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German Feudal, Fief and Enfeoffment

Part 2 of 3

Wax Seal from 1497 enfeoffment
1497 Enfeoffment

Here is our second installment on a surprising document that Laurence Posner shared with us: a 1497 manuscript of a German enfeoffment where the lord granted his vassal the use of a fief, a tract of land, in exchange for loyal service.

Last time I wrote how Laurence's father found the well-kept parchment or vellum document in an old desk that he had acquired. He had no idea how it had gotten into that desk, but he was always curious about the document and what it was about. Was the 1497 really the year it was written?

To tell for certain, an expert in vellum and parchment needs to examine the original manuscript, however, it seems likely the answer is yes. From a linguistic and orthographic perspective, everything is consistent with a document from the Holy Roman Empire from over 500 years ago.

What is written in the manuscript?

We have Emerich formalizing his feudal relationship with his lord, Count Emich. With this document Emerich swore loyalty to count Emich [IX] of Leiningen and confirmed his fief which would later pass to his natural-born heirs. One might expect the lord to issue the confirmation, not the knight to assert it. However, the right to be eligible for your father's fiefdom was hereditary. Actual title to the land had to be confirmed each generation, and Emerich the vassal was making sure he would maintain that right for him and his heirs. So perhaps we should be more surprised that we don't see more of this type of document!

Emerich and Emich lived in Germany's Palatinate region (Pfalz in German or Palz in the local dialect) in today's southwestern Germany bordering France's Alsace. Emich IX was the liege, lord, of Leiningen, a few miles from the Rhine River. The enfeoffment states that Emerich von Randeck was granted ten pounds of money from his lord [Emich], and Emerich pledged his and his legal progeny's feudal service and attached his wax seal which is still there after all the centuries.

Enfeoffment between Merich IX and Emerich von Panderk (possibly Randerk)
Enfeoffment between Emich IX and Emerich von Randerk

Emich IX was notorious enough to make local history: he took part in the Holy Roman Empire's 1495 creation of imperial courts that would resolve disputes between the German lords in the court system and not on the battlefield, allowing the emperor to declare permanent peace, which held up for some 80 years. Not, however, in Leiningen. Emich IX got into violent vendettas with neighboring lords, burnt a 500-year-old monastery to the ground, and in 1512, when the Emperor declared war on France, Emich immediately supported the French king against his own Emperor. That brought the Imperial ban down upon his head, and he promptly alienated the French king as well. After nearly losing everything, he eventually settled down to being a minor, impoverished robber baron. Quite a difficult lord to serve!

Unfortunately, Emerich (let alone his lord Emich) never made celebrity status. When Laurence reached back out to the auction house about this manuscript, they did not find this centuries-old document notable enough to auction off.

This little feudal tidbit continues to intrigue us, all the same. Deeds come my way frequently in my genealogical research, but I just glossed over the word "enfeoffed" that so often shows up in the older deeds. It never seemed significant to any of the transactions. Emerich's enfeoffment pulled me into learning more and talking etymology with Stefan. I now know that feudal, fief and enfoeffed are related. They're all about a medieval land-rich, cash-poor lord farming out parts of his domains to his followers - they take a fief, a village perhaps, and run it for him, in exchange for service. Swords, not salaries for vassals! This feudal system held sway across what is today's Germany (and France, Italy and England, too). And here we have belligerent Emich IX binding a knight to his service when he can't afford to pay him. All this, thanks to a perplexing folded-up old German treasure hiding in a desk the Posners acquired when they purchased a small company in 1947.

In part 3 of this series, Stefan will share how the language of the parchment tells us "who, when and where," and how it shows us how much a language will change in five hundred years!


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