The Aristocracy and Gentry

views updated


Jonathan Dewald

Implicitly if not always explicitly, privileged groups—aristocrats and gentry—have long been central to historians' understanding of European social history. In part their importance reflects the extraordinary influence that these groups exercised on society as a whole through the eighteenth century and to a lesser degree thereafter. In England the high aristocracy, numbering about two hundred families, held about one-fourth of the kingdom's land; in seventeenth-century Bohemia, an even smaller nobility held two-thirds of the land. Political and social influence matched this economic hold, so that in some regions aristocrats and gentry enjoyed a near monopoly on high positions in the church, army, and administration. To a significant extent, these intertwining forms of domination (and the ideological justifications that accompanied them) defined Europe's social order before the French Revolution, and thus helped define the revolution itself: revolutionary leaders labeled as "aristocrats" even their non-noble enemies, because they hoped that their new society would be one without aristocrats, without even the concept of aristocracy. For similar reasons, aristocrats and gentry also have considerable importance in the history of Europe since 1815, although their social importance declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They pose the question of modernization, for they had to manage the transition to an increasingly democratic and industrial social order, in which claims to privilege had lost much of their ideological and practical relevance. How they accomplished this transition, and with what effects on the society around them, has important implications for understanding the larger processes of change in European society.

The present essay deals mainly with the years through 1789, when aristocrats and gentry dominated European society most completely. The final section examines how the age of revolutions affected these groups and how they coped with the new world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The ancient world had bequeathed to early modern Europe (notably via Aristotle's Politics) a political and personal definition of "aristocracy" as the rule of the best men. Family background and wealth were understood to contribute to fitness for this public role, but did not necessarily define it; leading families might have unworthy descendants, and social newcomers might have the abilities needed for political excellence. This understanding of social status stood in some tension with a second that had developed during the early Middle Ages and that divided society into three orders: clerics who prayed, nobles who defended and governed, and commoners who met society's economic needs. This view presented the aristocrat as principally a warrior, and it increasingly associated social status with birth. Its fullest elaboration came in the eighteenth century, when Henri de Boulainvilliers, comte de Saint-Saire, described the French aristocracy of his day as direct descendants of fifth-century Frankish warriors and argued that they continued to display the qualities of those remote ancestors.

By Boulainvilliers's time, though, a third vision of the aristocrat had come to dominate most people's thoughts, that of the "gentleman," the "honnête homme," who had the education and self-control needed for constructive social interaction. This vision had developed first in the courts of sixteenth-century Europe and received early discussion in Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier (1528). It did not require military or governmental position, though it was compatible with their exercise, nor was it coterminous with good birth, since it rested so heavily on personal attainments. Castiglione even asked whether the ideal courtier needed noble birth at all, though he ultimately answered in the affirmative. Although theoretically undermining distinctions of birth, the ideal of the gentleman ultimately strengthened them, since it treated ideals of aristocratic behavior as ethical universals, desirable in all men and women but best realized by those born into high society and enjoying the leisure for self-improvement.

All three traditions circulated widely in old regime Europe, their divergences producing significant instability in ideas about the social order, for each valorized different qualities and implied different standards of behavior. But most contemporaries agreed on some basic definitions and assumptions. They distinguished first between upper and lower nobilities, the former enjoying great wealth and political influence, the latter having only local authority, and in some instances not much more wealth than their peasant neighbors. In some regions political events embodied this division. In Austria and England political assemblies included special chambers for the lords, setting them apart from the mass of other nobles, as well as from the commoners. In France on the other hand such distinctions were vaguer; a peerage and other high titles existed, but received little institutional reinforcement. Monarchs tended to sharpen these status distinctions by granting more elaborate titles to leading families in their realms, often to secure political loyalty but sometimes for mere cash. In Spain, Charles V created the order of grandees in 1520, marking off the highest nobility from the rest, and its numbers increased tenfold over the next two centuries; the Austrian Order of Lords increased fivefold between 1415 and 1818; in Carinthia there was a ninefold increase between 1596 and 1726. Historians have described these creations as an "inflation of honors," which tended to devalue respect for titles by creating so many of them; expressions of disrespect can be found in contemporary commentaries.

