The roots of the patron-client relationship have been traced by some to the dependence of plebians on patricians in the Roman Empire. However the relationship is perhaps more obvious in the system of servitude known as serfdom that was widespread in Europe in the Middle Ages. The various systems of tenancy that followed the fall of the ancient societies of Greece and Rome had a common factor in that a large number of those who worked the land were unfree. They were tied to both land and landlord by bonds of service. The system of servitude in Europe was as much a system of authority as it was an economic adaptation. Prestige for the lord lay in the protection of as many serfs and dependent tenants as possible: hand in hand with this prestige went military capacity and political power.
While the system of serfdom was established by law, the dependency of tenants was ensured through a mixture of economic and religious ties, which are covered by the general terms ‘patronage’ and ‘clientage’. These set up a relationship between a politically and economically powerful patron, usually a landlord, and a weaker client. While the relationship may be regarded as socially necessary and honourable by both parties, its inequality makes it a potent source of exploitation. The ties established may link two families over many generations and may be reinforced by accumulated debts that make the client fundamentally unfree.
The economic means of establishing patron-client relationships nearly always have their basis in systems of landholding, such as share-cropping. Client families may be lent money, seed or goods by the patron, in order to see them through bad seasons, often in return for the unpaid labour of client family members. This can be regarded as benevolent, but also creates debts that may never be paid off. This is one of the underlying factors in systems of debt bondage (sometimes called bonded labour) that are widespread in India, although forbidden by both national and international law.
The ties of patron-clientage were basic to the system of land tenure and agricultural production in feudal Europe, where they still persist in Northern Mediterranean countries. Clienteliamo is the basis of the varied contractual relationships throughout Southern Italy, for example. Its essence is not the fixed and contractual but rather the informal and flexible. It is a face-to-face relationship, and many writers stress its importance in giving clients a degree of political power, through their support of the patron in his external political activities.
The conquerors and colonists of Latin America imported many of the values and legal institutions of feudal Europe, including patron-client relationships. The pre-dominance of Roman Catholicism in Latin societies links this system of asymmetrical political and economic relationships to the system known as compadrazgo, or godparenting. The godparent-godchild relationship established in baptism is actually a link between two sets of parents, the biological and the spiritual. In systematic compadrazgo, the child links a powerful godparent, who is supposed to ensure its spiritual welfare, to economically and politically weaker natural parents. Coparenting ties, once established, give the natural parents the right to call on the godfather for material assistance and legal support. In return, their obligation is to support the political activities of the godfather, and to work for him when he requires it. Being a godfather confers prestige as well as economic and political advantages. Although the term patron-client relationship is not always used within or about compadrazgo, it clearly applies.