When we think of the Middle Ages, one of the images that often comes to mind is that of a nobleman or clergyman  swearing allegiance to his feudal lord . With this act , vassalage was established , the nobleman thus became a vassal of the feudal lord and from that moment he would have to give him his unconditional support both in political and military matters in exchange for receiving certain benefits, which was generally the control of some lands. .

What is a vassal?

He is an individual who obeys, serves and respects another of a higher class, usually in exchange for land and protection . The term is also applicable to countries, kingdoms, states or empires .

  • Definition
  • Synonymous
  • Characteristics of vassalage
  • Story
  • Ceremony and vassalage pact
  • What obligations did a feudal lord have to his vassal?
  • What obligations did a vassal have to his lord?
  • What does fidelity on the part of a vassal mean?
  • How is a vassal different from a servant?


Vassal can be defined as that person who submits to another with a higher social status . Now this is not a slave so you will see how the services he renders and the loyalty he shows will be rewarded.


Let’s now see some more specific definitions:

Vassal of the king

When we speak of vassal of the king, we refer to the vassalage relationship that generally existed between a nobleman and a king during the Middle Ages. These nobles could also have their own vassals, thus forming a pyramid of vassalage.

Vassal state

In a similar way to what happens with people, one state, country, kingdom or empire can be a vassal of another. This is that the vassal state will be under the rule of another. An example of this is the kingdom of Hungary, which was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire .


Some synonyms for vassal are subject, servant, feudatory, servant, or tributary . Sometimes and although it does not have exactly the same meaning, it can also be exchanged for words such as slave and commoner .

Characteristics of vassalage

Next we are going to see the main characteristics of a vassalage relationship:

  • It is a bilateral contract .
  • Two main actors participate, the vassal and the feudal lord .
  • It is a relationship of trust.
  • Established between two free people .
  • Both parties benefit from the relationship.
  • The vassal relationship began with a ceremony .
  • In the event that one of the parties breaches its obligations, the relationship will be suspended.
  • A vassal could also have other vassals .


The vassalage is a term that has its origin in the expansion of the Roman Empire . During this the generals performed the functions of lords and granted the legionaries, with whom they had a relationship of trust, (vassals) lands that would be worked by the pilgrims (serfs).

Vassals in the Middle Ages

This type of relationship obtained its maximum splendor in the Middle Ages , at this time even the so-called pyramid of vassalage arose which was dominated by the figure of the emperor. Under this were the kings, followed by the high nobility (they controlled large regions), the intermediate nobility (they controlled regions) and finally the lower nobility (they controlled villages) who had serfs in their charge.

Over the years, the relationships of trust that were forged were lost , the fiefdoms were inherited and the lords lost the power to claim them, and the kings and high nobles were gaining more and more power to the detriment of the lower nobility that each time was poorer. Thus, the monarchy tended to be increasingly absolutist and vassalage gradually disappeared as a new social class emerged, the bourgeoisie .

Ceremony and vassalage pact

Now we are going to see how the commitment between the feudal lord and the vassal was made official. This was done through a ceremony that served to seal the pact that would unite both in a relationship of trust . This ceremony was public and consisted of four parts:

  • The tribute: it is the act by which a person declares to a feudal lord, holding his hands, his desire to become his vassal.
  • The oath: it  is done standing up and with your hands on the Bible . The vassal declares his commitment to be faithful to his lord.
  • The osculum: also known as the kiss. At this stage of the ceremony, the lord accepts the oath and kisses his vassal as a symbol of fidelity.
  • The investiture: the vassalage ceremony is sealed with this act in which the lord hands over a symbolic object to his new vassal.

This vassalage pact was also known as the vassalage contract or contract between vassals and sovereigns .

What obligations did a feudal lord have to his vassal?

After the vassalage pact was sealed, the lord acquired a series of obligations with respect to his vassal, these were the following:

  • Ensuring his livelihood: he did this by giving land to his vassal.
  • Provide military protection: the Middle Ages was a quite violent time in which the vassals saw their lands being ravaged by bandits or armies. Because of this, the feudal lord was committed both to protect his vassals and the lands he had ceded to them.
  • Grant judicial defense: the feudal lord was in charge of acting as a judge and providing justice.

What obligations did a vassal have to his lord?

Like the feudal lord, the vassal also acquired certain obligations, these are:

  • Military support: here the function of the vassal is included as part of the lord’s troop and also his collaboration for the construction of defenses.
  • Political support: in addition to providing squires and even slaves to his lord, the vassal advised and advised him.
  • Payment of taxes : for enjoying the lands that his lord granted him but also in case events were held or if he was bankrupt and even if he was taken prisoner and required to pay a ransom.
  • Others: this includes obligations such as providing accommodation and food for the man in case of a visit, or letting him hunt on their land.

What does fidelity on the part of a vassal mean?

Fidelity on the part of a vassal to his feudal lord is nothing more than being loyal to him, respecting him, not betraying him, serving and supporting him.

How is a vassal different from a servant?

Although they are terms that are often used in a similar way, there are great differences between the two.

As we have seen, a vassal was really a nobleman who served powerful people thanks to a trusting relationship in which both parties received certain benefits . This also could have other vassals or servants at his service.

The servant, on the other hand, was a person of limited resources who was forced to work for a feudal lord. He was therefore in a situation close to slavery .

As we can see, in reality, the vassal is not subject in any case, while the servant is. In addition, the power that each one treasures is very different, while the vassal is someone powerful and with land, the servant barely has some freed.

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