1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vassal

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VASSAL (Fr. vassal, vassaut, vassault, &c.), the tenant and follower of a feudal lord (see Feudalism). The etymology of the word has been a matter of considerable dispute. The late Henri de Tourville, in his Histoire de la formation particulariste, maintained that vassal is derived from the German Gast, a guest, meaning an outsider to whom a portion of a free domain was assigned in return for rent and certain fixed services. This derivation has a somewhat fantastic air, and seems to have been framed to suit an hypothesis. The commonly accepted etymology is from the Breton gwaz, Welsh gwas, a lad or a servant. As the word in its Latin form vassus was at first uniformly employed in the sense of slave, this explanation is the more acceptable of the two. If it is correct we may say that “vassal” was analogous in origin to the name of “boy” given to a coloured servant by Europeans in Asia and Africa. The word gained in dignity under the Frankish empire through the vassi dominici, i.e. servants of the royal household, great officers of state, who were sent on extraordinary missions into the provinces, to act as assessors to the counts in the courts, or generally to settle any questions in the interests of the central power. Sometimes they were sent to organize and govern a march, sometimes they were rewarded with benefices, and as, with the growth of feudalism, these developed into hereditary fiefs, the word vassus or vassallus was naturally retained as implying the relation to the king as overlord, and was extended to the holders of all fiefs whether capital or mediate. As feudal independence increased, the word vassal lost every vestige of its original servile sense, and, since it had come to imply a purely military relation, acquired rather the meaning of “free warrior.” Thus in medieval French poetry vassalage is commonly used in the sense of “prowess in arms,” or generally of any knightly qualities. In this sense it also became acclimatized in England, and “vassal” came to be used as equivalent to free-born, soldierly, valiant and loyal, in which sense it is commonly used in medieval poetry. In countries which were not feudally organized—in Castile, for instance—vassal meant simply subject, and during the revolutionary period acquired a distinctly offensive significance as being equivalent to slave. The diminutive form vasseletus, for the son of a vassal, after strange fortunes returned to something of its original sense of “household servant” in the modern “valet” (q.v.) (see also Vavassor).

See Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue français (Paris, 1895), for numerous examples of the use of the word vassal; also Du Cange; Glossarium, s. “Vassus.”