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In medieval (in the broadest sense, I'm not thinking of a specific decade) Europe, lands were split up amongst noblemen, and these noblemen had a hierarchy. Barons are lesser than earls which are lesser than dukes and so on.

I see two ways of this happening, and surely only one is correct.

Method One: The King gives (for example) 10% of his land to his trusted Earl, and 5% each to three barons.

Method Two: The King gives 10% of his land to his trusted Earl and then cuts 1% of that land to give it to a Baron. Thus the Baron's land is inside the Earl's and the Baron has some kind of fealty to the Earl. In time of war the king would call on his earls who would in turn call on their barons.

Which of these (if either) is more accurate?

I realise "medieval Europe" is an enormous scope so answers in general of examples from any time/place in that rough area would be great.

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lands were split up amongst noblemen, and these noblemen had a hierarchy Don't forget the Church, though! Since it was common for a nobleman to give his lands to the Church in remittance for his sins and since the Church itself was divided between secular and regular clergy, its influence further complicates the picture greatly. –  Olivier Apr 17 at 7:59
The land given to a vassal didn't have to have a set border configuration, or be in one portion, or even touch the lord's own lands after the grant. Physical nesting and feudal rights were two entirely different things. –  Oldcat Apr 17 at 23:24
@Oldcat, could you elaborate please? I'm not quite sure what you mean. –  Mac Cooper Apr 18 at 9:30
Your question seems to imply that a King had a single blob of land, and a fief was always, or mostly carved off the perimeter as a smaller unit from that in a uniform way. In fact, lands owned by a king were often many scattered districts that did not touch. He might give a noble a scattering of good farms across the land that had good income by did not constitute a district of their own. When a king or noble made a good marriage he might pick up title to a district from his wife's families land and hold it. This is how the English kings got title to Aquitaine in France. –  Oldcat Apr 18 at 17:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Yes, the name of the process to which you are referring is subinfeudation.

It's important to remember that most people only had a few meaningful things to trade - land, food, fighters, and protection. Feudalism is giving the people above you food and fighters and giving the people below you land and protection.

The King was at the top and granted rights to a lord, who would either work the land with his own peasants or through subinfeudation create another lord as middle tenant below him. That middle lord had his own vassals work the land, for which he paid duties (taxes) up to the chief lord. The middle lord could in many cases also subinfeudate. And of course, there were meaningful military obligations bound up with feudalism and vassalage. Wikipedia explains it well:

Below the king in the feudal pyramid was a tenant-in-chief (generally in the form of a baron or knight) who was a vassal of the king, and holding from him in turn was a mesne tenant (generally a knight, sometimes a baron, including tenants-in-chief in their capacity as holders of other fiefs) who held when sub-enfeoffed by the tenant-in-chief. Below the mesne tenant further mesne tenants could hold from each other in series. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.

As a result, it became very meaningful to hold your land or status directly beneath only a King or Emperor. Your obligations and taxes were lesser and your prestige was greater. The Imperial Free Cities (mostly German cities under the Holy Roman Emperor) had no mesne lords and owed fealty directly to the Emperor, giving them autonomy to grow and prosper.

At least in early feudalism, the arrangement was that the vassals owed fealty and paid homage to their lords, including both taxes (often paid in kind with foodstuffs or other goods) and military service to the lords, and the lords would in return provide the vassals with military protection. To put it crudely, it's like a mafia protection racket. You pay powerful people to stay in business and they provide protection. Except that feudal vassals had to provide troops and weapons (commensurate with their ability to do so), which is not a parallel for the mafia protection racket.

Note that medieval vassalage was a complicated legacy system, not the product of prior design or comprehensive reform. So you get strange exceptions and situations, such as special rights for religious institutions, universities, cities, ports, and so on. You also have a complicated tree of duties and obligations, including the strange situation (well, strange to American notions of feudalism) that the English King was oftentimes a vassal of the French King.