Definitions of these "mere gentry" varied widely from one European country to another. In France all were designated as "noble," and they enjoyed most of the privileges of even the wealthiest lords. In the Holy Roman Empire distinctions tended to be clearer. There an intermediate level of knights stood between the mere gentry and the lords, and in many regions they were sufficiently organized to enforce for themselves some special privileges. In England only the peers (numbering about fifty in the early sixteenth century and about two hundred in the eighteenth) held formal titles of nobility, while the great majority of landowners formed a very loosely defined gentry, without any legal distinctions. In most of continental Europe, the balance between these two groups shifted decisively over the early modern period, partly because of the inflation of honors, which elaborately confirmed the loftier families' superiority to the mere gentry, and partly because of economic changes. Mere gentry were often unable to meet the obligations of high status, and the economically successful among them tended to be absorbed into the higher aristocracy. In fifteenth-century Austria there had been four families of knights for every family of lords; four centuries later there were twice as many lords as knights. In England, by contrast, the gentry seem to have kept pace, beneficiaries of their society's growing wealth and widening social opportunities.


Already in the Middle Ages aristocrats' determination to view themselves as society's leaders encountered ideological opposition from a variety of groups, and complaints continued throughout the early modern period. In several countries the fourteenth century witnessed outright violence against aristocrats and their properties. The leaders of the French Jacquerie (1358) explained their movement as a response to the aristocracy's failure to fulfill its basic function, that of protecting the rest of society. In the fifteenth century a successful rebellion of Catalonian peasants was accompanied by widespread denunciations of lords' greed and improprieties, and in the early sixteenth century a series of German peasant movements questioned the need for any form of aristocracy. Seventeenth-century Castilian nobles too complained of the enmity shown by the commoners around them. Peasants were not alone in this truculence. In the early sixteenth century, leading humanist writers like Erasmus, Thomas More, and Sebastian Brant mocked aristocrats' pretensions and questioned the value of their social contributions, especially their contributions as warriors. When Enlightenment writers took up these themes in the eighteenth century, they thus expanded on longstanding views, but they gave these old ideas new coherence and force. They systematically judged aristocratic privilege against the criterion of social utility, suggesting that traditional aristocratic behavior represented a serious drain on society's productive resources. These ideas circulated widely in the eighteenth century and affected the decisions of administrators in several countries.


Important common traits marked Europe's experience of aristocratic society, partly because aristocrats themselves moved frequently across national lines. Their education often involved travel, and often so did their careers, with both soldiers and administrators moving across national boundaries, especially among the small states of central Europe and within the vast Habsburg orbit. When they moved, such men found essentially familiar social arrangements, for ideologies and customs displayed important similarities. At its upper levels, aristocratic society was European as well as national.

But there were also important differences between regions, giving the aristocracies themselves distinctive characteristics and different relations with the rest of society. A first distinction separated eastern from western Europe and centered on differences in local powers. East of the Elbe River, in central Germany, these might be very great. Aristocratic estate owners enjoyed extensive rights to demand labor from the peasants around them and to control their marriages and movements. In western Europe, estate owners had far less power, and even as a title serfdom survived in few regions, entailing only some economic disadvantages. A second division separated northern from Mediterranean Europe. Near the Mediterranean, aristocrats had lived in cities since the Middle Ages and saw little essential difference between themselves and other wealthy city dwellers. This was especially true in Italy, but even in Spain, which took nobility very seriously, the title "honored citizen" expressed the near-noble stature enjoyed by the wealthiest city dwellers. In northern Europe, in contrast, aristocrats tended to live in the countryside and visited the cities rather reluctantly. They saw little common ground between themselves and urban merchants, and tended to resist the latters' efforts to attain higher status.

The most important difference had to do with the number of aristocrats themselves. Early modern Europe was divided between regions where even the mere gentry were rare and regions where they were much more common. The latter included Poland and Hungary, along Europe's eastern frontier, and Castile in the west, all regions that had been battlefields of European expansion. Expansionist war against ethnic enemies had been one cause of frequent ennoblement, tempting peasants and city dwellers to take up military careers. In all three countries nobles easily counted for 10 percent of the total population before the eighteenth century, and in some districts densities might be higher still: in some Castilian towns the proportion could reach one-third. In the longer-Christianized core of Europe, there were many fewer such possibilities, and nobles were much less numerous, at most 2 percent of the population of sixteenth-century France, and closer to 1 percent by 1700; around 1 percent in most regions of Germany and Bohemia; 1 percent in the Kingdom of Naples; 0.4 percent in early-sixteenth-century Holland.

Some of these differences tended to diminish over the early modern period, especially during the eighteenth century. Nobles became better educated and more familiar with other national cultures. German nobles who had the resources were expected to tour Europe as part of their education, and many British nobles did the same. Northern nobles became more urbanized, and the profusion of nobles in Spain, Poland, and Hungary diminished; in late-eighteenth-century Spain, nobles represented 4.6 percent of total population. Yet change was not all in the direction of greater homogeneity, for nobles found themselves more closely tied to their national cultures in the eighteenth century, simply because those cultures had acquired more force and coherence. Many eighteenth-century governments also controlled their leading subjects' movements and loyalties more closely than had been the case before 1700. Prussia represented the extreme case, with its nobles forbidden even to leave the kingdom without the king's approval and never allowed to seek employment in other kings' armies. The loose cosmopolitanism of earlier centuries survived best in the Habsburg lands, which continued to attract the ambitious from throughout Europe. Only sixteen of the 157 field marshals in the eighteenth-century Habsburg army came from its own territories; thirty-nine came from outside the German-language region altogether.


