Margrave (Latin: marchio) is the English and French form (recorded since 1551) of the German title Markgraf (from Mark "march" and Graf "count" ) and certain equivalent nobiliary ("princely") titles in other languages. The wife of a margrave is called a margravine or in German Markgräfin.
A Markgraf, or margrave, originally functioned as the military governor of a Carolingian mark, a medieval border province. A margrave had jurisdiction over a march (German: Mark), which also become known, after his title, as a margraviate or margravate, strictly speaking the correct word for his office. As outlying areas tended to have great importance to the central realms of kings and princes, and they often became larger than those nearer the interior, margraves often acquired considerably greater power than other counts of a realm. Being on the border, a Margrave by definition had to maintain armed forces and fortifications which would enable him to withstand an invasion - and these made his position stronger and more independent towards his own sovereign. Moreover, if successful in war, a Margrave might conquer considerable territory which he would tend to keep to himself, acquiring more power and wealth - and in some cases (see below) eventually building himself up as an independent King.
Most marks, and consequently their margraves, had their base on the Eastern border of the Carolingian and later Holy Roman Empire. The Breton Mark on the Atlantic and the border of peninsular Britanny, and the Spanish Mark on the Muslim frontier, including what is now Catalonia, are notable exceptions. The Spanish Mark was to have a considerable importance in the early stages of the Reconquista, with ambitious margraves originally based in the Pyrenees taking advantage of Muslim Al-Andalus' disarray in the 11th century to extend their territory southwards, eventually leading to the creation of Christian Kingdoms that would become Spain.
In the modern Holy Roman Empire, two original marches developed into the two most powerful states in Central Europe: the Mark Brandenburg (the nucleus of the later Kingdom of Prussia) and Austria (which became heir to various, mainly 'Hungarian' and 'Burgundian' principalities). Austria was originally called Marchia Orientalis in Latin, the "eastern borderland", as (originally roughly the present Lower -) Austria formed the eastern outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, on the border with the Magyars and the Slavs. During the 19th and 20th centuries the term was sometimes translated as Ostmark by some Germanophones, but medieval documents attest only the vernacular name Ostarrîchi.Another Mark in the south-east, Styria, still appears as Steiermark in German today.
In the late Middle Ages, as marches lost their military importance, margraviates developed into hereditary monarchies, comparable in all but name to duchies. A unique case was the Golden Bull of 1356 (issued by Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia), recognizing the Margrave of Brandenburg as an elector of the Holy Roman Empire, membership of the highest college within the Imperial diet carrying the politically significant privilege of being the sole electors of the non-hereditary Emperor, which was previously de facto restricted to dukes and three prince-archbishops (Cologne, Mainz and Trier); other non-ducal lay members would be the King of Bohemia and the Palatine of the Rhenish Electoral Palatinate. The King of Bohemia himself ruled over the Margravate of Moravia or appointed a Margrave to that post. As the title of margrave lost its military connotation, it became more and more used as a mere 'peerage' rank, higher than Graf (count) and its associated compound titles such as Landgraf, Gefürsteter Graf and Reichsgraf, but lower than Herzog (duke). At the end of the monarchies in Germany, Italy and Austria, not a single margraviate remained, since they all had been raised to higher titles.
The etymological heir of the margrave, also introduced in countries that never had any margraviates, the marquess (see that article; their languages may use one or two words, e.g. French margrave and marquis), still ranks in the British peerage between duke and earl (equivalent to a continental count).
Languages with a specific title for the margrave (distinct from the later marquess, for which all have a word, if different given in parentheses) include (but often no actual marches existed there, so it only refers to foreign cases) :