The origins of medieval feudalism must be looked for in the kingdom of the Merovingian Franks, and more particularly in the centre of the kingdom between the Loire and the Rhine. The peculiarities of the social relations of the society of those days possess well-marked features, defined as key features of feudalism and may be summarized as follows (Ganshof, p. xv): 1) a development pushed to extremes of the element of personal dependence in society, with a specialized military class occupying the higher levels in the social scale; 2) an extreme subdivision of the rights of real property;
3) a graded system of rights over land created by this subdivision and corresponding in broad outline to the grades of personal dependence just referred to; Further on the origin and the development of these features shall briefly examine will be briefly examined. Under the Merovingians, Gaul was rarely united or at peace, and it frequently lapsed into a state of almost complete anarchy. The main cause of this, a cause which was renewed every few years, lay in the family feuds occasioned by the custom which required that on the death of a king his inheritance should be divided between his sons.
But even apart from the permanent political struggle for power, the state was quite unable to maintain the public peace or secure the safety of its inhabitants. Its structure was too primitive, the officials in its service too few in number and too unreliable, for it to carry out successfully this elementary function of government. Such a society formed an ideal medium for the growth of bodies of retainers, and particularly of bodies of armed retainers. Those who felt the need of protection would look for it to their more powerful neighbours, and such protection would involve in return the acceptance of some form of service.
The magnates on their side, whether from a desire to play a conspicuous part in political affairs or from the hope of profiting by the political disorder and of establishing or increasing their own power and wealth, needed the services of men who were personally attached to them and whom they could use in private warfare. The most general custom was that by which a free man placed himself under the protection and at the service of another free man, while maintaining his own free status. Contemporaries called such persons ingenui in obsequio, free men in dependence (Ganshof, p.
4). Thus, it can be asserted that the basic feature of feudal society was the social system based on the obligations of obedience and service – mainly military service – on the part of a free man (the vassal) towards another free man (the lord), and the obligations of protection and maintenance on the part of the lord with regard to his vassal. (Ganshof, p. xvi) In a society in which agriculture was the chief form of economic activity and the most important source of wealth, it might often be convenient to bestow on the vassal sufficient land to assure his proper maintenance.
This land might be given in full ownership or – as it more often happened – the lord might make a grant of land to his vassal as a tenement. A tenement was a piece of land, great or small, the use and enjoyment of which for a prolonged period were granted by the owner to another person, the tenant, in such a fashion that the tenant exercised over the land immediate and direct control, what we would call nowadays a real right. The tenant had thus acquired what in Roman Law was called a ius in re aliena, a right over a thing belonging to another.
(Dopsch, p. 290) The existence of tenements was very widespread in the Frankish kingdom, as it had already been in the Roman empire during the last centuries of its history. These tenements were nearly always held for life, and were in practice normally hereditary. This type of tenement, which was the commonest, may be described as onerous, since the rent and above all the labour dues owed by the tenant were directly related to the value of the land he held and weighed heavily upon him.
But by the side of these were other types of tenement, the particular feature of which was that from the point of view of the tenant they were held by him on very favourable terms. They carried with them no labour dues, and their rent was an extremely moderate one. Sometimes there might even be no rent at all, the owner having for some particular reason granted a tenement to another person while demanding nothing in return.
The favourable terms on which these tenements were held explains the word beneficium, ‘benefice’ or ‘benefit’, by which they are described in contemporary texts. They are frequently encountered in the formularies and charters of the Merovingian period. The beneficium or benefice may thus be defined as a tenement held on easy terms or even gratuitously, and which the tenant owes to the generosity of the grantor. It must be noticed, that vassalage and benefice was not strongly connected at the beginning.
The two institutions of vassalage and benefice, during the Carolingian began to combine so as to constitute a new system of institutions. It is this that underlies the origin of the expression ‘Carolingian feudalism’. During the fist half of eight century a great change had taken place. At the beginning of eighth century (the last years of Pepin II’s government) the grant of benefices to vassals seems to have been only occasional, and was not practised at all by the mayor of the palace or the king.
