AskDefine | Define seneschal

Dictionary Definition

seneschal n : the chief steward or butler of a great household [syn: major-domo]

User Contributed Dictionary



A word from Middle English, of Germanic origin, borrowed via Old French (see sénéchal).


  1. A steward in charge of a medieval nobleman's estate.

Extensive Definition

A seneschal was an officer in the houses of important nobles in the Middle Ages. In the French administrative system of the Middle Ages, the sénéchal was also a royal officer in charge of justice and control of the administration in southern provinces, equivalent to the northern French bailli.


The word is recorded in English since 1393, deriving via Old French seneschal, from Frankish Latin siniscalcus, itself from Proto-Germanic roots sini- 'senior' and skalk 'servant' (as in marshal etc.)

The seneschal in noble houses

The most basic function of a seneschal was to supervise feasts and domestic ceremonies; in this respect, they were equivalent to stewards and majordomos. Sometimes, seneschals were given additional responsibilities, including the dispensing of justice and high military command.
The term is probably of Gothic origin. In the Holy Roman Empire this officer had the title Drussard, or Truchsess (from Old High German truhtsâzo; "sitting in front of" the truht, the "Tross"; Latin Dapifer, French Écuyer de cuisine, Dutch Drossaard, Drost, Baljuw, Swedish Drots).
The British scholar H.S. Bennett described the seneschal's role by saying that "the seneschal must know the size and needs of every manor; how many acres should be ploughed and how much seed will be needed. He must know all his bailiffs and reeves, how they conduct the lord's business and how they treat the peasants. He must know exactly how many penny loaves can be made from a quarter of corn, or how many cattle each pasture should support. He must for ever be on the alert lest any of the lord's franchises lapse or are usurped by others. He must think of the lord's needs, both of money and of kind, and see that they are constantly supplied. In short, he must be all-knowing and he is all-powerful".

The administrative sénéchal in France

Under the Ancien Régime in southern France, the sénéchal, who held office in the sénéchaussée, was the king's representative charged with the application of justice and control of the administration. In northern France, the terms used were bailli and bailliage (bailiwick). According to historian Henry Hallam, the first sénéchaux to receive judicial functions did so by an edict of Philip II of France in 1190, and "acted as the king's lieutenants in his domains", or a sort of roving ambassadors/ministers for the throne. See Bailli for more information.
  • William de Gometz was Seneschal of France circa 1000 AD

Sources and references

See also

seneschal in Catalan: Senescal
seneschal in German: Seneschall
seneschal in Spanish: Senescal
seneschal in French: Sénéchal
seneschal in Dutch: Baljuw
seneschal in Polish: Seneszal
seneschal in Portuguese: Senescal
seneschal in Russian: Сенешаль
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