Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to Z

This is a handy, quick reference to terms and concepts of class structure, offices, units of land measurements, taxes, and so on. Great for students and researchers. Good for research in earliest colonial America, too, since many of the terms survived to then.

The terms are in alphabetical order, but don’t forget to use the ctrl-f function to find your key word quickly.

Also see my post: Outline of Medieval Age

When William, duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066 and became king of England, he brought many of the terms over to England. They evolved over time and had nuanced differences between England and France, but often they parallel each other exactly or almost exactly. In other cases England evolved uniquely, like the thegn or hide.

In this post an effort was made to keep track of the similarities and differences or to keep the two nations separate, if they developed along unique lines.

A

Adoubement (dubbing): a multi-purpose ceremony among the northern European aristocracy; it involved giving a horse, arms, and other paraphernalia by one man to another. It was used to inaugurate a relationship of vassalage from a lesser lord to a greater one; a lord did this when he took a warrior into household service; it was rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. In other words, at first it was not reserved exclusively for dubbing a knight, for that came later.

Affinity: a group of men, usually including knights who fought, who followed a lord.

Affranchissement: in France it was an act granting freedom to an unfree person or privileges to a community; it is synonymous with manumission or emancipation. The legal assimilation of the freedman to the free population was partial under the laws of the state.

Aides in France were the feudal obligation of a vassal to render “aid and counsel” to his lord; he could do this by fighting or by money It could be payment in lieu of military obligations (see scutage, below, in England).

Alleu / Allod: in France it was a freehold of land that the possessor owned outright.

Amercement: in England, though it is a French word, it was a pecuniary punishment or penalty imposed at the “mercy” of the king or his justices for misdemeanors, defaults, breach of regulations and other minor offences. The offender was in “mercy”  and was amerced; he had to pay an amercement.

Apanage or apanage: (from apaner, to endow with a means of subsistence) in France is to grant an annuity or land or later an office to the younger children of royalty to compensate them for not receiving the throne to preserve the peace and love in the family. In other words, it was paying off the kings’ kids who did not inherit the crown. It applied in England as well.

Annuity: It was a grant of an annual payment for life or for a number of years, made by a lord to a retainer (see below; also see bastard feudalism).

Attainder: it was an act of Parliament that attaints (corruption of blood) a traitor or other offender that punishes him with the loss of his lands and civil rights, and his heirs were disinherited. It was often done without a trial.

Assizes were periodical sessions of Westminster judges in county courts; they were also ordinances or regulations of a court; or a procedure in a court to establish possession of land.

B

Bailli / Bailliage: in France it was a manorial officer known as a bailiff, who often acted as a manager of the estate. Employed by the French crown in the 12th century, he was a salaried judicial officer who inspected the work of the prévot. In 1204 Philip II (r. 1179-1223) of France got possession of Normandy, where the baillis had begun to be associated with a geographical area. It soon lost the character of an itinerant justice and became the administrator of a bailliage. In war he focused on military matters. In France he was salaried and could be recalled.

Ban / Banalité: (in Latin bannum or “authority”) in France it was the royal power to command and punish; after the 10th century the power devolved to castellans, great landlords and monasteries. Philip IV (r. 1285-1314) established the arrièreban (Latin retrobannum), which was service owned the king from the feudal tenants of his direct vassals; in the 1300s it served as a means to get taxes.

Barons: they were also large landowners. It comes from the Latin baro (barones in plural), which was probably derived from a German word; the basic, original sense was a “man distinct from a woman.” In the eleventh century it appeared with frequency in diplomatic documents in northern France to designate principal vassals (or “men”) of both princes and the castellans. After 1066 (conquest of England by William, duke of Normandy), a baron was a tenant-in-chief; he held his lands directly from the king. Gradually the class divided into two: the greater and lesser barons. In the late thirteenth century the greater barons received summonses to attend parliament. He had to consult them or else they might revolt. They compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. In the 12th century in France, a baron could be applied to a duke, count or viscount, but the term shifted and was applied to those who had no title of dignity. Barony was treated as a specific title and as the baron’s domain on the model of “county” (the barony of Coucy).

Bastard feudalism: as a term it was invented by Charles Plummer. It was (supposedly) a degradation or debasement of feudalism (see below). In older feudalism, a lord gave a landed estate to a knight or other members of his retinue in exchange for fealty or loyalty, service that included fighting in a war. Land provided more stability. In the later Middle Ages, in contrast, feudalism changed to a “bastardized” version. The lord paid money or an annuity (see above) for a knight’s service. In effect this turned the knight into a “non-foreign mercenary,” a “hired gun” (to use a modern term). The go-between of the lord and his retinue was a retainer who signed an indenture, which was a contract that promised the retainer half of the benefit from the contract. The retainer recruited the knights or an armed retinue. The retinue was also indentured. Without land, however, loyalties could fluctuate. It resembled the patron-client relationship of Roman times. This later version of feudalism began under Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377) and continued under Henry V (r. 1413-22) and his son Henry VI (r. 1422-61, 1470-71).

Benefice: (beneficium in Latin), in ecclesiastical terms it was a position in the church with lands and an income attached, if the office-holder served in spiritual matters, such as saying Mass. In nonecclesiatical terms it was originally (under Charlemagne) a grant of land that kings made to their counts as long as the counts held office. Over the centuries the benefice system arose by which kings and churches could award their friends for service.

Benevolence: in England it was a tax levied without the permission of parliament.

Bond: see Recognizance.

Borough: in England it was originally a fortified town, and it came to mean a town holding a corporation of citizens and privileges conferred by royal charter. Markets and fairs were vital for economic growth. There were 66 boroughs in England in 1066; 350 by 1250, and 480 by 1300; the growth reflects economic prosperity.

