The word seneschal (//) can have several different meanings, all of which reflect certain types of supervising or administering in a historic context. Most commonly, a seneschal was a senior position filled by a court appointment within a royal, ducal, or noble household during the Middle Ages and early Modern period – historically a steward or majordomo of a medieval great house. In a medieval royal household, a seneschal was in charge of domestic arrangements and the administration of servants, which, in the medieval period particularly, meant the seneschal might oversee hundreds of laborers, servants and their associated responsibilities, and have a great deal of power in the community, at a time when the much of the local economy was often based around the wealth and responsibilities of such a household.
A second meaning is more specific, and concerns the late medieval and early modern nation of France, wherein the seneschal (French: sénéchal) was also a royal officer in charge of justice and control of the administration of certain southern provinces called seneschalties, holding a role equivalent to a northern French bailiff (bailli).
Finally, in the United Kingdom primarily, seneschal is an ecclesiastical term, referring to a cathedral official.
The term, first attested in 1350–1400, was borrowed from Anglo-Norman seneschal "steward", from Old Dutch *siniscalc "senior retainer" (attested in Latin siniscalcus (692 AD), Old High German senescalh), a compound of *sini- (cf. Gothic sineigs "old", sinista "oldest") and scalc "servant", ultimately a calque of Late Latin senior scholaris "senior guard".
The scholae in the late Roman Empire referred to the imperial guard, divided into senior (seniores) and junior (juniores) units. The captain of the guard was known as comes scholarum. When Germanic tribes took over the Empire, the scholae were merged or replaced with the Germanic king's warband (cf. Vulgar Latin *dructis, OHG truht, Old English dryht) whose members also had duties in their lord's household like a royal retinue. The king's chief warbandman and retainer (cf. Old Saxon druhting, OHG truhting, truhtigomo OE dryhtguma, dryhtealdor), from the 5th century on, personally attended on the king, as specifically stated in the Theodosian Code of 413 (Cod. Theod. VI. 13. 1; known as comes scholae). The warband, once sedentary, became first the king's royal household, and then his great officers of state, and in both cases the seneschal is synonymous with steward.
In late medieval and early modern France, the seneschal was originally a royal steward overseeing the entire country but developed into an agent of the crown charged with administration of a seneschalty (French: sénéchaussée), one of the districts of the crown lands in Languedoc and Normandy. Hallam states that the first seneschals to govern in this manner did so by an 1190 edict of Philip II. The seneschals also served as the chief justice of the royal courts in their areas.
- William de Gometz was Seneschal of France c. AD 1000.
- Osbern the Steward was seneschal to two dukes of Normandy.
Under rulers of England
- Bertram de Criol, then member of the King's Council, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Dover Castle, and Keeper of the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and shortly to become Constable of the Tower of London, is referred to as "our Seneschal" in Letters of King Henry III of December 1239.
- Sir William Felton an English knight was appointed seneschal of Poitou in 1360.
- Sir Thomas Felton and English knight was appointed seneschal of Aquitaine in 1362 and seneschal of Bordeaux in 1372.
- Sir John Chandos an English knight was appointed seneschal of Poitou 1369.
- Grand maître de France – the Great Officer of the Crown of France in charge of the Royal Household (the "Maison du Roi")
- Sheriff, another Germanic rooted title of command over a jurisdiction. From "shire" & "reeve".
- Sir Kay, a legendary seneschal in the court of King Arthur.
- Oxford University Press: Seneschal
- Encyclopaedia Perthensis; or Universal Dictionary of the Arts Volume 20 (1816), p. 437
- The Free Dictionary: Seneschal.
- "seneschal" Via the Free Dictionary. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 HarperCollins Publishers
- Leo Wiener, Commentary to the Germanic Laws and Mediaeval Documents (Harvard UP, 1915; reprint Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 1999), 33-4.
- D. H. Green, Language and History in the Early Germanic World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 110-2.
- Wiener, 34.
- T. Stapleton (ed.), De Antiquis Legibus Liber. Cronica Maiorum et Vicecomitum Londiniarum, Camden Society, Series I no. 34 (London 1846), Appendix, pp. 237-38.
- Fotheringham, James Gainsborough (1889). "Felton, William (d.1367)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 18. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 311.
- Fotheringham, James Gainsborough (1889). "Felton, Thomas (d.1381)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 18. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 309–310.
- Lee, Sidney (1887). "Chandos, John". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 10. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 43.
- The dictionary definition of seneschal at Wiktionary