1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Count

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COUNT (Lat. comes, gen. comitis, Fr. comte, Ital. conte, Span. conde), the English translation of foreign titles equivalent generally to the English “earl.”[1] In Anglo-French documents the word counte was at all times used as the equivalent of earl, but, unlike the feminine form “countess,” it did not find its way into the English language until the 16th century, and then only in the sense defined above. The title of earl, applied by the English to the foreign counts established in England by William the Conqueror, is dealt with elsewhere (see Earl). The present article deals with (1) the office of count in the Roman empire and the Frankish kingdom, (2) the development of the feudal count in France and under the Holy Roman Empire, (3) modern counts.

1. The Latin comes meant literally a companion or follower. In the early Roman empire the word was used to designate the companions of the emperor (comites principis) and so became a title of honour. The emperor Hadrian chose senators as companions on his travels and to help him in public business. They formed a permanent council, and Hadrian’s successors entrusted these comites with the administration of justice and finance, or placed them in military commands. The designation comes thus developed into a formal official title of high officers of state, some qualification being added to indicate the special duties attached to the office in each case. Thus in the 5th century, among the comites attached to the emperor’s establishment, we find, e.g., the comes sacrarum largitionum and the comes rei privatae; while others, forming the council, were styled comites consistorii. Others were sent into the provinces as governors, comites per provincias constituti; thus in the Notitia dignitatum we find a comes Aegypti, a comes Africae, a comes Belgicae, a comes Lugdunensis and others. Two of the generals of the Roman province of Britain were styled the comes Britanniae and the comes littoris Saxonici (count of the Saxon shore).

At Constantinople in the latter Roman empire the Latin word comes assumed a Greek garb as κόμης and was declined as a Greek noun (gen. κόμητος); the comes sacrarum largitionum (count of the sacred bounties) was called at Constantinople ὁ κόμης τῶν σακρῶν λαργιτιὠνων and the comes rerum privatarum (count of the private estates) was called κόμης τῶν πριβάτων. The count of the sacred bounties was the lord treasurer or chancellor of the exchequer, for the public treasury and the imperial fisc had come to be identical; while the count of the private estates managed the imperial demesnes and the privy purse. In the 5th century the “sacred bounties” corresponded to the aerarium of the early Empire, while the res privatae represented the fisc. The officers connected with the palace and the emperor’s person included the count of the wardrobe (comes sacrae vestis), the count of the residence (comes domorum), and, most important of all, the comes domesticorum et sacri stabuli (graecized as κόμης τοῦ στάβλου). The count of the stable, originally the imperial master of the horse, developed into the “illustrious” commander-in-chief of the imperial army (Stilicho, e.g., bore the full title as given above), and became the prototype of the medieval constable (q.v.)

An important official of the second rank (spectabilis, “respectable” as contrasted with those of highest rank who were “illustrious”) was the count of the East, who appears to have had the control of a department in which 600 officials were engaged. His power was reduced in the 6th century, when he was deprived of his authority over the Orient diocese, and became civil governor of Syria Prima, retaining his “respectable” rank. Another important officer of the later Roman court was the comes sacri patrimonii, who was instituted by the emperor Anastasius. In this connexion it should be observed that the word patrimonium gradually changed in meaning. In the beginning of the 3rd century patrimonium meant crown property, and res privata meant personal property: at the beginning of the 6th century patrimonium meant personal property, and res privata meant crown property. It is difficult to give briefly a clear idea of the functions of the three important officials comes sacrarum largitionum, comes rei privatae and comes sacri partrimonii; but the terms have been well translated by a German author as Finanzminister des Reichsschatzes (finance minister of the treasury of the Empire), F. des Kronschatzes (of the crown treasury), and F. des kaiserlichen Privatvermögens (of the emperor’s private property).

The Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty retained the Roman system of administration, and under them the word comes preserved its original meaning; the comes was a companion of the king, a royal servant of high rank. Under the early Frankish kings some comites did not exercise any definite functions; they were merely attached to the king’s person and executed his orders. Others filled the highest offices, e.g. the comes palatii and comes stabuli (see Constable). The kingdom was divided for administrative purposes into small areas called pagi (pays, Ger. Gau), corresponding generally to the Roman civitates (see City).[2] At the head of the pagus was the comes, corresponding to the German Graf (Gaugraf, cf. Anglo-Saxon scire-gerefa,[3] sheriff). The comes was appointed by the king and removable at his pleasure, and was chosen originally from all classes, sometimes from enfranchised slaves. His essential functions were judicial and executive, and in documents he is often described as the king’s agent (agens publicus) or royal judge (judex publicus or fiscalis). As the delegate of the executive power he had the right to military command in the king’s name, and to take all the measures necessary for the preservation of the peace, i.e. to exercise the royal “ban” (bannus regis). He was at once public prosecutor and judge, was responsible for the execution of the sentences of the courts, and as the king’s representative exercised the royal right of protection (mundium regis) over churches, widows, orphans and the like. He enjoyed a triple wergeld, but had no definite salary, being remunerated by the receipt of certain revenues, a system which contained the germs of discord, on account of the confusion of his public and private estates. He also retained a third of the fines which he imposed in his judicial capacity.

Under the early Carolings the title count did not indicate noble birth. A comes was generally raised from childhood in the king’s palace, and rose to be a count through successive stages. The count’s office was not yet a dignity, nor hereditary; he was not independent nor appointed for life, but exercised the royal power by delegation, as under the Merovingians. While, however, he was theoretically paid by the king, he seems to have been himself one of the sources of the royal revenue. The counties were, it appears, farmed out; but in the 7th century the royal choice became restricted to the larger landed proprietors, who gradually emancipated themselves from royal control, and in the 8th century the term comitatus begins to denote a geographical area, though there was little difference in its extent under the Merovingian kings and the early Carolings. The count was about to pass into the feudatory stage. Throughout the middle ages, however, the original official and personal connotation of the title was never wholly lost; or perhaps it would be truer to say, with Selden, that it was early revived with the study of the Roman civil law in the 12th century. The unique dignity of count of the Lateran palace,[4] bestowed in 1328 by the emperor Louis IV. the Bavarian on Castrucio de’ Antelminelli, duke of Lucca, and his heirs male, was official as well as honorary, being charged with the attendance and service to be performed at the palace at the emperor’s coronation at Rome (Du Cange, s.v. Comites Palatii Lateranensis; Selden, op. cit. p. 321). This instance, indeed, remained isolated; but the personal title of “count palatine,” though honorary rather than official, was conferred on officials—especially by the popes on those of the Curia—had no territorial significance, and was to the last reminiscent of those early comites palatii whose relations to the sovereign had been purely personal and official (see Palatine). A relic of the old official meaning of “count” still survives in Transylvania, where the head of the political administration of the Saxon districts is styled count (comes, Graf) of the Saxon Nation.

2. Feudal Counts.—The process by which the official counts were transformed into feudal vassals almost independent is described in the article Feudalism. In the confusion of the period of transition, when the title to possession was usually the power to hold, designations which had once possessed a definite meaning were preserved with no defined association. In France, by the 10th century, the process of decomposition of the old organization had gone far, and in the 11th century titles of nobility were still very loosely applied. That of “count” was, as Luchaire points out, “equivocal” even as late as the 12th century; any castellan of moderate rank could style himself comte who in the next century would have been called seigneur (dominus). Even when, in the 13th century, the ranks of the feudal hierarchy in France came to be more definitely fixed, the style of “count” might imply much, or comparatively little. In the oldest register of Philip Augustus counts are reckoned with dukes in the first of the five orders into which the nobles are divided, but the list includes, besides such almost sovereign rulers as the counts of Flanders and Champagne, immediate vassals of much less importance—such as the counts of Soissons and Dammartin—and even one mediate vassal, the count of Bar-sur-Seine. The title was still in fact “equivocal,” and so it remained throughout French history. In the official lists it was early placed second to that of duke (Luchaire, Manuel, p. 181, note 1), but in practice at least the great comtes-pairs (e.g. of Champagne) were the equals of any duke and the superiors of many. Thus, too, in modern times royal princes have been given the title of count (Paris, Flanders, Caserta), the heir of Charles X. actually changing his style, without sense of loss, from that of duc de Bordeaux to that of comte de Chambord. From the 16th century onwards the equivocal nature of the title in France was increased by the royal practice of selling it, either to viscounts or barons in respect of their fiefs, or to rich roturiers.