By the accession of Charlemagne (second past of the eight century), the king, like other members of the ruling class – dukes, counts, great landowners or potentes, bishops and abbots – was granting benefices on a large scale to many of his vassals. Although there was no necessary connection between them, the actual union of benefice and vassalage had become a routine (Reynolds, p. 48). A second aspect of feudal relationships a profound transformation in the course of the ninth century was that of the heritability of benefices (Lyon, p.
51). The contract of commendation (vassalage), in its strictest and simplest form, excluded any idea of heritability. A lord received a certain person into the number of his vassals because of some particular qualities he possessed, and which his son would not necessarily inherit. Consequently the grant of a benefice, which was in theory conditioned by the prior creation of the relationship of lord and vassal established by the act of commendation, should not in its turn possess a hereditary character.
But from the earliest times circumstances must have frequently arisen in which a lord would welcome the commendation of the son of a deceased vassal and grant him the benefice held by his father. The latter might even during his lifetime have made arrangements with his lord for his son’s succession. Hence, it was normal for a son to receive his father’s benefice (or fief, as it became known in the tenth century) if he was a suitable person, though naturally after having become a vassal of the same lord.
However, this custom was never formulated as a rule of law by any legislative act. Feudalism after the Thirteenth Century Feudal institutions lasted in Western Europe to the end of the Ancien Regime, (actually till the beginning of the French Revolution) and in some countries elements of them survived into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. But from the end of the thirteenth century they ceased in western Europe to be the most fundamental element in the structure of society, lying behind and influencing every aspect of its life and thought.
The survival of feudal institutions was most complete in the case of fiefs, even when from the point of view of private law these came to be regarded as nothing more than a particular type of estate. Their transmission was accompanied by certain legal forms and had to take place in accordance with certain specific rules, and their occupants, from the time when the service of military vassals was no longer required, were bound to certain payments in kind on specified occasions.
The personal element in feudal relationships became something purely accessory: homage and fealty were no more than formalities which had to be undertaken within a certain time in order that one could enter into the possession of one’s fief. The effective rights attached to the possession of the latter and the dues which it entitled its holder to collect resulted in the development of written documents regarding it.
The litigation which changes of holding involved, and the legal disputes provoked by conflicts over the rights of the different parties over fiefs, led to an increase in the importance of the feudal courts attended by the vassals, the tribunals competent in such matters. Side by side with these changes, a transformation was taking place in the personnel of the holders of fiefs. From the thirteenth century onwards men of bourgeois origin were acquiring fiefs side by side with the nobility. The acquisition of a fief was a regular way in which a man of the middle or lower classes could hope to rise in the social scale (Murray, 1995).
This was a consequence of the fact that very frequently, and in some regions invariably, a fief constituted a lordship, and gave to the person acquiring it the exercise of certain powers of jurisdiction and a number of positive rights and honorary prerogatives. Finally, the obligation laid on the vassal of giving counsel to his lord gave rise to the courts of justice, attended by vassals, which developed into the supreme legal or judicial tribunals of many countries: the ‘Parlement de Paris’ and the other French ‘parlements’, the Council of Flanders and so on.
The same duty of giving counsel, and the custom which required that a lord should consult his vassals before taking any important decision, played an essential part in the formation of ‘estates’ and other organizations representing particular classes of society in the course of the three last centuries of the Middle Ages. The origins of the English parliament itself derive in part from this feudal practice.
Dopsch, A. 1937. The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization.K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, London. Ganshof, F. L. & Grierson, P. (transl. ) 1952. Feudalism. Longmans Green, London Lyon, Bryce D. 1957. From Fief to Indenture: The Transition from Feudal to Non-Feudal Contract in Western Europe. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. Murray, Mary. 1995. The Law of the Father? Patriarchy in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Routledge, New York. Reynolds, S. 1994. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Clarendon Press, Oxford.