As mentioned in the Addendum to this post, I’m reading Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Michael Dostoevsky’s translation, and I came across a reference to “Великий комтур калатравский”: the great komtur of Calatrava.” Komtur looked so little like a Russian word I suspected it of being a typo, but when I checked the German original I found “Der Großkomtur des Ordens/ von Calatrava,” so it was a borrowing of the German word, which I looked up in my HarperCollins German Unabridged Dictionary, where it was defined as “commander (of a knightly order).” Googling, I found there was a Wikipedia article for it, which says it’s derived from Latin commendator and “was a rank within military orders, especially the Teutonic Knights. In the State of the Teutonic Order, the Komtur was the commander of a basic administrative division called Kommende (also Komturei).” (The German article has more detail, as well as a photo of George V of Hanover wearing his Komturkreuz des Maria-Theresia-Ordens.)

Once again I discover an obscure lexical field, this one consisting of words known only to aficionados of knightly history; an interesting question is to what extent such words can be considered part of the vocabulary of English. On the negative side, komtur isn’t in any English dictionaries I can find; the OED doesn’t mention it anywhere, let alone have an entry for it. On the positive side, it occurs unitalicized in English books in sentences like “Because of his obsession, the Komtur became seduced by a hunger for that power and what it could afford him” and “Kierkegaard fails to distinguish the Don Juan opera from Mozart’s other work and seems to make light of the Komtur and consequently of the moral formula that demands Don Juan’s punishment.” If it is an English word, it’s certainly about as peripheral a word as one could find. (It’s even more peripheral in Russian, where the Национальный корпус русского языка finds only a few occurrences.)


  1. Titles like this are halfway between proper nouns (which is why they are capitalized) and common ones. Compare Kleagle, which is common enough to be in dictionaries.

  2. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    The German word Komtur is very much unexpected in an English-language work about Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The libretto being in Italian, the character is called the Commendatore, and I’ve always seen the Italian word used to refer to him in English too.

    The character himself is Spanish, which makes him a comendador. For Tirso de Molina, he was none other than a Comendador mayor de Calatrava, Don Gonzalo de Ulloa. I wonder if this was also in Da Ponte’s mind, since Leporello does call him “statua gentilissima del gran Commendatore”, which could conceivably be read “Gran Commendatore”, though I’ve never seen it done.

    Just like Da Ponte with Italian, so does Molière translate the title into French as Commandeur. It seems unsurprising that Schiller also writes of a Großkomtur in German.

    The entertainingly anachronistic Sovereign Military Order of Malta still has a Gran Commendatore, Carlo d’Ippolito di Sant’Ippolito, whose title is officially translated as Gran Comendador, Grand Commandeur, Großkomtur, but also Великий Командор and Grand Commander, as these six happen to be the languages in which the Order maintains its website.

    The ever so slightly less entertainingly anachronistic British orders of chivalry consist of plenty of Knights (and Dames) Commander (e.g., of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath), and down the order of precedence of mere Commanders (e.g., of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). The orders of the Star of India and of the Indian Empire used to have Knights Grand Commander, out of respect for the sensitivities of non-Christian members (the other orders have Knights and Dames Grand Cross instead).

    I’m not sure why there’d be a need to use in English Komtur and Kommende/Komturei instead of (knight) commander and commandry. But then, English Wikipedia also has a page for Oberst, which would seem to me no more than a German-speaking colonel.

  3. Just a detail for the unwary: (die) Kommende is stressed on the second syllable: /komMENde/. Saying */KOMmende/ would totally confuse the hearer, because that is a form of kommen, as in das Kommende = “things to come”.

  4. Yes, I was going to mention Don Giovanni, but only because that’s where I’ve met the word Komtur in German – it does seem odd in English.

  5. Another detail, should anyone wonder what Kierkegaard has to do with Mozart: K. was an opera fan, and a fat long section of Either-Or deals with Don Juan in detail – “The stages of the immediately erotic, or the erotic in music”.

    Unlike what many people seem to believe, K. was not an unreadably boring old philosofart. Either-Or is pretty wigged out.

  6. … deals with Don Juan and The Magic Flute in detail …

  7. The word is ‹komtur› in Polish and though it is obviously not too frequent in daily conversations, it occurs quite often in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s „Krzyżacy” (The Knights of the Cross), which is on reading list for primary schools in Poland. It seems to be ‹comthur› in the Samuel Binion’s translation.

