Landed Elites

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The relationship of elites to landownership in Europe from 1789 to 1914 was very diverse, complicated by the variety of geographical regions, the multiplicity of systems of landownership from large estates of more than 1,000 hectares to small farms, the existence of tracts of common lands and forests, the wide variety of forms of tenancy of arable land at the lower levels of rural society, and political changes in states. Throughout the nineteenth century agriculture was the leading economic activity of Europeans save in the United Kingdom where 8 percent of the employed male population was in agriculture in 1911. After 1914 it was approximately 24 percent for the German Empire, 30 percent in France, and 52 percent in Russia. Historians and geographers have produced a variety of local studies of particular regions but they are so disparate that it is not possible to extrapolate continuous series of statistics about the social origins of landowners and estate size and values throughout Europe.

Landownership remained an important element of the definition of elite status in society during the nineteenth century, especially for aristocrats and nobles but also for rich commoners. Landownership was attractive to the elite—meaning the wealthiest 5 percent of families within their nations or territories—because of the ongoing prestige of the feudal origins of European nobilities in the Middle Ages. Many nobles claimed a feudal origin from a title bestowed by a king or emperor but others claimed to be immemorial nobility, meaning that it was so old that there was no record of its origin. The family seat was either passed down by primogeniture or acquired through a dowry of a new spouse. In Poland before the nineteenth century the monarchy was elected by the nobility and the descendants of those noble families, the szlachta, continued to avoid intermarriage with plebians and to claim hereditary military prowess for the males.

The European understanding of the desirability of keeping at least part of family wealth in the form of landownership had been affected by the eighteenth-century French economists known as physiocrats (especially François Quesnay, 1694–1774) who taught that agriculture yielded a net surplus while manufacturing did not. It was better to invest in land at a time of rising population than to search for the monetary rewards invoked by mercantilism. A corollary was that large landowners should interest themselves in agricultural improvement.

In the post-Napoleonic constitutional monarchy in France that was organized according to the Constitutional Charter of 1814, franchise was given to adult males on the basis of their declared levels of taxation paid. The land tax was at a higher rate than that on commercial premises. Political theorists of the time identified landowners as being particularly responsible for safeguarding the public good. Large landowners were thought to influence the politics of their tenants and laborers.

Europe in the nineteenth century was to undergo aspects of the industrial revolution brought about by use of steam power, improved metallurgical techniques for the production of iron and steel, and above all the introduction of a complex railway system that crisscrossed the Continent by 1914 and the invention of the automobile. The effects of these innovations and the developments of the banking system and that of stock exchanges provided large rewards to individuals and families who participated in new opportunities. Many of those individuals and their families were able to buy urban real estate and also country estates that permitted them to mimic the lifestyle of the landed nobility. One of the major trends of the social history of nineteenth-century Europe was the rise in urbanization and the growing proportion of the population that lived in towns of more than five thousand inhabitants.

Elite members bought land for recreational use, especially hunting, shooting, and horseback riding, and constructed large country houses set in parkland and gardens for their families and visitors. They also provided lodgings and work space for servants and laborers. Ownership of a country house where guests could be housed in gracious surroundings for days was one sign of membership in the elite.

Feudal dues were one of the forms of property ended by the Revolution in France in the session of the National Assembly through the night of 4 August 1789. Abolition of such payments and services and the emancipation of rural workers from forms of serfdom that restricted their economic independence took place in many other parts of Europe during the nineteenth century. The confiscations of some noble and clerical properties in France during the Revolution of 1789 meant that many townspeople were able to purchase land. The property transfers mainly benefited the legal profession and the middle classes. In other parts of Europe conditions were slower to change. Confiscations of monastic and some aristocratic land and its subsequent sale took place in Portugal in 1834 and in Spain in 1836.

In eastern Europe members of the Prussian Junker class were more successful in retaining their rural authority. Baron Karl vom Stein's (1757–1831) 1807 October Edict abolished the Brandenburg-Prussian villagers' personal legal liabilities without compensating the former overlords. This opened up a free land market so that estate owners might now emerge from any social class if they had the requisite cash. Elsewhere, further land-reform measures led to the emancipation of farmers and peasants from restraints on their economic independence and also enclosed formerly village-controlled common lands and forest. This produced large estates worked by laborers resident in small villages and also created village-based family farms. The nineteenth century saw the shift from unpaid manorial service to modern wage labor for rural workers. However serfdom, meaning that peasants were legally linked to work on the estates where they lived, continued until 1861 in Russia. Although direct legal authority over the peasantry by noble landowners was everywhere diminishing during the nineteenth century there was a residual prestige for a style of life which involved a stately home, considered to be a family seat, set in a rural estate.