Bovate: in England it was a measurement of land, one-eighth a curacate (see below)—notionally as much land that could be kept under the plow of one ox, also known as ox gang or oxgate of land.

Burgess: in England it was held land in a borough with special judicial privileges and obligations in running the borough.

Butler of France: (bouteiller or boutilier in French) it was a household officer occupied with supplying wine and revenues from wine from the king’s estates. In the 11th century the officeholder was recognized as one of the “great officers of the crown.” The family could be held from one generation to the next by seigneurial (lordly) families.

C

Canon: It was a clergyman living in a clerical house or within the cathedral precincts and ordering his life according to canons (rules) of the church. He set an example for the people.

Castellan / Châtelain: in France it was a governor or constable or commander of a castle. He could exercise authority over the surrounding town or village and garrison warrior bands. He constituted a mid-level authority between the dukes and counts and viscounts on one side, and the milites or knights on the other. England also developed a governor or commander of the castle.

Chamberlain: in France it was an officer of the royal bedchamber. In the 11th and 12th centuries officers distinguished between the bedchamber (cubiculum) and chamber camera or chambre). The chambrier (camerarius), head of the chamber, supervised the furnishing and upkeep of the palace and royal wardrobe, arranges the king’s gîtes (travel lodging). As the monarch evolved he lost the treasury and archives. His position got absorbed into the cubiculum, so he had charge over selling licenses to those who made or sold clothes. In England its evolution was parallel, but not exactly the same. He became an officer of the court overseeing the domestic sphere. He could function as a chief-of-staff.

Chamber: in England it was a financial office of the royal household; thus the chamber finance was a system of managing royal finances from the chamber rather than the Exchequer (see below).

Chambre des comtes: In France this office filled the need that the Exchequer did in England (see below). In the mid-12th century the crown turned the finances over to the Knights Templar, which maintained a banking system in Paris. In 1295, Philip IV (r. 1285-1314) took his treasure from the Templars and turned them over to the fortress in the Louvre (their final removal in 1307). In 1320 Philip V issued the important ordinance that gave official structure to the Chambre des comtes. The chamber was so important that it became virtually synonymous with the king’s council. In 1320 the chamber consisted of eleven clerks and eight masters of accounts, but grew fifty percent in the next two decades. In 1420 the chamber acquired two presidents, eight masters, twelve clerks / auditors, two “correctors,” notaries and ushers.

Chancellor: In England it was originally a chaplain and secretary of the king; he headed the chancery, the royal secretariat and oversaw the issue of writs, the instruments of the royal administrative and legal system. Usually he was a cleric, for they were the best educated. In France, the function was about the same. He was the most important of the king’s household officers, responsible for preparing, publishing and preserving royal documents. The term came from cancellarius or a scribe who sat behind a screen (cancelli) in Roman law courts. In France the officer was known as the Chancelier. He directed the chancellerie, recording the royal acts, such as the texts of the king, nominations, treaties and so on. In 1227 the Capetians found the office too powerful and left it vacant and suspended it. Its administrative position was shifted over to garde des sceaux (keeper of the seals) (see below). Then in 1314 Louis X of France (r. 1314-16) restored it. Bottom line, the chancery developed into the administrative or business side of government.

Chancery: in England it was the office of secretary responsible for the king’s charters, writs and letters and authenticating documents. Under Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor from 1199 to 1205, the office expanded. France had a parallel development. It usually met at Westminster.

Chantry: it was an endowment of a will for the maintenance of priests to sing masses, usually for the soul of the person endowing it.

Chapel: in France it was originally the place where the capa or cloak of the Frankish royal St. Martin was kept. The clerics who served there were called capellani. The chapel was originally used to store important documents. This is why clerics were involved in writing and records.

Church courts: they were introduced after the Norman conquests, paralleling lay courts. Ecclesiastic courts covered offences like heresy, divorce. Sexual immorality, disputes over wills, and other cases of the soul. Usually held under bishop or archdeacon and sometimes even the pope.

Coloni: they were free men who had been tied to land by tax legislation in Charlemagne’s time.

Comes stabuli: (constable comes from these words) they oversaw transportation resources in Charlemagne’s time. (See constable, below).

Comites: (Latin plural of comes or “companion”), from which the word count is derived. In the Frankish kingdoms it was the chief representative of royal power and was appointed by the king. In the early Middle Ages, the position gave rise to counts, who often resided over semi-independent counties (supposedly) attached to the king by ties of vassalage. Comites served at the pleasure of the king, although they were members of the local aristocracy. They had bannum (authority) to command their subjects, collect polls and taxes, preside over royal courts, supervised mints and markets, assembled local levies for royal armies, and were responsible for law and order. In Germanic regions of the Frankish kingdom the comes was called grafio.

Commis: In France these were agents of the king for a certain duration. Salaried and revocable, they were more and more utilized to supplement officers of the court, becoming authoritative proprietors of their duties by the seventeenth century.

Common Pleas, Court of: It was a royal court at Westminster that oversaw statue and common law. It split from the court of the king’s bench in the 13th century and had its own rolls or records.

Commune: it consisted of a group of people joined together by an oath to sustain and support each other against a common threat or danger. They existed primarily in urban areas—not all of Medieval Europe lived in the country as peasants. They were often traders, craftsmen, merchants, and shopkeepers. The first and most successful commune was in Italy, but the idea soon took hold elsewhere. Communes made their own laws in response feudal control by a lord. The members joined together to resist him. If he pushed too hard, the communes would revolt, often successfully. The lord saw the prosperity of communes, so he often let them function as they pleased, so long as he got a cut of the money in rents and taxes.

