Last updated

A fief ( /ff/ ; Latin : feudum) was the central element of feudalism. It consisted of heritable property or rights granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty (or "in fee") in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty. The fees were often lands or revenue-producing real property held in feudal land tenure: these are typically known as fiefs or fiefdoms. However, not only land but anything of value could be held in fee, including governmental office, rights of exploitation such as hunting or fishing, monopolies in trade, and tax farms.



In ancient Rome, a "benefice" (from the Latin noun beneficium, meaning "benefit") was a gift of land ( precaria ) for life as a reward for services rendered, originally, to the state. In medieval Latin European documents, a land grant in exchange for service continued to be called a beneficium (Latin). [1] Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. [1] The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one hundred years earlier. [1] The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below. [1]

The most widely held theory is put forth by Marc Bloch [1] [2] [3] that it is related to the Frankish term *fehu-ôd, in which *fehu means "cattle" and -ôd means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value." [2] [3] When land replaced currency as the primary store of value, the Germanic word *fehu-ôd replaced the Latin word beneficium. [2] [3] This Germanic origin theory was also shared by William Stubbs in the 19th century. [1] [4]

A theory put forward by Archibald R. Lewis [1] is that the origin of 'fief' is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum, the earliest attested use being in Astronomus's Vita Hludovici (840). [5] In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious which says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as "(Louis forbade that) military provender which they popularly call 'fodder' (be furnished)." [1]

A theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuyū (the plural of fay, which literally means "the returned", and was used especially for 'land that has been conquered from enemies that did not fight'). [1] [6] Samarrai's theory is that early forms of 'fief' include feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others, the plurality of forms strongly suggesting origins from a loanword. First use of these terms was in Languedoc, one of the least-Germanized areas of Europe, and bordering Muslim Spain, where the earliest use of feuum as a replacement for beneficium can be dated to 899, the same year a Muslim base at Fraxinetum (La Garde-Freinet) in Provence was established. It is possible, Samarrai says, that French scribes, writing in Latin, attempted to transliterate the Arabic word fuyū (the plural of fay), which was being used by the Muslims at the time, resulting in a plurality of forms (feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others), from which eventually feudum derived. Samarrai, however, also advises medieval and early modern Muslim scribes often used etymologically "fanciful roots" in order to claim the most outlandish things to be of Arabian or Muslim origin. [6]

In the 10th and 11th centuries the Latin terms for fee could be used either to describe dependent tenure held by a man from his lord, as the term is used now by historians, or it could mean simply "property" (the manor was, in effect, a small fief). It lacked a precise meaning until the middle of the 12th century, when it received formal definition from land lawyers.

In English usage, the word "fee" is first attested around 1250–1300 (Middle English); the word fief from around 1605–15. In French, the term fief is found from the middle of the 13th century (Old French), derived from the 11th-century terms feu, fie. The odd appearance of the second f in the form fief may be due to influence from the verb fiever 'to grant in fee'. [7] In French, one also finds "seigneurie" (land and rights possessed by a "seigneur" or "lord", 12th-century), which gives rise to the expression "seigneurial system" to describe feudalism.

Early feudal grants

Originally, vassalage did not imply the giving or receiving of landholdings (which were granted only as a reward for loyalty), but by the 8th century the giving of a landholding was becoming standard. [8] The granting of a landholding to a vassal did not relinquish the lord's property rights, but only the use of the lands and their income; the granting lord retained ultimate ownership of the fee and could, technically, recover the lands in case of disloyalty or death. [8] In Francia, Charles Martel was the first to make large-scale and systematic use (the practice had remained until then sporadic) of the remuneration of vassals by the concession of the usufruct of lands (a beneficatium or "benefice" in the documents) for the life of the vassal, or, sometimes extending to the second or third generation. [9]

By the middle of the 10th century, fee had largely become hereditary. [10] The eldest son of a deceased vassal would inherit, but first he had to do homage and fealty to the lord and pay a "relief" for the land (a monetary recognition of the lord's continuing proprietary rights over the property).

Historically, the fees of the 11th and the 12th century derived from two separate sources. The first was land carved out of the estates of the upper nobility. The second source was allodial land transformed into dependent tenures.[ citation needed ] During the 10th century in northern France and the 11th century in France south of the Loire, local magnates either recruited or forced the owners of allodial holdings into dependent relationships and they were turned into fiefs. The process occurred later in Germany, and was still going on in the 13th century.[ citation needed ]

In England, Henry II transformed them into important sources of royal income and patronage. The discontent of barons with royal claims to arbitrarily assessed "reliefs" and other feudal payments under Henry's son King John resulted in Magna Carta of 1215.[ citation needed ]

Eventually, great feudal lords sought also to seize governmental and legal authority (the collection of taxes, the right of high justice, etc.) in their lands, and some passed these rights to their own vassals. [10]

The privilege of minting official coins developed into the concept of seigniorage.[ citation needed ]

Later feudal grants and knightly service

In 13th-century Germany, Italy, England, France, and Spain the term "feodum" was used to describe a dependent tenure held from a lord by a vassal in return for a specified amount of knight service and occasional financial payments (feudal incidents).

