What Is a Feudal Contract?

During the Middle Ages, a lord granted a vassal land rights, and in return, a vassal committed to provide military and other honorable services via a feudal contract. They sealed the contract with an oath of homage and fealty.

Lords granted land to vassals, who in turn farmed or otherwise cared for it. Vassals often received housing as part of the contract and also a guarantee that the lord would protect their interests at court. The contract spelled out the type of housing, such as a one-room cottage with two windows and dirt floors, and listed the services a vassal would provide in return. For example, a vassal agreed to protect the lord during an attack, give the lord a percentage of any crops grown, pay a set amount in taxes or pay taxes in lieu of providing military service.

Over time, feudal contracts gave vassals other rights, such as the right to enter into feudal contracts with vassals of their own, thus becoming lords over their own fiefdom. Feudal contracts could exist in perpetuity, and though the oath of fealty ended at a vassal’s death, their heir could renew the contract, and most did. By not renewing the contract, the heir risked losing land rights and angering the lord, so few dared do it. Legally, breaking the feudal contract was a felony and was considered one of the worst offenses.