When we think of medieval politics, we think of feudalism, the hierarchical system of obligations by which men of lower status are bound to serve men above them in the so-called “feudal pyramid” made up of peasants, knights, lords, and king. Feudal obligations were rendered by tenants in exchange for hereditary grants of land from the lord of the manor. Ultimately, the king owned all of the kingdom’s land and the highest class of the nobility were those who held their land directly from him.
The feudal pyramid
According to the dominant trend in medieval scholarship, feudalism underwent a significant change around the beginning of the 14th century. This transition initiated a modified political and economic system which has come to be known as “bastard feudalism” and is characterized by a shift in the bond between lord and vassal from being hereditary and based on land grants to being personal and financial in nature. Furthermore, the written contract, in which a man would pledge to attend his lord when called upon, emerged as the principle medium through which this relationship was formalized. Additionally, under the bastard feudal system, the king increasingly used paid indentures to raise his army rather than the traditional feudal levy (“bastard feudalism”).
Although the term “bastard feudalism” was first coined by Charles Plummer in 1885 (“bastard feudalism”), the concept as we know it today comes primarily from the work of the highly influential 20th century medievalist K. B McFarlane. It is thus on McFarlane’s conception of the system that I will focus this post. Unfortunately, I have not been able to access his 1945 essay which represents the defining work on the subject. However, I have been able to rely on P. R Coss’s paper “Bastard Feudalism Revised”, which provides a good overview of McFarlane’s ideas, including direct quotes.
McFarlane defined bastard feudalism as a “label to describe the society which was emerging from feudalism in the early part of the fourteenth century, when most if not all its ancient features survived, even though in many cases as weak shadows of themselves, but when the tenurial bond between lord and vassal had been superseded as the primary social tie by personal contract between master and man” (McFarlane; qtd. in Coss 27). Thus, according to McFarlane, bastard feudalism existed within the preexisting feudal framework, but was defined, as Coss puts it, by “the replacement of the tenurial relationship by the cash nexus” (Coss 27). To put it more simply, feudalism evolved into bastard feudalism when lords transitioned from binding men to themselves through grants of land and instead began to create affinities of paid retainers. This new type of relationship between lord and retainer was formalized in written contracts, specifically the indenture of retainer and the letter patent. These did not create the hereditary tenants of a traditional feudal system, but retained men either for life or for a specified period of time (Coss 27).
Thus, bastard feudalism led to the rise of the affinity in medieval political society. McFarlane himself even stated that during the 14th and 15th centuries “the new order of patronage, livery and affinities occupied the front of the stage…It is this new order that we call ‘bastard feudalism’. Its quintessence was payment for service” (McFarlane, qtd. in Coss 27). In a later essay, McFarlane goes into detail describing the motives behind the rise of the bastard feudal affinity:
“Late medieval lordship, indeed, has not much in common with feudal dominium. When a man asked another to be his ‘good lord’, he was not commending himself and his land; nor did he become anything remotely like a vassal. Rather he was acquiring a temporary patron. In this loosely-knit and shamelessly competitive society, it was the ambition of every thrusting gentleman – and also of anyone who aspired to gentility – to attach himself for as long as suited him to such as were in a position to further his interests. For those who wished to rise in the world, good lordship was essential. A successful man, therefore, gathered about him what was sometimes called his ‘affinity’; those who staked their hopes on a share of his good fortune. And since his chances of winning his desires increased as his following grew, he in his turn used all the arts at his command to attract useful men to his service. It was a partnership to their mutual advantage, a contract from which both sides expected to benefit. And so around the hard core of household and estate officials there accumulated a vast but indefinite mass of councilors, retainers and servants, tailing off into those who were believed to be well-wishers. These were the ‘bastard feudatories’” (McFarlane 70).
It can be safely said that in the 14th century, the affinity became the defining structure of medieval politics outside of the central government, that is to say in the localities. Additionally, it was the replacement of hereditary, land-based relationships between lords and vassals with personal, money-based relationships between lords and retainers which brought the affinity into existence. This is especially important for my work, which focuses of Richard II’s creation of his own “bastard feudal” affinity modeled off that of the lords. It is clear that the creation of an affinity was a commonplace, even necessary, process among the nobility of Richard’s day. However, the evidence suggests that Richard was the first king to replicate this process. Thus, the next question to be asked is what effect Richard’s affinity-building process had on the order of a political society dominated by preexisting magnate-oriented bastard feudal affinities.
“bastard feudalism.” Oxford Reference. 2009-01-01. . Date of access 8 May. 2018, <http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095450812>
Coss, P. R. “Bastard Feudalism Revised.” Past & Present, no. 125, 1989, pp. 27–64. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/650860.
McFarlane, K. B. “Parliament and ‘Bastard Feudalism’.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 26, 1944, pp. 53–79. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3678532.