However, knight service in war was far less common than:

Sigismund fees the Margraviate of Brandenburg to Frederik, April 30, 1415 Sigismund fees the land Brandenburg to Frederik, April 30, 1415.jpg
Sigismund fees the Margraviate of Brandenburg to Frederik, April 30, 1415

A lord in late 12th-century England and France could also claim the right of:

In northern France in the 12th and 13th centuries, military service for fiefs was limited for offensive campaigns to 40 days for a knight. By the 12th century, English and French kings and barons began to commute military service for cash payments (scutages), with which they could purchase the service of mercenaries. [11]

Feudal registers

A list of several hundred such fees held in chief between 1198 and 1292, along with their holders' names and form of tenure, was published in three volumes between 1920 and 1931 and is known as The Book of Fees ; it was developed from the 1302 Testa de Nevill .

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Meir Lubetski (ed.). Boundaries of the ancient Near Eastern world: a tribute to Cyrus H. Gordon. "Notices on Pe'ah, Fay' and Feudum" by Alauddin Samarrai. Pg. 248-250 Archived 2015-10-29 at the Wayback Machine , Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998.
  2. 1 2 3 Marc Bloch. Feudal Society, Vol. 1, 1964. pp.165-66.
  3. 1 2 3 Marc Bloch. Feudalism, 1961, pg. 106.
  4. William Stubbs. The Constitutional History of England (3 volumes), 2nd edition 1875-78, Vol. 1, pg. 251, n. 1
  5. Archibald R. Lewis. The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society 718-1050, 1965, pp. 76-77.
  6. 1 2 Alauddin Samarrai. "The term 'fief': A possible Arabic origin", Studies in Medieval Culture, 4.1 (1973), pp. 78-82.
  7. "fee, n.2." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 18 August 2017.
  8. 1 2 Cantor (1993), pp. 198-199.
  9. Lebecq, pp.196-197.
  10. 1 2 Cantor (1993), p. 200.
  11. 1 2 Abels, Richard. "Feudalism". United States Naval Academy. Archived from the original on 2010-03-27. Retrieved 2010-08-27.

Related Research Articles

Feudalism Combination of legal and military customs and form of government in medieval Europe

Feudalism was a combination of legal, economic, military and cultural customs that flourished in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although it is derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), which was used during the Medieval period, the term feudalism and the system which it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people who lived during the Middle Ages. The classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.

Fealty Pledge of allegiance of one person to another

An oath of fealty, from the Latin fidelitas (faithfulness), is a pledge of allegiance of one person to another.

In English law, a fee simple or fee simple absolute is an estate in land, a form of freehold ownership. It is a way that real estate and land may be owned in common-law countries, and is the highest possible ownership interest that can be held in real property. Allodial title is reserved to governments under a civil law structure. The rights of the fee-simple owner are limited by government powers of taxation, compulsory purchase, police power, and escheat, and may also be limited further by certain encumbrances or conditions in the deed, such as, for example, a condition that required the land to be used as a public park, with a reversion interest in the grantor if the condition fails; this is a fee simple conditional.

Vassal Person aligned with a lord or monarch

A vassal is a person regarded as having a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch, in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support by knights in exchange for certain privileges, usually including land held as a tenant or fief. The term is also applied to similar arrangements in other feudal societies.

Lord of the manor title from the feudal system of manorialism

Lord of the manor is a title given to a person holding the lordship of a manor in the Anglo-Saxon system of manorialism which emanated from feudalism in English and Irish history. In modern England and Wales, it is recognised as a form of property, one of three elements of a manor that may exist separately or be combined, and may be held in moieties:

  1. the title ;
  2. the manorial, comprising the manor and/or its land; and
  3. the seignory, rights granted to the titular holder of the manor.

Examples of feudalism are helpful to fully understand feudalism and feudal society. Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that detailed historical examples provide..

Knights fee

In feudal Anglo-Norman England and Ireland, a knight's fee was a unit measure of land deemed sufficient to support a knight. Of necessity, it would not only provide sustenance for himself, his family, esquires and servants, but also the means to furnish himself and his retinue with horses and armour to fight for his overlord in battle. It was effectively the size of a fee sufficient to support one knight in the ongoing performance of his feudal duties (knight-service). A knight's fee cannot be stated as a standard number of acres as the required acreage to produce a given crop or revenue would vary depending on many factors, including its location, the richness of its soil and the local climate, as well as the presence of other exploitable resources such as fish-weirs, quarries of rock or mines of minerals. If a knight's fee is deemed co-terminous with a manor, an average size would be between 1,000 and 5,000 acres, of which much in early times was still "waste", forest and uncultivated moorland.

Tenant-in-chief Medieval term for an landholder who held his land directly from the king

In medieval and early modern Europe, the term tenant-in-chief denoted a person who held his lands under various forms of feudal land tenure directly from the king or territorial prince to whom he did homage, as opposed to holding them from another nobleman or senior member of the clergy. The tenure was one which denoted great honour, but also carried heavy responsibilities. The tenants-in-chief were originally responsible for providing knights and soldiers for the king's feudal army.