Conseil: in France it relates to the word consilium. In English it can mean “counsel (advice) or council (deliberative body),” also having a close connection to “court.” In the 12th century it as a larger assembly called curia (“court”). Its business was primarily judicial or set policy for national interests, like a crusade. In the 14th century royal councilors sat on the king’s court. Curia regis means king’s court or council, both in France and England. Bottom line is that it advised the king and could often struggle with him.

Consistory: it was a gathering of the college of cardinals, and in England it was the bishop’s court, established by William the Conqueror.

Constable: (the Latin comes stabuli, literally “count or officer of the stable”) was the high officer of royal or noble household; the governor or castellan (see above) of a castle or fortified town; a Lord (High) Constable ensured the peace throughout the royal kingdom of England.

Constable of France: (French connétable) it came to signify the chief commander of the French royal army and was originally the “count of the stable” or comes stabili. This humble position grew in importance as the military became heavily armored.

Corvée: it was forced labor service; the word derived from late Latin corrogare “to requisition.” They differed from opera officialis that certain freemen had to perform for the state.

Councilor: Philip IV of France (r. 1285-1314), for example, relied on councilors, for it was useful to tell the people that he was not acting alone, as a tyrant, but he made the ultimate decisions. Some of the councilors, particularly those who ran the government, made fortunes. Enguerrand de Marigny, a leading minister, for an extreme example, raked in 15,000 livres per year.

County: in England it is an administrative division of land following from the Saxon shire and after 1066 (the Norman conquest), getting its name from the French comté or county (see below). In France very early, it was in the hands of the king, but soon fell under the local ruler called the count. In 950 France was divided into 174 administrative counties or pagi, but this disintegrated between 980-1030. Now ensued a struggle from 1025 to 1125 between rising castellans and counts, and also between neighboring counts in the region. In the 12th century there were still about 100 dominions called “county” (Old French conté) in the kingdom, but federal dominions where the castellanies and baronies, whose lords had been persuaded to hold them as fiefs from the count, were held together by new feudo-vassalic bonds. In other words, the land and power were fought over and news feudal bonds developed.

Coutume: in France it meant customary levies or taxes due and road work and fines and services by custom, not by legislation every time the need arose. This tax could be indiscriminant. These “official rights” were abolished by revolutionary decrees of 4 Aug 1789.

Curacate: (from caruca, a plow): in England it was a measurement of land, notionally as much land as could be kept under the plow in one year by a plow team of eight oxen; the amount of land described in different parts of the country varied from 60 to 120 acres.

Custodian: in England he signed a contract and was responsible to collect the revenues in a shire. Unlike a sheriff, he accounted for all the revenues he collected, while the sheriff could collect more than his fixed contract, for his own profit (see farm and sheriff, below).

Currency: see Money

D

Disseisin: it was an act depriving a person of the seisin lands, rents or other hereditaments, as  in depriving him of the right of ingress and egress.

Duke: Dux (Latin) or duke (English) or duc (French); the title appears all the way back to the Merovingians. It literally means “leader,” and indicated a high military commander. In the seventh century they began to exercise civil functions. He was a sovereign or vassal prince ruling a duchy or dukedom or several groupings of counties in France.

Demesne is a portion of manorial land kept by a lord for his own use and not for a tenant. The peasants were supposed to work the lord’s land and their own. On the royal level it was called the Royal Demesne or the Crown lands. IN France this was called the “domaine royal.”

Diocese: it is an area of jurisdiction of an individual bishop. Some dioceses were large, like that of Lincoln.

Dubbing: See adoubement, above

E

Earl: (the Scandinavian jarl is the source of the word earl). Both jarl and eorl meant “a man of noble birth and / or conduct.” Under the Anglo-Scandinavian kings of the 10th and 11th centuries it was a hereditary title across the northern world. “Earl” in England replaced the ancient English title of Ealdorman in the 1020s. Like the ealdorman  the earl was equivalent to the continental title of duke. Under the Normans the English earl was demoted to the status of a French count; a female “earl” is a countess. Now the earl sits below a marquess or marquis (see below) and above a viscount.

Enfeoffment to use: it was a trust in which land was held by trustees on behalf of its owner, often to escape the legal wardship (see below).

Enquêteur: (cf. English inquest), beginning c. 1247 in France, the crown periodically commissioned a small group of special investigators and judgers, no more than twenty, to uncover abuses of power, malfeasance, and irregularities committed by public officials.

Escheat in England under feudal law was the reversion of a fief (an estate granted conditionally to a vassal) to the feudal lord; if the vassal died without an heir or became an outlaw.

Estates-General: this governing body rose in significance, which first met at Notre Dame at Paris in 1302 to support the king against the papacy. It was an assembly of delegates of nobles, and clergy and representatives from a town and at least partly represented the nation. It met in 1302 and 1303 over Boniface VIII, in 1308 about the Templars and in 1314 over the subsidies for Flanders. It convened only when the king summoned it.

Eyre: in England it was a periodic visit to a shire by the king’s justices.

Essoin: it was an excuse offered by or on behalf of one summoned to court to perform suit or answer to an action.

Exchequer, Court of: was (and is) the financial office in England, which began to take shape under Norman Henry I (r. 1100-35) of England. It was responsible for collecting revenues for the monarchy and hearing cases about them. It started after the Norman conquest as a financial committee of the king’s court, but was independent by about 1110. Money was guarded under the Lower Exchequer, while the Upper Exchequer sat around a table covered with a giant checkered cloth called the exchequer (a form of abacus or calculator). It checked the return of the sheriffs (see their duties, below). The sums were recorded by notched wooden tallies and accounts logged on the great parchment roll of the Exchequer. It was housed at Westminster. See Chambre des comtes for the French version, above.

