1.3 The Middle Ages: Fealty

Only nobles and knights were allowed to speak the oath of fealty. The oath was a pledge of allegiance of a less powerful lord (or knight) to a more powerful lord. Once the oath was sworn the vassal and lord were bound to one another in the feudal contract. The oath of allegiance lasted for life.

In practice the majority of nobles were actually both vassals and lords. Since feudalism was structured like a ladder only one noble could be a king. The king was the only noble who had everyone else in some form or fashion swear loyalty to him and him alone; however, nobles occupying the lower rungs could be a vassal at one time and a lord in their own right the next. For example, a marquis owed allegiance to the king above them; however, that same marquis had vassals of their own known as earls. Everyone was bound to everyone else through the oath of fealty and the feudal contract.

Although structured top-down like a ladder, feudalism was still a messy political system. For example, the dukes of Normandy controlled all of England; they also controlled one-quarter of France. In praClick to enlarge...ctical terms, William had more land and was therefore potentially a more powerful lord than the French king; however, because of the feudal contract William was technically a vassal of the king of France. This meant William (and his heirs) owed the French king taxes, loyalty, and military service. However, the dukes of Normandy frequently ignored their feudal obligations to France's king. Instead, they chose to fight France instead of defend it (see The Hundred Years' War unit).

Feudalism gets even messier when an individual vassal owns two fiefs and owes allegiance to different lords. When a vassal owed allegiance to more than one lord this was called dual-fealty. Since a vassal owed military service to his lord, he could in theory be forced to fight in a war involving his two liege lords. In such a situation, the vassal typically sided with the senior-most lord. Confused? Well, that was the nature of feudalism. Authority was effectively decentralized—everyone had it yet no one had it. In fact, if a noble was strong enough they could ignore the rules of feudalism altogether (like William did in France) and use war to get whatever they wanted.

The Commendation Ceremony
If you go to a Catholic Church today you'll notice people kneeling while praying. However, it wasn't always like this: in the early days of Christianity, people typically prayed standing up with hands outstretched. The practice of kneeling was adopted by the Church following the development of the medieval "commendation ceremony."

The commendation ceremony was when the vassal swore an oath of fealty to protect and serve a lord; the vassal knelt before their lord in order to signify their submission. The Catholic Church liked the idea of people submitting to God; therefore, the Church adopted the medieval practice of kneeling during prayer to signify submitting to the Lord (God).

The Catholic Church and the king were the two pillars of authority in feudal society. The Church was the only authority capable of interpreting scripture and transmitting God's message. The king was the only secular authority capable of commanding the allegiance of people. The Church and king supported one another; however, they sometimes had disputes with one another. This was in part because both authorities had their own legal and prison systems. Although the Church and kings sometimes had disputes, they tended to cooperate with one another because they ultimately shared the same goal: order.

fealtyDuring the ceremony the vassal placed his or her hands upon some sort of sacred object, e.g. holy relics like the bones of a saint, the Stanley Cup, or upon the Bible itself. Then the vassal would say something like: “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.” The lord would likewise swear an oath to the vassal thereby completing the feudal contract.