Allodial title constitutes ownership of real property that is independent of any superior landlord. Allodial title is related to the concept of land held "in allodium", or land ownership by occupancy and defense of the land. Historically, much of land was uninhabited and could, therefore, be held "in allodium".

<i>Quia Emptores</i> English statute

Quia Emptores is a statute passed by the Parliament of England in 1290 during the reign of Edward I that prevented tenants from alienating their lands to others by subinfeudation, instead requiring all tenants who wished to alienate their land to do so by substitution. The statute, along with its companion statute Quo Warranto also passed in 1290, was intended to remedy land ownership disputes and consequent financial difficulties that had resulted from the decline of the traditional feudal system in England during the High Middle Ages. The name Quia Emptores derives from the first two words of the statute in its original mediaeval Latin, which can be translated as "because the buyers". Its long title is A Statute of our Lord The King, concerning the Selling and Buying of Land. It is also cited as the Statute of Westminster III, one of many English and British statutes with that title.

Knight-service form of Feudal land tenure

Knight-service was a form of feudal land tenure under which a knight held a fief or estate of land termed a knight's fee from an overlord conditional on him as tenant performing military service for his overlord.

Overlord Lord of a tenant

An overlord in the English feudal system was a lord of a manor who had subinfeudated a particular manor, estate or fee, to a tenant. The tenant thenceforth owed to the overlord one of a variety of services, usually military service or serjeanty, depending on which form of tenure the estate was held under. The highest overlord of all, or paramount lord, was the monarch, who due to his ancestor William the Conqueror's personal conquest of the Kingdom of England, owned by inheritance from him all the land in England under allodial title and had no superior overlord, "holding from God and his sword", although certain monarchs, notably King John (1199–1216) purported to grant the Kingdom of England to Pope Innocent III, who would thus have become overlord to English monarchs.

Feudal baron hereditary medieval title

A feudal baron is a vassal holding a heritable fief called a barony, comprising a specific portion of land, granted by an overlord in return for allegiance and service. Following the end of European feudalism, feudal baronies have largely been superseded by baronies held as a rank of nobility, without any attachment to a fief. However, in Scotland, the feudal dignity of baron remains in existence, and may be bought and sold independently of the land to which it was formerly attached.

In the law of the Middle Ages and early Modern Period and especially within the Holy Roman Empire, an allod, also allodial land or allodium, is an estate in land over which the allodial landowner (allodiary) had full ownership and right of alienation.

Heerlijkheid Lowest administrative and judicial unit in Low Countries before 1800

A heerlijkheid was a landed estate that served as the lowest administrative and judicial unit in rural areas in the Dutch-speaking Low Countries before 1800. It originated as a unit of lordship under the feudal system during the Middle Ages. The English equivalents are manor, seigniory, and lordship. The heerlijkheid system was the Dutch version of manorialism that prevailed in the Low Countries and was the precursor to the modern municipality system in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium.

Ecclesiastical fief

In the feudal system of the European Middle Ages, an ecclesiastical fief, held from the Catholic Church, followed all the laws laid down for temporal fiefs. The suzerain, e.g. bishop, abbot, or other possessor, granted an estate in perpetuity to a person, who thereby became his vassal.

<i>Book of Fees</i>

The Book of Fees is the colloquial title of a modern edition, transcript, rearrangement and enhancement of the mediaeval Liber Feodorum, being a listing of feudal landholdings or fief, compiled in about 1302, but from earlier records, for the use of the English Exchequer. Originally in two volumes of parchment, the Liber Feodorum is a collection of about 500 written brief notes made between 1198 and 1292 concerning fiefs held in capite or in-chief, that is to say directly from the Crown. From an early date, the book comprising these volumes has been known informally as the Testa de Nevill, supposedly after an image on the cover of the volume of one of its two major source collections. The modern standard edition, known colloquially as "The Book of Fees" whose three volumes were published between 1920 and 1931, improves on two earlier 19th-century efforts at publishing a comprehensive and reliable modern edition of all these mediaeval records of fees. The nomenclature Book of Fees is that generally used in academic citations by modern scholars to refer to this 20th-century modern published edition of the ancient collected documents.

English feudal barony Medieval English noble title and type of land tenure

In the kingdom of England, a feudal barony or barony by tenure was the highest degree of feudal land tenure, namely per baroniam, under which the land-holder owed the service of being one of the king's barons. The duties owed by and the privileges granted to feudal barons are not exactly defined, but they involved the duty of providing soldiers to the royal feudal army on demand by the king, and the privilege of attendance at the king's feudal court, the precursor of parliament.

Feudalism in England

Feudalism as practised in the Kingdom of England was a state of human society which was formally structured and stratified on the basis of land tenure and the varieties thereof. Society was thus ordered around relationships derived from the holding of land. Such landholdings are termed "fiefdoms, traders, fiefs, or fees".

Feudalism in the Holy Roman Empire was a politico-economic system of relationships between liege lords and enfeoffed vassals that formed the basis of the social structure within the Holy Roman Empire during the High Middle Ages. In Germany the system is variously referred to Lehnswesen, Feudalwesen or Benefizialwesen.