vassal

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vassal was the term used to describe a person who had taken a formal oath of allegiance to a superior and was derived from a Celtic word meaning ‘youth’. In its simplest form it was no more than commending oneself to a lord for protection, but it became more complex when estates and benefices were granted in exchange for specified duties. It was upheld by the ceremony of homage. In Anglo-Saxon England vassalage remained largely personal. The Normans introduced the continental practice of endowing the vassal with a fief: this did not imply outright ownership of the land and the vassal could not alienate, though he could subcontract and create his own vassals by the process of subinfeudation. In exchange, the vassal performed carefully defined duties, such as knight service, and aids for particular occasions. The lord retained rights over marriage and wardship, since they might affect the integrity of the fief, and could demand a payment on inheritance. By the 13th cent. the arrangements were unravelling as lords increasingly paid scutage rather than perform knight service and vassals tried to commute their own obligations. Though at the outset the greatest lords were themselves vassals of the king, as tenants-in-chief, the term eventually acquired a pejorative meaning as slave, vagabond, or miscreant.

J. A. Cannon

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vas·sal / ˈvasəl/ • n. hist. a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance. ∎  a person or country in a subordinate position to another: [as adj.] a vassal state of the Chinese empire. DERIVATIVES: vas·sal·age / -əlij/ n.

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vassal tenant in fee XIV; transf. and fig. XV. — (O)F.:- medL. vassallus man-servant, retainer, of Celt. orig.; the simplex vassus corr. to OGaul. -vassus in personal names, e.g. Dagovassus, W. gwas, Ir. foss servant.
So vassalage XIV. — OF. vassalage (mod. vasselage).

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vassal a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance; the word comes (in late Middle English, via Old French) from medieval Latin vassalius ‘retainer’, of Celtic origin.