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What is a Fief?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fief was a tangible good given in exchange for loyalty during the feudal period in Europe. Other parts of the world also used a feudal system, although the terminology was different. Fiefs traditionally took the form of plots of land, but the rights to manorial rents, a noble title, or an office might also be considered to be fiefs as well. A fief could be granted by an overlord or suzerain to a vassal, and as long as the vassal loyally served his lord, he would retain the fief.

The system of feudalism in Europe was a political, social, and economic system which concentrated power in the hands of the nobility. The feudal system started with the monarch, who could grant lands to individuals loyal to him. These individuals, in turn, could seek out vassals and distribute parts of their estate to these vassals. With the land came the rights to the work of the peasants who lived on it: most peasants had difficult lives producing food for themselves and the manor, and living in very poor conditions. In other cases, a member of the nobility might bestow a title or the rights to rents on individuals who demonstrated loyalty.

In exchange for a fief, a vassal was expected to render a variety of services to his lord. In some cases, the vassal would be expected to contribute to the wealth of his lord by turning over part of his collected rents, along with farm products. The vassal would also be expected to go to war when ordered to, and to keep the fief in good order, with buildings in usable condition and acreage kept under cultivation. If a vassal did not hold up his end of the bargain, the fief could be confiscated and passed on to another individual.

One of the key elements of a fief was the aspect of military service. Individual members of the nobility could not afford to equip and maintain standing armies, and relied on their vassals to supply equipped armed warriors when they were needed. By surrounding themselves with small armies, lords could protect themselves from incursion by other lords while building up their wealth and social position.

While fiefs were technically granted to individuals, they took on a hereditary aspect. If either lord or vassal were to die, it was anticipated that the fief would be renewed, as the arrangement benefited both parties. Land ownership conferred power and allowed individuals to take part in the political process: the landless were not allowed many rights, and were often used much like slaves. Feudalism began to break down in the 15th century, and by the 19th century, it had vanished entirely from Europe, although legacies were left behind in various legal and social systems.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon2202 — On Jul 02, 2007

what is an obligation of fiefs?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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