First seen in the 13th century AD in the Middle English word ‘courteour’, from the Anglo-Norman word ‘cort’, the term Courtier arose in regard to those who had an association with courts, i.e. the royal court of the king and the aristocracy. In the Old French word ‘cortoier’, the meaning shifted to being or living at a royal court. Thus came the term given to those who frequented the royal courts or attended there on important business – courtiers!
The Latin ‘cohors’, meaning enclosure, was the agent for the term court. It was first in Old French that ‘court’ came to refer to the court of law, from the Latin association with a yard or enclosure (or jail!), and as the judicial power progressed from being the sole responsibility of the lord of the manor to a shared “court of law” of advisors and juries, the term ‘courtier’ here began to be given as a surname and title of the appointed judge.
Also used as a surname in medieval England, the term could be applied as an occupational surname given to a judge or advisor of the judicial court (which was also in effect the royal court in this instance, as the king and his royal court was the highest legal body in those times) or even simply to a person in employment and serving at the court, the castle, or some other residence of a noble.
An interesting alternative definition from the Encarta Dictionary is given as:
“Courtier; somebody who flatters a more important person.
This may be associated with the fact that courtiers were essentially nobles and “higher ups” who served the king (of course, always considered a more important person) often in government, military or advisory roles to the king and court. This definition takes away some of the importance of that role by suggesting that the courtier’s purpose was simply to flatter the king.
In this vein, for many royal courts across the world, female courtiers were known as courtesans, who certainly had an specialized role in “flattering” the important people of the court! In the courts, which generally acted as the centre of politics, law, business and society, these individuals (from the judges to the flatterers) held significant and crucial roles to the day-to-day function of the kingdom. If it were not for these people, our entire way of life today could have looked very different!