Graf (male) or Gräfin (female) is an historical title of the German nobility, usually translated as count. Considered intermediate in rank, the title is often treated as equivalent to the British "earl" (whose female version and consort is a countess).
The comital title Graf is common to various European territories where German was or is the official or vernacular tongue, e.g., Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, (French) Alsace, (Danish) Holstein, and other Habsburg crown lands. Since August 1919, in Germany, Graf, like any other title, is considered a part of the legal surname. In Austria its use, as with all hereditary titles and nobiliary particles, is banned by law; whereas in Switzerland the title is not acknowledged in law; while in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein (as in Belgium) the countly title continues to be recognised, used and, occasionally, granted by the national fons honorum, the reigning monarch.
From the medieval era, a Graf usually ruled a territory known as a Grafschaft (county). In the Holy Roman Empire, many Imperial counts (Reichsgrafen) retained near-sovereign authority in their lands until the Congress of Vienna subordinated them to larger, neighboring monarchs through the German mediatisation process of 1815, preserving their precedence, allocating familial representation in local legislatures, some jurisdictional immunities and the prestigious privilege of Ebenburtigkeit. In regions of Europe where nobles did not actually exercise Landeshoheit, or sovereignty over the populace, the Graf long retained specific feudal privileges over the land and in the villages in his county, such as rights to peasant service, to periodic fees for use of common infrastructure such as timber, mills, wells and pastures. These rights gradually eroded and were largely eliminated before or during the 19th century, leaving the Graf with few legal privileges beyond land ownership, although comital estates in German-speaking lands were often substantial.
Many Continental counts in Germany and Austria were titled Graf without any additional qualification. Except in the Kingdom of Prussia from the 19th century, the title of Graf was not restricted by primogeniture: it was inherited by all legitimate descendants in the male line of the original titleholder, the males also inheriting an approximately equal share of the family's wealth and estates. Usually a hyphenated suffix indicated which of the familial lands a particular line of counts held, e.g. Castell-Rudenhausen.
In the medieval Holy Roman Empire, some counts took or were granted unique variations of the grafliche title, often relating to a specific domain or jurisdiction of responsibility, e.g. Landgraf, Markgraf, Pfalzgraf (Count Palatine), Burgraf, Wildgraf, Waldgraf, Altgraf, Raugraf, etc. Although as a title Graf ranked, officially, below those of Herzog (duke) and Furst (prince), the Holy Roman Emperor could and did recognise unique concessions of authority or rank to some of these nobles, raising them to the status of gefurstete Graf or "princely count". But a grafliche title with such a prefix did not always signify a higher than comital rank or membership in the Hochadel. Only the more important of these titles, historically associated with degrees of sovereignty, remained in use by the 19th century, i.e. Margraf and Landgraf.
For a list of the titles of the rank of Count etymologically related to Graf (and for other equivalents) see article Count.
Read more about Graf: History, List of Nobiliary Titles Containing The Term graf, Reichsgraf, Gefürsteter Graf, Landgrave, Gefürsteter Graf, Burgrave / Viscount, Rhinegrave, Wildgrave, Raugrave, Altgrave, Modern Usage in German Surnames and Alphabetical Sorting, Other Uses