In many parts of Europe large country houses were repaired or rebuilt in the nineteenth century to sustain a symbolism of the aristocratic lifestyle. Noblewomen projected a powerful image of family life, social roles, and interclass attitudes. Members of the elite kept significant amounts of family capital in landownership. Some of the elite interested themselves in improving the agricultural yields of their properties by studying new techniques of seeding, plowing, and applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides. England, the Low Countries, and northern France were the first regions to undergo an agricultural revolution efficient enough to generate surplus capital linked to the Industrial Revolution.

It can be argued that as a general rule in Europe effective landowner power depended on a residence in the country seat for at least part of the year. Thousands of wealthy titled families would

leave Moscow to spend the summer on their country estates and the same could be said of cities like Vienna and Berlin. Families that laid no historical claim to noble titles, as well as those who received distinctions from rulers who still dispensed them, like the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and other monarchs, typically sought to purchase country houses. These were often called a Schloss, chateau, or manor house and had an estate farmed either by laborers under the direction of the chatelain or his agents. Parts of it could be rented out to tenant farmers.

Europe in 1914 had lost some title-granting crowns, as in France, and had gained others, as in the Kingdom of Italy and the German Reich. In some countries legislation had stripped aristocrats of privileges. Changes in inheritance laws in many countries undermined the system of primogeniture, in which the eldest male child received a disproportunate amount of the estate at the expense of an equal share for his siblings. In Britain this system was called the strict settlement. The abolition in Spain during the 1820s of entailed properties that passed to the eldest son in each generation caused a breakup of noble estates.

In almost all of Europe there were those who claimed nobility even if some republics were indifferent. In fact the continuities of old elites into the nineteenth century remained a crucial element of the European past. Nobles found a place in understanding the European century of world domination, the nineteenth. Karl Marx (1818–1883) had restated the inevitability of class conflict between a bourgeoisie enriched by modernity and factories and the enfeebled old aristocracy whose wealth was primarily in land. The workers who were exploited to provide the wealth of the bourgeoisie would, when they were conscious of their exploitation, revolt against their oppressors. In the perspective of those who saw agriculture as the basis of the state the harmonious relationship of large landowners, who were often aristocrats, with the peasants who worked the land for them was seen as the core value.

An argument has been sustained regarding the abiding influence of aristocrats in politics and war in Europe. The world of nobles as models of good living was gradually divorced from a political language of royalism or legitimism or Bonapartism. Quite soon after the French Revolution various social theorists addressed the issue of the existence of nobilities in society. At least some nobles tried to introduce divine purpose into their existence. One example was published in London in French by an unidentified èmigrè in 1812: Letter on the nobility, or Emile corrected on the nature, rank, dignity and the necessuty of the nobility in every country; the origin of its lands, titles, estates and possessions. Deplorable blindness about this order. Frenzy of the factious who seek to destroy it. Destructive system which upsets the world. Fertile source of calamities for peoples, etc. etc. in which the author points out what was happening to the Spanish nobility at the time of his publication and that French revolutionary hostility to nobility made plain to nobles in other lands the "grievous fate that would engulf them unless they hastened to recognize the danger." By the end of the nineteenth century nobody published books claiming divine protection for nobility. Instead the argument would be one in favor of a service nobility that passed on particularly valuable traditions in its family formations. This might show itself in diplomacy or banking; in due course the nobility would show interest in the arts, science, and high technology. It can be argued that the elite was more open to new recruits with new ways of making a living before World War I than it had been at the onset of the French Revolution.

The Cavazza family of Bologna, Italy, showed the place of landownership in aristocratic assimilation into the local elite by a successful banker ennobled in the 1880s for public service and charity. His son, Count Francesco Cavazza (1860–1942), invested extensively in rural properties and was the second biggest landowner in the province by 1914. He married a countess from an older lineage and he purchased and renovated a fifteenth-century walled castle outside Bologna. His activities were now those of an aristocratic landowner who was noted for charity, a patron of the arts, and a parliamentary deputy first elected in 1913. With modifications caused by local circumstances elsewhere in Europe similar examples can be found of the linkage of elites and land.

See alsoAristocracy; Bourgeoisie; Class and Social Relations; Peasants.


Gibson, Ralph, and Martin Blinkhorn, eds. Landownership and Power in Modern Europe. London, 1991.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the French Country House. New York, 2000.

Godsey, William D., Jr. Nobles and Nation in Central Europe: Free Imperial Knights in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2004.

Hagen, William W. Ordinary Prussians: Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500–1840. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

David Higgs