  8. Stefan Holm says

    FWIW: Even though I’ve never heard or seen the word until now, ‘komtur’ has an entry in the SAOB reading (in my translation):

    From Ger. komtur from MHG kumtur, kumtiur, kommentiur, komme(n)tūr komedūr, commendūr, from OFr commendeor (Fr. commandeur), from MLat. commendator, derivation from Lat. commendare. Hist. within the medieval sacral chivalry: person who possessed and commanded over a manor or a castle belonging to a sacral chivalry and furthermore was the ruler over a surrounding larger area.

  9. The word is комтур in Russian translations of Sienkiewicz. For Don Juan’s adversary as well as the knights of Malta, the default term seems to be командор. “Шаги командора”, that is the stone guest’s footsteps, is a commonly used expression. However Sienkiewicz’s komturs are meant to be bloodthirsty, Slav-hating Teutons, so the noble-sounding командор had to give way to the rapacious комтур.

  10. командор is what Pushkin calls the character in his Don Juan play, The Stone Guest.

  11. Yes, hence Blok’s “Шаги Командора.”

  12. Капитан-командор “Kapitan-Komandor” (Captain-Commander) was a real navy rank in XVIII c. Russia, and there is actually a modern ethnic group named after the title (Commander Islanders in English, komandortsy, Aleutian Russian Creole population of the islands which were named after the Russian explorer of the North Pacific, Captain-Commander Bering). We mentioned them recently in the Ninilchik thread here on LH.

  13. I’m too lazy to try to calculate which Comendadores Mayores of Calatrava are entirely fictional, and which might have been contemporaries, but they’re all over the place in western literature and art: not only Mozart and Schiller and Tirso de Molina, but Lope de Vega. The villain of Fuente Ovejuna is “Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, Comendador Mayor de la Orden de Calatrava”.

  14. Dmitry:
    I don’t read Russian, so I’m curious: in the U.S. Navy, Captain is the highest non-flag (non-Admiral) rank, equal to an Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps Colonel, one step above Commander (=Lieutenant Colonel), two steps above Lieutenant Commander (=Major), and three steps above 1st Lieutenant (=Captain in ground forces).

    At the same time, the ‘captain’ of a ship is the one in command, and his actual rank may be lower. Captains of aircraft carriers are Captains in rank, but the captain of a tugboat would of course be much lower rank.

    Anyway, I’m wondering if a Russian Captain-Commander is an actual rank with a hybrid name (like Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy), or does it describe someone who is a Commander in rank, and a Captain in position, i.e. someone who is paid as a Commander but has the authority of a Captain, sailing around in his own ship exploring the world with no one giving him specific commands for months at a time.

  15. Correction:
    An O-3 in the Navy is a Lieutenant, not a 1st Lieutenant. The latter is the Army rank that is one step lower. The lower officer ranks (O1-O3) go Ensign – Lieutenant j.g. (=junior grade) – Lieutenant in the Navy, 2nd Lieutenant – 1st Lieutenant – Captain in the other branches. Just to confuse civilians further, Major is a higher rank than Lieutenant, but Major General is a lower rank (2 stars) than Lieutenant General (3 stars).

    I think I have that right now.

  16. Michael, it was a level above all captains but below rear admiral. It corresponds to what’s known in English as Commodore (the rank which was transiently present in the US Navy but, just like in Russian Navy, eventually merged with Rear Admiral (as the “lower half” of that rank). Wikipedia is clear that it is, indeed, derived from knighthood Commander, via its adoption in the XVII c. Dutch Navy.

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    There have been recurrent variations in practice of how to refer to foreign titles (royal, military, whatever) in English, i.e. do you use the English equivalent or do you transliterate. To some extent, using e.g. “Kaiser” or “Czar” instead of “Emperor” has an exoticizing tendency, and I suspect (someone else can do the corpus research. . .) that it became more standard to use “Kaiser” rather than Emperor in reference to that Hohenzollern fellow in Berlin as it became more standard in Anglophone circles to conceptualize him as not merely foreign but an enemy. But this exoticizing usage requires a basic level of widespread knowledge of the foreign term — in English text one would typically refer to a German noblewoman as Baroness so-and-so rather than Freifrau so-und-so, because even someone with so full a head of obscurantist trivia as I have couldn’t remember the corresponding German title w/ enough confidence to avoid the need to consult wikipedia. (Note that you can also calque foreign titles where there isn’t an exact English equivalent – e.g. the Soviet or German military rank Englished as “Colonel General” which is not in current or living-memory use in any Anglophone army.)

