Glossary of Medieval Terms: K 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.

This post covers the terms in alphabetical order from K to Z.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

Let’s get started.

Don’t forget to use the ctrl-f function to find your key word.

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.

This post is mostly about lay-society or the temporal realm, with very few terms in the spiritual or religious realm.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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).

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

X

Xenophobia: it means fear of foreigners. Sometimes the English expressed it towards the French (or anyone else). (The term does not belong here, but it is included just to fill out the post! Humor.)

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. (This term does not belong in this post, but it is included just to fill it out with the letter Z! Humor.)

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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.

For the corresponding post, click on Glossary of Medieval Terms: A to J.

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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