TT: Barons Without Peer

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and travel time with me to the days of Chronomaster and a Noel that has nothing to do with Christmas.  Then come and dive through the looking glass as Alan and I continue trying to make sense out of titles.

JANE: Okay, Alan.  Last week we learned you can count on a count but a countess doesn’t have ears…  Or something like that.

Lord Byron Would Be At Home Here

Next, I’d like to ask you about barons.  Do the British have barons or is that another title that is more properly continental?

ALAN: Sort of…

Blame it on the Norman Conquest again. William introduced the rank of baron into England. Prior to that, it was purely a European title. The English barons were men who had pledged loyalty to William. They were required to perform military service for the king and had to attend his council meetings. This last function evolved into an advisory body which a wise king really should listen to, if he knew what was good for him. The consequences of not listening could be dire. It was the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta when they failed to attract his attention by more informal methods.

JANE: Ah…  Go on!

ALAN:  These days, in the UK at least, baronies (in the feudal sense of pledging loyalty) are obsolete, though the rank still exists as the lowest rank of the peerage. Life peers are generally barons, and many members of the hereditary peerage are barons because their ancestors were in the right place at the right time when the titles were being handed out.

JANE: Peerage?  Peers?   Today when people use the word “peer” they usually mean “people who are like you.”

Somehow I suspect those within the peerage considered themselves without peers?  Or pare?  Or something…  Help me out.

ALAN:  Peers (or, more accurately, Peers of the Realm) are members of the aristocracy. The word is really a collective noun for that amorphous set of beings known individually as dukes and earls and counts and… They do form a peer group in the sense that you used it, but they are a very special peer group in that they are in charge of everybody else. It’s a bit like the old Roman division between patricians and plebeians.

JANE: Ah…  And, eventually, toward the end of the Roman republic, it was much better to be a pleb than a patrician because patricians couldn’t participate in grubby commerce.  Please, go on.

ALAN: However, when someone is put on trial, they are judged by “a jury of their peers” which these days means that the jury is made up of ordinary people, just like the accused, rather than of actual members of the peerage. I would not be at all surprised to find that the phrase derives from ancient times when members of the aristocracy were both judge and jury over the accused. These days we’ve just changed the meaning a bit to bring it more in line with modern thinking…

JANE: Actually, I’d wondered about that.  What if, say, Prince Charles was to go on public trial?  Would they need to make up the jury from other princes?  Or is this a circumstance where the local greengrocer and librarian are considered equal to the heir apparent of the throne?

ALAN: I suspect the latter. The novelist Jeffrey Archer is a member of the aristocracy (he’s actually Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare). In May 2001 he was put on trial for perjury. The jury of ordinary men and women found him guilty and he was sentenced to four years imprisonment. He wrote three books and several short stories about his incarceration. Authors never waste good material.

So in this particular case, the jury of his peers was definitely not made up of peers…

Damnit, English needs more new words! We really must stop trying to shoehorn contradictory definitions into one word. It leads to nothing but trouble.

JANE: I agree…  And, believe me, as a writer this is something I wrestle with more than my readers ever realize.

I am not done with you, but I think I’ll save my next question for next time!

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3 Responses to “TT: Barons Without Peer”

  1. Peter Says:

    Actually the two uses of peer aren’t really contradictory. Peer in the sense of “equal in rank or status” is the original use, going back to Anglo-Latin and Old French, from the Latin “par” (equal).

    The sense of “noble” seems to stem from the late 14th century romances about Charlemagne’s Twelve Peers, so-called because all were considered equal (much like the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table) without worrying about whether a comte out-ranked a duc.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    @Peter: so now we get to drag the paladins into all this? What fun!

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