Friends with benefits

No, not those friends with benefits. We’re talking about real benefits: the right to power and land. The granting of those rights formed the backbone of the Frankish economic, political, and social worlds.

The Germanic tribes, of which the Franks were one, had a custom in which war band leaders granted their faithful followers land or gold, both to reward them and to bind them to the leader in the future. By the 6th and 7th century this custom was practiced on a greater scale.1.Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism, pp.2 – 6. The essential elements remained the same: a man pledged himself to his lord (fealty and homage), and the lord in turn granted his new man something material in return, as well as the promise of protection.

By the 8th century under this tradition the king (or the mayors of the palace, acting in the king’s name) would grant usage of something valuable to one of his loyal followers. This grant, known as a benefice,2.From the Latin beneficium, a noun meaning a benefit. was made for, and in expectation of, past and future service to the king. The benefice could be fishing rights, a toll, an administrative office, or land.

The grant of land included enough arable land, grazing and forage rights, people and resources to support themselves and produce a surplus that would be passed to the king. The follower was now lord of a manor, which I will talk more about in the next post.

The benefice was not true ownership. The king granted a personal right to his follower to use the land or office or other boon. The legal term is a usufruct; no money rent was paid, but agricultural or home industrial goods were passed to the grantor. “The most important revenues were those that came from the royal landed estates, particularly the royal domains.”3.Ganshof2, Frankish Institutions, p.24. As the use of the benefice evolved over time the beneficiary also gained legal and social rights and responsibilities over the inhabitants.

The king’s follower, in turn, could and did grant parts of his benefice to his own followers. Thus was royal land passed and divided to smaller land holders, but the rules were always the same. In return for future service, a grant to use the land. Ultimate ownership was retained by the king. The benefice need not be for life, and even when it was, it was not heritable, and could be terminated by either party upon just cause.

Not all land was held as benefices. Some land, but it is not clear how much, was held allodially, or outright, with no obligations of service. Some of the lord’s manor was not granted out as a further benefice, but was held directly, known as a demesne. The inhabitants of the manor were required to spend some amount of time, perhaps three days of the week, working the demesne for the benefit of the lord.

It was Charles Martel who first used the benefice as a means to build his authority and his army, while reducing the power of the ecclesiastics in the bargain. He began seizing church lands and granting it to his followers, in return for future military service.4.The capitulary of Lestines outlines the rationale and assurances of the temporary nature of the seizure. The surplus production from the manor was used by the grantee to fund the military equipment and training necessary to sustain a full-time, professional army. Pepin continued the practice, as did Charlemagne. A benefice that specifically guaranteed future military service, and whose surplus was to be used for military readiness, was called a fief. Once the fief became heritable, and legal authority over the inhabitants of the manor was customary, real feudalism was born, but in general historians seem to think of true feudalism beginning more in the ninth and tenth centuries.

The church actually held more land than the Merovingian kings, and bishops also granted benefices. A benefice granted by the church was called a precaria, the root of today’s word precarious, because the grant could be revoked.5.Any benefice, secular or ecclesiastic, could be revoked, but it is the ecclesiastical word that has come down to us. Abbeys were among the great landowners in the medieval world. Their landholdings tended to grow over time, rather than become divided, particularly as the idea spread that one’s soul might receive a more favorable reception if you gave your lands to the church on your death.

Sometimes lands were ceded to secular lords by small farmers whose financial situation required them to find a patron and protector. The allodial land was made over to the lord, who then granted the now-tenant farmer the right to work the land, for the benefit of the lord. The tenant lost his ownership, but gained access to a greater range of resources to work the land, as well as the lord’s protection.6.Latouche, Birth of the Western Economy, p.24. An economic trend of the 8th and 9th centuries was this “concentration,” as it is known, of land-holding, as allodial lands were ceded to secular lords and bequeathed to abbeys.

A benefice could be and was abused. Early ninth century capitularies prohibit using the staff and resources of the benefice for one’s own freeholds (allodial property). Other times a benefice was granted to a third party, who then sold it back to the original grantee, and thus transformed the benefice into an alod.7.Latouche, Birth of the Western Economy, pp.179-180.

The benefice allowed kings and leaders to both expand their power, by binding strong followers to their fortunes, and build a stronger society, as the ties between the high and the low became more durable. Feudalism, the natural outgrowth of the granting of benefices, was the backbone of European society for another thousand years, with pockets that lasted almost until the 20th century. But that same mechanism allowed for unchecked authoritarianism as lords and lordlings were given almost unlimited power over their tenants. Only a ruler with the vision and strength of personality like Charlemagne could make it all work.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism, pp.2 – 6.
2. From the Latin beneficium, a noun meaning a benefit.
3. Ganshof2, Frankish Institutions, p.24.
4. The capitulary of Lestines outlines the rationale and assurances of the temporary nature of the seizure.
5. Any benefice, secular or ecclesiastic, could be revoked, but it is the ecclesiastical word that has come down to us.
6. Latouche, Birth of the Western Economy, p.24.
7. Latouche, Birth of the Western Economy, pp.179-180.

1 thought on “Friends with benefits

  1. People will pay ( taxes, loyalty, etc) only as long as they feel that they are receiving a good/fair deal in exchange, whatever it is they receive

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