Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Vassal Definition:

A subservient, usually land-based relationship to another under the feudal system.

Related Terms: Dominion Utile, Feudal System, Landlord, Tenant, Subinfeudation, Servitia Debita

The feudal system, which governed in England throughout the Middle Ages, and certainly since the Norman Conquest of 1066, introduced and maintained the concept of a vassal, also referred to as vassalage.

A vassal owed military services, rent and loyalty to whom ever he stood as vassal; a lord to the king; a duke to a lord; a knight to duke and so on and so forth, as feudal rights in a large parcel of land were superimposed upon smaller portions thereof through subinfeudation.

Radin describes a vassal as "in feudal law, the holder of an estate subject to the performance of services to an overlord."

However, in common parlance the term vassal has come to refer to those at the bottom of the hierarchy who worked the land for the lowest level of the nobility. Also known as serfs, the vassal rented the land from a noble to whom he paid goods or services as rent and, typically, some obligation of military service should the need arise.

The Law Society of Scotland's Glossary:

"In feudal tenure the owner of the dominion utile of land, his right of ownership being conditional on his fulfilling certain obligations imposed by his superior."


  • Law Society of Scotland, Glossary (Edinburgh: Butterworths, 1992), page 98.
  • Radin, Max, Radin Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications Inc., 1970), page 361

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