Nobles and Vassals


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In the shifting sands of contemporary master-servant relationships in South Africa, the English language reveals some hidden depths of meaning.

Even in the hallowed corridors of London’s House of Lords, the peers of the realm might be shaking their coronets at the news that their titles literally mean nothing more than “bread keepers”.

Prose & Cons is indebted to reader Tim Dodson of Glenashley for this fascinating insight into social status in the middle ages.

Our common or garden “lord” (or lorde – as he used to be rendered) was originally a ruler or a husband as “milord”.

The word is a contraction of the Old English “hlaford” which had roughly the same meaning.

But when you peel back the layers of meaning which surround worlid like onion skins, you find an even earlier form of “hlaford”.

This was “hlafweard,”or in modern rendering – loaf-warden! Today’s lords in all their pomp and peerage dignity were originally guardians of the bread supply.

But the disdain between master and servant was still apparent in the terminology of the times. A servant was known a “hlafaeta” – a loaf-eater.

Although lords have become elevated from custodians of the breadbin, other words have moved in the other direction. A vassal was originally a subordinate of any rank – in the sense that a noble was vassal to the king, and a serf vassal to the noble.

From it we now derive valet, and worse still – varlet. A villain was originally a “villain”, quite simply a servant in a villa. A knave was at one time merely a boy, as its German counterpart “knabe” still is.

Upward social mobility is not just a phenomenon of the late 20th century, as MacBeth discovered. Although he became Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, “thane” was also a term for a boy.

The Anglo-Saxon “oniht” was no more than a young man, as was the late latin “baro”. Now we touch forelocks to them as “knight” and “baron”.

In the brave new democracy of the millennium, such terms of rank will probably soon be totally redundant and the man who has a bread stock will once again hold sway.


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