According to much early modern social theory, aristocrats and gentry enjoyed special rights because of the special functions they performed, and notably because of their military service: French nobles spoke of paying a "tax of blood" on the battlefield, which exempted them from paying the cash levies demanded of others. In fact, however, privileges tended to reflect the political bargains that governments had struck with these their most powerful subjects. In this practice France represented the extreme case. In 1439 the Crown asserted its monopoly over direct taxation but in implicit exchange exempted nobles and other privileged groups from these impositions. Thus the geography and history of privilege tended to vary with the strength of the government rather than with the extent of aristocratic services. In England, where royal government had become strong very early, all subjects paid taxes, and only the peerage enjoyed some judicial privileges. In Spain, France, most of the Holy Roman Empire and Germany, nobles enjoyed freedom from most taxes, while in Brandenburg-Prussia the nobles consented to some taxation in exchange for other kinds of advantage, such as a near monopoly on official positions, tax-free grain exports, and a monopoly on beer brewing. In most of these regions nobles also had some legal advantages in managing their properties. Feudal law in France allowed them to avoid dividing property among their heirs, thus helping preserve family fortunes over the generations. In Spain the government allowed noble families to establish entails that performed this function even more effectively, protecting property from both division by inheritance and the indebtedness of individual owners.

These circumstances meant that many forms of privilege tended to diminish over the last century of the old regime, as governments became more assertive and effective. Louis XIV set an example in 1695 when, desperate for funds to pay his armies, his government introduced the capitation, a direct tax that the nobles were to pay like everyone else. Initially assessed according to social standing, the capitation soon became simply a tax on revenue, and in the eighteenth century it was assessed with some fairness. Wealthier nobles now paid a substantial tax, though they remained exempt from many other taxes. In 1731 the duke of Savoy completely abolished nobles' fiscal exemptions in his realm, and the Habsburgs did the same in 1771. This scarcely meant the end of all aristocratic privileges, and some new ones emerged in these very years. In 1751 France established a military academy exclusively for nobles, and in 1781 ruled that only members of old noble families could hold military commissions. But nobles in these countries had a strong and justified sense that their special place within society was under attack.


In principle noble families symbolized social stability, the continued dominance of old family lines. Yet the nature of aristocratic society itself created some need for social mobility because old families regularly failed to produced heirs. In fact they had a strong interest in limiting the number of their children so as to create as few inheritance divisions as possible and thus maintain familial dignity in the next generation. Family limitation became especially common in the eighteenth century as methods of birth control became more widely known and as religious inhibitions on their use diminished. In addition, by the eighteenth century large numbers of nobles remained unmarried: an astounding 50 percent of the children of the upper nobility in the Catholic Westphalia region of Germany and 25 percent of the peerage in Protestant England. This lack of reproduction, together with early modern diseases, against which nobles enjoyed no special protection, and the added danger that their sons might die in battle, meant that many noble families died out. One historian of France has estimated that in each generation about 20 percent of families disappeared, and roughly comparable rates have been established for other European countries.

If the order was to maintain its numbers, a substantial flow of new families had to replace those that disappeared, and this was everywhere the case. A variety of mechanisms governed this mobility, some of them formal, some informal and even illegal. Sovereigns could grant titles of nobility, and some official positions brought nobility to anyone who held them; the Roman legal tradition even accorded the status to anyone who had an advanced degree in the law. Until about 1600, however, most new entrants to the nobility simply assumed the status, their only justification being military service or ownership of a fief, both of which their contemporaries normally associated with high status. Control over the process was mainly local and depended on the readiness of other nobles to accept newcomers' claims. In Germany, for instance, local colleges of knights refused to accept any new families whose credentials they doubted, and such families would have difficulty finding noble marriage partners for their children. Cathedral chapters had similar ideas and rejected candidates whose ancestry was uncertain.

