A seneschal (/ˈsɛnəʃəl/) was an administrative officer in the houses of important nobles in the Middle Ages and early Modern period, equivalent to a steward or stolnik. In a medieval noble household a seneschal was in charge of domestic arrangements and the administration of servants. In the French administrative system of the Middle Ages, the seneschal (French: sénéchal) was also a royal officer in charge of justice and control of the administration in southern provinces, equivalent to the northern French bailiff (bailli).
The term, first attested in 1350–1400, was borrowed from Anglo-Norman seneschal "steward", from Old Dutch *siniscalc "senior retainer" (attested in Latin siniscalcus (692 AD), Old High German senescalh), a compound of *sini- (cf. Gothic sineigs "old", sinista "oldest") and scalc "servant", ultimately a calque of Late Latin senior scholaris "senior guard".
The scholae in the late Roman Empire referred to the imperial guard, divided into senior (seniores) and junior (juniores) units. The captain of the guard was known as comes scholarum. When Germanic tribes took over the Empire, the scholae were merged or replaced with the Germanic king's warband (cf. Vulgar Latin *dructis, OHG truht, Old English dryht) whose members also had duties in their lord's household like a royal retinue. The king's chief warbandman and retainer (cf. Old Saxon druhting, OHG truhting, truhtigomo OE dryhtguma, dryhtealdor), from the 5th century on, personally attended on the king, as specifically stated in the Theodosian Code of 413 (Cod. Theod. VI. 13. 1; known as comes scholae). The warband, once sedentary, became first the king's royal household, and then his great officers of state, and in both cases the seneschal is synonymous with steward.
In late medieval and early modern France, the seneschal was originally a royal steward overseeing the entire country but developed into an agent of the crown charged with administration of a seneschalty (French: sénéchaussée), one of the districts of the crown lands in Languedoc and Normandy. Hallam states that the first seneschals to govern in this manner did so by an 1190 edict of Philip II. The seneschals also served as the chief justice of the royal courts in their areas.
The equivalent post throughout most of northern France was the bailiff (bailli), who oversaw a bailiwick (bailliage).