Feudal tribute ceremony and vassal contract

Feudal tribute ceremony and vassal contract

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The tribute ceremony is a ritual that consecrates the vassalage, as is also the case with chivalry. Lord and vassal are two free men who unite by personal and private ties: the vassalic contract gives them obligations and rights towards each other. The vassal owes his lord the advice, which essentially consists of an obligation to participate in seigneurial assemblies and, in particular, to render justice in his name, and in military and possibly financial aid. The vassal must therefore contribute to the administration of justice and to the seigneurial army. In return, the lord owes protection to his vassal.

Feudal homage

To illustrate the point, here is an excerpt from the "History of the murder of Charles Le Bon, count of Flanders", written in 1127 by Galbert of Bruges. In 1127, the count of Flanders died, a new count, Guillaume, took power. The vassals of the deceased count go to Count William and again enter into a vassalic contract as is customary. Here is the passage from the translated text:

« [1] The vassals of the Count of Flanders paid homage in the following manner. The Count of Flanders asked the future vassal if he wanted to become his man without reserve, and the latter replied: "I want it"; then her hands being joined in those of the count who embraced them, they formed a kiss. [2] In the second place, the one who had paid homage pledged his faith in these terms: "I promise you in my faith to be faithful from this moment to Count Guillaume, to keep him against all and entirely my homage, to in good faith and without deception. ". He swore it on the relic of the saints. [3] Then the count gave them the investitures to all of them who by this pact had promised him security and made homage by oath. ».

The practice of the vassalic contract is similar to a rite with its codes known to all, where the hierarchy is highlighted. In the Middle Ages, recourse to writing for this kind of act remained relatively rare, at least until at least the 13th century. In fact, the oral and the "visible" have a major importance within these societies which have a taste for the concrete, the "palpable". It is therefore quite naturally that the ceremony of entry into vassalage takes place in public, in the eyes of all. Thus, vassal and lord call the audience to witness. The rite is therefore loaded with symbols and "deeds and gestures" which translate real commitments.

In the excerpt we have chosen, Galbert de Bruges gives us a real “chronology” of the contract, step by step. In the first place, it is the tribute. After that comes the commitment of faith. Finally, comes the handing over of the investitures. In reality, we notice that this order presented here is not fixed. Homage and faith can be reversed. However, it is by following the order of Galbert de Bruges' text that we will study the "stages" of the contract.

The vassalic homage ceremony

Basically, homage is therefore the rite of entry into vassalage. The term appears during the 11th century, in the county of Barcelona (ominaticum). We can divide the homage into three stages: the volo, the immixtio manuum and finally the osculum.

The volo

The volo is almost always pronounced in the same terms. In the “Etablissements de Saint-Louis” (13th century), the declaration of will is summarized as follows: first, the lord asks his future vassal if he wants to “become his man” (devenio homo vester) . Then, the vassal responds with a standard formula, in our extract “I want it”. Finally, the Lord can conclude with a sentence like "I receive you and take you as a man [1]".

The immixtio manuum

Second stage, that of the immixtio manuum. When we know the taste for the concrete of men at that time, the fact of "coming into someone's hands" (in manus alicuius venire) is a powerful symbol. Likewise, the lord welcomes his vassal by the hands (aliquem per manus accipere). Sometimes kneeling, the vassal extends his joined hands to the lord who then covers them with his. This visible tradition reveals the authority of the lord over his vassal. A controlled hand is a mastered sword, it is to ensure the good administration of a fief.

The osculum

Finally, comes the kiss. The osculum is a fairly widespread practice in France. The use of the kiss is complementary to the homage and the commitment of faith. We can already find the osculum in 971, when Abbot Notker kisses Otto I when he becomes vassalage to the Germanic emperor. However, the kiss does not seem automatic during the vassalic contract. It is found in other types of contracts and in other forms, for example the clumsiness among peasants when it comes to concluding a sale. In the present case, we can especially note the “visible” nature of this practice. Moreover, in the Middle Ages, we sometimes speak of "homage of mouth and hands".

The Oath of Faith

After the homage that we have just seen previously, Galbert of Bruges describes to us what is generally called the oath of fidelity (fides or sacramentum). It is usually pronounced standing, the hand resting on the Scriptures, on an altar, or again - and this is the case here - on relics, which is more "prestigious". The vassal begins by swearing his fidelity and then takes his oath, fide et sacramentum. Sometimes the content of this oath is more explicit than in the present case. For example, this is the case when the Duke of Bohemia Bretislav I takes an oath to the German King Henry III in 1041. The vassal affirms that he is now "the friend of all his friends, the enemy of his enemies" .

Other types of oaths reveal another face of feudal-vassalic relations. Thus, here and there, vassals undertake not to capture the person of the lord, not to kill him or even not to harm the entourage of the lord. We can deduce from this the climate of insecurity and tension which pushes the vassals to undertake not to physically attack the Lord.