Normandy in northern France was a duchy given to Norse invaders/settlers (basically Vikings) in the 10th century. In the 11th century their duke invaded England and is now known as William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England. So for much of the next several centuries, the King of England was also Duke of Normandy, so a King in his own right and also a vassal to the French crown. In addition, the county of Anjou was held by Plantagenets, so Richard I Lionheart and his father Henry II were both English Kings and French vassals. This had relatively strange results, as when the Anglo-Norman kings fought the French crown they were going against the fealty and vassalage supposedly at the foundation of feudalism. Once again, the system was organic rather than designed.

But generally subinfeudation allowed for closer control over areas. Rather than the King directly monitoring hundreds, then thousands, and eventually tens of thousands of petit nobles, the feudal system allowed the King to deal with smaller numbers of more powerful lords and those powerful lords could more closely monitor a number of lands.

It was a way for the King to reward his followers with chief tenancies, and for his followers to reward their followers with mesne tenancies.

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Wow, what a detailed answer! Thanks! A couple of questions though, just to clarify -- was William the Conqueror not Duke of Normandy, rather than Burgundy?; Would the King have a say in the middle lords? Or could a lord give part of his land to just anyone? –  Mac Cooper Apr 16 at 18:55
Whoops! Thank you, yes. The link pointed to Normandy. I get them confused. Yes, kings might have some say in mesne lords, particularly if the chief lord wants favor with the king or the king is willing to use troops and inquisitors to persecute people he doesn't like. Edward I Longshanks passed a rule prohibiting further subinfeudation and requiring all transfers be by substitution. This managed to stop commoners from becoming mesne tenants, and from subinfeuding further commoners below them. –  NL7 Apr 16 at 19:19
We need a brain transplant, will save time :) that makes sense, thank you so much! Just one more thing (I promise): would a king (and by extension any lord) retain any land to be owned completely by themselves? I mean, would a king give EVERY part of his land to lords, or could he keep a chunk that is ruled by HIM only and there's no lord on it? –  Mac Cooper Apr 16 at 19:29
Yes, certainly. The King would get revenues from his vassal lords and directly from his own lands. This persists today in the UK in a modern form. The queen has the Duchy of Lancaster, which generates revenues and has enormous property holdings. The crown has sent the revenues to Parliament since the 18th century, and in exchange gets Civil List payments back (Parliament wins in this direct exchange). The Duchy of Cornwall also has revenues and property and pays royal family expenses. –  NL7 Apr 16 at 19:56
@MarkC.Wallace: I don't know what specific status the islands had, but it's also worth bearing in mind that regardless of the official status the actual relationship wasn't truly feudal any more and so doesn't necessarily serve as a case study when considering medieval feudalism. The fuss should the Queen have decided on her own initiative to surrender or sell the Channel Islands to France, would have been considerable (and would have prevented the transfer) regardless of what they may have professed about being her property :-) –  Steve Jessop Apr 17 at 8:20

@NL7 has offered a fantastic answer, but I'd like to add one thing. Allocation of land was not "rational" - inheritance was complicated and it is entirely possible for a noble to have multiple non-contiguous parcels of land. It is entirely possible that a noble could inherit several strips of land that surround or enclose another noble's land.

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For an example of how complicated this can become, check out the Belgian exclave of Baarle-Hertog, enclaved in the Netherlands. This is a remnant from this feudalistic age. There are streets where the odd numbers are Belgian and the even numbers are Dutch and vice versa. There are also streets where you got a Belgian house with 2 Dutch neighbors. There's even a cul-de-sac that lies half in Belgium and Half in the Netherlands. –  Nate Kerkhofs Apr 17 at 7:47

Under the feudal system, the second model was operative. The king would subdivide his kingdom among his highest ranking nobles, usually dukes, sometimes marquis or counts, in exchange for their "fealty" (pledge of allegiance). The higher ranking nobles would, in turn, subdivide their holdings among lesser nobles, viscounts and barons for the same. These nobles would "lord it over" members of the gentry. At the bottom of the ladder were individual peasants, who were tied to the land that they worked, and basically had no ownership rights, only the obligation to pay "taxes" on the land that they worked.

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