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Friday, 15 July 2016

A friend at court

I aitn't dead yet. I have been travelling, and I am now in Copenhagen, homeward bound, so normal service is being restored.  Here's something I prepared earlier.

A Roman armed force was divided in a number of ways: a decuria was a group of nine men under a decurion, and 10 decuriae made a centuria, under a centurion, and two centuriae made a manipulus, which literally means 'a handful', and which also gives us our word 'manipulate', while three manipuli gave a group of 600 men, and this was called a cohors, or as we call it, a cohort.

Originally, the cohors, also called a cors, was a sheep or cattle enclosure, and from this, as many soldiers as could be held in one. In more general terms, the cohort became any enclosure or yard, and it would seem that our expression court yard owes something to this original meaning.

In less settled times, stock could be protected in times of war in a court yard that was surrounded by farm buildings, and so the court became the centre of the settlement, the best defended central portion, and from there it was a simple logical leap to the royal quarters being called the court.

Oddly enough, even though royalty feature on some of them, court cards have nothing at all to do with royalty: these are the cards which feature characters wearing a coat, and the name was originally coat cards: the jack, or knave, after all, is by no means a royal person, even if 'knave' did originally just mean 'boy'.

The older meaning also comes through in a tennis court, and a squash court, while court dress is intended to imply clothing appropriate for wearing on state occasions such as attending at court. And while Chaucer may have written of a "Court of Love" where all was very proper and the love was courtly love, it appears that your average royal court was less so. 

A courtesan was originally a lady of the court, but rapidly became a court mistress — and the same thing turns up in French, where the word is courtisane, in Spanish, where it is cortisana, and in Italian, where it is cortigiana.

Along the same line, the cortège, which we now tend to think of only as a funeral procession, was once a train of attendants or a procession, coming to us through French from the Italian corteggio, meaning the royal court. In the 17th and 18th centuries, ladies at the British court wore small silken stickers on their faces, sometimes called 'beauty spots', but better known then as 'court plasters', and from this, we got the name sometimes applied to ordinary sticking plaster, but properly applied only to silken plasters coated with isinglass.

Courtesy also was a court invention, though the spelling sometimes makes this less clear. Here is Chaucer describing the Knight in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

The spelling reminds us that a curtsy is an act of courtesy. It would not, however, be a courtesy to tell your beloved that when you court her, this word means that you are treating her as a 'courtesan', given the meaning that this has now acquired — to do so would indeed be to court disaster, and one of you may end up in court.

The origin of this term is hard to trace, seems that the law courts hark back to the time when law was dispensed by the Lord Chancellor at court, and then was transferred to other large enclosed areas. Curiously, the law Latin term for a court is a curia, so a friend of the court is amicus curiae, but the curia of the Romans was a long way from a cattle yard, since it is one of the 30 sections of the Roman people, or one of the 30 wards of Rome. 

Later, the curia became a meeting house for men, and a few of these survived into classical times, when the Senate met in one of these, the Curia Hostilia, and it must be from there that the term curia became associated with 'court'.

Or maybe there were lots of bull sessions held there. Either way, I will say no more, for fear of encountering a curia hostilia in a more modern sense, who might give me curry.

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