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The word, recorded in English since circa 1375, stems from Old French retenue, itself from retenir, from the Latin retenere: to hold back or retain.
Such retainers were not necessarily in the domestic service or otherwise normally close to the presence of their lord, but also include others who wore his livery (a kind of uniform, in distinctive colours) and claimed his protection, such as musicians and tutors.
Some were a source of trouble and abuse in the 15th and early 16th century.
Often their real importance was very different from their rank: on the one hand, sinecures and supernumerary appointments allowed enjoying benefits without performing full service. On the other hand, 'having the ear' of the master can allow one to act as a confidant in an informal capacity; or in some cases, even as a spy, under the guise of an innocent musician.
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