On the continent of Europe the title baron, though the same in its origin, has come, owing to a variety of causes, to imply a rank and status very different from its connotation in the United Kingdom, and again varies considerably in different countries. Originally baro meant no more than "man," and is so used in the Salic and other "barbarian" laws; e.g. Si quis mortaudit barum vel feminam, etc. (Lex Aleman. tit. 76). In this way, too, it was long preserved in the sense of "husband," as in the Assize of Jerusalem (MSS. cap. 98): Si l'on appelle aucune chose femme qui aura baron, et il la veut deffendre, il la peut deffendre de son cors, etc. Gradually the word seems to have come to mean a "strong or powerful man," and thus generally "a magnate." Finally, in France in the 12th century the general expression barones was introduced in a restricted sense, as applied properly to all lords possessing an important fief, subject to the rule of primogeniture and thus not liable to be divided up, and held of one overlord alone. Sometimes it included ecclesiastical lordships of the first rank. In the 13th century the Register of King Philip Augustus places the barones regis Francie next to the dukes and counts holding in chief, the title being limited to vassals of the second rank.
Towards the end of the century the title had come to mean that its bearer held his principal fief direct from the crown, and was therefore more important than that of count, since many counts were only mediate vassals. Thus the kings in granting a duchy or countship as an apanage to their brothers or sons used the phrase in comitatum et baroniam. From this period, however, the title tends to sink in comparative importance. When, in the 14th century, the feudal hierarchy was completed and stereotyped, the barons are ranked not only below counts, but below viscounts, though in power and possessions many barons were superior to many counts. In any case, until the 17th century, the title of baron could only be borne by the holder of a territorial barony; and it was Louis XIV. who first cheapened the title in France by creating numerous barons by royal letters. This entire dissociation of the title from the idea of feudal rights and obligations was completed by Napoleon's decree of March 1, 1808, reviving the ancient titles. By this instrument the title of baron was to be borne ex officio by a number of high officials, e.g. ministers, senators, councillors of state, archbishops and bishops.
It was given to the 37 mayors who attended the coronation, and could be claimed by any mayor who had served to the emperor's satisfaction for ten years, and by any member of an electoral college who had attended three sessions. The title was made to descend in order of primogeniture to legitimate or adopted sons and to the nephews of bishops, the sole condition being that proof must be presented of an actual income of 15,000 fr., of which one-third should descend with the title. The creation of barons was continued by Louis XVIII., Charles X. and Louis Philippe, and, suspended at the revolution of 1848, was revived again on a generous scale by Napoleon III. The tolerant attitude of the Third Republic towards titles, which it does not officially recognize, has increased the confusion by facilitating the assumption of the title on very slender grounds of right. The result has been that in France the title of Baron, unless borne by the recognized representative of a historic name, not only involves no political status, but confers also but very slight social distinction.
The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of most other European countries, and notably of Italy. In Austria and Germany the case is somewhat different. Though in Latin documents of the middle ages the term barones for liberi domini was used, it was not until the 17th century that the word Baron, perhaps under the influence of the court of Versailles, began to be used as the equivalent of the old German Freiherr, or free lord of the Empire. The style Freiherr (liber dominus) implied originally a dynastic status, and many Freiherren held countships without taking the title of count. When the more important of them styled themselves counts, the Freiherren sank into an inferior class of nobility. The practice of conferring the title Freiherr by imperial letters was begun in the 16th century by Charles V., was assumed on the ground of special imperial concessions by many of the princes of the Empire, and is now exercised by all the German sovereigns. Though the practice of all the children taking the title of their father has tended to make that of Baron comparatively very common, and has dissociated it from all idea of territorial possession, it still implies considerable social status and privilege in countries where a sharp line is drawn between the caste of "nobles" and the common herd, whom no wealth or intellectual eminence can place on the same social level with the poorest Adeliger. In Japan the title baron (Dan) is the lowest of the five titles of nobility introduced in 1885, on the European model.
It was given to the least important class of territorial nobles, but is also bestowed as a title of honour without reference to territorial possession.
See du Cange, Glossarium, s. "Baro" (ed. Niort, 1883); John Selden, Titles of Honor, p. 353 (ed. 1672); Achille Luchaire, Manuel des institutions françaises (Paris, 1892); Maurice Prou, art. "Baron" in La Grande Encyclopédie.
(W. A. P.)