After 1600, however, the state increasingly intervened in processes of social mobility, from motives that were both practical and ideological. Contemporaries viewed the determination of social status as an aspect of sovereignty, part of what marked a state as free from interference by higher authorities and fully in control of its own population. Thus disputes over ennoblement offered useful symbolic ground for the German principalities to demonstrate their independence from the Holy Roman Empire by raising new families to high status without the emperor's approval. Conversely, the kings of France insisted that only they, and not high nobles within the realm or battlefield commanders, could give out titles. In much the same way, the practical realities of ennoblement also produced ambiguous effects, encouraging some princes to be generous in granting titles, others to be restrictive. Already in the 1540s the French king was openly selling titles of nobility for cash; but such grants meant enlarging the numbers of the tax-exempt and (in the thinking of late-seventeenth-century administrators) of the economically unproductive. As a result, government policy might oscillate wildly during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with rulers shifting between open and restrictive policies as their immediate financial needs dictated. Even their personal convictions might play an important role. In England, Elizabeth I was reluctant to grant high titles, whereas her successor James I enjoyed granting large numbers of them and even created a new formal category within the British gentry.

On balance, though, the state's increasing hold over the process of ennoblement restricted new entries to the nobility. Indeed, restriction became an explicit goal of seventeenth-century economic improvers, who worried that social advancement diminished the number of society's producers while increasing the number of idle consumers. Pamphleteers in Spain and royal administrators in France both expressed this concern, and in 1666 the French government took concrete steps to address it. Louis XIV's mercantilist minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert launched a series of investigations of noble titles, with fines and public embarassment for those who had "usurped" a title. Providing documentary proof of noble status became a more common experience throughout Europe in these years. Some schools, many religious institutions, a growing number of legal positions, and most groups of military officers all asked candidates for proof of their status before admission. The era of casual usurpation was over, and the result in most regions was a visible decline in numbers of nobles; families continued to die out, probably at greater rates than in earlier centuries, but there were fewer replacements for them. In eighteenth-century France and Spain, nobles represented about half the share of population they had represented in 1600. Only in Britain did numbers actually increase in these years, apparently a reflection of British wealth and of the loose processes of social mobility that continued to prevail there. In much of continental Europe, in contrast, the eighteenth-century nobility formed a very small group: well under 1 percent of total population in much of Germany, about 1 percent in France, a mere 0.3 percent in Bohemia. Ordinary people could spend much of their lives without encountering them.


The wealth and financial prospects of nobles, though varying enormously, everywhere reflected a fundamental ideological imperative: they were to be a ruling class, devoting their energies to public matters and warfare. Their views of themselves restricted the kinds of work that they could undertake and raised ethical questions about many economic activities. Pursuing money could only interfere with that imperative, drawing their attention from public to private matters and causing disrespect among those lower in society. In France and Spain formal rules of derogation required that any nobles working with their hands or engaging in most kinds of commerce lose their status and the privileges that went with it.

Such rules were never followed absolutely, and they left large zones for calculation and innovation. Certainly there was no prohibition on the careful pursuit of economic interests. Fifteenth-century nobles had unsophisticated but reasonably effective accounting techniques, and they moved quickly when they thought they were being cheated. Nor did they confine themselves to collecting rents on landed estates. Geographic accident offered some of them commercial possibilities, and they took full advantage. In the sixteenth century, as Louis Sicking has shown, the highborn lords of Vere operated something like a merchant marine on their island estate off the Netherlands coast. Prussian nobles took advantage of their easy access to the Baltic and dominated the grain trade in their region, using their tax advantages to drive out their commoner competition. In Seville sixteenth-century nobles took a leading role in trans-Atlantic commerce; in Genoa nobles involved themselves in banking; even in France, which perhaps took derogation more seriously than other countries, seventeenth-century nobles loaned money to the Crown, employing middle-class front men for this profitable enterprise, and a few financed overseas ventures. Above all there was England, whose aristocracy had never felt much inhibition about commercial activity and whose gentry already in the fifteenth century moved easily in and out of London commerce.

If ideology permitted the nobles a range of economic options, most nonetheless confined themselves to a limited set of these, focusing on their estates and viewing the market economy with suspicion. Hence the seriousness of governmental efforts in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to change thinking on the matter of nobility and money. Officials like Colbert, worried by the French economy's failure to match its Dutch and British competitors, sought to propagate a far wider conception of economic activity, one that celebrated commerce and encouraged even those of high status to undertake it. Eighteenth-century writers took up these themes in France, Spain, and the German states. Governments now sought to end the concept of derogation and actively encouraged the development of a "commercial nobility," the term used by one such advocate. By the end of the century, such ideas apparently had a significant impact on nobles' thinking. Many more now spoke glowingly of the importance of commerce, and more now participated in it.