    So I agree that this particular usage is weird, especially if it is conventional among opera buffs and/or scholars to use the Italian version of the title when referring in English prose to Mozart’s character — although obviously the fact that Mozart himself was a German-speaker writing music for Italian text (or writing the music first and then having his librettist fit Italian words to it? – I don’t know the mechanics of their collaborative process) makes the situation odd enough that the German word turning up in an English scholarly text is not quite as weird as it otherwise might be. (Although perhaps someone who is writing about Kierkegaard’s references to Mozart might be coming at it from a philosophy-nerd subculture rather than an opera-nerd subculture, so in-group jargon could be different?)

  18. Da Ponte apparently worked quite closely with composers: indeed, Così fan tutte was first written with Salieri and only later transferred to Mozart. It is one of da Ponte’s few entirely original libretti. He began life as a Venetian Jew but later became a Catholic priest with a reputation for womanizing. After writing his libretti, da Ponte moved to the U.S. (on the run), got an appointment as professor of Italian literature at Columbia, and opened NYC’s first opera house, which was a flop.

  19. [o/t] I get an HTTP 404 when I try to visit the entry after this one. (Maybe the all-numeric URL is confusing the blogging software?)

  20. Yeah, it did; I’ve given it a new URL and it should work now. (Thanks to John Cowan for e-mailing me a heads-up and suggesting a solution.)

  21. In the State of the Teutonic Order, the Komtur was the commander of a basic administrative division called Kommende (also Komturei).

    In general this is translated, I think, as “commandery” – it certainly is for the Knights of St John of Malta – headed by a knight commander.

  22. Band history
    The Commodores (“Brick House”, “Three Times A Lady”, usw.) came together from two former groups, The Mystics and The Jays. To choose a new name, William “WAK” King opened a dictionary and picked a word at random. “We lucked out,” he remarked with a laugh when telling this story to People magazine, “We almost became The Commodes.”

    JW, to see how hard it is to make a table of equivalent foreign titles, even (perhaps, especially) for someone who “can count Freiherren amongst people I know”, take a look at the agonised Wiki talk page on the subject.

    We were told that Major General was originally “Sergeant-Major General”. That’s why it’s a lower rank than Lieutenant General. I don’t think the US army has sergeant majors, and it may not be true anyway.

  23. That’s a great story. From now on I shall attribute “Three Times A Lady” to The Commodes.

  24. We were told that Major General was originally “Sergeant-Major General”. That’s why it’s a lower rank than Lieutenant General. I don’t think the US army has sergeant majors, and it may not be true anyway.

    I’ve heard that as well – while a lieutenant-general is just someone in the place of a general, just as a Lt-Col is someone standing in for a Col.

    The US army does have sergeants-major, in fact it has three types (Sgt-Maj, Command Sgt-Maj, Sgt-Maj of the Army) and they are actual ranks rather than, as in the British army, posts held (usually) by warrant officers.

  25. In general, “-major” historically meant someone half a step up from the original unmodified rank, and “lieutenant-” meant someone half a step down. In particular, the modern army rank of major was originally short for “captain-major”, someone half a step up from a captain. (In the Irish army, majors are called “commandants”, which elsewhere is mostly a functional title.)

  26. The difference between ranks and posts among the top enlisted ranks in the U.S. military is actually a bit murky. The ranks of command sergeant major and sergeant major of the army have their own rank insignia; however, they are still grade E-9 (like plain sergeant major), and promotions to those ranks are specifically for individuals holding particular positions. A CSM is the enlisted advisor to the head of an entire command, and the sergeant major of the army serves the same function advising the army chief of staff and higher civilian defense department officials. There are equivalent positions in the other services (e.g. master chief petty officer of the navy).

  27. Trond Engen says

    The highborn Commodore of Calatrava
    would buy, scorn some, to score, a gal a Cava.
    A maid outdrunk him, hailed Crimean rosy-hue.
    He swayed out, sunk, then failed by bein’ cosy to
    a fly-worn bum who wore a balaklava.

  28. marie-lucie says

    (In the Irish army, majors are called “commandants”, which elsewhere is mostly a functional title.)

    This must be taken literally from French, where commandant is indeed the equivalent of English major.

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