The French Feudal Organization
During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of France was scattered with numerous estates, each one of them headed by a Lord. As a matter of comparison with today's life, one can say a lordship was pretty similar to nowadays official organizations — municipalities or counties alike — ensuring an economic, political and legal framework is provided to its communities. The Lord exercises his sovereignty meaning his power over vassal Lords, thus is named suzerain. Both are bound by a 'recommendation', which is in other words a ceremony of allegiance called a ceremony of homage that take place during which an exchange of oaths, rights and duties needing to be performed. By doing so, the Lord offers protection and a stronghold, a fief — a land granted to the vassal Lord in exchange for services, pretty often military ones — as opposed to a land that would be free of any feudal rights. Lords do have titles giving them a rank in the medieval aristocracy. Obviously at the head of this organization is the King, the Lord of the Lords, the main Overlord.
The lordship was itself divided into two categories; the land lordship and the 'banal' lordship.
The land lordship meant the Lord was the direct owner of the land, it comprised the land the Lord managed himself — called reserve — and the portion called tenure land where a tenant was taking care of the land against royalties — cens in French — and services, likewise chores.
The 'banal' lordship on the other hand could be considered nowadays as the operational managers. They were given official rights over people — farmers in particular — to manage and maintain common buildings such as the mill, the public oven to bake the bread, or the wine press. People would pay specific taxes to these Lords to be able to use such facilities.
In the feudal system, the homage was the setting of a convention between two men whom — even though the convention sets up hierarchy — would have a complimentary bound without any imbalance in its conditions. The ceremony itself was usually taking place in the home of the future overlord before witnesses. Indeed the vassal had to provide justice and peace for his overlord, and should not be hostile aginst him. On the other hand the overlord had to provide protection and maintenance. The overlord provided some land — a fief — whose income allowed the vassal to live and equip himself to join the overlord when going to war. If the vassal were to dismiss his duties after numerous times, the pact would be broken. Thus the overlord would take back the given land henceforth the vassal would become a felon.
The homage ceremony was a public ceremony and did not require any written contract. The vassal, one knee on the ground, was swearing fidelity to his lord. The lord was taking the vassal's hands in his; this gesture being called auxilium manuum also known as inmixtio manuum. They would then exchange a kiss on the mouth — the osculum — symbol of equality between Christians and warriors; finishing off by swearing each other mutual loyalty. Lastly, the overlord would give the vassal an object, symbol of the fief, representing the land he conceded.
Even though now the vassal is now 'man of the overlord', the homage does not mean this is an exclusive relationship. Thus the structure of these feudal arrangements was fluid and could not be forced into a defined hierarchy. Depending on the lands that a man held, he could be vassal to more than one lord and lord to more than one vassal. This condition, called subinfeudation, illustrates the amazing complexity and flexibility of feudal institutions. To deal with the potential for conflicting loyalties that subinfeudation could create, documents were often written to outline the precedence of the various lords by which a vassal may be bound, defining a single overlord as liege lord.
Galbert of Bruges describes the ceremony of homage to the new count William that took place in 1127. The description reflects the temporary nature of grants and commendations that had to be renewed on the transfer of power.
Through the whole remaining part of the day those who had been enfeoffed by the most pious count Charles, did homage to the count, taking up now again their fiefs and offices and whatever they had rightfully and legitimately obtained. On Thursday the seventh of April, homages were again made to the count being completed in the following order of faith and security.
First they did their homage thus, the count asked if he was willing to become completely his man, and the other replied, "I am willing"; and with clasped hands, surrounded by the hands of the count, they were bound together by a kiss. Secondly, he who had done homage gave his fealty to the representative of the count in these words, "I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to count William, and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit." And thirdly, he took his oath to this upon the relics of the saints. Afterward, with a little rod which the count held in his hand, he gave investitures to all who by this agreement had given their security and accompanying oath.
From E.P.Chesney, trans., University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints (1898) in Middle Ages Volume I: p128.
When a vassal was commended to more than one lord, it was often necessary to specify the order in which he owed loyalty. This grant from 1200 demonstrates such a situation.
I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn d'Avalon and his heirs the manor which is called Gillencourt, which is of the castellanerie of La Ferte sure Aube; and whatever the same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief. I have granted, moreover, to him that in no free manor of mine will retain men who are of this gift. The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d'Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peter, count of Auxerre. Done at Chouaude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January. Given by the hand of Walter, my chancellor; note of Milo.
From E.P. Chesney, trans., University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints (1898) in Middle Ages Volume I: p128.
Charter of Homage and Fealty
In the name of the Lord, I, Bernard Atton, Viscount of Carcassonne, in the presence of my sons, Roger and Trencavel, and of Peter Roger of Barbazan, and William Hugo, and Raymond Mantellini, and Peter de Vietry, nobles, and of many other honorable men, who have come to the monastery of St. Mary of Grasse, to the honor of the festival of the august St. Mary: since lord Leo, abbot of the said monastery, has asked me, in the presence of all those above mentioned, to acknowledge to him the fealty and homage for the castles, manors, and places which the patrons, my ancestors, held from him and his predecessors and from the said monastery as a fief, and which I ought to hold as they held, I have made to the lord abbot Leo acknowledgment and homage as I ought to do.
