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Medieval Fief: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Fifes were part of the feudal system in Medieval Europe. In this lesson, you will learn about fiefs as they related to the social structure. Then, you can take a short quiz to assess your knowledge.

What is a Fief?

If you're an employee, you are paid for your work, whether it is a salary, hourly wage, or based on product output. Companies tend to also reward employees for loyalty in a variety of forms. Imagine that your employer rewarded your loyalty by giving you a small plot of land. But you don't just get land to do what you will with it. You have to maintain it and provide crops to all in need. Oh, and your land can be taken away from you at any time for any reason. How does that sound?

In the Middle Ages, such rewards for loyalty were not only common, they were an accepted way of life. All land was plotted and broken into smaller plots, each called a fief. These small plots were given by those of higher social rank to those of a lower social rank, such as from a king to a lord or a lord to a peasant, usually in exchange for loyalty or heroics in battle. These varying ranks in society were all part of feudalism, or the feudal system, a social hierarchy and system of order that existed in the European Middle Ages ca. 500-1450 CE.

Feudal Hierarchy, European Middle Ages
Feudalism Pyramid

How Did It Work?

During the European Middle Ages, or Medieval period, land was divided up into city-size estates called manors, which were owned by a monarch. This king or queen, who was like a CEO of a company, oversaw several lords who supervised the general needs and operations of the manor, much like the management team of a business. These lords were vassals, or subordinates, to the monarch in social status. They swore an oath of loyalty to the monarch in exchange for the supervisory power they had in running the manor. In turn, lords were the superiors to peasants and serfs, who were at the bottom of the feudal hierarchy. Similar to the workers or general labor of a business, these individuals were the most populous and did the most work.

For extreme loyalty, heroic battle service, or other reasons, a monarch might award a portion of the manor, called a fief, to a vassal. These plots were about the size of a modern suburban housing development. There were many fiefs on the manor, and each fief held the lord and his family along with many families of peasants and serfs. Knights rounded out the residents as protectors of the land. Fiefs were mainly rewarded to lords, but in some circumstances, a peasant could earn a fief. Serfs, because of their low social status, were never eligible for their own land.

However, those granted fiefs were not the actual owners of the land. Rather, they were temporary tenants, and they had to follow the rules and regulations of the agreement and avoid incurring complaints by their neighbors; otherwise, they could lose the land. Given their social standing, this was more commonly an issue with peasant fief-holders than lords.

When it was time to award a fief, a religious transfer ceremony took place. This celebration was deeply rooted in the traditions and symbolism of Christianity. Since Christianity was the main religion of Medieval Europe, it makes sense that this religion was the basis for not only the transfer, but pretty much everything else happening at the time.

Bayeux Tapestry showing a typical ceremony of loyalty
Fief Ceremony

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