Until that point, land remained by far the most important form of aristocratic wealth, the group's main source of income and the focal point for most of its economic calculations. Given the geographic variety of Europe itself, landowning might vary widely from one region to another. Already in the sixteenth century some English estates included coal mines, a natural adjunct to control of land itself. In Germany late medieval estates derived very significant income from fish-farming in ponds created for the purpose, and both German and Bohemian estates produced substantial amounts of beer. The region around Bordeaux in southwestern France included large tracts of vineyard, much of it in the control of noble estate owners. More important than this variety, however, were the basic patterns that gave estates a common look across much of Europe. In the fifteenth century most estates consisted of more than acreage; in fact the direct control of land might play a subordinate role in the estate economy. Instead, owners depended chiefly on the rents (usually fixed since the high Middle Ages) that they collected from peasants within their estates' territories and on the powers they exercised. This bundle of rights and powers defined the estate as a lordship rather than a mere property, and nobles viewed their status as closely associated with lordship itself. In feudal theory medieval warriors had been granted lordships as recompense for military service, and both theory and practice gave many lords real powers over their tenants. Most conferred on their owners the right to judge minor property disputes, and a minority had the right of high justice, which allowed them to try capital crimes.

If the structure of lordship was fundamentally similar across Europe, so also were the threats that lordship faced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The plagues and warfare of the late Middle Ages made it difficult to find tenants and sharply reduced demand for agricultural goods; both rents and estate values declined as a result. After the damage had been made good, governmental currency manipulations and a rapidly growing money supply after 1500 sharply reduced the value of fixed rents. Governments also tended increasingly to intervene in judicial matters, making judicial rights a source of expense and harassment.

By the mid-sixteenth century, lordship was in severe difficulties in many regions, and in England it had largely disappeared. Nobles thus had to find new ways to manage their lands, and enough did so that lordship itself and the nobles who depended on it survived into the late eighteenth century. They reoriented their estates to focus on the direct control of land and other resources rather than on permanently fixed rents. Mainly this meant acquiring land from the peasantries, who had controlled most of it in the late Middle Ages, and across Europe a vast wave of peasant expropriation, usually by outright purchase, less often through legal manipulations, marked the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nobles had other important opportunities to acquire land during these years. As lords, they could claim exclusive control over the woodlands and pastures of their estates, and in England and Prussia they had the right to expel long-settled tenants and reorganize their farms into much larger domains. In regions that became Protestant, the mid-sixteenth century made church lands available for nobles to purchase, and even Catholic France sold off some church land between 1563 and 1586. Aristocratic and gentry acquisitions from these combined sources went farthest in England, northern Germany, and eastern Europe, somewhat less far in France and Italy. Everywhere, though, the process placed nobles in an excellent position to benefit from the economic changes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With population growing throughout Europe, farm and forest products enjoyed vigorous markets in these years, and better commercial networks improved nobles' ability to profit from these opportunities. Estate owners along the Baltic Sea thus became the principal suppliers of the fast-growing cities of the Low Countries, which needed to import most of their grain.

This economic reorientation, from the collection of feudal rents to domain management, left nobles to face the problem of labor organization. Given their reluctance to involve themselves directly in economic activity, and their absolute refusal to work with their hands, they needed to assemble the labor and managers that would make their newly constructed domains profitable. East of the Elbe River, in central and eastern Germany, Bohemia, Denmark, and Poland, nobles found an essentially political solution to this need by demanding several days' work from each farm within their lordships, a move made possible by the relative weakness of governments in the region, at least until the eighteenth century. To the west landowners had no such ability to use constrained labor, and most of them turned instead to tenant farmers, who would manage the land on short-term leases and take on the problems of organizing production and marketing produce. The rise of a new class of villagers, the tenant farmers, thus accompanied the peasantry's loss of its properties. In northern Europe these farmers tended to be wealthy and powerful figures, the principal employers within their own villages and allied to similarly powerful figures in the villages nearby. In southern France and Italy, the tenant was a less impressive figure. There sharecropping predominated, and tenants depended on landowners to supply the capital for running their farms. In turn, the owners received a much larger share of the harvest—at least one-half, often more—than in the north.

Whatever the labor system, and no matter how much power it seemed to accord them, aristocratic landowners always had to confront villagers' resistance to their wishes. Occasionally such resistance might take the form of mass violence, as in the German Peasants' War of 1524–1526, or the Breton revolts of the Red Bonnets in 1675, both of them directed against the excesses of seigneurial power. Although these rebellions were put down savagely, they had the lasting effect of moderating landlords' demands. In the long run, however, much more significant were the smaller acts of resistance that the economic system itself accorded villagers. Even the servile labor system of eastern Europe offered such possibilities, as the most rigorous oversight could not turn serfs into enthusiastic workers; some accommodation with their interests was needed if they were to work effectively. In the west the tenant farmer held a much more powerful position against the landowner. He (and occasionally she, as many widows took over their husbands' farms) had capital and skills that could not be easily replaced, and few nobles were eager to take on the high-risk trade in agricultural commodities. Village communities also turned readily to lawsuits against lords and landowners.

