In an earlier post, I discussed "feudalism" and why medievalists no longer use the term. (Short version: It has taken on so many disparate and indeed contradictory meanings as to have become meaningless.) Today, as I promised then, I want to discuss fiefs.
Fiefs were in fact real, even though much less tidy than textbooks would like you to believe, and even though really limited to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. In brief, a fief was a piece of land belonging to one lord but granted to be held by another person, also a noble or knight (not a peasant). The person receiving it promised fidelity but did not pay rent. It was a lifetime grant, needing to be renewed in every generation.
In medieval Latin, a fief was most commonly referred to as a feudum, which is where the word "feudalism" came from before it acquired all its additional meanings. Fiefs, knights, and castles all first appeared in France together, around the year 1000. This is not accidental.
Once the counts (heads of counties) started building castles, defended by knights, they needed to be sure that the men they put in charge of these castles (castellans) would continue to be loyal to them. It would be too easy for someone safely behind high walls to "forget" what he owed the lord who had put him there. The counts therefore demanded mighty oaths of loyalty from the castellans. The castellans in turn demanded oaths of loyalty from their knights.
Fief-holding was initially extremely ad hoc. Someone might hold in fief from multiple lords. Two powerful men might even settle a quarrel by agreeing that each would hold in fief from the other. There was no tidy pyramid, and the kings were not even initially involved.
When William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, took over England in 1066, he declared that the great lords who had accompanied him must hold from him in fief, and granted them land scattered all over Britain (so that they could not consolidate power). In the middle of the twelfth century, both the French and German kings announced that their dukes and counts had really held from them in fief the whole time and had gotten centuries behind in their oaths of loyalty. For the most part, the counts and dukes took a deep breath and accepted this version. (It became highly problematic when the French kings began loudly pointing out that the kings of England, in their role as dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine, owed them fidelity.)
By the late twelfth century, fief-holding became a little more systematic. The person receiving the fief, the vassal as he was called, did a ceremony called homage, in which he promised to be the faithful man (homo) of the lord granting the fief. He went down on his knees and held up clasped hands. The lord put his hands around the vassal's hands, drew him up, and kissed him. The ceremony thus symbolized both the vassal's subject position and the fundamental social equality between lord and vassal.
Interestingly, it was at this point that the modern "attitude of prayer" began, on one's knees with clasped hands, indicating that one was God's vassal (although probably not expecting to be drawn up and kissed). Before then, one prayed lying on one's face, or else standing with head bowed and arms extended.
Normally a vassal was expected to fight on his lord's behalf for forty days a year. In England, vassals promised to help pay for the knighting ceremony of the lord's oldest son and wedding of his oldest daughter. Vassals were also expected to help ransom a captive lord. Because a noble might end up doing homage to several different lords for different fiefs, lords often insisted on "liege homage," where homage to them took precedence over homage to anyone else.
In the thirteenth century, Italian lawyers at the University of Bologna, irritated at the messy, ad hoc nature of fief-holding, tried to create laws and regulations, using various events that had involved fiefs as the basis of precedent law (most medieval law was based on precedent, as was Roman imperial law). But by the fourteenth century fief-holding became much less common, just as it became more rigid. The Italian lawyers' version was what was discovered in the seventeenth century and labeled "feudalism."