What Is a Baron?

The evolution of the baron title

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, also spelt Burleigh, 1520 –1598. English statesman, chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I, twice Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer. From The Century Edition of Cassell's History of England, published 1901
Ken Welsh / Getty Images

In the Middle Ages, baron was a title of honor given to any nobleman who pledged his loyalty and service to a superior in return for land that he could pass on to his heirs. The monarch was usually the superior in question, although each baron could parcel out some of his land to subordinate barons.

Read on the learn about the etymology of the term and how the title has changed over the centuries.

The Origins of "Baron"

The term baron is an Old French, or Old Frankish, a word that means "man" or "servant".

This Old French term derives from the Late Latin word, "baro."

Barons in Medieval Times

Baron was a hereditary title that arose in the Middle Ages that was given men who offered his loyalty in exchange for land. Thus, barons usually possessed a fief. During this time period, there was no specific rank associated with the title. Barons existed in Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Decline of the Baron Title

In France, King Louis XIV diminished the prestige of the baron title by making numerous men barons, thus cheapening the name. 

In Germany, the equivalent of a baron was freiherr, or "free lord." Freiherr at first connoted a dynastic status, but eventually, the more influential freiherrs rebranded themselves as counts. Thus, the freiherr title came to mean a low class of nobility. 

The baron title was abolished in Italy in 1945 and in Spain in 1812.

Modern Usage

Barons are still a term used by certain governments.

Today a baron is a title of nobility ranking just below that of a viscount. In countries where there are no viscounts, a baron ranks just below a count.

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Snell, Melissa. "What Is a Baron?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/definition-of-baron-1788445. Snell, Melissa. (2017, September 13). What Is a Baron? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-baron-1788445 Snell, Melissa. "What Is a Baron?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-baron-1788445 (accessed September 23, 2017).