Aristocracy and Gentry

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ARISTOCRACY AND GENTRY. In most European countries society and politics were dominated during the early modern period by the power and influence that nobles enjoyed, either as individuals or as a social group. Noble hegemony was not always uncontested, but by successfully adapting to political and cultural changes and by integrating competing social elites, nobles managed to maintain their dominant position in most cases until the late eighteenth century. Although noble elites across Europe were defined according to distinct local and national customs and legal criteria, noble men and women from different countries nevertheless tended to recognize each other as members of the same social estate, if not necessarily as equals, united by a specific sense of honor and adherence to common values.


Noblemen and noblewomen can most easily be defined as members of a social group that enjoyed a hereditary claim to certain privileges and social status, a claim that was sustained by a specific way of life and social practices that were meant to ensure that non-nobles were excluded from the charmed circles of the elite. However, at the beginning of the early modern period, what distinguished the lower nobilitythat is, simple gentlemenfrom mere commoners was not necessarily a matter of clear legal distinctions. What made a man and his family noble was rather his or their ability to live according to a specific social code of conduct. In most European countries (the patrician urban elites of the Mediterranean world were, at least at the beginning of our period, a partial exception), noblemen were expected to own landed property, ideally as a fief, held as tenant-in-chief from the crown or a secular or ecclesiastical magnate. They were also expected to lead a life of comparative leisure or at least to refrain from commercial activities that were considered demeaning as, for example, retail trading. In many countries military prowess and the virtues of the warrior were important ideals governing the conduct of noblemen. Ancient lineage, real or sometimes invented, was certainly crucial to lend credibility to the social aspirations of a family. However, if a man bought a fief complete with castle or manor house and the concomitant rights of jurisdiction and lordship, married the right woman or ensured that at least his children married the right partners, and lived in appropriate style, his heirs would stand a fair chance of being accepted as noble by local society in due course. This was certainly true in the earlier sixteenth century in most countries.

Nevertheless, many monarchs and princes gradually tried to control access to noble status more tightly. To some extent this had become necessary because the increasing tax burden had made noble status (which often brought freedom from direct taxation) dangerously attractive, all the more so as the feudal obligation to perform personal military service for the crown at times of war had largely become obsolete in an age when battles were no longer fought by the feudal host but by armies of professional soldiers. In France a royal ordinance stated in 1579 that men of non-noble origin who bought noble fiefs should in future remain members of the Third Estate; the silent elevation to the status of nobleman was thereby declared illegal. Admittedly, it took several decades to enforce this legislation. In fact it was not until the reign of Louis XIV, in the 1660s, that systematic investigations were undertaken to weed out false from true nobles. Such nationwide controls of social status were more difficult to implement in other countries. Nevertheless, the tendency to move from a notion of nobility that was based on custom and informal criteria of social prestige to an idea of nobility conceived in terms of written proofs of noble lineage or based on royal letters of ennoblement was visible elsewhere as well. However, outside France it was often not the monarch but noble corporations such as cathedral chapters or the assemblies of Estates (or those sections of these assemblies that represented the nobility) that took the lead in erecting barriers to social newcomers and defining noble status more narrowly. While noble corporations tried to exclude newly ennobled families, titles granted by kings and sovereign princes, especially in moments of political or fiscal crisis, undermined the idea of a natural nobility that did not require a royal or princely grant or confirmation to be valid.

Whereas both the aristocracy and the lower nobility in most European countries were increasingly defined by clear legal criteria, the English gentry formed an exception to this rule. Partly because gentlemen had to pay the same taxes as other royal subjects, the crown had no great interest in restricting access to gentry status and would have lacked the power to do so in any case. Essentially, a man could assume the title "gentleman" or possibly even "esquire" if he felt that he was sufficiently wealthy and powerful to get away with such a claim without exposing himself to ridicule. In the eighteenth century the title "gentleman" became ever more widespread and was used widely by members of the respectable urban middle classes, even sometimes by wealthy shopkeepers.


The contrast between the English gentry and its continental counterparts is only one example of the heterogeneity of noble society in early modern Europe. To start with, the number of noble families per head of population varied greatly. At the European periphery, in Poland, Hungary, and Castile, nobles and their families made up between 5 and 10 percent of the population in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The percentage sometimes rose to 25 or more in regions such as Asturias in northern Spain or Mazowia in Poland, which had been marked by prolonged periods of warfare in the high or late Middle Ages; in these areas, freeholders who would have been simple peasants elsewhere often became part of the nobility or had special military privileges. In central Europe, in Germany and France, and also in England (if one includes the gentry), between 1 and 2, or at most 3, percent of all men and women could claim noble status. This was more or less the European norm; regions such as southern Italy, Scandinavia, and Bohemia (where the lower nobility almost disappeared after 1620) had a lower density of noblemen, about 0.5 percent of the population in the eighteenth century.