Therefore, let all present and to come know that I the said Bernard Atton, lord and viscount of Carcassonne, acknowledge verily to thee my lord Leo, by the grace of God, abbot of St. Mary of Grasse, and to thy successors that I hold and ought to hold as a fief in Carcassonne the following: that is to say, the castles of Confoles, of Leocque, of Capendes (which is otherwise known as St. Martin of Sussagues); and the manors of Mairac, of Albars and of Musso; also, in the valley of Aquitaine, Rieux, Traverina, Hérault, Archas, Servians, Villatiitoes, Tansiraus, Presler, Cornelles. Moreover, I acknowledge that I hold from thee and from the said monastery as a fief the castle of Termes in Narbonne; and in Minerve the castle of Ventaion, and the manors of Cassanolles, and of Ferral and Aiohars; and in Le Rogés, the little village of Longville; for each and all of which I make homage and fealty with hands and with mouth to thee my said lord abbot Leo and to thy successors, and I swear upon these four gospels of God that I will always be a faithful vassal to thee and to thy successors and to St. Mary of Grasse in all things in which a vassal is required to be faithful to his lord, and I will defend thee, my lord, and all thy successors, and the said monastery and the monks present and to come and the castles and manors and all your men and their possessions against all malefactors and invaders, at my request and that of my successors at my own cost; and I will give to thee power over all the castles and manors above described, in peace and in war, whenever they shall be claimed by thee or by thy successors. Moreover I acknowledge that, as a recognition of the above fiefs, I and my successors ought to come to the said monastery, at our own expense, as often as a new abbot shall have been made, and there do homage and return to him the power over all the fiefs described above. And when the abbot shall mount his horse I and my heirs, viscounts of Carcassonne, and our successors ought to hold the stirrup for the honor of the dominion of St. Mary of Grasse; and to him and all who come with him, to as many as two hundred beasts, we should make the abbot's purveyance in the borough of St. Michael of Carcassonne, the first time he enters Carcassonne, with the best fish and meat and with eggs and cheese, honorably according to his will, and pay the expense of shoeing of the horses, and for straw and fodder as the season shall require.
And if I or my sons or their successors do not observe to thee or to thy successors each and all the things declared above, and should come against these things, we wish that all the aforesaid fiefs should by that very fact be handed over to thee and to the said monastery of St. Mary of Grasse and to thy successors.
I, therefore, the aforesaid lord Leo, by the grace of God abbot of St. Mary of Grasse, receive the homage and fealty for all the fiefs of castles and manors and places which are described above: in the way and with the agreements and understandings written above; and likewise I concede to thee and thy heirs and their successors, the viscounts of Carcassonne, all the castles and manors and places aforesaid, as a fief, along with this present charter, divided through the alphabet. And I promise to thee and thy heirs and successors, viscounts of Carcassonne, under the religion of my order, that I will be good and faithful lord concerning all those things described above.
Moreover, I, the aforesaid viscount, acknowledge that the little villages of Cannetis, Maironis, Villamagna, Aiglino, Villadasas, Villafrancos, Vitladenz, Villaudriz, St. Genese, Conguste and Mata, with the farm-house of Mathus and the chateaux of Villalauro and Claromont, with the little villages of St. Stephen of Surlac, and of Upper and Lower Agrifolio, ought to belong to the said monastery, and whoever holds anything there holds from the same monastery, as we have seen and have heard read in the privileges and charters of the monastery, and as was there written.
Made in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 1110, in the reign of Louis. Seal of Bernard Atton, viscount of Carcassonne, seal of Raymond Mantellini, seal of Peter Roger of Barbazon, seal of Roger, son of the said viscount of Carcassonne, seal of Peter de Vitry, seal of Trencavel, son of the said viscount of Carcassonne, seal of William Hugo, seal of lord abbot Leo, who has accepted this acknowledgment of the homage of the said viscount.
And I, the monk John, have written this charter at the command of the said lord Bernard Atton, viscount of Carcassonne and of his sons, on the day and year given above, in the presence and witness of all those named above.
From Teulet: Layetters du Tresor des Chartres No. 39, Vol 1., p. 36, translated by E.P. Cheyney in University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1898), Vol 4:, no, 3, pp. 18-20
Contumacy is the stubborn or willful disobedience of one's lord. The guilty party would forfeit their fief and, at times, even be excommunicated.
Fealty is a tenant's or vassal's fidelity, loyalty and allegiance to a lord.
A piece of land, a benefice, an honour or a right held on the condition of giving military and other services to the feudal lord in return for receiving protection.
The superior or sovereign lord to whom a vassal owes ultimate allegiance above all others.
The holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance.