1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Valet

VALET (Fr. valet; O. Fr. vaslet), a term now restricted in meaning to that of a gentleman’s personal servant. The origin of the word is debated. Du Cange (Glossarium, s. Valeti) explains it as the diminutive of vassallus, a vassal, the sons of vassalli being termed vasseleti (and so vasleti, valeti), on the analogy of domicelli (damoiseaux) for the sons of domini. This view is also taken by W. W. Skeat (Etym. Dict. s. “Varlet”); but Hatzfeld and Darmesteter (Dict. gén. de la langue française), dispute this derivation as phonetically impossible, preferring that from vassulittus from a hypothetical vassulus, diminutive of vassus, from which vassallus also is ultimately derived (see Vassal). Just as vassus was in Merovingian times the Gallo-Roman word for “servitor,” which the Franks borrowed to designate the domestic soldiers of their kings, so “valet” retained this, its sole surviving sense, throughout the middle ages. Yet the phrase “gentleman’s gentleman,” commonly used of the modern valet, is more historical than may at first sight appear. For valet, like esquire (écuyer), long signified the apprentice stage of knighthood, at first with a certain difference, the esquire being mounted, the valet unmounted, but afterwards with scarce a shade of distinction. Later, “valet” became the usual term for gentlemen who were not knights. In England it was not till the early years of the 14th century that valletus in this sense was superseded by armiger, and that “valet” (valete, vadlete, verlet, varlet[1]) began to be applied to the class of free men below the rank of esquire. In France the word valet, though in Saintonge and Poitou it survived till the close of the 14th century, had elsewhere—like damoiseau—much earlier been replaced generally by écuyer as the designation of an unknighted gentleman.

At the outset, “valet” had meant no more than “youth” or “boy.” Thus Wace in the Roman de Rou (III. v. 2903), speaking of William the Conqueror, says: Guillaume fu vadlet petiz (“William was a little boy”). The various developments of the word are closely parallel with those of some of its synonyms. Youth suggested both strength and service, the qualifications for nobility in a primitive society, where service in arms was the title to rank. Puer (boy) was early used, as a synonym for vassus, of the soldiers of the Frankish bodyguard (pueri ad ministerium); the Greek τέκνον (“child”) is etymologically related to O.H. Ger. degan, M.H. and Mod. Ger. degen, “warrior,” A.S. thegn, “thane”; “child” itself was applied in the 13th and 14th centuries to young men of gentle birth awaiting knighthood, as a title of dignity, and was perhaps a translation of valet (see Child), with which may be compared the Spanish infanzon and German junker. So, too, cniht (a “lad” or “servant”), becomes first a warrior and then develops into a title of dignity as “knight,” while in Germany the parallel word knecht remains as “servant.” But valet has also shared with other synonyms a downward development. Just as “knave” (cnafa) meant originally a boy (cf. Ger. knabe) or servant, and has come to mean a rogue, so valet in its English (15th century) form of “varlet” had decayed, before it became obsolete, from its meaning of “servant” to signify a “scoundrel” or “low fellow.”

See Du Cange, Glossarium (ed. Niort, 1887); A. Luchaire, Manuel des institutions françaises (Paris, 1892); P. Giulhiermoz, Essai sur l’origine de la noblesse en France au moyen âge (Paris, 1902); Note on the word “Valet” by Maurice Church, App. xix. to Sir R. Hennell’s Hist. of the Yeomen of the Guard (Westminster, 1904).  (W. A. P.) 

  1. The form valectus led to the spelling valect in transcribing from Latin documents.