Medieval Practice of Hereditary Inheritance


Introduction to Hereditary Inheritance

Many today deem the medieval practice of hereditarily passing down titles and territory discriminatory–unfair to those not born into privilege. However, the practice primarily began to benefit the vulnerable. In Roman times the senators, the government, and its allies handed out various holdings, titles, and places of power to friends, lasting only the lifetime of the recipient. The power returned to the powerful giver after their death. Further, these aristocrats were allowed to remove any peasant from their holdings. But when lands were given over generations, the power was spread long term, decentralizing it from a few power holders. The holders then parcelled it out in even smaller portions to vassals who did the same, ensuring the decentralization of power for future generations.

Stability Through Hereditary Systems

Hereditary inheritance also prevented the powerful from choosing loyal followers or buying them by distributing titles and lands, thus also preventing large monolithic power-building. An Emperor or king could no longer keep power among only those loyal to him; instead, he now had to earn loyalty as consent came into play. Further, inheritance ensures the safety and long-term production of the person receiving the gift. This encouraged the decentralization of power, offering more people and families a piece of the pie with long-term incentives of passing benefits to their descendants, which over time created power blocs able to challenge central authority. Its result was the opposite of keeping people from power; it multiplied those who came into power.

Political Dynamics and Monarchy

Inheritances benefited the people, not those in power. Kings and great lords would have loved to get rid of inheritance, except for themselves of course, but once established, any attack on hereditary inheritance in any area of life could lead to a rebellion. If attacked in one area, it was an attack on everyone’s right to inheritance. Kings had to take the advice of their council made up of powerful vassals and could not set one against another, or it would hurt them due to loss of loyalty and ensuing civil war. The king had to keep all his people happy or risk a vassals’ revolt. If he were to restrict one vassal’s inheritance (trying to replace him or his heirs with a loyal follower, rather than respecting the vassal’s rights and customs), it would amount to an attack on all his vassals’ rights.

Monarchy vs. Modern Politics

I was debating with an individual who objected to monarchy because they said bloodlines should not decide political power. What they are saying is they want everyone to have access to use government force to mold others as they desire. In their minds, politicians who can curry favour with donors and bureaucrats and people able to effectively lie to voters should have the best chance to win. In other words, the well-financed, well-funded and manipulative should be the victors. And while inherited political power might be unfair to those who want to control others, aka politicians, what about the far more numerous, who wish not to be controlled by them? Thus their alternative is unfair to a far greater number of people than hereditary inheritance.

The Essence of Kingship

While they objected to kingship for the reason given above, it is perhaps my favourite aspect of kingship. It denies those who wish to control others the opportunity to do so. Hereditary inheritance is an excellent system for preventing those who desire power from getting it and, as Aquinas taught, those who desire power would make the worst sort of rulers. In the Middle Ages, if you sought knighthood for honour, you were not worthy of it. The same applies to politics. Kingship was a system not yet devoid of humility.

The Burden of Leadership

You might not desire the position you are born into. You do it for honour, family, and duty to your people. One future medieval ruler (who did not desire to rule but eventually gave in to the demands of his people) said, “I must act…not as I wish but as my people desire. Yet God knows, I hate to do it.” Likewise, when they asked Saint Cuthbert if he would become a bishop, he said he would rather live as a monk in his secluded wilderness; he did not think himself worthy. Further, if he were elected, it would be a “great burden.” He had to be dragged out of his seclusion with tears in his eyes, only giving in after seeing how much the king and people unanimously wanted him to serve. Being in power came with considerable perks. I am sure many peasants would readily trade places; however, at least those born into it did not seek it, and the system offers the chance that many do not want it. Conversely, democracy ensures only those who want power the most get it. Further, hereditary inheritance still plays a role in politics today. In the United States legislature, 31.2% of women were closely related family members to the previous holder. Of presidents, 20% are closely related. And all of them are spawned from the unholy, filthy, matrimony of political parties and elections.

The Contrast of Power

There is a contrast between the beauty of nobility fulfilling an obligation placed on them from birth and a ruthless ugliness when someone who desires power attains it. The beauty of royalty compared to the debauchery of democracy can be visualized in the Queen and princesses’ outward appearance of a tiara and royal dress, giving the impression of beauty, unity, hierarchy, gracefulness, gentleness, duty, service, and something to aspire to. While politicians squabbling amongst each other resembles Hillary Clinton in her pantsuits.

Corruption in Power

A just criticism of hereditary inheritance remains: power corrupts. So the nobility, even if they did not desire power, over time became corrupt. While I agree this is a valid objection, politicians are also susceptible to corruption, and the nature of campaigns gives those who are most corrupt the opportunity to gain more power in the first place. Their susceptibility is greater, as they are already corrupted by the draw of power to even campaign for it; they desire it. While plenty of kings would have rather lived a very different life, successful campaigns give those most easily and already corrupted power what they desire. Furthermore, kingships limited power to a fantastic extent; thus, they had less chance of being corrupted. The One Ring was not so strong then as it is in our age. And since power corrupts, is it not reprehensible we encourage the poisonous filth and evil of politics to spread to the entire population? Should we not instead follow the medieval plan and limit its degrading influence as much as possible?

Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty
Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty by Jeb Smith


  • Smith, J. J. (2024). Missing monarchy: Correcting misconceptions about the Middle Ages, medieval kingship, democracy, and liberty.


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