The Fief As Employment Contract

We have, alas, been all-too careful to keep the terminology of economic activity and economic exploitation quite separate as between different historical periods, even when the phenomena are much the same.

Suppose, for example, that I am short of capital to make the most productive use of my assets, and make an arrangement with another party whereby he supplies me with what I need but takes a lien in or control over those assets. In the year 2010 it is called a mortgage, but in 1110, “commendation”. Or suppose that I transfer an economic asset – such as a mill or a church or a share therein – to your control, in return for your paying me the revenues of that asset less a commission. If that happens in the year 1110 it is called “enfeofment,” if it happens in the year 2010 it is called “securitisation”. Or suppose yet again that I transfer my assets to an institution, which is then contractually obliged to look after me in my old age; this is familiar to us in 2010 as a common practice of nursing homes, but when it happens in 1110 we call it by the term of art “corrody,” of which only medievalists have ever heard.

We have also been accustomed to speak of “homage” and “the fief” as if these medieval things have no modern analogue. Instead of thinking only within Latin or Old French terminologies, perhaps we should be comparing the arrangements between a ruler or seigneur and his sworn men with the arrangements between a modern company and its senior executives; and likewise comparing the peasant to the lowly employee of the same corporation. In other words, we might conceive of the fief as an employment contract and then look at the devil in the details, then and now.

Susan Reynolds has argued that the fief was not a stipend for future service but a reward for past service, which would suggest an analogue of the gold watch, or perhaps the revolving-door consultancy. These two tenses of service are, however, by no means incompatible, and granting a severance package of such potency as a military fief might appear somewhat hazardous for the principal. Let us assume that the fief presupposed new service or a continuation of past service. What we would then have, in both cases, is one party who gives another party an often complex collection of revenues, allowances, rights and privileges, in return for closely stipulated performance, with precise stipulation of the duration of the relationship, dispute resolution procedures, relationship with other principals, and conflicts of interest. Now, executive employment contracts specify whether the employee may work for other companies, sit on their boards and so forth, and if so with what restrictions; they always have non-disclosure and non-competition clauses, often forbidding the executive to accept a position with rivals for several years. It is doubtful whether a medieval would have tolerated this last; so we might say that, when he promised to serve his lord except to the detriment of so-and-so, he was getting better terms than his modern equivalent. Alternatively, we might regard the complications of incompatible homages as similar to the conflicts of interest involved in everyone sitting on everyone else’s board of directors today. Business newspapers frequently report ructions between a chairman of the board and one or more of his majority shareholders. A medieval would speak of his contumacious vassals.

Posted on April 12, 2010 at 11:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Economic Universals In Funny French

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