F

Familiaris: (plural familiares) he was an intimate or member of the familia or household of the king or other great person; it could be synonymous with close friends, counselors, aids and assistants.

Farm: (or ferm from Saxon feorme or food-rent). It was a fixed sum or rent, usually annual. The sheriff’s farm was the fixed sum payable annually by the sheriff for all the regular revenues from the shire; the sheriff farmed the revenues, contracting in advance to pay a fixed amount. He got his profit from whatever he could collect above this sum. (See sheriff, below, and custodian, above.)

Fealty: in both France (originally) and England it was an oath of fidelity, sometimes confused with homage, since both were performed together; However fealty could be sworn to one who had no land. Fealty to the Crown superseded all other obligations.

Feudalism: (French is féodalité) it was a term coined in the 17th century and was intended to describe the practices and institutions associated with the word fief (feudum in Latin). As the breakdown of the western Roman empire occurred, local lords arose and tried to keep peace and order. They did this by contracts, to protect the weak from the strong, but mainly to impose the strong’s policies on the weak. Counts (comes singular and comites in plural, and see above) used these contracts to enforce their power. Castles were built, however, which could undermine their authority, unless they took them over. A lesser noble took oaths to follow the contract in return for fiefs. Great ceremonies evolved, like kneeling and lowering the head and eyes and swearing loyalty and giving homage, often in church, presumably to bind the soul in the sight of God. The underling in the contract was called a vassal (see below).

Fief: it is derived from the Latin word feudum or feodum, it was an estate granted by its lord to a vassal on condition of the vassal’s homage and service. It was revenue-producing property granted to a vassal (see below) in exchange for military service or a payment of money. In England and France it was normally inheritable.

Fiefholding: it was a new institution that emerged in the 11th century, which as a personal relationship between two men of knightly or noble status. One became the other’s “man” (homo in Latin), swearing allegiance in an act of homage. William the Conqueror (r. 1066-8 ) divided all England into fiefs and granted them to the barons, who in turn had men hold fiefs from the barons, in a pyramid structure (of sorts). The king held ultimate authority and reserved the right to do with the fief what he desired. However, he had to be careful because the barons could revolt, as they did in King John’s time.

Fiefrente: or money fiefs (in Latin feudum de bursa) in France, were created when a lord granted a lump sum of money or revenues instead of land in exchange for fealty, homage and military service. Fiefrentes tended not to be inheritable.

Fine: in the 11th century England it was not a monetary penalty, but a sum of money which an applicant to the Crown agreed to pay for having some grant, concession or privilege (see privilege, below). Its meaning comes close to paying to avoid the king’s displeasure.

Fisc: it was a term applied to a prince’s personal landed estates, in Carolingian times; it was used by historians to distinguish princely estates from the demesne estates of lords.

Fouage: in France it was a tax on the hearth (household) in Languedoc, levied in years 1364-80. There the towns of paid royal taxes as a lump sum on the basis of households and raised through municipal taille (see below, under tallage) of their own choosing. In northern France the fouage was linked to household and was reckoned at three francs, though actual payments ranged from per household ranged from one to nine francs.

Franchise: it was a right of quasi-regal jurisdiction, granted by the sovereign to a person, such as a lord or to a body of people, such as a monastery or a town. The concept and reality developed both in France and England (see affranchissement, above).

Frankalmoign: (free alms) in England it was a tenure of lands or tenements granted to those who had devoted themselves to the service of God. The service by the grantee was payer, particularly for the souls of the grantor and his kin.

G

Garde des sceaux: In France this was a minister who kept the seals that validated royal acts. It gradually replaced, little by little, the chancellor.

Grands féodaux (fief holder), Grands de France: A term designating great lords in France.

Great Seal was the king of England’s main seal used to authenticate important documents, such as royal charters, letters patents (temporary grants), and so on. It was first adopted by Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066).

Guild: it was an association of persons in the profession of mercantile (business and trade) or crafts; it maintained standards and formed the basis of the Medieval town.

H

Hide: it was an Anglo-Saxon term still used in parts of England and was a measurement of land about equivalent to the carucate (see above), but properly a unit of assessment (i.e. a tax).

Heir apparent: it was the declared heir to the throne, normally the king’s eldest son.

Heir presumptive: it was the presumed heir in the event of the king dying without an heir apparent.

Homage: it was “an act of handing over oneself to one’s lord and receiving lands and rights in return for service” (Stephen Church). It was a ceremony and oath by which the vassal acknowledged himself “the man” (homo) of a lord; the man undertook the obligations of fief-holding.

Honor: from Latin honor, it was a group of estates from which the tenants-in-chief of the Crown derived their prestige and status; a superior lordship on which inferior lordships were dependent.

Household, Royal: in France under Philip IV (r. 1285-1314) employed some 200 men at the start of the reign, and by the end it had 300. The number of lawyers increased, to serve as administrators and Philip’s advisers. Canon law was taught at Paris, while Roman law was emphasized at Orleans. It also employed all sorts of servants, like cooks food servers, stable workers, foresters, gardeners.

Hundred: it was a subdivision of an English shire, first created in the 10th century, and each hundred had its own court. It embraced several vills (see below).

I

Inns of Court: they were made up of four legal societies in London with exclusive right of admission to the English Bar. They originated in the 13th century and became schools of law where apprenticed lawyers learned from their masters as in a guild: Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple, named after the building where they met.