Areas with numerous nobility were obviously also those that had the greatest number of impoverished noble families in the early modern period. This applies not only to the regions just mentioned but also to parts of France such as Brittany or the southwest, or countries such as Scotland. Partible inheritance did not help either, as it created a great number of noble heirs who stubbornly clung to their status and their inherited privileges, even though the ancient family fortune had long been diminished. Primogeniture, on the other hand, which was valid in England for the peerage and also for gentry families, tended to create an elite of limited size but comparatively solid wealth. Those younger sons who no longer owned enough real estate simply dropped out of the elite and became members of the urban or rural middle classes unless they managed to pursue successful careers as officeholders, lawyers, or soldiers (or sometimes even as merchants), which might give them sufficient wealth and prestige to remain members of the elite.

During the early modern period many noble families tried to defend their economic position against the dangers of mismanagement and waste by introducing forms of inheritance designed to ensure that real estate could neither be sold at will nor divided among several heirs. The strict settlement in England, the mayorazgo in Spain, and the Fideikommiss ('entail') in Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy stipulated as a rule that younger sons received only stipends and cash payments or, at best, smaller estates not included in the entail. Daughters received dowries; the bulk of the family fortune went to the eldest son, who could not, however, sell the property. Such special forms of inheritance became increasingly popular in the seventeenth century in particular among the high aristocracy. The enormous fortunes of the Spanish grandes, the magnates of Austria and Bohemia, and many English peers were protected by such arrangements, although mismanagement by a succession of spendthrift heirs could still spell doom for aristocratic dynasties.

The difference between these magnates and the rank and file of the lower nobility, both in power and in cultural terms, was striking. Although the size of aristocratic households, and in particular the number of male servants, declined somewhat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some magnates still employed several hundred servants and retainers, whereas many simple country gentlemen could only afford one or two.

In the sixteenth century both magnates and simple gentlemen tended to live in castles or manor houses in the country, outside the towns and cities, in most European countries. Northern and central Italy and large areas of Spainin particular the southas well as southern France were, however, an exception to this rule. In fact, in northern Italy the social group that can most easily be classified as noble was the urban patriciate. The economic power base of this group had originally been trade and financial transactions, but later generations often tended to prefer a rentier existence that was unsoiled by visible business activities. In France and to a lesser extent elsewhere as well, a legal career offered special chances of ennoblement. Because most royal offices, including those in the highest courts of law, the parlements, could be bought and inherited, a class of hereditary officeholders was formed in the later sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries that could lay some claim to noble status, the noblesse de robe. Although its members in many French provincesperhaps less so in the capitaloften came from the same families as the rural noblemen belonging to the noblesse d'epée (the military nobility), the robins had their own ethos and culture, which was distinct from that of the traditional nobility with its concentration on military virtue. The upper echelons of both elites tended to merge in the eighteenth century in social and cultural terms.

In general, the distinction between long-established urban and rural elites became gradually less marked in the course of the seventeenth and in the early eighteenth century. Urban patricians, such as the great families of Milan and Florence and, in the eighteenth century, the regents of Amsterdam, adopted the style of the old feudal nobility. They bought fiefs, manors, and rights of jurisdiction, increasingly spoke and acted like courtiers, and had their sons serve as officers in the army. Meanwhile, the rural nobility, or at least its wealthier members, moved into town, where they built palatial houses in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The great capitals such as London, Paris, and Vienna, and also smaller provincial cities, became centers of noble life, in particular during the winter months when life in the country was too dull and uncomfortable. Those rural gentlemen who lacked the means to leave their country houses and adopt the manners and style required by the sophisticated and refined culture of court and city were left isolated and resentful in their villages, cut off from the patronage networks that the noble magnates who were now mostly absent had provided in the past.


