The Nobility

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The Nobility


Definition. According to the society of orders model, nobility was a status acquired by service in the defense of society. The battle chiefs and knights of the Middle Ages were, according to this idea, the true exemplars of nobility. By the late fifteenth century, this notion ran into the ines-capable fact that most people who called themselves nobles were no longer primarily soldiers. Two other, partly contradictory, definitions of nobility merged with the model from the society of orders. The first harked back to the ancient philosopher Aristotle, who argued that the aristocracy consisted of the most talented people, who should use their talent to rule society. Nobles defended society not just by fighting wars, but by taking the lead in local administration of all kinds. The second argued that nobility was in the blood. The surest sign of nobility was to have been born into a noble family. In theory, the society of orders model and Aristotle’s model assumed that nobility was a result of personal accomplishments, while the blood model assumed that it was innate. Nobles reconciled the contradiction by arguing that pedigree was the best determinant of who actually had talent. A long genealogy of military service supposedly predisposed nobles to act in a virtuous, noble manner. Discussions of the idea of nobility in the era tended to focus on the issue of noble ancestry, though sometimes they criticized current nobles for failing to live up to their ancestors.

Gradations. Different segments of the nobility reacted to the various elements of the definition of nobility in different ways. At the peak of the nobility was a small group of the highest nobles. They were known as the peerage in England and Dues et pairs in France. Though few in number, they wielded enormous authority because of their wealth and the traditional respect due their lineage. Comparisons across countries can be complicated. There were dukes in France who were under the King of France, while in Germany, dukes generally ran their own countries, though they were supposedly subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor. The great nobles generally took their close access to kings for granted. They ultimately determined the ideals of nobility for the territory.

Middling Level. Below the peers was a layer of region-ally important nobles that formed the backbone of noble representation in the territorial Estates. In the political affairs of the kingdom, these regional nobles often aligned themselves as part of the cliental network of a peer. At the same time, these nobles could be particularly vocal defenders of the privileges of the nobility against the claims of the king. Their wealth could come from two distinct sources, and social tensions within the nobility were caused by the two sources. Some nobles relied almost exclusively on the revenues from their extensive landholdings. A substantial proportion of their estates would actually be owned by peasants, with the usual rent payments. The rest would be the personal domain of the noble, who could farm it or rent it out on shorter-term leases, depending on how he wanted to run it. These nobles derived their status primarily from a long line of ancestors who had controlled specific pieces of land. Other nobles derived a lot of their income from occupying administrative posts in local government. The nobles who relied primarily on their lands were known as the nobility of the sword, because their estates were theoretically derived from their military service to earlier kings. The nobles who relied primarily on their offices were known as the nobility of the robe, because of the judicial robes often worn by high government officials. In 1516, the Italian nobleman Baldassare Castiglione published a book called The Courtier, which had a profound influence on the self-understanding of this middling level of nobles.

Minor Nobles. The lower reaches of the nobility were often the most concerned about maintaining the importance of blood as a sign of nobility. Some could trace their genealogies far back into the medieval era, but their landed estates were small, for any variety of reasons. Most had little money left to finance significant political roles, even in regional affairs. They were usually deferred to by the peas-ants who happened to live near their estates but were looked down upon by the more active nobles in the region. For most, the only reliable source of income was the rents from their estates, which could no longer cover the costs of either maintaining a cavalry unit or “living nobly.”

Living Nobly. Between 1350 and 1600 the distinctiveness of the nobility as a social group became stronger rather than weaker. Regulations governing how far back one had to be able to demonstrate noble ancestors were enforced more strictly. The specific conditions under which a nonnoble family could become ennobled were spelled out. Some noble families purchased forged documents to prove long-standing noble status. Other poor noble families who may have had a long noble genealogy lost their status because they had no documents that proved their heritage. The process of losing noble status was called “derogation.” Some obvious failings, such as treason or murder, might cause derogation of an individual nobleman, but a whole lineage might also be lost for failing to live nobly. Living nobly meant adhering to a broad set of noble values and actively competing with other families for honor and reputation. Nobles were forbidden to learn a manual trade or become a merchant, because such activity was considered inappropriate to living nobly. Living nobly thus created a real contradiction for nobles. It required lots of money to exhibit the conspicuous consumption that honor and reputation demanded, but it did not allow nobles to earn money in any straightforward fashion, except by farming or fighting. As a result, many nobles were in serious debt. When they were unable to pay, their family also faced derogation.

Chivalry. In northern Europe, and especially in France, the era of the early Renaissance corresponded with the flowering of a particularly medieval noble ideal: chivalry. This model for social behavior stressed valor, loyalty, and attention to personal honor as the key signs of high social status. The ideals of chivalry were expressed in new genres of writing, such as romantic poetry and adventure novels. Many elements that would be considered “typically medieval” about the behavior of knights actually became widespread only during the Renaissance and Reformation. Two of the most notable examples were participation in elaborate tournaments and duels of honor.

Women. Despite the modern connection of the idea of chivalry with romance, “true love” played a minor role in the lives of most noblewomen. The importance of genealogy for noble status meant that most noblewomen’s careers were preordained by family considerations. A few would be destined to marry, usually into another noble family deter-mined by clientage networks. Many would remain unmarried, either joining a religious order, serving in the entourage of some more prominent noble, or staying home with their parents to help run the estate. The cost of a dowry was often a major barrier to marriage for noble daughters. Many noble families focused their attention on the dowry for one daughter and the inheritance portion for one son. Other children would have to accept whatever was leftover. Among the lower levels of nobility, the wife of a nobleman had much the same role as in third estate house-holds: she ensured that the house and its staff were run efficiently. In the great noble families, household administration was in the hands of courtiers. Often the wives of great nobles played important diplomatic roles as representatives of their original family in the entourage of their new family. In rare instances, a noblewoman would gain political power herself: some queens came to power through genealogical claims, such as Elizabeth I of England, and a few more became regents, such as Catherine de Medici. A noblewoman and other mothers of underage sons exerted influence by a combination of shrewd management of courtiers and close connections to their sons. On the whole, though, it was rare for noble-women to have a public role.


Jonathan Dewald, The European Nobility, 1400-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Anne J. Duggan, ed., Nobles and Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations (Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K. & Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2000).

George Huppert, Les Bourgeois Gentilshommes: An Essay on the Definition of Elites in Early Renaissance France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

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The Nobility

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