J

Justices of the peace: they were local magistrates selected by the Crown from the gentry and charged to keep the peace, introduced throughout England in 1360.

Justiciar: he was a chief judicial and political officer under the Normans and Plantagenet kings. He could act as regent in the king’s absence. He was second to the king and acts as his alter-ego in the Angevin (adjective of Anjou) period.

K

King’s Bench: it was a court of record and supreme court of common law in England. It grew out of the curia regis (king’s court) in the 13th century and sat at Westminster.

Kingship: he (or she) was the highest executor of the land. It was compounded together of military, civil and religious authority. Those qualities varied in proportion and strength according to the king. His power was over a territory and undergirded by his men who swore loyalty to him. These men were generically known as the nobility. The potential arbitrary power of the king was restrained by law. If he did not submit to law, the nobility and his close advisors (see conseil, above) could revolt against him. When a king could not raise money from his own demesne (see above), he had to ask for taxes. Sometimes the nobles and parliament, when it emerged, refused. Kingship was modeled on God’s cosmic kingdom, a belief that ensured its long-lasting survival. The king was God’s anointed deputy on earth. Scripture afforded the examples of David and Solomon. David was devout warrior, while Solomon followed his legendary impulses and desires to accumulate wealth and concubines. They exemplified the convergence of secular (temporal) and religious (spiritual). Since these men passed their kingdom from father to son (David to Solomon), Medieval kings followed this example. The palace was the central house where treasures were distributed and God’s favor was seen. Therefore, the king’s main source of support was the church. But he must be careful not to encroach too far into church jurisdiction and authority.

Knight: it was a term used in the 9th century to describe a military tenant of land under a nobleman. In France he was a chevalier, and a group was called the chevalerie, who were armed men mounted on horseback, much as in England. Originally he was equal to a retainer, but by 1000, the church exalted the position to the institution of Christian knighthood. A man-at-arms was dubbed (struck on both shoulders with a sword) in a great ceremony in church or even quickly on the battle field. In return for a grant of land, a knight did military service for his lord. By 1100 as code of behavior for him developed and refined over the centuries.

Knighthood: (equivalent of Latin miles [note word military derived from stem mil-] and French chevaler or chevalier), the term miles was used from about 500 to 950 to designate a soldier or military retainer. After 950 it described a professional heavy cavalryman who fought with expensive armor and weapons used by Frankish nobles—helmet, mail, lance and sword. He normally served as a vassal in the retinue of a prince or lesser noble. In rural society they formed a stratum between landlords and peasant tenants.  This basic definition of a knight changed little from 950 to 1500. This refined title and function was transported England after the Norman conquest in 1066.

Knight’s fee: it was a fief owing the service of one knight; notionally an estate providing sufficient revenue for the maintenance of one knight.

L

Laeti: they were probably barbarian settlers in Frankish times.

Liberi: they were free peasants in Frankish times.

Lit de justice: it was originally a term describing the paraphernalia (pillows and cushions) of the king’s seat in Parlement de Paris. By the 15th century it came to designate important royal sessions of his court. It quickly evolved into an institution of justice.

Lord: it was a generic term for any man who owned estates and land—who took lordship over them, becoming, for example, a landlord. It usually applied to the nobility. Very malleable, the title could migrate from the gentry to a baron, an earl, a marquess, duke, prince or even the king. It could also be used as descriptive title that is not directly related to land, such as Lord Protector (see below).

Lord Lieutenant: he could stand in place of a lord and even of the king (lieu meaning “place” and tenant meaning “he who holds”). See lord, above.

Lord Protector: he served as a regent to oversee the upbringing and policies of the underage monarch or heir apparent. See lord, above.

M

Magnate: it was a generic term for wealthy landowner, from Latin magnus or “great.”

Major domus: he was another office holder, that is, the head of household (in French the majeur domo; later, the French word boutilier [bouteiller] or the one in charge of bottles (wine) = butler in English); today a butler has the same function as majeur domo).

Manor: in England it was a basic unit of feudal landholding with its own court and often a hall. It could consist of one or several villages. Serfdom (see serfs, below) was a condition of involuntary or hereditary servitude. In the manorial or seigneurial system, the lord or feudal autocrat owned large expanses of lands or estates. The peasant worked the land and owed the lord a fixed rent in money or crops. Peasant also had to work on roads, bridges and dams.

March (marches): it was a border (borders), hence marcher lordships in Wales; lords enjoyed royal privileges and exclusive production. (See marquis or marquess, below)

Marquis: was a feudal title below a duke and above an earl, but it was not used in England until John of Gaunt made his son John Beaufort the first marquis of Dorset in 1397. He no doubt got it from France, for marquis is a title (Old French marchis or marquis) that was coined in the 9th century to describe counts who had been placed in command of a multicounty border or district or “marches”; it was created by Charlemagne (r. 800-14 as Holy Roman Emperor). Under his son Louis (778-840) three terms were used of them: praefectus marcae or limitis (“prefect of the march or border”); dux or duke; and marchio (“march man” or marquis”). In the 10th century marches were converted to hereditary principalities, and the princes that used them continued with their titles marchio, like princeps (“prince”), comes (“count”) and in most cases dux (“duke” or “duc”). Wives and widows of the marquises were usually styled comitissa (“countess”). In the period 1060 to 1120, the princes abandoned the title marchio or marquis in favor of dux or comes.

Marshal: by the end of the Middle Ages he became one of the highest-ranking military officers in France. Before the Crusades the mariscalus had been a monastic officer responsible for provision. In the 11th century the office became secular. Under Henri I he was responsible for provisioning the military. In the 14th century he achieved military command, particularly during the Hundred Years War. They were also responsible for deciding ransoms. In England, the title evolved to become a military commander. He could organize the jousts, too.

