Vassals in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Vassals in the Middle ages were those who held the land, called a fief, and owed service and allegiance to the lord who granted them that land. The vassal was usually a knight or a baron, but could also be a member of the clergy or a trusted member of nobility. Vassals in the Middle Ages were an integral part of feudalism, which was the system of government throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.
The word vassal is believed to have been derived from the Medieval Latin term vassallus, the Roman and Latin term vassus, meaning servant, and the Celtic and Welsh term gwas, which means a young man who is a servant or feudal tenant.
History of Vassals
It is believed that the first vassals in the Middle Ages came from England. It is most likely that the first vassals in England began to appear after the Norman Conquest, which occurred in 1066. When William the conqueror invaded England at this time, he declared that all of the land belonged to him. As such, the Normans, soldiers, and infantry were awarded most of England’s land for assisting in William’s conquest.
Naturally, after they gained control of the land, the Normans began to rule control it as well. Next, England was divided among aristocrats and powerful military leaders. The nobles then became feudal lords and those below them became vassals. There were also some vassals that served directly under the king. There were others still that had control of their own lands and did not live in the home of the lord that they were under control of.
The average size of a feudal land grant to a vassal was between 1200 acres and 1800 acres. The land that vassals were granted commonly contained farm lands, pastures, churches and andmills. Vassals either lived in the castle of their feudal lord or they sometimes had the privilege of owning their own manor.
Responsibilities of a Vassal in the Middle Ages
A vassal’s main duty was to be the assistant, or second in command, to whomever their direct feudal lord was. This meant anyone from a clergy member to the King. However, vassals in the Middle Ages had many responsibilities. One of the most important duties of vassals in the Middle ages was to maintain the manor of their feudal lord and watch over the day to day activities in the manor.
Because they had so many responsibilities, vassals in the Middle Ages were given more authority and lands. Another important duty of a vassal was to attend to his feudal lord during court. He was also responsible for recruiting more men for his lord’s army, protecting and managing his lord’s manor, supervising all of the serfs and peasants who lived on the manor, and acting as a mercenary for his lord.
Sometimes vassals in the Middle Ages were asked to provide counsel for their lords. This meant that they helped their lords make important decisions. This included simple decisions, such as decisions surrounding farming. These types of decisions were usually in lower level manors. However, lords also gave their vassals the opportunity to decide on sentences for criminals.
This even sometimes included the sentencing of executions. Also, feudal courts sometimes discussed possible declarations of wars or conflicts. Feudal court customs varied depending on time, place, and the type of lord. For example, a King’s feudal court was, naturally, much different than a knight’s.
Oath of Fealty
Vassals in the Middle Ages took an oath to their Master that ensured their life-long service. This oath was known as the Oath of Fealty. The word “fealty” is derived from the Latin word “fidelitas.” This is a word meaning fidelity and is symbolic of the fidelity that a vassal owed his lord. “Fealty” also refers to another oath that more strictly outlined a vassal’s dedicated commitments to his lord. This oath was taken after the second part of the commendation ceremony.
The Oath of Fealty:
"I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord, never cause him harm and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit."
Vassals took the Oath of Fealty during a special ceremony. This was called a commendation ceremony. A commendation ceremony was comprised of two parts, one of which was the Oath of Fealty. The second part of the ceremony was a two-part act of homage. In this part of the ceremony, a contract was entered by the lord and vassal in which the lord promised to always protect the vassal, while the vassal promised to fight for the lord’s command.
After the end of the ceremony the vassal and lord were officially in a feudal relationship. They now had to follow the agreed-upon mutual obligations made with one another. The main obligation of the vassal was to provide military service on command for the lord. Generally, military aid and security was the reasoning behind a lord entering a feudal relationship in the first place. Also, the vassal had to keep his other responsibilities, which included tending to the manor, assisting the lord at court, and overseeing the serfs and peasants on the manor.
Many vassals in the Middle Ages led the role of both vassal and lord. This meant that they were vassals to a lord, but also leased some of the land that they were granted. In fact, in the feudal system, a majority of nobility were probably in this situation. Because no one but the King was in ultimate power, most likely the only way for a vassal to make money was by leasing his land to another vassal.
Death of a Vassal
If the vassal died, the vassal’s family supplied an appropriate male family member to take his place within the feudal system. If there were no male family members left in the deceased vassal’s family, then the vassal’s former lord took care of the vassal’s family.