In Germany the change from the official to the territorial and hereditary counts followed at the outset much the same course as in France, though the later development of the title and its meaning was different. In the 10th century the counts were permitted by the kings to divide their benefices and rights among their sons, the rule being established that countships (Grafschaften) were hereditary, that they might be held by boys, that they were heritable by females and might even be administered by females. The Grafschaft became thus merely a bundle of rights inherent in the soil; and, the count’s office having become his property, the old counties or Gauen rapidly disappeared as administrative units, being either amalgamated or subdivided. By the second half of the 12th century the official character of the count had quite disappeared; he had become a territorial noble, and the foundation had been laid of territorial sovereignty (Landeshoheit). The first step towards this was the concession to the counts of the military prerogatives of dukes, a right enjoyed from the first by the counts of the marches (see Margrave), then given to counts palatine (see Palatine) and, finally, to other counts, who assumed by reason of it the style of landgrave (Landgraf, i.e. count of a province). At first all counts were reckoned as princes of the Empire (Reichsfürsten); but since the end of the 12th century this rank was restricted to those who were immediate tenants of the crown,[5] the other counts of the Empire (Reichsgrafen) being placed among the free lords (barones, liberi domini). Counts of princely rank (gefürstete Grafen) voted among the princes in the imperial diet; the others (Reichsgrafen) were grouped in the Grafenbänke—originally two, to which two more were added in the 17th century—each of which had one vote. In 1806, on the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, the sovereign counts were all mediatized (see Mediatization). Even before the end of the Empire (1806) the right of bestowing the title of count was freely exercised by the various German territorial sovereigns.

3. Modern Counts.—Any political significance which the feudal title of count retained in the 18th century vanished with the changes produced by the Revolution. It is now simply a title of honour and one, moreover, the social value of which differs enormously, not only in the different European countries, but within the limits of the same country. In Germany, for instance, there are several categories of counts: (1) the mediatized princely counts (gefürstete Grafen), who are reckoned the equals in blood of the European sovereign houses, an equality symbolized by the “closed crown” surmounting their armorial bearings. The heads of these countly families of the “high nobility” are entitled (by a decree of the federal diet, 1829) to the style of Erlaucht (illustrious, most honourable); (2) Counts of the Empire,[6] (Reichsgrafen), descendants of those counts who, before the end of the Holy Roman Empire (1806), were Reichsständisch, i.e. sat in one of the Grafenbänke in the imperial diet, and entitled to a ducal coronet; (3) Counts (a) descended from the lower nobility of the old Empire, titular since the 15th century, (b) created since; their coronet is nine-pointed (cf. the nine points and strawberry leaves of the English earl). The difficulty of determining in any case the exact significance of the title of a German count, illustrated by the above, is increased by the fact that the title is generally heritable by all male descendants, the only exception being in Prussia, where, since 1840, the rule of primogeniture has prevailed and the bestowal of the title is dependent on a rent-roll of £3000 a year. The result is that the title is very widespread and in itself little significant. A German or Austrian count may be a wealthy noble of princely rank, a member of the Prussian or Austrian Upper House, or he may be the penniless cadet of a family of no great rank or antiquity. Nevertheless the title, which has long been very sparingly bestowed, always implies a good social position. The style Altgraf (old count), occasionally found, is of some antiquity, and means that the title of count has been borne by the family from time immemorial.