The Mayor of the Palace: in Charlemagne’s time (r. 800-14 as Holy Roman Emperor), also called in Latin maior domus (see above) as the name implies, he had a powerful position, so powerful that Charlemagne abolished it. (His ancestors used that position to depose the last Merovingian king.) Originally the manager of the household, but by early 7th century he was head of royal government and soon after that head of state. He could command the army; he became a virtual prime minister. His close association with the king could lead him to appoint dukes and counts.

Monarchy: See kingship.

Money: it was a currency much as it is today; coins were exchanged for goods (products) and services (labor). The Carolingians (descendants of Charlemagne) used silver and called the principal coin denarius (from the Roman Empire). Spanish: dinero; Italy: denaro; abbreviated d. For larger sums, 12 pennies constituted one solidus (Italian solido, French sou. English shilling), abbreviated s. 20 shillings (from old Norse sciljan “to cut or shear”) made one Libra (£) or one pound. In France the ratio of the English pound to the livre tournois was 1:4. The first silver coin was struck and had the value of a sou and was the gros tournois in 1266. The gold-silver ratio was 1:12. On other words, gold was more valuable than silver even when the ratio changed.

N

Nobility: A generic term for people of high birth or exalted rank.

O

Oath helper: (compurgator) in England he was one who supported of another; a man in court was required to prove his assertions by “waging his law” (see below) and had to swear a solemn oath to the truth of his accusations and had to be supported by oath helpers.

Ordeal: (old English ordel, judgment) it was a form of proof in a court of law, by which a divine sign of guilt or innocence was invoked. The person, mainly the accused, but sometimes the accuser, had to perform an ordeal, like carrying hot iron or plunging a hand in boiling water; innocence was demonstrated if the wounds healed cleanly. The ordeal of cold water was customarily reserved for the unfree. A description of cold water: “Let the hands of the accused be bound together under the bent knees after the manner of a man who is playing the game of Champestroit. Then he shall be bound around the loins with a rope strong enough to hold him; and in the rope will be made a knot at the distance of the length of his hair; and so he shall be let down gently into the water so as not to make a splash. If he sinks down to the knot, he shall be drawn up and saved; otherwise let him be adjudged a guilty man by the spectators.” (qtd. in Warren 283).

P

Page (from Italian paggio to French page): he was a youth in training to be a knight (see above) and personally served a knight (see also squire). He was an attendant of a man of rank. He was an attendant at a special occasion, like a wedding. Later he was a messenger in a large household or royal court.

Pariage: in France it describes two lords who agreed to share administration of certain lands and to divide the other revenues equally. They drew up contracts variously called in Latin conventio, pactio, or pariagium.

Parish: in England it was an area of ecclesiastical jurisdiction under a priest; it could be a village or a cluster of settlements with its own church and priest; tithes and duties were paid to it.

Parlement: In France it was defined by an ordinance of 1307. It functioned judicially and financially, not legislatively. It also registered letters patent. At the margins of the parlement de (of) Paris the regional parliaments developed. The etymology of the word is parl– to speak or parley.

Parliament: (parl– is the French stem for “speaking,” and the English nobility spoke French). In England Henry III (r. 1216-1272) was a child-king. His mentor William Marshall as regent was ruled by a council. The king had ministers, but who would watch over them? From 1216 to 1225 twenty-five great councils were called (in Bristol), which put it in people’s mind that the king would consult (ask permission?) from the council on matters of great importance in the realm.

A primitive parliament was born. From 1225 onwards, extraordinary taxes would be given by the realm, not taken from it. That’s a big switch. Money is vital. In January 1235 the first official parliament met. The so-called Good Parliament was held in 1376, when the advisers were discontented with the ageing Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377). The House of Commons took the lead for the first time.

It elected Peter de la Mare as the first Speaker of the Commons and refused to grant taxes to fund the king’s war with France.

Peasant: he emerged from slavery from Roman times to the early Middle Ages. Peasants formed a broad class of mainly farm or land laborers because they sought protection from attacks of invaders, like the Vikings, by attaching themselves to landlords. Some peasants were free in theory, but social mobility was restricted in real life. Others fell into serfdom and had very few rights. Often free peasants were indistinguishable from serfs (see below)

Pleas of the Crown: it was for more serious crimes and breaches of the king’s peace, and specifically designated offences such as concealment of treasure trove; jurisdiction was exercised by no one except officers of the Crown.

Poll tax: it was a tax levied on every head of the population, first granted to Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377) by parliament in 1377. In 1360 all men and women over 16 paid the substantial sum of one shilling.

Precaria: it was a contract used throughout the early Middle Ages in France by which land was leased to perpetual usage by ecclesiastics for a nominal annual rent to local knights and lords of castles.

Proctor: in England he was a deputy representing a diocese or church body in a convocation, a synod debating church affairs.

Provost: (from Latin praepositus) he was an officer in England who was appointed to superintend a city or area (see prévôt).

Prévôt / prévôté: (see provost) in France it was one of several titles given to seigneurial (lordly) officers in managing rural estates. In the 11th century they tended to make the title hereditary and thus became more difficult to control. The district over which the prévôt was responsible was called a prévôté, and there were a half a dozen of them in a bailliage.

