Fealty (as distinct from homage) is the formal swearing of oaths between a liege and a vassal, in which both parties enumerate their duties and responsibilities. It is the central pillar of feudalism.
Period fealty oaths are often complex, with explicit statements of duties, and which duties take priority in case fealty to multiple lords conflict. A fine example of this is the acceptance of Theobald, Count of Champagne (linked below) which specifically mentions his vassal's oaths to Duke of Burgundy and Count of Auxerre as superseding the current oath.
Fealty then, is a two-way street, a medieval contract exchanging goods or services, usually military service in exchange for protection. Or, more accurately, the vassal usually promises military support in exchange for the lord's confirmation and support of him or her in their rights to their own lands and so on.
Fealty in the SCA
Fealty in the SCA is an oath sworn by peers of the realm to the Crown and Kingdom, represented by the person of the King and Queen. Often, Fealty may be sworn to other powers that be, such as a Prince or Princess, or an apprentice, squire, or protege might swear fealty to their peer.
Generally, Landed Barons and Baronesses must swear fealty since they hold lands from the Crown.
Fealty is sometimes indicated by the wearing of a plain chain of links either as a necklace, or a small linked chain under the peerage badge. In places where this is the custom, it is thus considered slightly out-of-place to wear such a plain chain if you are not a peer and have not sworn fealty. Note that the customs surrounding the wearing of chains of fealty is a subject to InterKingdom Anthropology.
It is also worth noting that anyone may swear fealty to the Crown (or to anyone for that matter), but public oaths are often limited to knights or peers simply to keep Court to a reasonable length.
"Fealty" in the SCA is often more properly homage. A case could be made that without a fief there can be no fealty, and that therefore only Territorial Nobility including Princes regnant can properly be said to be swearing fealty, and that others are swearing service or offering homage -- but that is neither here nor there.
Kingdom of Lochac
In the Kingdom of Lochac, Kingdom Greater Officers are required to swear fealty, whereas Kingdom Lesser Officers are able to swear fealty should they choose. The laws of the Kingdom of Lochac prohibit fealty being required to any body lower than a Principality, i.e. Barons and Baronesses may not require that their subjects swear fealty.
The Middle Kingdom
In the Kingdom of Middle, landed Barons and Princes must swear fealty every reign in person to either the King or his appointed representative. Greater Officers, and Knights may choose to swear fealty or not.
Copies of the oaths: See the kingdom's Laws at http://www.midrealm.org/seneschallorum/midrealmlaw.doc
Other random notes on fealty
- Period fealty oaths: http://www.dragonbear.com/fealty.html
- It is a Jewish tradition not to swear fealty under any circumstances, as this is prohibited by the Kol Nidre. Most Jewish peers in the SCA do not swear fealty for this reason.
- Period text: Fitzherbert on Fealty
- Period text: Fulbert on Fealty