Such inevitable negotiations with those who did the actual work of farming were a first limit on nobles' economic circumstances. The pressures of an increasingly consumer-oriented society were another. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a widening array of goods appeared in European markets, new architectural and artistic styles, as well as more purely material items like foods, clothing, carriages, and furniture. Even some early modern moralists stressed the propriety of nobles' spending lavishly, because expenditure demonstrated the solidity of their place atop the social order and rendered visible the differentiations on which that order rested; the less serious-minded mocked those who fell behind the fashions. Probably the seventeenth century was the most difficult period in this regard. Urbanization and the expansion of courts brought nobles into greater contact with one another and made divergences from fashion more conspicuous. It was during these years that the out-of-touch country gentleman became a stock element in French and British comedies. Another literary theme came equally to the fore, that of the nobleman who had spent his way into bankruptcy. The lure of consumption was probably the leading economic problem nobles faced.

Relations among different levels within the nobility began to change as well, for the need to keep up with the fashions raised questions about the status of poor nobles who could not afford these new levels of expenditure. Poor nobles had always been numerous, if only because inheritance patterns in many regions favored one son and left his brothers and sisters with inadequate funds. These men and women were not entirely without resources; they survived as dependents and servants of the great, and the rapidly expanding armies of the latter part of the seventeenth century offered many of them military careers. Indeed, their fate became something of a public preoccupation in the later seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, and wealthy patrons founded special schools that would prepare young noblewomen for marriage and young noblemen for military careers. But these supports could not sustain the mass of poor nobles, and the difficulties of maintaining their status in an age of conspicuous consumption forced many out of the nobility after 1650.


Their view of themselves as governors and warriors made nobles especially sensitive to their relations with state power, and in most regions state institutions accommodated themselves to this sensitivity. Feudal traditions encouraged princes, however grandiose their ambitions, to consult with their leading subjects, assembled in formal deliberative bodies. Nobles had at least one chamber to themselves in these parliamentary bodies; and both the political chaos of the late Middle Ages and the difficult decisions required by the Reformation forced even the most autocratic princes to listen carefully to these political voices. After the sixteenth century, however, this need diminished, and with it princely concern for political consultation. The French government failed to convene its Estates General after its last session in 1614, despite frequent consultations during the previous century. In much of Germany the chronology was similar: parliamentary assemblies had met regularly over the sixteenth century and had maintained their right to approve new taxes, but after the mid-seventeenth century princes levied taxes without consent, and assemblies met much less often.

The decline of political consultation caused important political tension in the early modern period, for nobles took seriously their longstanding claim to guide their princes. Angry at their apparent exclusion from princely decisions, nobles entered readily into plotting and occasionally into outright rebellion. Most European states had to contend with some form of aristocratic rebellion over the early modern period, culminating in the wave of rebellions of the 1640s, the years of the English Civil War, Portugal's liberation from Spain, the Fronde in France, and rebellions in Catalonia, Naples, Palermo, and elsewhere. Governments won out in most of these contests, for by this point no private army could hold out against trained royal troops. But the examples of Catalonia and England demonstrated that governments could not take victory for granted, and that aristocratic malcontents had to be closely watched.

Traditionally, historians have understood the decline of political consultation in terms of a larger triumph of absolute monarchy, the process by which princes disciplined their nobles, taught them the futility of violence, and reduced them to a more or less prosperous servitude, with few real political functions. Later interpretations, however, stressed collaboration between kings and their most powerful subjects and suggested that, over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nobles in fact exchanged one political role for another, more effective one. Parliamentary mechanisms for political consultation weakened, but nobles' share of administrative and military positions actually grew, allowing them substantial influence on the government policies they now executed. There were more military positions in these years of frequent warfare and growing armies, though nobles responded variously to these opportunities: in seventeenth-century Bavaria and the Paris basin, for instance, relatively few nobles fought, whereas in Prussia and Brittany the military was both a cultural ideal and an important economic resource.

Civil positions were also available, as governments needed many more judges, tax collectors, and local governors. In the sixteenth century these civil servants came from varied social levels, mixing some gentlemen and some men of very humble backgrounds within a middle-class majority. By the seventeenth century, however, most European civil services were becoming more exclusive and less tolerant of lowborn outsiders. Acutely aware of the powers they exercised and the wealth their positions conferred, upper-level civil servants tended to form themselves into dynasties, passing their offices on to their sons, and increasingly claiming nobility on the basis of their offices. The process went farthest in France, where a distinctive "nobility of the robe" (so named for the robes that French judges were to wear at all times) acquired official recognition in the mid-seventeenth century, but some version of this rise in social status could be seen in many countries. The results varied substantially from one region to another. In Spain and France a fusion of official and military nobilities had taken place by this time, with frequent intermarriages and considerable readiness of old noble families to prepare their sons for official careers. In most of Germany, on the other hand, official nobles failed to obtain complete acceptance by older families, despite receiving ennoblement from the princes they served.