Prince: the term comes from the old French words prince and princ/h/ier, the old Occitan prince/p/ or princi/p/ and princeer. All are derived from classical Latin princeps, which means “first in order.” From 500 and 1100 the term princeps was used in a juridical sense. Before 1020 it was usurped by lesser nobles. Between 1120 and 1481 no lord in France is known to have used the term prince except a handful of great lords of French origins in Italy. Between 1481 and 1515 seven minor barons usurped the title of prince. In France the first titular principality to be officially constructed was in Joinville in April 1552 for the duke of Guise. From 1441 onwards, prince was used in the expression princes du sang royal or princes of royal blood to designate members of the royal household. In the 16th century price and princess acquired its modern sense: “member of the lineage of a sovereign lord.” In France, the phrase “of royal blood” was almost always used, unlike in England, where the additional phrase could be used occasionally.

Privilege: in both England and France it was similar to a franchise or liberty, which implied protection against arbitrary, capricious, or exploitative treatment. Privilege connoted a special or superior position in society.

Privy Seal: in England it was a royal seal to authenticate Crown documents, which were more private or less important than the documents validated by the Great Seal.

R

Readeption: in England it was literally the reattainment of the throne of Henry VI of England (r. 1422-61, 1470-71) in 1470.

Recognizance: it was a bond recorded before a court; the person binds (hence a bond) to an act or condition.

Reeve: in England it was a chief magistrate of a town or district appointed by a lord to oversee his tenants or estates. The priest was the spiritual overseer, while the reeve was its lay-leader.

Relief: in England it was paid in money or in kind by a dead man’s relatives of the deceased so they could inherit his estates. King John abused the system by demanding high payments.

Retainer: it was a generic term for one who was attached or retained in the service of a lord, by annuity or indenture.

S

Sacre: In France it was a ceremony conferring on the king a divine character, placing him above the laity (people), on the Hebrew model. It was inaugurated by Pippin the Short and became a pillar of the legitimacy of the monarchy. The sacre did not make the king, but added a religious dimension.

Scutage: literally meaning “shield money,” it was a tax paid in England by a knight to his feudal lord in place of a military service; used by the Crown as a tax on the nobility.

Seigneur / Seigneurie: (Latin dominus and French seigneur or sire) it was a label for various people called “lord.” Those who possessed a seigneurie were those who were tenants; those subject to their jurisdiction or ban (see above); those who owned them homage for a fief.

Seigniorial court: It was held by the feudal lord of a manor to try his tenants; Provisions of Westminster, the judicial reform of 1260, made the proceedings subject to English common law.

Servi: (cf. serfs, below) they descended from slaves allowed by their Roman masters to settle on tenancies and to marry.

Seisin: it was a feudal term for being in possession (“seized”) of an estate.

Seneschal: he was responsible both for feeding the household and the administration of the imperial fisc (royal estate) in Charlemagne’s time (r. 800-14, as Holy Roman Emperor). He had to keep the itinerant entourage supplied with produce and revenues of scattered royal estates. The seneschal held senior rank in a lord’s household. It grew in power under the Capetians, but under King Philip Augustus (r. 1180-1223) they were suppressed because he regarded them as too powerful. In many great fiefs he acted as the lord’s lieutenant. Under royal appointment he was the chief administrative officer of territories. The land under his supervision was called a sénéchaussée. In England, where the term was also used, he could be called a steward (see below).

Serf: he was the lowest rank of peasant, legally bound to the lord’s estate and transferred with it if it changed hands. Call them quasi-free. Over the centuries they merged into the great class of unfree peasants known as villeins.

Serfdom was a system of servitude and slavery. A free man could be exempt from forced labor or service that a serf had to undergo. They were servile tenants bound to manors and customary restraints. However, as the peasantry evolved, the lord’s authority was not absolute. The serf could appeal to the courts.

Sergeant: (Latin serviens, old French sergent) this term described people of various types and duties in France. In the military context he was lightly armed fighters who served and supported the knight. In other contexts they acted as guards, ushers, policemen, messengers, process servers, or jail keepers. In England sergeanty was a form of feudal tenure on condition of rendering some special personal service to the lord, but of a more lowly nature than the services performed by those who held knight-service. The French definition of sergeant comes closest to the early modern state.

Sheriff: (literally condensed from “shire-reeve”; see above for reeve) he represented royal authority in a shire; he administered the shire for the Crown and safeguarded its interests. He presided over a court and accounted for the king’s revenues and debts. He “farmed” (see farm, above) the revenues from a shire, after signing a contract to pay the crown a fixed annual amount. Any money he could collect above the amount was his profit. Oppression could increase if the sheriff was corrupt and greedy.

Shire: in England it was a unit of government administered by a sheriff. It originated under the Anglo-Saxons. After the Norman conquest they were also known as counties (see county, above). The subdivisions were called hundred in the south and west and wapentakes in the north and east (wapentake is from Danish law).

Squire: (escuier in French, derived from Latin scutarius or “shield man”) he originally attended a knight, often as an apprentice. He was a man of good bir2th, a va/s/let or young vassal.. It evolved to become an “esquire,” or a man ranked below a knight.

Staple: it was a company of English merchants in Calais, France, who held a monopoly on the sale and export of English wool.

Steward: (see seneschal, above) in England he was responsible for the management and administration of a household or an estate on a smaller scale or on a larger scale of the king’s household and estates. He worked with and requested funds from the treasury Lord High Steward was a position held only by the highest nobility.

T

Taille: in France (cf. Tallage, below) it originally was the exactions that seigneurs (lords) demanded under their power. It came to mean the method of assessment, by apportioning of households on the ability to pay. From the 11th century it was arbitrary. In the 13th century people began to win enfranchisement which either eliminated the taille or converted it to an annual payment. The Estates-General (see above) of 1439 authorized a taille that the monarchy collected year after year, in the amount it saw fit. Under Louis XI of France (r. 1461-83) the revenues went from 1.2 to 3.9 million pounds. It was reduced in 1484, but remained the basic tax for the monarchy.

