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The Feudal Oath

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the July 1991, A.S. XXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the characteristic marks of the feudal age was the use of personal ties to bind society together. Loyalty was directed to a personís immediate lord; the abstract concept of the "state" did not exist. This bond between men was expressed in acts of "'homage" and "fealty." It is the nature of these oaths, which I will explore in this essay.

The act of homage had its roots in the German tribes that overran the Roman Empire. It was the custom for the men of these tribes to pledge their service and loyalty and to become the "man" of some chief. Therefore, the term "homage" comes from the Latin word for man, "homo." It came into prominence only in the chaotic conditions that followed the fall of Rome as early forms of protection broke down, and men began looking for other ways to protect themselves.

As public order collapsed, the aristocracy of the Roman Empire began hiring soldiers known as "bucellarii" to protect them. These bucellarii were later to evolve into vassals and knights. Lesser men, unable to afford the bucellarii, or the taxes being collected, were forced to put themselves under the protection of the magnates. The magnate would protect them at the price of the manís services or his land, usually both. The legal model used for this "exchange of services" was the old Roman client-patron relationship. This action was known as "commendation."

At first, the "contract" of commendation could be broken at any time. Soon after, however, it became a life-long commitment, broken only by the death of one of the two parties. By the eighth century, homage was in its final form; complete with the ceremony of joined hands. According to a thirteenth century code, "Establishments de St. Louis," the liturgy for homage was as follows:

"'With hands joined (the vassal should ) speaks as follows: ĎSir I become your man and promise to you fealty for the future as my lord toward all men who may live or die, rendering to you such service as the fief requires, making to your relief as you are the lord...í The lord should replay to him: ĎAnd I receive you and take you as my man, and give you this kiss as a sign of faith, saving my right and that of others according to the usage of the various districts.í"1

(Note the ceremony ends with the lord and his new vassal exchanging a kiss) Homage was made universal by the Carolingians, who decreed that the lords were to be held responsible for their men, and every man was to have a lord. The king was the ultimate "lord."

At this point, something should be said about liege homage. While the basic concept of homage implied that a man had only one lord, by the ninth century there were already instances of a man having two or more lords. This created the obvious problem of reconciling loyalties to lords in conflict. Liege homage arose to solve this problem. The liege lord had the first call on a manís services before all ordinary lords. This however, did not remove the causes of multiple lords. So, in time, liege homage went the route of simple homage, except in England where the king successfully monopolized liege homage.

Homage, like marriage, was indissoluble. Homage was an act of submission from which there were few escape clauses. Fealty was, on the other hand, less binding. Fealty was an act of allegiance and faithfulness. While fealty almost always followed homage, there could be fealty without homage.

Homage was a thoroughly secular act. In an age where God was the ultimate surety, this was unsettling. So around the Carolingian period, the semi-religious act of swearing fealty began. As the younger rite, fealty followed homage in prestige, legality, and execution. While homage was done only once, fealty could, and was sworn repeatedly.

These were the legal forms by which men tried to bind men to themselves. But personal bonds between men proved inadequate. The rising power of kings slowly subverted the feudal bond and abrogated the use of personal ties. Loyalty switched from being given to a man, to an office (the king), or to an idea (the state). So while the form of the feudal oath lasted long after the end of the Middle Ages, its meaning became vastly altered.

 

Footnotes

1. (LaMonte 216). ^

 

Bibliography

Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society Vol. 1. Trans. L.A. Manyon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

LaMonte, John L. The World of the Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc., 1949.

 

Copyright © 1983 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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