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A vassal or feudatory[1] is a person who has entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support and mutual protection, in exchange for certain privileges, usually including the grant of land held as a fiefdom.[2] The term can be applied to similar arrangements in other feudal societies. In contrast, a fidelity, or fidelitas, was a sworn loyalty, subject to the king.[3]

Western vassalage

In fully developed vassalage, the lord and the vassal would take part in a commendation ceremony composed of two parts, the homage and the fealty, including the use of Christian sacraments to show its sacred importance. According to Eginhard's brief description, the commendatio made to Pippin the Younger in 757 by Tassillo, Duke of Bavaria, involved the relics of Saints Denis, Rusticus, Éleuthère, Martin, and Germain – apparently assembled at Compiègne for the event.[4] Such refinements were not included from the outset when it was time of crisis, war, hunger, etc.. Under feudalism, those who were weakest needed the protection of the knights who owned the weapons and knew how to fight. Feudal society was increasingly based on the concept of "lordship" (French seigneur), which was one of the distinguishing features of the Early Middle Ages and had evolved from times of Late Antiquity.[5]

In the time of Charlemagne (ruled 768–814), the connection slowly developed between vassalage and the grant of land, the main form of wealth at that time. Contemporaneous social developments included agricultural "manorialism" and the social and legal structures labelled — but only since the 18th century — "feudalism". These developments proceeded at different rates in various regions. In Merovingian times (5th century to 752), monarchs would reward only the greatest and most trusted vassals with lands. Even at the most extreme devolution of any remnants of central power, in 10th-century France, the majority of vassals still had no fixed estates.[6]

The stratification of a fighting band of vassals into distinct groups might roughly correlate with the new term "fief" that had started to supersede "benefice" in the 9th century. An "upper" group comprised great territorial magnates, who were strong enough to ensure the inheritance of their benefice to the heirs of their family. A "lower" group consisted of landless knights attached to a count or duke. This social settling process also received impetus in fundamental changes in the conduct of warfare. As co-ordinated cavalry superseded disorganized infantry, armies became more expensive to maintain. A vassal needed economic resources to equip the cavalry he was bound to contribute to his lord to fight his frequent wars. Such resources, in the absence of a money economy, came only from land and its associated assets, which included peasants as well as wood and water.

Difference between "vassal" and "vassal state"

Many empires have set up vassal states out of cities, kingdoms, and tribes that they wish to bring under their auspices without having to conquer or govern them. In these cases, vassalage (or suzerainty) just means forfeiting foreign-policy independence in exchange for full internal autonomy and perhaps a formal tribute. A lesser state that might be called a "junior ally" would be called a "vassal" as a reference to a domestic "fiefholder" or "trustee", simply to apply a common domestic norm to diplomatic culture. This allows different cultures to understand formal hegemonic relationships in personal terms, even among states using non-personal forms of rule. Imperial states that have used this terminology include Ancient Rome, the Mongol Empire, and the British Empire.

Japanese equivalent

In Feudal Japan, the relations between the powerful Daimyo and Shugo and the subordinate Ji-samurai bear some obvious resemblances to the Western Vassalage, though there are also some significant differences.

Modern, neo-feudal equivalents

Vassal relations are reincarnated in neo-feudal societies, such as Russia, Ukraine and other post-soviet states since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Whereas modern constitutions do not provide for establishment of formal ruler-vassal relations, societies work on similar informal principles [7]. The post-soviet neo-feudal system is based on the lack of any civil structures, even an ideological structure such as the Communist Party. Governance has been established by a network of former middle-level party officials, police and secret service members and the new oligarchs - nouveau riche with political ambitions. Which group dominates is country specific. In the Russian Federation it is claimed that up to 78% of the elite have signs of being siloviki [8][9]. In Ukraine the upper hand have the oligarchs, whereas the post-soviet Central Asia offers several examples of dynastic (family) rules.

See also



  1. Hughes, Michael (1992). Early Modern Germany, 1477–1806, MacMillan Press and University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, p. 18. ISBN 0-8122-1427-7.
  2. F. L. Ganshof, "Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne" Cambridge Historical Journal 6.2 (1939:147-75).
  3. Ganshof 151 note 23 and passim; the essential point was made again, and the documents on which the historian's view of vassalage are based were reviewed, with translation and commentary, by Elizabeth Magnou-Nortier, Foi et Fidélité. Recherches sur l'évolution des liens personnels chez les Francs du VIIe au IXe siècle (University of Toulouse Press) 1975.
  4. "at". Retrieved 2012-02-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. The Tours formulary, which a mutual contract of rural patronage, offered parallels; it was probably derived from Late Antique Gallo-Roman precedents, according to Magnou-Nortier 1975.
  6. Ganshof, François Louis, Feudalism translated 1964
  7. V. L. Inozemtsev: Neo-Feudalism Explained, The American Interest, Volume 6, Number 4, March 1, 2011; retrieved 2015-12-30
  8. Ex-KGB Fill Russia's Elite, Reuters, 2006; retrieved 2015-12-30
  9. After the Euromaidan of 2014 a major struggle for power started in Ukraine between the corruption and oligarch-based network and the actors of the public revolt.


  • Cantor, Norman, The Civilization of the Middle Ages 1993
  • Rouche, Michel, "Private life conquers state and society," in A History of Private Life vol I, Paul Veyne, editor, Harvard University Press 1987 ISBN 0-674-39974-9