations.

In the upper part of the scheme appears the king, who was “technically” the owner of all the lands, so ultimately all the nobles owed him fidelity. But in reality, the king had no more than effective control over the few lands that he had reserved for himself, without effective power over the rest of the territories controlled by other large Feudal lords. In the Middle Ages, the king is considered aprimus inter pares”, which means “first among equals”.

The personal pact established between lords and vassals (peasants) became effective through a ceremony it was called investment. It was performed before other important members of society who were witnesses to the bond forged. The vassal declared his willingness to put himself at the service of his mister (tribute), and the lord then took their hands symbolizing protection and sealed the alliance with a kiss.

The vassal then swore an oath on the Bible. Finally, the lord carried out the investiture, where through the delivery of an object (land, for example) the delivery of the fief. Thus, a contract was established in which each one had to honor his reciprocal obligations.

vassalage ties

Everything converges like this “recommend” and “protect” values. They materialize in a solemn commitment. It is the ceremony of homage, through which the ties between the vassal and his lord are united: the supreme lord. The lord (from the Latin senior: the oldest) receives the oath of fidelity from the one who then becomes “his man of his” and he kneels before him, bareheaded and unarmed, with both hands on his heart. The lord raises the vassal and kisses him, reestablishing equality; then, if necessary, he invests it with his fiefdom, in which case the vassal becomes the feudatory of his lord.

The first function of the oath and of the bond that is formed is ensure peace and security between the two protagonists, which is fundamental in the medieval context of a society of rivalry and violence. The vassal, who must not harm the sovereign in the first place, has an obligation to provide the lord with help (auxilium) and advice (consilium). Helping will be, above all, lending a hand with arms, if necessary… It is also forcing yourself to go to the gentleman during the court summons, whom he must consult for any important decision.

The reciprocity of the oath of homage is total: the lord owes the same to his vassal. If one of the two does not fulfill his obligations, he is in a state of serious crime. If the crime comes from the vassal, the sovereign can cause the commission to confiscate the fief to be pronounced and applied by force. In these vassalage ties, a vassal of a great lord may very well be in turn the sovereign of a lord “smaller” than he… Thus, in absolute terms, we have a social pyramid that goes from the king to the great lords, then to the local lords, who have vassals, then to the rear. In principle, it is this overlapping of oaths that forms the feudal structure.

Relations between the vassal and the Lord

Between the lords and vassals there are some relations that consist of a series of clauses and conditions that generally oblige the vassal to obey all the orders of his feudal lord, at the risk of losing the benefits he had obtained. In vassalage relations the most important word was “fidelity”.

For example, first there was the so-called shieldthat is, the obligation to help the lord in any military confrontation that requires it. In these cases, the vassal should go to war compulsorily and, moreover, bear the costs of going to battle. In addition, he had to put at the disposal of the lord military forces in accordance with his lands and possessions. That is, a vassal who had obtained great power and wealth had to offer the lord great military potential. As time passed, the most powerful vassals began to refuse to lead their men into battle, compensating the lords with cash payments.

Over time, some vassals were getting a large amount of land, wealth and became in turn lords of a large number of vassals, who in turn continued with the pyramid. In this way, some vassals began to escape from the authority and power of the lords, refusing obligations such as shielding.

Likewise, the vassals had the obligation to offer council, that is, advice to his lord. That is, they should advise and support him in political and legal matters. Apart from this, the vassal had to be there whenever his lord required it in numerous cases: he had to accompany him to battle if he so requested, accompany him on his pilgrimages through the holy land, etc.

On the other hand, the vassals had to scrupulously follow all these obligations if they did not want to be dispossessed of their lands and benefits. In addition, the vassals could be sentenced to death if they attacked the physical integrity of the lord or his family, tried to rape his wife, conspired against him, etc.

In the following video you can expand this explanation of the vassalage relationships in the Middle Ages.

Video on the relations of feudalism and vassalage in the Middle Ages

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