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The fief (alternatively, fee, feoff, fiefdom) or feudum (in Latin), under the system of medieval European feudalism, often consisted of inheritable lands or revenue-producing property granted by a lord to a vassal who held seisin in return for a form of allegiance (usually given by homage and fealty). Not only land but anything of value could be held in fief, such as an office, a right of exploitation (e.g., hunting, fishing) or any other type of revenue, rather than the land it comes from.

In the 10th and 11th centuries the term "fief" (feudum) could be used either to describe dependent tenure held by a man from his lord, as the term is used now by historians, or it could mean simply "property". It lacked a precise meaning until the middle of the 12th century, when it received formal definition from land lawyers.

Historically the fiefs of the 11th and the 12th century derived from two separate sources. The first was land carved out of the estates of the upper nobility. The second source was allodial land transformed into dependent tenures. During the 10th century in northern France and the 11th century in France south of the Loire, local magnates either recruited or forced the owners of allodial holdings into dependent relationships and they were turned into fiefs. The process occurred later in Germany, and was still going on in the 13th century.

In 13th-century England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy the term "feodum" was used to describe a dependent tenure held from a lord by a vassal in return for a specified amount of knight service and occasional financial payments (feudal incidents).

However, knight service in war was far less common than:

  • castle-guard (the obligation of a vassal to serve in a castle garrison of the lord),
  • suit in court (the vassal's obligation to attend the lord's court, to give him counsel, and to help him judge disputes)
  • attendance in the lord's entourage (accompanying the lord when he travelled or attended the court of his lord so as to increase the social status of the lord),
  • hospitality to the lord or to his servants (accommodation).

A lord in late 12th-century England and France could also claim the right of:

  • wardship and marriage - right to control descent of fief by choosing husband for female heir and guardian of minors (preferably in consultation with heir's closest male adult kinsmen);
  • "aids" - payments to aid the lord in times of need (customarily given to the lord to cover the cost of knighting of eldest son, marriage of eldest daughter, and for ransoming of lord if required);
  • escheat - the reversion of the fief to the lord in default of an heir.[1]

Originally, vassalage did not imply the giving or receiving of landholdings (which were granted only as a reward for loyalty), but by the eighth century the giving of a landholding was becoming standard. The granting of a landholding to a vassal did not relinquish the lord's property rights, but only the use of the lands and their income; the granting lord retained ultimate ownership of the fief and could, technically, recover the lands in case of disloyalty or death.[2]

By the middle of the 10th century, fiefs had largely become hereditary.[3] The eldest son of a deceased vassal would inherit, but first he had to do homage and fealty to the lord and pay a "relief" for the land (a monetary recognition of the lord's continuing proprietary rights over the property). Henry II transformed them into important sources of royal income and patronage. Baronial The discontent of barons with royal claims to arbitrarily assessed "reliefs" and other feudal payments under Henry's son King John resulted in Magna Carta of 1215.

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