Ritter (German for "knight") is a designation used as a title of nobility in German-speaking areas. Traditionally it denotes the second lowest rank within the nobility, standing above "Edler" and below "Freiherr" (Baron). For its historical association with warfare and the landed gentry in the Middle Ages, it can be considered roughly equal to the titles of "Knight" or "Baronet".
As with most titles and designations within the nobility in German-speaking areas, the rank was normally hereditary and would generally be used together with the nobiliary particle of von or zu before a family name.
In the Austrian Empire the title of "Ritter von" would be bestowed upon citizens who deserved more than the plain "von" but were not considered deserving enough as to be given a barony as "Freiherr". In addition to the described system, some states like Württemberg and Bavaria introduced orders of merit beginning in the late 18th century which also conferred nobility as "Ritter von" but kept the title limited to the recipient's lifetime (see Military Order of Max Joseph).
In heraldry, from the late 18th century a Ritter would often be indicated by the use of a coronet with five points, although not everyone who was a Ritter and displayed arms actually made use of such a coronet.
By Dean Hanley
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