In medieval France the significance of the title of count varied with the power of those who bore it; in modern France it varies with its historical associations. It is not so common as in Germany or Italy; because it does not by custom pass to all male descendants. The title was, however, cheapened by its revival under Napoleon. By the decree of the 1st of March 1808, reviving titles of nobility, that of count was assigned ex officio to ministers, senators and life councillors of state, to the president of the Corps Législatif and to archbishops. The title was made heritable in order of primogeniture, and in the case of archbishops through their nephews. These Napoleonic countships, increased under subsequent reigns, have produced a plentiful crop of titles of little social significance, and have tended to lower the status of the counts deriving from the ancien régime. The title of marquis, which Napoleon did not revive, has risen proportionately in the estimation of the Faubourg St Germain. As for that of count, it is safe to say that in France its social value is solely dependent on its historical associations.

Of all European countries Italy has been most prolific of counts. Every petty Italian prince, from the pope downwards, created them for love or money; and, in the absence of any regulating authority, the title was also widely and loosely assumed, while often the feudal title passed with the sale of the estate to which it was attached. Casanova remarked that in some Italian cities all the nobles were baroni, in others all were conti. An Italian conte may or may not be a gentleman; he has long ceased, qua count, to have any social prestige, and his rank is not recognized by the Italian government. As in France, however, there are some Italian conti whose titles are respectable, and even illustrious, from their historic associations. The prestige belongs, however, not to the title but to the name. As for the papal countships, which are still freely bestowed on those of all nations whom the Holy See wishes to reward, their prestige naturally varies with the religious complexion of the country in which the titles are borne. They are esteemed by the faithful, but have small significance for those outside. In Spain, on the other hand, the title of conde, the earlier history of which follows much the same development as in France, is still of much social value, mainly owing to the fact that the rule of primogeniture exists, and that, a large fee being payable to the state on succession to a title, it is necessarily associated with some degree of wealth. The Spanish counts of old creation, some of whom are grandees and members of the Upper House, naturally take the highest rank; but the title, still bestowed for eminent public services or other reasons, is of value. The title, like others in Spain, can pass through an heiress to her husband. In Russia the title of count (graf, fem. grafinya), a foreign importation, has little social prestige attached to it, being given to officials of a certain rank. In the British empire the only recognized counts are those of Malta, who are given precedence with baronets of the United Kingdom.

See Selden, Titles of Honor (London, 1672); Du Cange, Glossarium Med. Lat. (ed. Niort, 1883) s.v.Comes”; La Grande Encyclopédie, s.v.Comte”; A. Luchaire, Manuel des institutions françaises (Paris, 1892); P. Guilhiermoz, Essai sur l’origine de la noblesse en France au moyen âge (Paris, 1902); Brunner, Deutsche Rechtsgeschichte, Band ii. (Leipzig, 1892).

  1. The exact significance of a title is difficult to reproduce in a foreign language. Actually, only some foreign counts could be said to be equivalent to English earls; but “earl” is always translated by foreigners by words (comte, Graf) which in English are represented by “count,” itself never used as the synonym of “earl.” Conversely old English writers had no hesitation in translating as “earl” foreign titles which we now render “count.”
  2. The changing language of this epoch speaks of civitates, subsequently of pagi, and later of comitatus (counties).
  3. The A.S. gerefa, however, meaning “illustrious,” “chief,” has apparently, according to philologists, no connexion with the German Graf, which originally meant “servant” (cf. “knight,” “valet,” &c.). It is the more curious that the gerefa should end as a servant (“reeve”), the Graf as a noble (count).
  4. “Count of the Lateran Palace” (Comes Sacri Lateranensis Palatii) was later the title usually bestowed by the popes in creating counts palatine. The emperors, too, continued to make counts palatine under this title long after the Lateran had ceased to be an imperial palace.
  5. Of these there were four who, as counts of the Empire par excellence, were sometimes styled “simple counts” (Schlechtgrafen), i.e. the counts of Cleves, Schwarzburg, Cilli and Savoy; they were entitled to the ducal coronet. Three of these had become dukes by the 17th century, but the count (now prince) of Schwarzburg still styled himself “Of the four counts of the Holy Roman Empire, count of Schwarzburg” (see Selden, ed. 1672, p. 312).
  6. This title is borne by certain English families, e.g. by Lord Arundell of Wardour. In other cases it has been assumed without due warrant. See J. H. Round, “English Counts of the Empire,” in The Ancestor, vii. 15 (Westminster, October 1903).