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Count (male) or countess (female) is a title in European countries for a noble of varying status, but historically deemed to convey an approximate rank intermediate between the highest and lowest titles of nobility. The word count came into English from the French comte, itself from Latin comes—in its accusative comitem—meaning "companion", and later "companion of the emperor, delegate of the emperor". The adjective form of the word is "comital". The British and Irish equivalent is an earl (whose wife is a "countess", for lack of an English term). Alternative names for the "count" rank in the nobility structure are used in other countries, such as Graf in Germany and Hakushaku during the Japanese Imperial era.
In the late Roman Empire, the Latin title comes, meaning (imperial) "companion", denoted the high rank of various courtiers and provincial officials, either military or administrative: before Anthemius became emperor in the West in 467, he was military comes charged with strengthening defenses on the Danube frontier.
In the Western Roman Empire, Count came to indicate generically a military commander, but was not a specific rank. In the Eastern Roman Empire, from about the seventh century, "count" was a specific rank indicating the commander of two centuries (i.e. 200 men).
Military counts in the Late Empire and the Germanic successor kingdoms were often appointed by a dux and later by a king. From the start the count was not in charge of a roving warband, but settled in a locality, known as a countship; his main rival for power was the bishop, whose diocese was often coterminous with the countship.
In many Germanic and Frankish kingdoms in the early Middle Ages, a count might also be a count palatine, whose authority derived directly from the royal household, the "palace" in its original sense of the seat of power and administration. This other kind of count had vague antecedents in Late Antiquity too: the father of Cassiodorus held positions of trust with Theodoric, as comes rerum privatarum, in charge of the imperial lands, then as comes sacrarum largitionum ("count of the sacred doles"), concerned with the finances of the realm.
The position of comes was originally not hereditary. By virtue of their large estates, many counts could pass the title to their heirs—but not always. For instance, in Piast Poland, the position of komes was not hereditary, resembling the early Merovingian institution. The title had disappeared by the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the office replaced with other institutions. Only after the Partitions of Poland did the title of "count" resurface in the German-derived title hrabia.
The title of Count was also often conferred by the monarch as an honorific title for special services rendered, without an attaching feudal estate (countship, county): it was merely a title, with or without a domain name attached to it. In the United Kingdom, the equivalent "Earl" can also used as a courtesy title for the eldest son of a duke. In Italy, by contrast, all the sons of certain counts are counts (contini). In Sweden there is a distinction between counts (Swedish: greve) introduced before and after 1809. All children in comital families introduced before 1809 are called count/countess. In families introduced after 1809 only the head of the family is called count, the rest had a status similar to barons and were called by the equivalent of Mr/Ms/Mrs, before the use of titles was abolished.
The following lists are originally based on a Glossary on Heraldica.org by Alexander Krischnig. The male form is followed by the female, and when available, by the territorial circumscription.
|Language||Male title||Female title / Spouse||Territory|
|Armenian||Կոմս (Koms)||Կոմսուհի (Komsuhi)|
|Bulgarian||Кмет (Kmet), present meaning: mayor; medieval (9th-century) Комит (Komit): hereditary provincial ruler||Кметица (Kmetitsa), woman mayor / Кметша (Kmetsha), mayor's wife||Кметство (Kmetstvo); medieval Комитат (Komitat)|
|Danish||Greve||Grevinde (Count's wife) |
Komtesse (Unmarried daughter of a count.)
|English||Count (applies to title granted by monarchies other than the British where Earl applies)||Countess (even where Earl applies)||Earldom for an Earl; Countship or county for a count, but County is also, and indeed rather, in English-speaking countries an administrative district|
|Hungarian||Vikomt||Vikomtessz||Actually meaning viscount. These forms are now archaic and/or literary; Gróf is used instead.|
|Irish||Cunta; Iarla||Cuntaois, Baniarla||Honorary title only; iarla does not derive from Latin comes but rather from English "earl".|
|Italian||Conte||Contessa||Contea, Contado, Comitato|
|Greek||Κόμης (Kómēs)||Κόμησσα (Kómēssa)||Κομητεία (Komēteía); in the Ionian Islands the respective Italianate terms Kóntes, Kontéssa were used instead|
|Latin (feudal jargon, not classical)||Comes||Comitissa||Comitatus|
|Language||Male title||Female title / Spouse||Territory|
|Belarusian||Граф (Hraf)||Графiня (Hrafinia)||Графствa (Hrafstva)|
|Bulgarian||Граф (Graf)||Графиня (Grafinya)||Графство (Grafstvo)|
|Macedonian||Гроф (Grof)||Грофица (Grofica)|
|Romanian||Grof (also Conte, see above)|
|Russian||Граф (Graf)||Графиня (Grafinya)||Графство (Grafstvo)|
|Ukrainian||Граф (Hraf)||Графиня (Hrafynya)||Графство (Hrafstvo)|
Apart from all these, a few unusual titles have been of comital rank, not necessarily to remain there.
