Last Sunday, several hundred thousand supporters of the Countryside Alliance took part in a Countryside March through London as part of a campaign to persuade the Government to take more notice of the special needs of rural areas. The word campaign is a particularly appropriate one to apply in this case.
Campaign comes down to us from the Latin campania, “open field; plain; level countryside”. This passed into Old French as champagne in its broader sense of “open country”, a name that was given in particular to a region of eastern France. It also passed into English in the fourteenth century in the form champaign with the same meaning (though it was stressed on the first syllable, unlike the French), a word which is now archaic. Champagne was later reborrowed in that spelling to mean the characteristically bubbly drink made in that region of France.
In Italian, the form was campagna. It, too, was used as a name for a stretch of open countryside and in particular for the Campagna di Roma, that rich and flat province of Italy lying south-west of the Tiber.
Until modern times, armies normally only did battle in the summer months, because the bad weather of winter made movement difficult or impossible. In winter they stayed in camp, and only when the weather improved did they venture out into “the field”, into the campagna. This specialised use of the word moved into French and then in the seventeenth century into English in the modern spelling campaign. At first it was used for all the senses of its predecessor champaign, but was soon applied solely in the military sense. From there, it broadened a little to mean any sustained military operation, at whatever time of year, and from the early nineteenth century took on the sense that last weekend’s demonstrators meant, an organised set of actions intended to mobilise public opinion.
Some of those who marched would describe themselves as champions of the countryside, another word which derives from the same Latin source as campaign. The root Latin word for both was campus, ‘open field; arena’, which could also mean “a place of battle” (a particularly well known one was the campus Martius, a level ground by the Tiber that was used for sports, military drill and assemblies). Those who fought in staged battles in the arena were called in Latin campiones, which is the source of our English word, again via French. In Latin, by the way, it meant anyone who took part, not just the winners, a sense in English that only dates from the 1730s. The Latin word is also the source of our camp, taking up the association on its way through Italian and French of “a place where troops are housed” and was borrowed again as the name for the grounds of a college, being first applied to Princeton University in the 1770s.
The wild flowers called campions were at one time thought to be so named because they were used as garlands by the ancient Greeks (rose campion was formerly placed in the genus Agrostemma, from the Greek agros “field” and stemma “garland”), but it may be they’re actually named after campus in its sense of “country”. Either way campion is a book name of the sixteenth century.
By the way, country has no connection with any of these words. It’s from the Latin contra, used in the phrase terra contrata to mean the landscape which is spread out opposite one, or in front of one. Later the second word took on a life of its own and arrived in English as the term for a tract of land, but more specifically one controlled by a particular race, family or people. Its meaning of “rural” as differentiated from “urban” seems not to have developed until the sixteenth century.