During the Middle Ages, feudalism was a form of social order where local leaders controlled multiple small communities. The leaders -- lords or kings -- were in charge of the decision making, the military and the economy. The social relationships in the tight-knit communities that leaders governed were based on oaths, vows and obligations. Lords and vassals were obligated to each other by oaths.
Feudal lords got their power through ownership of large estates called manors. They enlisted soldiers, or knights, who became vassals once the soldiers entered into military service with a lord of the manor. Knights went through a commendation ceremony to become vassals. The ceremony marked a contract between the lord and vassal, in which the lord agreed to give the vassal a certain amount of farmland in exchange for an oath to perform certain duties to the lord.
Vassals were obligated to defend the manor against foreign invaders. For offensive battles -- where the feudal lord was trying to take someone else's land or just stirring up trouble with a neighbor -- the vassal's obligations were much more narrow. Vassals were only required to fight an offensive battle for a specified amount of time -- 40 days a year in France -- after which they could refuse to fight, or they could demand further compensation, for example, land or money, for a longer commitment to the offensive campaign.
During the commendation ceremony, the vassal pledged homage and loyalty to the feudal lord. His oath of homage meant he acknowledged that the lord had all the power and acknowledged the lord's superior status as the landowner. The oath of loyalty meant the vassal would fight for that feudal lord and no one else. Since the ceremonies were publicly held, usually in a church, and since a vassal's loyalty was the only thing that kept feudal society from decaying into anarchy, any breach of these oaths was considered the worst crime imaginable against society.
Vassals were obligated to help the lord run the manor by collecting taxes; serving on the counsel of warriors and advising the lord; and providing a percentage of food from his farmlands for the lord, his household and his visitors.
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