Feudal Oaths Are Weirder Than You Think Essay

Feudal Europe is a strange and wondrous place, not too different from AMC’s the Walking Dead.

Feudal governments developed in the absence of a strong central government. At their core lie feudal oaths, which work like this:

A powerful noble (The Lord) gives land (known as a fief) to a lesser noble (The Vassal)The Vassal gets all the income from villages, mills, vineyards, tolls, etc from the fief.

In return, the Vassal swears an oath to pledging military service to his Lord. If the Lord calls his Vassal to battle, he must muster his troops and come.

Pretty simple. Lord and vassal. Land for military service.

My favorite real world example is between Rollo the Viking and Charles the Simple. Rollo did that thing Vikings do and pillaged and conquered an area of Northern France. Quivering in Paris, Charles the Simple decided to recognize Rollo’s claim on the land (which would become Norseman Land or Normandy), in return for Rollo’s promise of protection against any future Viking invasions.

What may get lost today is the seriousness of the oath. The vassal pledged homage, which literally meant he gave all his man-ness (Homme=man) to the lord. Swearing homage meant total submission to your lord. The actual act would raise eyebrows today.

The Vassal would approach his Lord with no weapon and an uncovered head. Kneeling before him, with hand outstretched as if in prayer, he would say something along the lines of:

“I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord, never cause him harm and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.”

The Lord would take his outstretched hands and accept his homage, giving him some token representative of the fief he was bestowing. Sounds very touching.

Some nobles would have more than one lord, necessitating a Liege Lord, who outranked all the rest. Homage outranked oaths of fealty. Fealty could be paid to lesser officials, like sheriffs.

During my feudalism simulation, I have students act out homage by have the vassal kneel before their soon to be Lord and say “I am your (wo)man.” It’s good for a few laughs, but also conveys the seriousness of the feudal oath.

High School
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