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Comitatus was in ancient times the Latin term for an armed escort or retinue. The term was used especially in the context of Germanic warrior culture, for a warband tied to a leader by an oath of fealty.[1]

In modern times, it is the (neo-)Latin term for a county (cf comes).(See la:Comitatus.)

See also posse comitatus, meaning "power/force of the county" (comitatus is 4th declension so the genitive termination is ūs).


Comitatus has been seen as an Indo-European concept that predates Roman times, practiced from Western Europe to China, especially among Eurasian steppe tribes.[2]

As described in the Roman historian Tacitus's treatise Germania (98.AD), the comitatus is the bond existing between a Germanic warrior and his Lord, ensuring that the former never leaves the field of battle before the latter. The translation is as follows:

Moreover, to survive the leader and retreat from the battlefield is a lifelong disgrace and infamy

Tacitus stressed the abnegation of the follower, and his dependence on his patron, whose prestige rested on his ability to successfully wage war, and thus provide a military training for his followers.[3] Loyalty was met by material reward.[4]

Feudal developments[edit]

Comitatus, being the agreement between a Germanic lord and his subservients (his Gefolge or host of followers), is a special case of clientage, and the direct source of the practice of feudalism.[5] Partly influenced by the Roman practice of patronage (patrocinium),[6] - as exemplified in the Marian Reforms initiated by Gaius Marius, of a general distributing land to his officers after their retirement, as well as by the later bucellarius or private follower[7] - the Germanic comitatus eventually evolved into a wholesale exchange between a social superior and inferior. The feudal social inferior or vassal would pledge military service and protection to the superior (Lord). In return, the superior would reward the inferior with land, compensation, or privileges.[8]


The Germanic term for the comitatus is reconstructed as *druhtiz, with Old English forms dryht and druht, and Scandinavian drótt.[9] Equivalents highlighting different features of the lord/man bond include the trust-element of the early Frankish antrustio, royal bodyguard;[10] the Danish vederlag or Society, and the Norse hird or household following.[11]


The Wife's Lament in the Exeter Book uses the language of the comitatus to sharpen awareness of the conflict between the wife's claim on her lover, and the brotherhood-claims of the lord and his followers:[12] In the words of the Wife's Lament, "that man's kinsmen began to think in secret that they would separate us." How typical this is of the medieval genre of the frauenlied – with the romantic theme of a woman being left by her husband because he needs to be with his liege lord – is however debatable.[13] Even in Anglo-Saxon England, if the Exeter Book contains few pieces featuring women or written from the female perspective, Beowulf by contrast has roles for women precisely in strengthening the cohesion and unity of the comitatus:[14] thus the 'peace-weaver' Queen Wealtheow makes the normative claim that “Here each comrade is true to the other/loyal to lord, loving in spirit./The thanes have one purpose, the people are ready:/having drunk and pledged, the ranks do as I bid.”.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ S. H. Steinberg, A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p.78
  2. ^ "Empires of the Silk Road" (C.I.Beckwith, 2009), p.15.
  3. ^ H.M. Gwatkin ed., The Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II (Cambridge 1926) p. 638-9
  4. ^ S. H. Steinberg, A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p.78
  5. ^ G. O. Sayles, The Medieval Foundations of England (London 1966) p. 204
  6. ^ G. O. Sayles, The Medieval Foundations of England (London 1966) p. 201
  7. ^ H.M. Gwatkin ed., The Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II (Cambridge 1926) p. 641-2
  8. ^ "History 231 Notes". Archived from the original on 2012-06-30. Retrieved 2006-10-31.
  9. ^ For the reconstruction and Old English forms, see Pollington, S., "Origins of the Warband" in TYR, vol. 2 (Ultra Press, 2004), p. 130. For the Scandinavian form, see Thurston, T. L., "Social Classes in the Viking Age" in Landscapes of Power, Landscapes of Conflict: State Formation in the South Scandinavian Iron Age (Springer, 2001), p. 115.
  10. ^ J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West (London 1964) p. 111
  11. ^ H.M. Gwatkin ed., The Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II (Cambridge 1926) p. 642
  12. ^ A. Klinck, Medieval Women's Song (2002) p. 218
  13. ^ A. Klinck, Medieval Women's Song (2002) p. 218
  14. ^ R. Bjork, A Beowulf Handbook (1997) p. 314
  15. ^ Seamus Heaney trans., Beowulf (London 2000) p. 41
  • Enright, M.J., Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband. Dublin, 1976