Alicja Banczyk

titolo originale: The conflict between obligations toward the family and toward the lord on the example of medieval French epic poems, in “IV Ciclo di Studi Medievali”, Atti del Convegno, Firenze 4-5 Giugno 2018, Arcore (MB) 2018, pp. 260-265.

For all societies rooted in the German cultural background, the family (and more particularly the whole clan) was the most important social unit whose main task was to take care of its members’ interests and grant them security. The most significant example of the Germanic clan’s competences was the fact that it could have demanded revenge for the death of its every member (called faide)1 and that it could have brought an action before the court on behalf of an injured person who could not have done it by themselves because of various reasons. Considering the fact that all investigations in those times were instituted by a private prosecution, crime committed against an individual without any family could have remained unpunished. Therefore, clans were not only protecting individuals, but they also guaranteed public order in the most efficient way.
In return for this protection, every clan demanded loyalty from its members. Even though the wars between the respective family members might have happened relatively often, it was considered sinful2. Moreover, in the germanic society of Franks no one could leave his clan without permission granted by the tribunal3. As R. Le Jan states, in that reality kinship was supposed to frame every individual (from the beginning to the end of their life) and the number of kins willing to help in any situation was the evidence of one’s authority and power4. Therefore, the family was for centuries «the dominant force in cooperative relationship between individuals»5.
Throughout ages, the original structure of these societies evolved and other forms of ties between individuals started to appear. In particular it was the feudal system appeared and began to compete with existing clan structures, which started to be considered as ineffective. This new system implied the same set of commitments. From one side, it imposed on the lord the duty of protection of his subjects. From the other, the feudal contract demanded an absolute submission and allegiance from the vassal. What is particularly important from the perspective of this article is that one of the main prohibitions imposed on the vassal was the interdiction of fighting against his lord. Someone who fought against his liege lord without having formally broken the feudal bond was always considered a traitor6.
This situation put almost every individual in the position of double dependence. As R. Hajdu states, «his loyalties were demanded by two groups, his obligations defined by two ties»7. Indeed, both the clan and the lord could have demanded obedience and loyalty. At the same time, the use of military force against any of those structures was strictly forbidden. It can be easily imagined, that two close relatives, eg. two brothers or a son and his father might have been the vassals of the same lord. It is also not unlikely that only one of them might have decided to stand against this lord. In this kind of situation any relative submitting to the same lord, would have faced extremely difficult dilemma. Thus, he had to choose between his two obligations and decide to remain loyal to the lord or to the family. We should also remember the fact that his lord could have requested a military aid (the obligation of auxilium) from him and sometimes remaining passive in this kind of conflicts was virtually impossible.
In the text of Capitulary of Aquisgran dated between 801 and 813 there is an enumeration of justified reasons to abandon the lord, among which only one referring to the vassal’s family can be found. It states that one can abandon his lord if he wants to blemish his wife or daughter («vult (…) uxorem aut filiam maculare»)8. However, this norm does not solve the conflict of two obligations, because blemishing wife or daughter by the lord should be regarded not only as an offence against the vassal’s family, but also as a mark on vassal’s honor. Therefore, since no legal guidelines answering the question of what should have been done in those kind of situations can be found, it can be supposed that there was no universal way of resolving these kind of conflicts.

  1. M. Bloch, Société féodale, Paris 1982, p. 186.
  2. Ibidem, p. 197.
  3. R. Le Jan, Famille et pouvoir dans le monde franc (VIIe-Xe siècle). Essai d’anthropologie sociale, Paris 1995, p. 77.
  4. Ibidem.
  5. S. Painter, The Family and the Feudal System in Twelfth Century England, in «Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies», Vol XXXV, n. 1, 1960, p. 1.
  6. M. Bloch, Les formes de la rupture dans l’ancien droit féodal, in «Nouvelle revue historique de droit français et étranger», année 36, 1912, p. 167.
  7. R. Hajdu, Family and Feudal Ties in Poitou, 1100-1300, in «Journal of Interdisciplinary History», t. VIII, 1977, pp. 117-139, here 117-118.
  8. A. Broetius (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae HIstorica t.I, Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, Hannover 1881, p. 172.

In foto: La Chanson de geste de Renaut de Montauban, Paris, BnF, fr. 764, f. 7v


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