Tallage: it was a feudal tax by the Crown on royal lands and boroughs in England; resisted by the townspeople and was abandoned by the 15th century.

Tenant-in-chief in England was a feudal lord, whether a baron or bishop, who held land directly from the king; a tenant-in-chief was distinct from a lesser lord. He granted land to under-tenants. The same concept existed in France.

Thegn: he was a recognized grade of nobility in 11th century England. He was a wealthy landowner who were dependent of kings or earls; he had sufficient wealth to support a prestigious hall or retinue of their own dependents. The term eventually died out.

Thesaurius: he was the treasurer in Charlemagne’s time r. 800-814 as Holy Roman Emperor.

U

Under-tenant: he held land from a tenant-in-chief, not directly from the king. The hierarchical concept existed in France.

V

Vassus: the term is of Celtic origins and means a ruler’s subordinate. In Charlemagne’s time (r. 800-14 as Holy Roman Emperor) they were noblemen, and they expected to provide more than service, like consilium and auxilium or counsel and aid. In other words, the vassus at this time pushed for advancement in his position in the class structure. Later a vassal was a feudal tenant of a monarch or lord who in return for fighting for him received a fief (usually land) and military protection. In the 10th century the term applied to the retainer of counts and barons and was often synonymous with “knight.” The vassal knelt before the lord and vowed his obedience, which confirmed the vassalage. The term vaslet (sic) or valet mean “young vassal.”

Vill: in England it was the smallest administrative unit of the realm, a subdivision of the hundred (see above), corresponding roughly to the administrative “parish” of later usage. Usually identified with a village or township, but covering the vicinity to the boundary of neighboring vills.

Villein was the highest ranking unfree peasant occupier or cultivator, bound to the manor of the lord and owed him set services and payments in return for justice and protection. The term comes from Norman French for “villager.”

Virgate in England was a measurement of land equivalent to a quarter of a carucate (see above) or two bovates (see above). It was about twenty acres; also known as a yardland.

Viscount or vice-count served and assisted the count or comes (see comites). The office existed both in France and England.

W

Wager of law in England was to defend an accusation in court by swearing a formal oath of innocence supported by the oaths of compurgators (see oath-helper, above).

Wardship was the control and use of the lands of a tenant who was a minor; it was the guardianship of the infant heir, including the right to arrange marriage, until that heir attained his or her majority.

X

Xenophobia: it means fear of foreigners. Sometimes the English expressed it towards the French (or anyone else).

Y

Yeomen of the Crown were attendants of the royal household, ranking between a squire and a page. Yeomen seems to be a generic term for farmer, and in colonial America the term kept that meaning, but also expanded to an artisan.

Z

Zodiac: Medievalists were into astrology, merging the medical and academic with astrology. In any case, it is a supposed figure in the night sky, outlined by stars and planets. Traditionally, there are twelve signs or symbols of the zodiac, as the year progressed.

SUMMARY OF UPPER CLASS STRUCTURE

A very general three-part structure: those who pray or the clergy (oratores), those who fight (bellatores) or knights and nobles, and those who work (laboratores) or peasants

Now let’s analyze noble class structure in more detail.

King or monarch: the chief executive of the realm, God’s anointed deputy or representative on earth.

Prince or princess: son or daughter of the king, but in earlier times he could be a great lord. Even lesser nobles claimed the title, but in the 15th century it applied to those of royal blood.

Duke: he was originally the highest military leader; then it evolved so that he oversaw a duchy or dukedom. Now it is a title that usually indicates a close relation to the monarch, like a son or daughter. The female is called a duchess.

Marquis or Marquess: he originally oversaw borders or marches; then he oversaw multicounties or regions that bordered each other. The female title was marchioness.

Earl (count) or countess: the latter term was used for the lady; originally he oversaw a county.

Viscount: he was originally a vice-count of a count or earl.

Baron: he was a landholder that got his land from the king.

Knight: he was a military man, but over the centuries the knight evolved to become an administrator.

Esquire: He was an administrator ranked below and served a knight; over the centuries he became specialized in the law.

RELATED

Outline of Medieval Age

SOURCES

Matthias Becher, Charlemagne, trans. David S. Bachrach (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999, 2003). .

Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France (Continuum, 2007).

Russell Chamberlin, Charlemagne: Emperor of the Western World (London: Grafton Books, 1986).

Stephen Church, Henry III: A Simple and God-Fearing King, Penguin Books, (UK: Penguin Random House and Allen Lane, 2017).

Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes, and Simon MacLean, the Carolingian World (Cambridge UP, 2011).

David Crouch, The Normans: The History of the Dynasty (Hambledon and London, 2002).

The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, gen. ed. Norman Cantor, (Viking 1999).

C. Warren Hollister and Amanda Clark Frost, Henry I, Yale English Monarchs (Yale UP, 2001).

Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, eds. William B. Kebler and Grover A. Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995).

The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia, ed. by H. R. Lyon (Thames and Hudson, 1989).

Don Nardo, Lords, Ladies, Peasants and Knights: Class in the Middle Ages (Thomason Gale 2007).

The Plantagenet Encyclopedia: An Alphabetical Guide to 400 Years of English History, gen. ed. Elizabeth Hallam, (Crescent Books, 1996). The main source for this post.

A. J. Pollard, the War of the Roses, History in Perspective, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

W. L. Warren, Henry II (Berkeley: University of California P, 1973).

Patrick Weber, Les Rois de France (Librio, 2011).

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