End of Europe's Middle Ages

Origins of Feudal Institutions

Vassalage agreements developed from Roman and Germanic precedents. When Romans expanded into Germany and Germans later settled in Northern Italy, the customs of the two people blended. Romans had a longstanding tradition of patronage by which a wealthy or well-placed patron would take on a lower-born or less wealthy client, providing protection or recognition to the client. In return, the patron could expect to receive gifts, political and physical support as well as prestige. Romans also contributed their method of maintaining large estates, latifundia. Owned by the elite, latifundia were worked by resident freedmen who provided a tax or tithe to the owner.

Germanic customs contributed greatly to the martial aspect of feudal institutions. A group of equal free-born warriors, the comitatus, was led by the comes, a commander chosen for military ability. When plunder was seized, the commander took the larger part and distributed smaller portions to other members of the band. Once the comes acquired large amounts of land and the band became more settled, his household became more structured and specialized offices developed such as chamberlains, who looked after the most prized possessions (which were kept in the bedroom chamber) and the marechals or marshals, who cared for the stables.

Frankish expansion in the fifth and sixth centuries resulted in the acquisition of vast tracts of land. Although the Merovingians granted ownership to most of the royal holdings, the early Carolingians (Pepin of Heristal: d.715 and especially his son, Charles Martel: 714-741) confiscated those lands. Reassigning them under strict conditions of miltary service and loyalty, the Carolingians were able to deal with the threat of Saracen expansion and set standards for feudal agreements.

Return to Feudal Institutions

The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
Copyright © 1997, The Applied History Research Group