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What’s a Baron?

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 1981, A.S. XV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

During the Middle Ages, the population could be broadly grouped into three classes: the peasants, the clergy and the nobility. The nobility could be broken down further into the ordinary knights and the barons. It was the barons in whose hands lay the land, wealth and power of Medieval Europe.

The word baron derives from the late Latin word baro, meaning a man. Also called a seigniur, the baron was, technically, any knight who held a military fief from the king. While this was no doubt true in the beginning, by the 11th and 12th centuries, the title was no longer exclusively military nor necessarily held from the king. While any vassal could be styled baron, in practice the title was reserved for the greater vassals who held land worth many knight fees and who had vassals beneath them. Dukes, counts, earls and marquises were merely higher ranking barons.

It was the fief that distinguished the baron from the chevalier. The fief had its origins in the Carolingian Empire and was directly connected with the rise of mounted, armored knights. Ownership of a horse and armour was expensive and training to use them was time consuming. As a result, the ordinary freemen were unable to afford them. To supply their armies with the needed knights, the Carolingians granted benefices to their vassals to supply the income to maintain their status as knights. This benefice later became the fief.

It should be noted that the fief was a unit of income, usually generated by agricultural produce. The manor system of agriculture with its collective farming was contemporary with but separate from the holding of fiefs.

Originally, the fief was a personal grant from the king to a vassal on the premise that the vassal would supply so many knights (and himself) upon the king’s request. If the vassal failed in his obligations, the king could take back the fief. Nor was the king obligated to give the fief to the vassal’s heir upon his death. The course of events soon modified the actual practice. It quickly became custom for the fief to be passed to the son and, by the end of the tenth century, the fief had become hereditary. Even so, the heir still had to pay homage to the king and be invested with the fief. In addition, the heir usually paid a relief to the king.

Relief was only the first of many payments a baron would make to the king. Beside the three traditional aids: the knighting of the king’s eldest son, marriage of the eldest daughter, and his ransom, there were also aids for a Crusade, the aid of host--known as scutage in England, and aid for any other reason the king deemed necessary. During the last half o the 12th and first half of the 13th centuries, aids were collected with such regularity that they were virtual taxes. Scutage, the payment of money in lieu of personal service, was frequently used to raise money. It was the issue of aids that provoked the Baron’s Revolt of 1215 that led to the Magna Carta.

The baron was not without resources of his won. He could demand the same aids from his own vassals. Other income included the sale of produce from his demesne, the proceeds from guardianship of a vacant fief, and the fines from his court.

While a description of feudal courts is out of place here, it is nevertheless central to the idea of a baron, for the central theme of Medieval feudalism was public power in private hands. In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, it was the barons who assumed the power of government, usurping the powers, rights and privileges of the kings. The rest o f Medieval history was marked by the struggle of kings to regain them. In France, the kings succeeded completely, in Germany they failed, in England they succeeded only partially.

In England there were several courts in action. The oldest were the courts of shire and hundred. Anglo-Saxon in origin, these were local assemblies dealing with local criminal justice. These came under seigniorial control at an early date.

At the other end of the scale were the royal court and the king’s Curia. The royal court was a sort of Supreme Court that grew out of the Curia and whose rulings could be overruled only by the king himself. The Curia was a body of men who advised the king on day to day affairs and was comprised of the holders of the great offices of chancellor, constable, marshall, chief justice and others. To undercut the barons, the kings of England imported the Frankish institution of the jury, which, like the shire and hundred courts, drew members from the local middle class and knights, and was under their itinerant justices and sheriffs. Using the jury to conduct assizes, the kings formed a common law for all of England, leaving no place for the baron’s courts.

The baron’s courts were the manor courts, the seigniorial courts and the courts of the honor, all extensions of the baron’s power. The manor courts were for minor crimes and disputes and were held at the village level. The seigniorial courts were for high crimes and land disputes. Held at the baron’s local stronghold in England until Henry II, it was these courts that meted out the justice of England. Only those cases that the crown was able to hang on to, such as treason, escaped the jurisdiction. With the growing use of the king’s jury system, with the right to appeal to his courts, these baron’s courts lost their usefulness and by 1400 had virtually disappeared.

The court of honor was a small-scale version of the king’s general court. Honor was the term used to denote the entire collection of estates a baron held and thus was synonymous with barony. In England, an honor could be scattered throughout all of England. Whether or not this was a result of deliberate policy by William the Conqueror is in dispute, but it did much to unify the country. It was with the court of honor that the baron made policy, settled disputes among his vassals and transacted business. At first, the court was held at the baron’s principal place of residence but later a number of courts were held elsewhere to avoid long journeys from the more remote estates.

It should be noted that the barons did no constitute a large group. When William conquered England with his army of 4,000 knights in 1066, there were only 32 dukes and counts and 60 other barons.

The above description of a baron has to qualified in several ways. First, it is based mostly on French and English sources and does not take into account the peculiarities found in Germany, Spain and Hungary. Second, it basically predates 1300, after which Medieval Europe began a vast transformation that was to lead to the Renaissance. The rise of the merchant into the ranks of the nobility and the introduction of what is called bastard feudalism drastically changed the institution of barony.

In his own day, the baron was someone to reckon with, at times more powerful than kings, and for many his word was law. Born out of the ashes of the Carolingian Empire and the collapse of central government, powered by changes in military technology, his supremacy came to an end with the rebirth of central government, a changing economy and changing military technology.

 

Bibliography

Stenton, Doris May. English Society in the Early Middle Ages. Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1965.

Petit-Dutailis, C.H. The Feudal Monarchy in France and England: From the Tenth to the Thirteenth Century. Trans. E.D. Hunt. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1964.

Coulton, George Gordon. Medieval Panorama. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1938.

Stephenson, Carl. Mediaeval Feudalism. Ithaca: Great Seal Books, 1942.

 

Copyright © 1981 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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