As a rule, the oath of faith and the homage seem to have had to be performed at the main residence of the lord (portare fidem). In other words, the vassal moves "to" the lord to conclude the vassalic contract.

Investiture of the fiefdom

After the homage and the oath of fidelity, comes the investiture. In general, the investiture consists in the delivery by the lord of an object symbolizing the fiefdom, received by the vassal in benefit of the contract which now binds them.

Investiture of Charles of Anjou by Pope Clement IV holding a key, 13th century

There are mainly two forms of symbols. The one called "action" serves to materialize the act of concession. Here again, everything must be visible, the symbolism translates the real. The lord can use either a scepter, a rod, a gold ring, a sword, which he passes into the hands of the vassal then takes back. Sometimes if it is an item of lesser value, the Lord may break it.

The other form of symbol is the so-called “object” symbol. Here, the lord leaves the object in the hands of his vassal. It can then be a handful of earth, a branch or - particularly in Germany - a standard. This symbolizes the fiefdom itself.

In the present case, this is not said in the extract, we can quote another passage of the text where Galbert writes that afterwards “with the rod which he held in the hand, the count gave the investiture, to all those who, by this agreement, had promised security, paid homage and at the same time, took an oath ”. Since the count uses a rod which he keeps in his hand, we can therefore say that here the investiture is carried out through a symbol of "action".

Content of the Contract

The vassalic contract entails obligations on both parties, it is said to be synallagmatic. In a letter of 1020 addressed to the Duke of Aquitaine, Bishop Fulbert of Chartres gives us a precise description of these obligations. We transcribe the passage in its entirety as it seems enlightening:

« Whoever swears loyalty to his lord must always have the following six words present in his memory: safe and sound, sure, honest, useful, easy, possible. Safe and sound, so that it does not cause some damage to the body of the Lord. Safe so that he does not harm his lord by giving up his secret or his strongholds that guarantee his safety. Honest, so that he does not infringe the rights of justice of his lord or other prerogatives concerning the honor to which he can claim. Useful, so that he does not harm the possessions of his lord. Easy and possible, so that he does not make difficult for his lord the good that he could easily do and finally that he does not make impossible what would have been possible for his lord. It is justice that the vassal refrains from harming his lord in this way. But this is not how he deserves his fiefdom, for it is not enough to refrain from doing evil, but it is necessary to do good. It is therefore important that under the six aspects which have just been indicated, he faithfully furnishes his lord with advice and help, if he wishes to appear worthy of his benefit and fulfill the fidelity which he has sworn. The Lord must also, in all these areas, reciprocate the one who has sworn loyalty to him. If he did not do so, he would rightly be accused of bad faith; just as a vassal who was found to be failing in his duties, by action or by simple consent, would be guilty of perfidy and perjury. ».[2]

The vassal therefore owes loyalty to his lord but also what Fulbert calls “advice and help”, consilium and auxilium.


Aid - or auxilium - mainly involves military service on horseback, generally for a period of forty days per year. Over time, military service - or ost - has sometimes been replaced by a pecuniary royalty, the scooping. The auxilium owed by the vassal to his lord can also take the form of pure financial aid. It is designated by the term "aid in four cases": the vassal must pay the ransom of the lord in case of capture of the latter; the vassal must participate in the costs of the dubbing of the eldest son of the lord; the vassal must make his contribution at the time of the marriage of the elder daughter of the lord; the vassal must partly finance the departure of the Lord for the Holy Land.


Along with the help owed to the lord, the vassal also owed him advice. He is required to assist the lord in his advice, to sit at court or to help take decisions during important judgments which require - according to the lord - the opinion of his vassals.

As we have specified above, the vassalic contract is synallagmatic, the lord also owes obligations towards his vassals. He must be faithful to them, protect them and ensure their proper maintenance. Likewise, if a vassal is accused, the lord must do everything in his power to do him "good justice".

As we have just seen, the vassalic contract follows a precise rite that is accepted by all. The visible nature of the “ritual” reflects the desire to display the hierarchy between men, but also aims to take the audience as a witness to this act. To betray its commitments is also to betray those who witnessed it. Of course, it would be absurd to believe that all of these contracts have always been honored, many wars can attest to this. If the very content of certain commitments may seem surprising to us, namely not to kill one's lord or even not to capture him, it is because the danger was there. We must not believe either that all the ceremonies of the vassalic contract take place as we have just explained. But the ceremony that Galbert de Bruges describes seems widespread enough for us to be able, today, to make a typical “model” of it. And of course many variations arise from this model.

[1] Establishments of Saint Louis, II, 19.

[2] Collection of historians of Gaul and France, X, p.463.


- "What is feudalism?", François Louis GANSHOF. Tallandier, 1982.
- "Feudal civilization", Jérôme BASCHET. Champs History, 2009.
- "Medieval history - Tome 2, The Middle Ages 11th-15th centuries", Michel KAPLAN. Bréal, 2004.

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