In modern times, rents on property are paid in money. In the medieval England and elsewhere, however, payment for a vassal’s fief or a villein’s farmland took a rather different form.
A vassal’s assorted obligations to his lord – his so-called “knight’s fee” – were collectively deemed military in nature. However, as mentioned in my previous post on the feudal system, this isn’t to say all of a vassal’s responsibilities involved fighting.
Which is precisely how vassals liked the arrangement, for managing their lands was an onerous enough task without constant interruptions by war. According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,
No lord, no matter how fond of fighting, could afford to neglect his estates. Many twelfth- and thirteenth century lords passed up perfectly good wars and even stubbornly resisted participating in them because it meant leaving their lands. (p. 39)
Luckily, it was more in a vassal’s professional capacity as a knight – of which fighting was only a portion of his skill set – that he was expected to serve.
Villeins (“serfs” on the Continent) on the other hand, were more or less tied to the land and almost never left home anyway.
Pay to the order of the lord
A vassal’s duties fell into two large classes: passive and active.
Passive duties, for the most part, simply involved not willfully doing anything that would cause the lord material harm, such as not surrendering a castle to the lord’s enemies, not doing damage to the land or property of the fief, and always holding one’s castle open for the lord’s occasional visits.
Active duties were further divided into “aid” and “counsel”.
It was within the category of aid that active military service – called ost or “host” after the host of men a knight brought with him to war – fell. Host typically lasted 40 days a year with full equipment, although the lord might instead choose to commute this service to a money payment called scutage (from the Latin scutum, meaning “shield”).
Aid could also constitute the considerably less strenuous chevauchée (cavalcade), which might mean a minor adventure with the lord or merely escorting him from one location to another. Another important duty was castle guard, which as the name suggests, involved helping look after one of the lord’s castles.
Aid also had a financial component, including payment upon each of the following:
- The start of a new tenancy on a fief (whether through the succession of a deceased vassal’s heir or the creation of a new fief; called “relief”)
- The ransoming of the lord when he was captured by an enemy
- The marriage of the lord’s eldest daughter
- The knighting of the lord’s eldest son
The category of counsel, meanwhile, included the act of attending upon the lord to offer advice whenever summoned, for there existed an expectation that a lord would confer with his vassals on important matters like contracting important marriages or waging war. Eventually, the term “counsel” (i.e. council) came to refer to the gathering itself.
Counsel could also involve trying a case on the lord’s behalf, although more often than not, the lord opted to try the case himself, find the offending party guilty, and levy an exorbitant fine or expropriation as restitution.
All in a week’s work
The villeins, from their position at the bottom tier of the feudal pyramid, likewise held land of their lord, this being farmland on the manor surrounding the lord’s castle or manor house.
In exchange for this, villeins had their own set obligations to the lord, however rather than military, these were agricultural in nature.
According to the Gieses,
[Villeins] owed heavy labor service to their lords: ‘week’s work’ consisting of two or three days a week throughout the year.” (p. 154).
They go to explain that this work included everything from plowing, mowing hay, reaping, shocking and transporting grain, threshing and winnowing, and washing and shearing the lord’s sheep, and that,
By the thirteenth century labor services were often commuted into money payments. But in cash or kind, approximately half of all the villein’s efforts ultimately went, in one way or another, to the lord’s profit. (p. 154)
Additional liabilities of the villein included the following:
- He had to pay a fee (merchet) when his daughter got married
- When he succeeded his father, he paid both relief and heriot, which was usually the best beast of the deceased’s flock
- He couldn’t leave his land or sell his livestock without the lord’s permission
- During times of crisis, he was required to leave off farming his own land to instead work the lord’s above and beyond his usual week’s work (known as “boons” or benes)
- He wasn’t protected by the royal courts, instead subject to his lord and the manor courts without recourse
Mutual need, mutual aid
All the above being said, the lord wasn’t entirely bereft of corresponding responsibilities to either his vassals or his villeins.
As unbalanced as it may seem, the feudal relationship was based upon a mutual need for survival. The lord needed his villeins to grow his food and his vassals to manage his villeins, and thus the needed to uphold his end of the arrangement.
For example, whenever he called upon his villeins to perform a bene, the lord was required to provide either food, drink, money, or all three. These occasions therefore took on the character of social gatherings of which another feature was the “sporting chance” – an opportunity for villeins to compete for prizes like a bundle of hay or a sheep for roasting.
The lord was also obligated during times of attack to take in his villeins inside his castle walls for their protection.
The lord likewise owed protection to his vassal’s. According to the Gieses:
An important reciprocal obligation of every lord toward his vassals … was that of defending them when they were accused in other courts – for example, in those of the Church. (p. 49)
As well, the lord was beholden to a standard of behaviour laid down centuries earlier during the time of Charlemagne, namely that he not try to kill or wound his vassal, not rob his of part of his land, not make him a villein, not rape or seduce his wife or daughter, and not fail to defend him as required.
A/N: Despite mutual obligations between lord and subject, the feudal system didn’t treat everyone equally. Next time, in my final post on the feudal system, I’ll discuss how a number of different types of medieval people fared, including the main character and family of my WIP.