In most European countries nobles held more or less extensive right of jurisdiction at the local level, ranging from the right to adjudicate small disputes about property or to punish minor misdemeanors to the full authority to impose death sentences for capital crimes. Over time kings and princes tended to restrict noble jurisdiction or subject it to the control of their own courts of appeal. However, particularly in eastern and east central Europe (in Poland or Bohemia and Moravia for example, but also in Germany east of the Elbe River), noble seigneurs ruled their villagesand sometimes small agrarian towns as wellautocratically as late as the mid-eighteenth century and beyond. The peasants were often serfs or were at least subjected to severe restrictions on their personal freedom. They had to provide the lord of the manor with labor services and could not marry or leave their farms without his consent. This strict seignorial regime, which was designed to support the extensive home farms maintained by nobles, had no full equivalent in most parts of western and southern Europe. However, in the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy, the state's fiscal crisis in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to a large-scale alienation of royal rights of jurisdiction and taxation to noble magnates and rich financierswho were subsequently often ennobled and integrated into the ancient nobilitythat has been described as a process of refeudalization. In kingdoms such as Sicily, Naples, and Castile, the authority of the state was for a time eroded and replaced by that of great noblemen. Elsewhere, for example in France, the agents of a centralizing state, collecting taxes, dispensing justice, and enforcing religious conformity, were more successful in challenging the preeminence of nobles in the localities. Historians have often seen this process as the triumph of absolutism over noble power and liberty. However, the relationship between royal authority and noble power was not a zero-sum game, where the gain of one side was necessarily the loss of the other. Monarchs and their officeholders may have undermined the position of noble warlordsthe quintessential overmighty subjectsand taken a dim view of the protection rackets run by petty squires in remote provinces such as the Auvergne in France or Catalonia in Spain, but at least until the eighteenth century, the monarchical state also gave fresh legitimacy to the status, privileges, and honors enjoyed by nobles. In fact, important sections of the nobility took an active part in the state-building process and benefited from it either in the form of offices, pensions, and monopolies or because they were able to siphon offofficially or unofficiallya substantial part of the profits from taxation and other public revenues. Admittedly, there had been times of deep tension and conflicts between monarchs and noblemen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in many countries, such as France and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy. Religious divisions, tensions between competing noble factions at court, royal minorities, dynastic succession crises, and the failure of traditional political institutions such as the assemblies of Estates to integrate potential forces of opposition and to defuse conflicts all contributed to a series of violent confrontations, rebellions, and civil wars. When a new accommodation was achieved after about 1650, the traditional diets and provincial or national Estates, which had as a rulenext to the clergybeen dominated by nobles, were in terminal decline in many countries (they continued to thrive in England, Sweden, and parts of the Habsburg Monarchy as well as in the German ecclesiastical principalities). Nevertheless, a new accommodation between the noble quest for prestige and status and the demands of the state was achieved. Royal patronage managed to defuse the tensions between traditional notions of noble honor and the honors granted by the monarchical state to its servants. Not until the later eighteenth century was this new symbiosis to be challenged both by new non-noble elites and by enlightened nobles themselves.

See also Absolutism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Court and Courtiers ; Duel ; Estates and Country Houses ; Honor ; Inheritance and Wills ; Monarchy ; Rentiers.


Asch, Ronald G. Courtiers and Rebels: The Transformation of the European Nobilities, c. 15501700. London, 2003. New survey that looks primarily at Central Europe, France, and Britain, andto a lesser extentSpain.

Bush, M. L. The European Nobility. Vol. I, Noble Privilege. Manchester, 1983. Vol. II, Rich NoblePoor Noble. Manchester, 1988. These two volumes provide essential information, but those who look for lively intellectual debate may well prefer other works.

Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in Western Europe. Cardiff, 1995. Sociological approach, but rich in historical detail; concentrates on England, France, and "Lotharingia," i.e. Savoy, Burgundy, and the Netherlands.

Dewald, Jonathan. The European Nobility, 14001800. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Stimulating book, particularly good on cultural developments. Based partly on the author's extensive research on the history of the French nobility.

Heal, Felicity, and Clive Holmes. The Gentry in England and Wales 15001700. Basingstoke, U.K., 1994. Now the standard account for this period.

Jouanna, Arlette. Le devoir de révolte. La noblesse française et la gestation de l'état moderne, 15591661. Paris, 1989. Important book by foremost expert on the history of the French nobility in this period. An absolute must for those who want to learn about noble rebellion and noble mentality.

MacHardy, Karen J. War, Religion and Court Patronage in Habsburg Austria: The Social and Cultural Dimensions of Political Interaction 15211622. Basingstoke, U.K., 2002. Looks at the decades before the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War and the subsequent transformation of the nobility.

Scott, H. M., ed. The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. 2 vols., London, 1995. Extremely good collection of essays, though contributions on Italy and England are less informative than others.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of The Aristocracy, 15581641. Oxford, 1965. Classic statement of a once-influential thesis, that the peerage succumbed to economic problems before 1642. Main argument now widely seen as less than convincing, but book remains a magnificent survey of its subject.

Zmora, Hillay. Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State in Europe, 13001800. London and New York, 2001. Brief but well-argued survey by scholar who is expert on late medieval and sixteenth-century German nobility.

Ronald G. Asch