For other uses, see Vassal (disambiguation).

A vassal or feudatory[1] 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 and mutual protection, in exchange for certain privileges, usually including land held as a tenant or fief.[2] The term is applied to similar arrangements in other feudal societies.

In contrast, a fidelity, or fidelitas, was a sworn, unconditional loyalty to a monarch.[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 Tassilo III, 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, based on tribes, kingdoms, or city-states, the subjects of which which they wish to control without having to conquer or directly govern them. In these cases a subordinate state (such as a dependency, suzerainty, residency or protectorate) has retained internal autonomy, but has lost independence in foreign policy, while and, in many instances, formal tribute.

In this framework, a formal colony or "junior ally" might also be regarded as a vassal state in terms of international relations, analogous to a domestic "fiefholder" or "trustee".

The concept of a vassal state uses the concept of personal vassalry to theorize formally hegemonic relationships between states – even those using non-personal forms of rule. Imperial states to which this terminology has been applied include, for instance: Ancient Rome, the Mongol Empire, and the British Empire.

Feudal Japanese equivalents

In Feudal Japan, the relations between the powerful daimyo and shugo and the subordinate ji-samurai bear some obvious resemblance to western vassalage, although there are also some significant differences.


Main article: neo-feudalism
Further information: Dark Enlightenment
Further information: Alt-right

The controversial concept of neo-feudalism has been imputed to some contemporary societies – especially the Russian Federation, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states that became formally independent during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The basis for this allegation is the notion that, while modern constitutions do not provide for the establishment of formal vassalage, societies may work informally in such a way.[7]

Neo-feudal states are supposedly characterized by a lack of civil structures found in other contemporary societies – or previous structures like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Governance is dominated by a network of nouveau riche oligarchs, as well as apparatchiks, present and former members of police, military, state security and intelligence services.

Which group dominates is supposedly specific to particular countries. In Russia it is claimed that up to 78% of the elite have signs of being siloviki.[8] In Ukraine, the Ukrainian oligarchs supposedly have the upper hand. (Following the "Euromaidan" of 2014, there was supposedly a struggle for power in Ukraine between oligarchs and opposition parties.) In post-Soviet Central Asia, there are examples of apparently dynastic families holding power.

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.
  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


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