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New Worlds: Vassalage and Suzerainty

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I had to bite my tongue at dinner one night recently when my host started opining about the “feudal” aspects of our economic system — a term he clearly meant merely in the vague sense of “old-fashioned,” not anything to do with medieval life.

Much like medievalism itself, feudalism is a contested idea among academics these days, with many questioning the utility of the word. At a minimum, some say, it’s more useful to split feudalism into two components: the social system of vassalage, and the economic system of manorialism. Economics is a topic for another day. Since our focus right now is on politics, let’s take a look at vassalage . . . and its counterpart, suzerainty.

This is Ye Standarde Olde Mediaeval Societie in a nutshell — at least, the upper echelons thereof. That’s the first thing to know about vassalage, that the peasantry had no part in it. To be someone’s vassal meant to exchange oaths with them, and the local lord wasn’t about to go around swearing individualized oaths every serf on his estate. That relationship is the one covered by manorialism, because it’s about the extraction of economic resources from the land and the people working it. The vassal-to-suzerain relationship might involve economic elements, but its core principle was more military in nature: the vassal pledged a certain amount of support in exchange for privileges, which often included land. The suzerain, meanwhile — the top person in that relationship; sometimes called a liege lord or just a liege — might himself (it was usually a him) be the vassal of someone higher still, until you reach a sovereign authority, i.e. someone answerable to nobody but God.

Sounds nice and straightforward, right? You could make a color-coded org chart for it, everybody slotted somewhere into the hierarchy.

Except that the reality on the ground might look more like a family tree of Greek mythology, with lines going hither and thither and Zeus showing up everywhere as somebody’s dad.

Because here’s the second thing to know about vassalage: it wasn’t always exclusive. Like romantic dating in the days of yore, you could owe fealty to multiple different overlords at once. Fealty just means faithfulness; it means you’ve sworn to be a good vassal, meeting your obligations of taxation and so forth as promised. But you could only go steady with one person: that’s the swearing of homage, making yourself so-and-so’s “man” (homme). Promise that to more than one guy, and you’re the political equivalent of a bigamist.

For an illustration of the wrinkles this complexity could create, take the stretch of time where the Angevin kings of England also laid claim to territories in France. (I’ll pause here to note that while in theory the land granted to a vassal belongs to the suzerain and is theirs to grant where they will, in practice it isn’t remotely that simple.) The Angevin line’s English estates were theirs by sovereign right; they didn’t owe oaths to anybody for those. But the French bits? Those belonged, at least in theory, to the kings of France. And so in his roles as duke of Normandy, duke of Aquitaine, count of Anjou, and count of Poitou, Henry II of England was the vassal of the French king — but only in those roles. Figuring out what exactly that meant when it came to actual obligations and behavior drove rather a lot of English-French relations and conflicts for several hundred years.

The third thing to know about vassalage is a detail often lost in the flimsier sort of “medieval” fantasy: it is, at least in theory, one of mutuality. It’s not just that Sir Sharpsword is obligated to show up with himself, his weapons, his horse, and ten men-at-arms when Lord Greathouse snaps his fingers; Lord Greathouse also has obligations to Sir Sharpsword. And if he ignores those, he’s going to be in trouble.

To imagine what this looks like, you can honestly go right ahead and imagine all these people as mafiosi. As one of my commenters pointed out when we were discussing organized crime, Latin texts from the 5th and 6th centuries (which, in fairness, predates formation of the vassalage system per se) use the terms magni and pueri, or “big ones” and “boys.” If you mentally rewrite discussions of medieval lords and knights to be about what the Big Fella sent his boys to do, it casts the whole enterprise in a new light — but not a wholly inappropriate one.

And like a criminal boss, a suzerain has an obligation to defend his vassals from anybody who insults them or tries to roll over their turf. That military service isn’t used only to defend the suzerain’s own estates, or those of his liege lord; it can also be mustered to defend a fellow vassal at the suzerain’s command, since an attack on an underling is an attack on the whole structure. I suspect that was especially true when the one hit was a vassal who had sworn not just fealty but homage — a made man? — because then he really is one of your own people. Fail to respect that, and you’ll soon find your underlings dragging their feet on their own duties, or even peeling away to offer their services to somebody more worthy of them.

But remember: this isn’t a simple, hierarchical org chart we’re talking about. It’s a spaghetti tangle of relationships in which what precisely is owed to whom, which obligations supersede others, and how much authority anybody has to insist that somebody else do as they promised is very much negotiable. Kings themselves could be very weak in that regard, standing as theoretical suzerains to vassals who actually had far more wealthy, military might, and political clout than they did. The tactics of royal dignity that came up in Year Five — the maneuvers of appearance and ideology that legitimate the monarch as someone who must be respected and obeyed — are a response to and defense against that weakness, shoring up sovereign power against fragmentation from below.

The last thing to bear in mind about vassalage, though, is that it’s far from universal. We have a sloppy habit of talking about any society with an aristocracy as “feudal,” but the dynamic described above is very distinctly European, and it’s limited in temporal scope, too. I presume the hereditary peers of the United Kingdom have sworn their oaths to the new King Charles III (and how bizarre it feels, writing that name!), but I seriously doubt there’s any expectation now that any of his dukes or barons will muster a certain number of mounted knights and foot soldiers on command, in exchange for getting to keep their land. Elite relationships in China, India, the Middle East, and so forth took a different form than the one described above, as did earlier relationships in Europe: Roman governors weren’t vassals of the consuls or the emperor.

We will, at some point, discuss the whole concept of “aristocracy” and what that means. Since that awaits a look at the broader concept of “class,” though, we’ll let the topic rest for now.

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: Vassalage and Suzerainty”

  1. Yet another reasons why mercenaries, ‘free companies’, etc. were so common in medieval, Renaissance and and antiquity. In the end, the only real obligation toward those who commit violence at one’s pleasure and command is that they be paid well and regularly, plunder and murder at their own pleasure as part of that payment. It’s only moveable property they get to keep; the land remains in the employer’s possession. Theoretically, at least. Hawkwoods, Sforzas, and their ilks were historic exceptions.

    The Normans? They were an invading military force, not in another’s hire or command, yet they were paid off, granted entry into Gallic vassalage, in theory, anyway, as you point out, continuing the Norman fun-and-games in France at least through the 16th, into 17th centuries. Ha! Kind of astonishing when one thinks down into it, but that’s the history of Europe in one way or another, isn’t it, as we continue to see, with Ukraine only the most immediate expression.

  2. I remember a historian, as an endnote in a biography, going into how vassals could denounce their fealty and no one would blink an eye – driving home that the king couldn’t expect unquestioning obedience if he hadn’t been upholding his end. This was English/Scottish politics, but I imagine it applied across Europe.

    1. Jennifer Stevenson

      Been reading David Graeber’s DEBT: The First Five Thousand Years, about the origins of widespread slavery being tied to the origins of coinage and a standing army used for imperial conquest.

        1. Jennifer Stevenson

          It reads fast. He writes in ENGLISH, and there is not nearly as much handwaving as you might expect. Sooo many writers about “how bread was invented” or some such nonsense begin by reporting on how Neanderthals almost did it. Gimme a break. This guy spends that time instead pointing out the blatant fallacies in all those “how man did it at the dawnatime” theories.

  3. Margraves, marquises, and marcher lords were so called because they held estates on the marches or borders.

    They had higher status and more perks because they were the first line of defense for the kingdom.

    There was even then an advantage in being an edge-lord.

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