Finally, nobles had almost exclusive control over the courts of early modern Europe, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these institutions played a crucial role in setting public policy. Like armies and civil services, courts grew over the period, partly as a reflection of the growing power of kings themselves. Kings wanted to make their courts attractive to their leading subjects and offered a range of frivolous, increasingly elaborate pleasures. But the real business of the courts was serious, for in them both policies and careers were shaped. Kings sought advice from their courtiers, and anyone who hoped to play a leading military or political role had to make his voice heard at court. Nobles who came to court had to conform to standards of self-control and of elegance in behavior and speech, and they had to show proper respect for those more powerful than themselves who enjoyed particular closeness to the king; but these demands did not imply passivity or domestication. Nobles indeed gave up their traditions of rebellion after about 1660, but the change reflected their successful collaboration with princes rather than a loss of political vigor.

All these new forms of political engagement required new levels of education, and rising educational standards applied to even the wealthiest and the highest born. Those hoping for careers in administration or the judiciary needed long training in Latin literature and Roman law, certified by university degrees. At court formal education counted for less, and indeed courtiers often made fun of the judges' ponderous Latin learning. Yet educational demands applied to courtiers as well, for they needed to speak gracefully and to display a command of the culture around them; the ideal courtier of the late seventeenth century was a writer as well, whose letters and verse might circulate widely. Even military service required some education. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century armies required much more disciplined training than their medieval predecessors, and it was now expected that commanders know enough mathematics to use firearms effectively. Greek and Roman military theorists also acquired a new relevance because seventeenth-century tactics accorded such importance to infantry formations. Nobles had very practical reasons for educating themselves, and a series of new institutions met their educational needs. Some attended the universities, but in the seventeenth century Jesuit colleges (and their imitators) adapted much better to their expectations, teaching not only languages and literature but also mathematics, science, and social skills like public speaking and dancing. They intended to form young men capable of effective social leadership, exactly what nobles wanted. It was a sign of the new educational standards that in the 1630s Louis, prince of Condé—heir to a great fortune, destined for a military career, and a close relative of the French king—was sent to the Jesuits for his education.


Nobles confronted severe and unexpected challenges in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that brought an end to many forms of social dominance they had previously enjoyed. The French Revolution in 1789 was only the most dramatic of a long series of changes, ending many formal social distinctions and some forms of aristocratic property as well. Feudal rents disappeared altogether, along with the offices whose possession had been an important item in many nobles' portfolios. New law codes required equal inheritance divisions, making it harder for dynasties to sustain their position over the generations. Perhaps most important, the Revolution ended any illusions nobles might have had as to their hold on the rest of society. They had witnessed or imagined rebellion in previous centuries, but few had envisioned an attack on their very existence as a social category; nineteenth-century nobles could never escape this consciousness, and it led them to panicky exaggerations of even small social challenges. Nor were these experiences (and the fears they stimulated) limited to France. Before 1789, indeed, the main assaults on aristocratic power and privilege had occurred in the domains of the Habsburg emperor Joseph II. He had ended nobles' tax privileges and limited landowners' powers over serfs. The French example gave much greater urgency to such reforms, for princes hoped that reform might forestall violence and allow effective competition with the French enemy. In other regions the French imposed their social models directly, ending privileges, titles, and feudal powers wherever their armies conquered.

Other challenges were less dramatic but in the long run even more threatening. The nineteenth century was a difficult time for landowners in all categories because the rules of international competition so rapidly changed. Grain from Russia and the Americas now appeared on European markets, and constantly improving modes of transportation intensified competition even within Europe. Tariff protection like the English corn laws came under pressure, and other groups in society were becoming richer and less patient with aristocratic guidance. Industrialization and banking rapidly created new fortunes, and new wealth was visible even among working farmers, who in many regions could be seen buying land and educating their children in social graces. Even if their own economic circumstances remained prosperous, aristocrats knew they were losing ground relative to others in their society.

