Final Word

A fool with a golden chain, a fool he remains


The elections due to take place across South Africa next week are called municipal elections, but in effect they are turning out to be elections about who will don the golden mayoral chains for the next five years.

We wrote last week about how the campaigning for this year’s local government elections became dominated by the battle between aspiring candidates for the position of mayors in municipalities across the land – in the process even spawning the new term ‘mayoralism’.

This prompted us to take a look at the origin of the term ‘mayor’, and the traditions that developed around them and the golden ceremonial chains around their necks.

Definition and origins

Research tells us that the term arrived in Middle English somewhere in the second half of the 13th century as mer or mair via the Old French word maire, from the Late Latin adjective maior meaning ‘greater’ or ’bigger.’

At some stage in history it was also used as the title of the chief judicial officer or magistrate of a city or borough.

In modern times the title became the almost exclusive property of the head of a municipal government, almost always elected by the majority of the elected representatives of voters in a particular municipality. And almost in all cases the mayor is the chairperson of the municipal council and/or the council’s executive committee.

In England and Wales mayors often were the descendants of the feudal lord’s bailiff or reeve (equivalent of the modern justice of the peace). The chief magistrate of London, for example, once bore the title of portreeve.

Early in the 12th century, the title of portreeve started giving way to that of mayor and in the 13th century, after the Norman Conquest the officials were elected by popular choice.

Since reforms introduced in 2000, 14 English local authorities have directly elected mayors who combine the 'civic' mayor role with that of leader of the council and have significantly greater powers than either.

Developments, however, differed from country to country and after the revolution in France the maire and some unpaid mayoral adjuncts (adjoints au maire) were selected by the municipal council from among their own number to do most of the administrative work. The full council seldom met.


The roots of the words ‘municipality’ and ‘municipal’, which arrived in English during the 1540s, from Middle French municipal can be traced back to the Latin word municipalis, from municipium, meaning 'free city', and municeps or municip, meaning  'citizen/s with privileges' and munia for 'civic offices.'

When present-day South African citizens of municipalities expect and demand better services, they have the full right to do so if one looks at the following explanation on the website

(Its) “… first element is from munus (plural munia) ‘service performed for the community, duty, work,’ also ‘public spectacle paid for by the magistrate, (gladiatorial) entertainment, gift,’ from Old Latin moenus ‘service, duty, burden,’ from PIE ‘moi-n-es,’ generally taken as a suffixed form of root mei-  ‘to change, go, move ‘(or) ‘mei- meaning ‘bind,’ so that munia = ‘obligations’ and communis = ‘bound together.’” (Our emphasis.)

The golden chain

The tradition of wearing a ‘livery collar’ or chain of office dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe – originally to denote attachment to a ‘great person’ by friends, servants and political supporters.

Charles V of France in particular distributed such collars as a sign of a pseudo-chivalric order, although no such order formally existed.

Final word

The concept of ‘greatness’ seems to be embedded in the name and traditions surrounding the terms ‘mayor’ and ‘mayoral chain’, but judged by the reaction of citizens to contesting candidates in various municipalities, for many of them it is a case of:  “A fool with a golden chain, a fool he remains.”

by Piet & Helene Coetzer

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