The other day I was asked why is the wife of an Earl called a Countess, just like the wife of a Count is called a Countess?
First some historical background on the title of Earl.
Earl is a rank of the nobility in Britain. The title originates in the Old English word eorl, meaning “a man of noble birth or rank”. The word is cognate with the Scandinavian form jarl, and meant “chieftain”, particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king’s absence.
The word is cognate with the Scandinavian form Jarl, and meant “chieftain”, particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king’s stead.
An Earl was the highest rank amongst the nobility below the king in pre-Norman England, and there was no female version of the word. Indeed, the only female noble who had a title at all was the cyninge (queen).
In fact, a female equivalent of Earl never developed in England and therefore the title of Countess was borrowed from the title Count, a title that never caught on with the English nobility.
The word Count came into English from the Norman-French comte, itself from Latin comes—in its accusative comitem—meaning “companion”, and later “companion of the emperor, delegate of the emperor”. The adjective form of the word is “comital”. In the English nobility the title Earl developed as an equivalent to the title of Count.
The Norman-derived equivalent “count” was not introduced following the Norman Conquest of England though “countess” was introduced at the time and was used for the female title. As Geoffrey Hughes writes, “It is a likely speculation that the Norman French title ‘Count’ was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic ‘Earl’ […] precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt”…I kid you not!
Since the title countess is derived from the male form of count it was possible a female equivalent for Earl could have developed along similar lines. For example, “ess” is a suffix from French; where the title Count originated as previously mentioned,
However, English has more in common with the Germanic language where the most common Germanic suffix is -“in”, so if there were an inherited feminine form of Jarl/Earl it would probably be Jarlin. One can speculate that this would have come into English as Earlen.
In Scandinavia, Jarl/Earl could also mean a sovereign prince. For example, the rulers of several of the petty kingdoms of Norway had the title of jarl and in many cases they had no less power than their neighbours who had the title of king.In Scandinavia, the title Jarl/Earl became obsolete in the Middle Ages and was replaced by Duke. After the Norman Conquest of England, an Earl became the equivalent of the continental title of Count. Prior to the times of England post Norman Conquest, during the Anglo-Saxon period, the title of Earl was more akin to a Duke.
Let me fill you in on the title of Duke for perspective.
Duke is a male title either of a monarch ruling over a duchy, or of a member of royalty, or nobility. As rulers, dukes are ranked below emperors, kings, and grand dukes. As royalty or nobility, they are ranked below princes of nobility and grand dukes. The title comes from French duc, itself from the Latin dux, ‘leader’, a term used in republican Rome to refer to a military commander without an official rank (particularly one of Germanic or Celtic origin), and later coming to mean the leading military commander of a province. In most countries, the word duchess is the female equivalent.
Now back to the title of Earl:
In Scotland, the title Earl assimilated the concept of mormaer. A mormaer, also spelled Mormaor, (from Gaelic mor, “great”; maer, or maor, “steward,” or “bailiff”), was a ruler of any of seven provinces into which Celtic Scotland (i.e., the part of the country north of the Forth and the Clyde) was divided.
For the simplest answer to the question why the wife of an Earl is a Countess is simply due to the fact that a female equivalent title, or word,, never developed.
The above picture is Thier Royal Highnesses The Earl and Countess of Wessex and Fofar.