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What is a Count?

Updated on January 17, 2010

A Count is a title of purely honorific significance in modern Europe. It is found mainly in Italy, where it has been widely conferred by the popes. In the early Middle Ages, however, counts were often important political figures.


The term is derived from the Latin comes (companion; plural, comites ), and it gained political significance in the later Roman mpire as an increasing number of governmental tasks fell to comites of the emperor. The Ger­manic tribes, who occupied western Europe in the 5th century, found the term comes readily adaptable to their traditions since the armed companions of kings and clan chieftains had long enjoyed special prestige. In Germanic Europe, the count (Graf in German, earl in English) be­came the principal official in the rudimentary system of local government. He exercised full military, judicial, and fiscal powers in the king's name, ruling a district called a county. Counties varied in size and population, but their average size was perhaps comparable to that of a mod­ern French departement.


The evolution in the actual power of the count between the 7th and the llth century was a significant factor in the emergence of Eu­ropean feudalism, particularly in France. Frequently the count exercised his broad au­thority in the same district for many years and built up personal power by acquiring land, usurping royal revenues, and making marriage alliances with important local families. Through this process the Merovingian kings of the Franks finally lost control of their provincial officials, and in time the dynasty was overthrown by the strongest of the landowning families. The Caro-hngians regained control for a time by installing counts whom they trusted and by adopting cer­tain devices aimed at limiting the counts' power. Charlemagne sought to secure their loyalty by requiring them to become royal vassals.

In the disordered 9th century, however, most counts made their offices hereditary and turned into private property rights the powers they had formerly exercised for the crown. By the 10th century, the French counts were virtually inde­pendent of the weak kings and some of them founded strong territorial principalities and long-lived dynasties.

Around the year 1000, however, the counts began to lose effective power to lesser castellans who derived their strength from the possession of fortified strongholds. For several more cen­turies some counts continued to be powerful lords, but their great age had passed. After 1500 the title became increasingly a title of honor, which the king could confer.


In medieval Germany the Graf rarely achieved power equal to that of his French counterpart. The strong German monarchs often employed high clergy as counts and thereby kept the office from becoming hereditary. The more prestigious title of duke had greater historical importance in Germany. The Graf was most im­portant when ruling some strategic border region as "count of the march" (Margrave).


The English counterpart of the count is the earl, and his wife is called countess. The English earl, however, had true political power only in the mid-11th century. After the Norman conquest the title became largely honorific, as it is today.


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