The nineteenth century ended the aristocracies' domination of Europe's politics and their preeminence within its economy. Yet until late in the century, this collection of changes hurt the aristocracies less than was once believed. Historians have shown that most aristocratic families survived the French Revolution with their properties intact, enabling a return to social and political prominence after 1815. Throughout Europe many actually profited from nineteenth-century industrial development, investing in enterprises and sitting on corporate boards; in any case the new industrialists were often eager to ally both politically and personally with old families. Rapid urbanization made some of their lands much more valuable, and some were also able to introduce agricultural improvements. Despite the democratic currents of the age, they also managed to hold on to political power with surprising efficacy. Through the mid-nineteenth century, electoral systems tended to favor landowners, as did supposedly meritocratic systems of recruitment to the expanding civil services, which rested partly on the social skills and classical learning that the old ruling groups had long commanded. Even courts retained some significance, giving members of old families significant influence over policies in France, Germany, and Italy and career advantages as well. Aristocrats even benefited from the new technologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dominating the newly founded automobile clubs of England and France and playing a prominent role in early aviation.

Only at the very end of the nineteenth century did traditional elites lose their central place in European life, and then the sources of crisis were mainly political rather than economic or social. An anti-aristocratic government came to power in England, and its taxes on inheritance undermined what had been the aristocracies' greatest strength, their ability to accumulate wealth generation after generation. World War I destroyed the monarchies and courts of central Europe and discredited aristocratic political influence. For many families the war was an economic disaster as well, destroying savings and rendering many investments worthless. It has been plausibly argued that 1918 rather than 1789 marked the end of aristocratic society in Europe. And there were still political maneuvers: many German aristocrats used support for conservative politicians to win favorable tariff policies for their agricultural goods in the 1920s and into the Nazi era. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, numerous aristocratic families survive, the 1980s and 1990s having brought them significant economic advantages. Their lands and houses, even their bric-a-brac, have increased enormously in value. Despite generations of republican criticism, they remain culturally self-confident, and the society around them has become more respectful of their values. Aristocratic society has disappeared from Europe, in the sense that aristocracies no longer place their imprint on other social groups or determine the values of society as a whole. The aristocracies themselves remain, demonstrating yet again their own capacity for survival and the tenacious power of social inequality itself.

See alsoEstates and Country Houses; Land Tenure; Peasant and Farming Villages; Serfdom: Eastern Europe; Serfdom: Western Europe (volume 2);Revolutions (in this volume);Gestures; Inheritance; Manners (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


Surveys and Comparisons

Adamson, John, ed. The Princely Courts of Europe, 1500–1750. London, 1999.

Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in WesternEurope. Montreal, 1995.

Dewald, Jonathan. The European Nobility, 1400–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Elias, Norbert. The Court Society. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, 1983.

Hale, John Rigby. War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450–1620. Baltimore, 1985.

Jones, Michael. Gentry and Nobility in Late Medieval Europe. New York, 1986.

National Studies of the Early Modern Period

Astarita, Tommaso. The Continuity of Feudal Power: The Caracciolo di Brienza inSpanish Naples. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Beik, William. Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France: State Power andProvincial Aristocracy in Languedoc. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Dewald, Jonathan. Pont-St-Pierre, 1398–1789: Lordship, Community, and Capitalism in Early Modern France. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.

Dominguez Ortiz, Antonio. Las classes privilegiadas en la España del antiguo régimen. Madrid, 1973.

Endres, Rudolf. Adel in der frühen Neuzeit. Munich, 1993.

Elliott, John Huxtable. Spain and Its World, 1500–1700: Selected Essays. New Haven, Conn., 1989.

Forster, Robert. The House of Saulx-Tavanes: Versailles and Burgundy, 1700–1830. Baltimore, 1971.

Hagen, William. "How Mighty the Junkers? Peasant Rents and Seigneurial Profits in Sixteenth-Century Brandenburg." Past and Present 108 (1985): 80–116.

Nassiet, Michel. Noblesse et pauvreté: La petite noblesse en Bretagne, XVe–XVIIIe siècle. Brittany, 1997.

Nicolas, Jean. La Savoie au 18e siècle: Noblesse et bourgeoisie. 2 vols. Paris, 1977–1978.

Nierop, Henk F. K. van. The Nobility of Holland: From Knights to Regents, 1500–1650. Translated by Maarten Ultee. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993. Translation of Van riddes tot regenten.

Sicking, Louis. Zeemacht en onmacht: Maritieme politik in de Nederlanden, 1488–1558. Amsterdam, 1998.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641. Oxford, 1965.

Stone, Lawrence, and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone. An Open Elite? England, 1540–1880. Oxford and New York, 1984.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Higonnet, Patrice. Class, Ideology, and the Rights of Nobles during the French Revolution. Oxford and New York, 1981.

Lieven, Dominic. The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815–1914. New York, 1992.

Mayer, Arno. The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War. New York, 1981.

About this article

The Aristocracy and Gentry

Updated About content Print Article


The Aristocracy and Gentry