Many distinctive features of western European feudalism are explained partly by conditions in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of its existence. Several elements later became constituent parts of feudalism. Precarium or benefice (beneficium), patronage, and immunity are well known in Roman times. Beneficium formerly designated any temporary possessions, sometimes during the life of the possessor; therefore lands given on certain conditions for temporary use, often for life, were also called beneficia; among the conditions, the possessors rendering of military service occupied first place, so that beneficium usually meant a territorial grant to be held on condition of paying military service. Later when western European feudalism took definite shape, the beneficium became a feodum (fief), i.e. land given in hereditary possession on definite conditions. The conventional name feudalism comes from this word feodum, whose origin has not yet been definitely established. Patronage, i.e. the custom of placing oneself under the protection of a more powerful man, passed from Roman times to the Middle Ages and in the feudal epoch began to be called by a Latin word, commendatio, or sometimes by a German word, mundium. Finally, immunitas, which was known in the Roman period, in the feudal epoch meant giving certain state rights to private individuals; these men were often exempted from certain obligations to the state, and government agents were forbidden to enter the territory of an immunist.
In the West as the central power declined, these three elements, which existed for a considerable time independently of each other, gradually began to concentrate in one person; the same individual, namely the landowner, distributed benefices, received commendations, and used immunities. In other words, the landowner became a sovereign. This process concerned both laity and clergy. Of course this evolution took place in various countries in various ways.
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