Since Louis VII (1137–80), the highest precedence amongst the vassals (Prince-bishops and secular nobility) of the French crown was enjoyed by those whose benefice or temporal fief was a pairie, i.e. carried the exclusive rank of pair; within the first (i.e. clerical) and second (noble) estates, the first three of the original twelve anciennes pairies were ducal, the next three comital comté-pairies:
Later other countships (and duchies, even baronies) have been raised to this French peerage, but mostly as apanages (for members of the royal house) or for foreigners; after the 16th century all new peerages were always duchies and the medieval countship-peerages had died out, or were held by royal princes
Other French countships of note included those of:
See also above for parts of present France
A Graf ruled over a territory known as a Grafschaft ('county'). See also various comital and related titles; especially those actually reigning over a principality: Gefürsteter Graf, Landgraf, Reichsgraf; compare Markgraf, Pfalzgraf
The title of Conte is very prolific on the peninsula. In the eleventh century, conti like the Count of Savoy or the Norman Count of Apulia, were virtually sovereign lords of broad territories. Even apparently "lower"-sounding titles, like Viscount, could describe powerful dynasts, such as the Visconti family who ruled a major city such as Milan. The essential title of a feudatory, introduced by the Normans, was signore, modelled on the French seigneur, used with the name of the fief. By the fourteenth century, conte and the Imperial title barone were virtually synonymous.
Some titles of count, according to the particulars of the patent, might be inherited by the eldest son of a Count. Younger brothers might be distinguished as "X dei conti di Y" ("X of the counts of Y"). However if there is no male to inherit the title and the count has a daughter, in some regions she could inherit the title. The Papacy and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies might appoint counts palatine with no particular territorial fief. Until 1812 in some regions, the purchaser of land designated "feudal" was ennobled by the noble seat that he held and became a conte. This practice ceased with the formal abolition of feudalism in the various principalities of early-19th century Italy, last of all in the Papal States.
Many Italian counts left their mark on Italian history as individuals, yet only a few contadi (countships; the word contadini for inhabitants of a "county" remains the Italian word for "peasant") were politically significant principalities, notably:
Count is one of the noble titles granted by the Pope as a temporal sovereign and the title's holder is sometimes informally known as a papal count or less so as a Roman count, but mostly as count. The comital title, which can be for life or hereditary, has been awarded in various forms by popes and Holy Roman Emperors since the Middle Ages, infrequently before the 14th century, and the pope continued to grant the comital and other noble title even after 1870. Recipients of such honours included both Italians, especially those close to the papacy (some of whom papal relatives), and prominent non-Italian Catholics. The Pope also granted other noble titles such as Baron, Marquis, Duke or Prince.
As most of the Papal States were annexed by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the new kingdom recognized the existing nobility in its new territory, and the papal nobility forms a major branch of the Italian nobility. On the occasion of the signing of the Lateran Accords of 1929, the Italian government recognized and confirmed the pope's power to grant noble titles, and recognized the titles granted by the Pope until that date and all future titles as equivalent to the noble titles of the Kingdom of Italy. With Paul VI, who responded to the formal Christmas message of the patriciate by declaring that the papal nobility would no longer be a constituent body in the papal court, the custom of conferring noble titles such as Count, Marquis, Duke or Prince essentially disappeared. Pope John Paul II did grant several noble titles to Polish compatriots at the beginning of his pontificate, but quietly and without their being published in the Acts of The Apostolic See. The popes continue to award knighthoods and medals of merit on a regular basis which do not confer noble status with the exception of the Spanish Noble Chapters of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre which continue to require nobility as a condition for membership.
One interesting title is the one of Count of the Sacred Palace of Lateran. This title was collectively granted to the Spanish Chapters of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The Spanish Chapters of the Order are the only purely noble chapters of the Papal Order and their members enjoy several heraldic privileges in addition to the right to use the Comital title. This tradition can be traced back to the Recoquista (the Reconquest) in which the Order played an important role. According to the well known heraldic expert, Lord Manuel de Mata, the Spanish Members of the Order are allowed to use both the full title of Count of the Sacred Palace of Lateran as well as just the title of Count before their names. The previously mentioned rights have been recorded in the "Memorias de la Academia Mallorquina de de Estudios Genealogicos" and approved by King Alfonso XIII of Spain.
The principalities tended to start out as margraviate and/or (promoted to) duchy, and became nominal archduchies within the Habsburg dynasty; noteworthy are:
Numerous small ones, particularly:
Apart from various small ones, significant were :
As opposed to the plethora of hollow "gentry" counts, only a few countships ever were important in medieval Iberia; most territory was firmly within the Reconquista kingdoms before counts could become important. However, during the 19th century, the title, having lost its high rank (equivalent to that of Duke), proliferated.
Portugal itself started as a countship in 868, but became a kingdom in 1139 (see:County of Portugal). Throughout the History of Portugal, especially during the Constitutional Monarchy many other countships were created (see: List of Countships in Portugal).
In Spain, no countships of wider importance exist, except in the former Spanish march.
In the First Bulgarian Empire, a komit was a hereditary provincial ruler under the tsar documented since the reign of Presian (836-852) The Cometopouli dynasty was named after its founder, the komit of Sredets.
The title of Count (Serdar) was used in the Principality of Montenegro and the Principality of Serbia as a lesser noble title below that of Vojvoda (Duke). The Royal Houses of both Montenegro and Serbia still grant this title.
Like other major Western noble titles, Count is sometimes used to render certain titles in non-western languages with their own traditions, even though they are as a rule historically unrelated and thus hard to compare, but which are considered "equivalent" in rank.
This is the case with:
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