(Looking at Norman land law from about 1066 …)
Land is different from all other property. It is where you live, grow your crops, mine minerals, and (maybe) earn money by renting it out.
There is only a limited amount of land – there is only so much you can create by drainage – and so in that sense also it is unique.
Control of land therefore, in early times, meant power. And conversely if you were powerful, if you were a lord, you had land. So the words lord and land have always gone together.
If we go back to Norman times though, having control of land did not necessarily mean you owned it. In fact unless you were the King, you didn’t, because all land was owned by the King.
What everyone had in those long gone days was not ownership, but tenure. You did not own land but ‘held’ it.
Tenure was the relationship under which a tenant would hold land from his lord. A Norman lord would give land, as a ‘fee’, to a supporter in exchange for loyalty and service. Often this was military service, but not always
Entering into this relationship of landlord and tenant was a serious matter. As serious, if not more so, than marriage. It was a life long bond, and was entered into in a special ceremony where the tenant (or vassal) would swear an oath of fealty. Here is a description taken from the Middle Ages website.
The Oath of Fealty was sworn during a solemn ceremony necessitating an act of homage. The vassal would appear before the lord bareheaded and without any weapons.
The vassal would then kneel before the lord, clasping his hands as in prayer which he would stretch outward towards his lord. This position signified total submission. The vassal then swore the Oath of Fealty. The lord would then take the hands of the vassal and announce his acceptance.
Being a tenant under this old system was nothing like having ownership of land nowadays, even ownership of tenancies / leases. They could not do what they liked with the land, or sell it, and a tenant’s family were not necessarily entitled to inherit it after the tenant’s death.
All the tenant really had was possession. Being in possession of land as a feudal tenant was called seisin.
Seisin was an important concept which I may come back to later.
The futile system
In that best of all history books, 1066 and All That, the feudal system is described as the futile system. As indeed, in a way, it was, and the concept of buying land with services did not last longer than about 200 years after the conquest.
For example, the service fixed when the land was first granted, might not be appropriate several generations later. So, over time it became more convenient to pay for mercenaries if you wanted an army, than to rely on your tenants.
Gradually the old services were converted to payment of money, which eventually lost much of its economic significance as the value of money changed (inflation is not just a modern phenomenon).
However, the concept of holding land rather than owning it, and of tenure remained. In some ways it is still with us today.
I’ll be looking in a bit more detail at how it all worked in Norman times, in future posts.