There continues to be several pervasive misunderstandings in regards to what feudalism entailed during the medieval period. It was much more than a simple exchange of land for military service. It was far more complex. At its core, feudalism was founded upon the Christian principles of charity, stewardship and service.
by Pat Lowinger
The fall of the Western Roman Empire sent shock waves throughout Europe during the 5th century CE. The once powerful and unifying throne of the Christian Emperor in Ravenna no longer existed. In the vacuum of power and governance which followed, powerful Germanic warlords soon came to dominate numerous regions of Western Europe. Building upon Germanic, Christian and Roman traditions, a new form of governance began to emerge, built upon obligations of service and fidelity. This oath between vassal and their lord (often referred to as liege) was not taken lightly by either party. This oath connected them both temporally and spiritually. In time, these oaths and obligations grew into what we now commonly refer to as feudalism or feudal society. This isn’t to imply that feudalism was practiced uniformly throughout Western Europe. On the contrary there were marked differences between various feudal societies but at the core were some broadly shared precepts. At the heart of every feudal society was the fundamental adherence and willful submission to, not only to your lord, but God.
The Remnants of Rome
By the 7th Century CE the Western Roman Empire and its governmental institutions had long since collapsed. What remained were customs and practices which hearkened back to this earlier period. One such practice was the establishment of limitanei – men who in exchange for land and small subsidies served as a local military force within the frontier provinces of the Empire. As the Imperial Army adopted a more defensive posture in the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE, this practice became much more widespread. In addition, the nature of the Roman villa changed; walls had grown thicker, the inclusion of a circuit wall, and often a tower secured by a well-constructed antechamber. While not precisely comparable to the towers and castles of the medieval period, along the late Roman frontier, many Roman estates began to look less like homes and more like fortresses. These fortified estates were often protected by local limitanei forces.
The practice of granting land in was not a new practice in Western Europe. By the Late Roman Republic, the granting of lands to veterans upon their retirement was commonplace. For example, during the reign of the Emperor Serverus Alexander, retiring veterans were granted approximately 200 acres of arable land. Once retired, military veterans often enjoyed significant wealth and prestige in the local bureaucracy where their land grants were established. Thus the medieval practice of military service in exchange for the granting of land was not new to Western Europe.
Another remnant of Later Roman Empire was the increasing concentration of peasants (known as coloni) into service onto the estates of wealthy landowners. While not themselves slaves, the fate and livelihood of many peasants was tied to the land which they worked as tenant-farmers. By the mid to late 4th century CE, Roman law proscribed that while coloni were considered ‘free’, they were in fact legally bound to the land of which they were born and had no right to leave it. While this may have seemed rather draconian, the practice was necessary to ensure the continued production of agricultural goods upon which the Empire relied so heavily. This was combined with chattel slavery, which was a common feature throughout the long history of the Roman Empire. Despite the assertions of many apologists, the practice of chattel slavery continued in various regions of Western Europe until the 11th century CE. When combined, these two practices point to an undeniable societal convention that it was not only permissible, but often desirable to legally bind a person and his descendants to perpetual servitude as agricultural laborers. It does not require overly complex analysis to conclude that the medieval practice of manoralism also had its distant roots proscribed within the codices of Roman law.
The Ludovisi Sarcophagus, depicting Roman soldiers battling Goths (Germans) c. 260 CE on display at the National Museum, Rome.
As the Roman Empire faltered, particularly in the West, numerous Germanic tribes entered previously held Roman territories and established presences there. These tribes brought with them their own culture and warrior traditions. One of these traditions was the bodyguard- a loyal group of well-trained fighting men who had pledged themselves in service to a warlord. The Germanic bodyguard tradition was well-known even in the Early Roman Empire when Julius Caesar established the Germani corporis custodes in 52 BC. The loyalty and dedication of these Germanic warriors was such that many later Roman and Byzantine emperors continued the practice as a matter of personal and familial security. The concept of ‘loyalty’ under the Germanic tradition was unique. It relied solely upon the payment of money (or other reward) in advance, at which time an individual warrior transferred the loyalties normally ascribed to his tribe to his new benefactor. It was also not uncommon under this system for a particular warlord himself (and his own immediate retinue) to likewise enter the service of a Roman Emperor.
A second, albeit less discussed Germanic custom was the concept of weregild or blood-money. This custom in effect placed a definitive value on the taking of life (murder) which required the payment of a predetermined amount of monies to be paid by the offending party to the aggrieved family. While this concept was not absent from other cultures, it was deeply rooted in the Germanic tribal structures and was enforced by chieftains and warlords. While the practice may appear to have been somewhat arbitrary, it removed the very real risk of a ‘blood-feud’ or war based upon familial or clan relationships. A custom which appears to have been first established in antiquity and continued in its use and acceptance well into the medieval period.
