XXV

CLASS DISTINCTIONS WITHIN THE NOBILITY

1 GRADATIONS OF POWER AND RANK

DESPITE the common characteristics of their military calling and their mode of life, the group of nobles de facto, and later de jure, was never in any sense a society of equals. Profound differences of wealth and power, and consequently of prestige, established a hierarchy among them, which was first tacitly recognized, and later confirmed by custom or statute.

At a time when the obligations of vassalage still retained their full force, the principle of this classification was sought by preference in the gradations of acts of homage themselves. At the lower end of the scale we have first of all the vavasour, the ‘vassal of vassals’ (vassus vassorum), who was not himself the lord of any other warrior—not, at least, when the term vavasour, which was common to all the Romance languages, was understood in its strict sense. Not to exercise authority or to exercise it only over rustics was to be entitled to but small consideration. In practice this status usually went with an extremely modest fortune and the needy life of a petty country nobleman, given up to adventure. Consider the portrait of the heroine’s father in the Erec of Chrétien de Troyes—Very poor was his house’—or, in the poem of Gaydon, that of the great-hearted vavasour with his rude armour. Outside the realm of fiction we learn of the impoverished household from which Robert Guiscard escaped in search of war and plunder; the begging habits of Bertrand de Born; or again those knights depicted in various charters of a Provençal cartulary whose sole fief was a mansus, that is to say the equivalent of a peasant tenement. Sometimes the term ‘bachelor’, literally ‘young man’, was used in almost the same sense, for such was naturally the condition of many young men not yet enfeoffed or still insufficiently endowed, though it might be prolonged1 till much later in life.

As soon as the noble became the chief of other nobles he increased in dignity. After having enumerated the various indemnities due to the knight

1 For Provence, F. Kiener, Verfassungsgeschichte der Provence seit der Ostgotkenherrschaft bis zur Errichtung der Konsulate (510-1200), Leipzig, 1900, p. 107. On the ‘bachelors’, cf. E.F. Jacob, Studies in the Period of Baronial Reform, 1925 (Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History, VIII), p. 127 et seq.

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