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Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a system of relations of personal dependency of one kind of feudal lords (vassals) on another (seigneurs) in the Middle Ages. In the countries of Western Europe, vassalage took shape as a developed institution in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Frankish state, where the kings and great feudal lords dispensed land, movable property, or some other source of income in return for service. The revolution in agrarian relations in this period created the precondition for an increasingly wide distribution of landholdings among vassals. In this manner, land relations became the material basis of personal relations of vassalage in most cases; the service of vassals began to be equated, as a rule, with military service. Lands which were granted at first only for life, that is, as benefices, gradually became conditionally hereditary property (feod, fief). The great feudal lords, who became the vassals of the supreme seigneur (suzerain), the king, and who received land from him, had vassals in their turn, upon whom they bestowed land. The main obligation of a vassal was to do military service at his own expense for a specific period (usually 40 days per year). The vassal was obliged to participate in the seigneur’s law courts and councils (curias), to support him with a retinue (in specific situations), and to contribute certain payments of an extraordinary nature, above all, “aid” (auxilium) for the ransoming of a seigneur who fell into captivity, in addition to paying relief (when the ownership of a fief changed hands). The seigneur was obliged, in addition to distributing fiefs, to defend his vassal and his property. The vassalage contract was sealed by a special ritual, homage, and was accompanied by an oath of loyalty (fealty) sworn by the vassal to the seigneur. Nonfulfillment of obligations by either the vassal or the seigneur led to the abrogation of the contract and frequently to war.

Along with the spread of the vassalage relations resting upon a hierarchical structure of landowners hip, a feudal hierarchical ladder came into being (from the king down to the petty feudal lords) that was a political and, above all, military organization of the ruling class. This organization was due primarily to the necessity for preserving the feudal class’s monopoly on landownership during a period of weak central power and for creating an extraeconomic constraint on the feudally dependent peasantry. With the formation of centralized feudal states, the gradual displacement of vassal military service by the system of hired detachments, and the numerous transfers of fiefs (under conditions of the growth of trade-monetary relations) into the hands of new owners, vassalage gradually lost its military and political importance.

Vassalage and the feudal hierarchical ladder achieved their most mature forms in the countries of Western Europe. In the countries of the East, vassalage was in general less developed (although a many-tiered hierarchical ladder developed within the governing class in several countries, for example, in Japan and in countries conquered by the Mongols). In Rus’, vassal relations were found only between grand princes and appanage princes.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.