1.1 The Middle Ages: Feudal Contract

Feudalism was a political system founded upon an agreement or contract between two or more nobles.  Feudalism was hierarchical: those at the top were strong while those at the bottom were comparitively weaker. The most powerful noble was at the top. He was called the liege lord while the weaker noble was commonly referred to as the vassal.  In the feudal system, it was possible to both be a vassal (lower lord) and have vassals of your own. For example, the king of England was suhiearchypreme on the island but because he also possessed land in France he was at the same time a vassal of the king of France.

The foundation of the feudal system was the oath of fealty or the "feudal contract." This oath established what the roles and responsibilities were for both lower and upper lords. For instance:

Vassals were required to:
        1). Personally serve in the lord’s army.
        2). Provide soldiers for the lord’s army.
        3). Pay taxes to the lord.
        4). Be obedient, loyal, and faithful to the lord.

Liege Lords agreed to:
        1). Protect the vassal with the king's entire army.
        2). Provide the vassal with a means of making a living.
        3). Be faithful in performing the above duties.

During the Middle Ages, the more land a lord owned the more powerful he was. Thus, land was extremely important to the functioning of feudalism.

In return for speaking the oath of fealty, vassals were given a fief (land). Again, land was the basis of power during the feudal period. Fiefs ranged in size from a small village to something as large as an entire province. The vassal’s main function was to administer justice in his fief. The vassal, or lower lord, was also responsible for collecting taxes in the name of his liege lord.

A feudal contract lasted for life. A lord could take back a fief if the vassal failed to complete his duties. However, it was much harder for a vassal to leave the service of a lord. During the Middle Ages fiefs were not inherited by the first born son. The practice of leaving a fief to the first-born son (called primogeniture) did not develop until much later. In fact, in France if a father died all of his sons would receive an equal portion of land.