The Christian Virtue(s)
With the widespread (and continual) adoption of Christianity within Western Europe the moral and philosophical principles of the faith were a very real facet of medieval life. The Church itself served as the very cornerstone of society. The concept of ‘righteous service’ is a pervasive theme throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament, which equates the act(s) of unrequited service to others as godly and redeeming. In addition, humility and righteous service are commended. This principle is illustrated in Matthew 23:11, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” It was through faithful service that one could hope to receive eternal salvation. Acts of service between Christians, regardless of station, were divinely inspired, fulfilling the theological tenets of Christianity. Bringing both the giver and receiver closer to spiritual enlightenment and ultimately eternal salvation.
The Anglo-Saxon Oath
Thus far this discussion has examined the historical, cultural and religious foundations which helped to form a feudal society. Yet, at the very core of feudalism and lordship was the feudal oath. While oaths varied regionally and contained their own unique flavors, in general these oaths formed a contractual relationship between the lord and his vassal. As such, these oaths detailed the terms and conditions under which the vassal would serve and the payment (normally a fief) which the lord would convey upon him. While service was temporal, the oath acknowledged and deeply relied upon spiritual conviction(s) of the parties involved. In addition to these terms and conditions, each party agreed to be bound by the laws of God (tenets of Christianity). Each ascribing to the supremacy of God’s law in the fulfillment of their mutual obligations. Both politically and militarily, a lord was only as strong as the oaths that bound his vassals to him and the oath which he had made to his own king. The following is a common Anglo-Saxon oath, which serves to illustrate the key components of feudal fidelity (italics added):
By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is holy, I will to (Name) be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns, according to the laws of God and the order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he will hold to me as I shall deserve it, and that he will perform everything as it was in our agreement when I submitted myself to him and chose his will.
Feudalism and feudal societies did not spring up overnight. Instead they were formed, somewhat incrementally, by the inclusion of Roman, German and Christian traditions. While a soldier in the Later Roman Empire was possibly a Christian his service was temporal and predicated upon payment for services rendered, as was the Germanic warrior of the same and later periods. Without the inclusion of the Christian ideal of service, a truly feudal society would never have emerged in Western Europe. It was the duty of a good peasant to faithfully serve his lord (knight). The knight of Medieval Europe served God by his true and faithful service to his Lord. His Lord in turn provided true and faithful service to his king and in turn was obligated to the righteous lordship of his vassals- thus in a spiritual (as well as temporal) sense the master became the servant. By extension, more in concept than actual practice, the king who held the allegiances of those below him became a servant of his own kingdom, subject to the laws of God and his own oaths of lordship.
Ultimately, the feudal societies of the 7th through 12th centuries CE would evolve into more and more complex organizations of nobles and royals. As the complexity of heretical titles and the powers ascribed to them increased, the abuses and excesses committed were frequently condemned by the populace and the Church. These condemnations were often seen as the willful disobedience to God’s ordained oath of mutual service. By the late 13th century CE, many of the royal dynasties of Europe were often seen to have violated the religious foundations upon which the earlier practices of feudalism had evolved. It was in response to the most egregious violations of feudal oaths which inspired such reforms as Magna Carta (1215 CE) and the formal adoption of parliamentary systems in several European kingdoms.
Bibliography & Citations:
Bisson, Thomas N. “Medieval Lordship.” Speculum 70, no. 4 (October 1995): 743-59. Accessed August 25, 2015. doi:10.2307/2865342.
“Feudal” Oaths of Fidelity.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Fordham University. Accessed October 30, 2015. https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/feud-oath1.asp.
Flagg, Haley. “Comites Pro Principe: The German Bodyguard of the Early Roman Emperors.” Academia Online. October 14, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015.https://www.academia.edu/9636086/Comites_pro_Principe_The_ German_Bodyguard_of_the_Early_Roman_Emperors.
Holmes, George. The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: Revised Standard Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1980.
MacMullen, Ramsay. Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
“Roman Labor in Transition: Slaves, Coloni , and Other workers.” Saylor Academy: 1-7. Accessed October 28, 2015. http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/HIST301-7.3.3-Slavery-FINAL.pdf.
 Holmes, George. The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 116.
 Original citation removed.
 MacMullen, Ramsay. Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 144.
 Ibid., 145-146.
 “Roman Labor in Transition: Slaves, Coloni , and Other Workers.” (Saylor Foundation, 2008), 4.
 Flagg, Haley. “Comites Pro Principe: The German Bodyguard of the Early Roman Emperors.” (Academia Online. October 14, 2014), 1.
 Ibid., 4-5.
Holmes, The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 76-77.
 The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: Revised Standard Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1980.
 Bisson, Thomas N. “Medieval Lordship.” Speculum 70, no. 4 (October 1995), 753-754.
 “Feudal” Oaths of Fidelity.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Fordham University. Accessed October 30, 2015.
 Bisson, “Medieval Lordship”, 746.
 The Peasant-Lord Relationship was more a facet of Manorialism than feudalism, but served to illustrate the connection and obligations a lord had to the charges of his fief.
 Bisson, “Medieval Lordship”, 754.