They received their dominions as fiefs to be held on condition of loyalty to their lord. Each King, then, divided his dominions into sufficiently large parts and granted each part to a noble called the tenant- in-chief, on the condition of loyalty and service to the King. He continued to hold the land so long as he fulfilled his obligations. After his death the rights and duties of vassalage passed on to the heirs of the lord.
The tenants-in-chief divided their respective lands into smaller units and gave them to their vassals on similar conditions. This process of division and transference continued to many stages.
At all stages the vassal owed his lord fidelity which was promised by him at the ceremony of homage: “The vassal came before his lord, bare-headed and unarmed, and declared on his knees that he became his ‘man’. The lord, then, kissed him and raised him from his knees. Then the vassal swore fidelity (fealty) to his lord.”
The essential characteristics of feudalism may be summarised as:
1. The grant of land by a lord to a vassal who held it so long as he fulfilled his obligations of loyalty and service;
2. The existence of close personal ties between the lord and the vassal; and
3. The lord of an estate exercised the full or partial rights of sovereignty over all inhabitants living thereon.
The estate of the lord, big or small, was called a fief or feud, and, as such, the term feudalism.
The obligations of the vassal to his lord were military service normally limited to forty days in a year; payment of rent to the lord for his land and house: work at the lord’s fields for a certain number of days in a year; payment to be made on occasions like knighting of the lord’s eldest son, the marriage of his daughter, the ransoming of his person if the lord was made a prisoner of war; relief or payment made when a new heir succeeded to the fief; payment of flues when the vassal alienated the land to another party; lodging and hospitality to the lord and his followers on his journeys or hunting expeditions; and attendance at the lord’s court.
The duties of the lord were to protect his vassal and to avenge his wrongs; defend his rights; and to secure him justice in all matters.
The chief characteristic of feudalism was the dispersal of governing power among hundreds of petty authorities both lay and ecclesiastical, all confined to small areas. But the feudal State was not a State in the real sense of the term.
There was neither common citizenship nor common law. There was no central authority in the State and the loyalty of the people was divided at every step. The individual owed his allegiance to his immediate landlord and only through him to the King. The feudal system, in short, “was confusion rough organised.”
Out of this confusion emerged the superior authority of the Church, resulting in a deep and continuous conflict between the Spiritual and Temporal authorities. Absence of central authority, division of the loyalty of the people at every step, their religious infatuation, and the inconceivably vast property under the possession of the Church made it possible for the Pope to claim superiority over all the Princes.
The Church had, in fact, taken over some function which legitimately belonged to the State. A separate system of law and courts developed for the clergy. Figgie has aptly observed, “In the middle Ages the Church was not a State, it was the State; the State or rather the civil authority… was merely the police department of the Church.”