The origins and development of the aristocracy
It’s not always easy to make clear-cut statements about the origins and the development of the aristocracy. The aristocracy is often seen as a part of human history that existed back in the early advanced civilisations, a social phenomenon that spanned Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Chinese and Japanese dynasties, the Roman and Holy Roman Empire, and even the Middle Ages up to the present day. There isn’t enough evidence to back this up, however. The Roman historian Tacitus, for example, writes about an age of equality between all people and how inherited rule only came about at the end of this period. It’s sometimes necessary to make assumptions as written sources are either missing or insufficient. Archaeological finds like the opulently decorated ‘princely tombs’, for example, could indicate a person’s higher position without an aristocratic title being passed on, allowing us to draw a conclusion about social power structures.
There is also debate about whether aristocratic titles existed in all pre-industrial societies as records do not always clearly distinguish the noble class from other higher classes. The term ‘aristocracy’ can be understood in many different ways, then, and its definition depends on the time and place in question. It also isn’t entirely clear whether the aristocracy in Europe can be considered an entity based on prestige from the Roman Empire to the Second World War, or as a societal role, the content of which changed and differed through the ages.
Generally speaking, however, the aristocracy can be considered an elevated and influential position in society that is linked to inheritance and therefore to one’s family. This could include different kinds of responsibility, such as for example military (knighthood) or political (public office). Property also distinguished the aristocracy from other, less wealthy classes that it often controlled.
Noble children were intensively educated to prepare them for their societal responsibilities from a very early age as the aristocracy saw itself as society’s most suitable leading class, and one that strove for the most noble virtues. In Europe these virtues were mostly grounded in Christian ideals like chivalry as well as fair governance and enlightened absolutism.
Virtuous people without a title could also be elevated to the nobility by the highest-ranking aristocrats. Depending on the region and powers, sometimes not only the emperor but also kings and princes (such as in the Holy Roman Empire) could bestow aristocratic titles on so-called commoners. Reigning monarchs derived their claims to power from the grace of God, exhibited either by inheritance or an election or test. Many world religions also legitimised authority with other things, such as a supposed special connection to the gods (clerical nobility) or the holiness or deification of a ruler (a god-king).
The aristocracy in the Early Middle Ages and its history into the Late Middle Ages
Aristocratic titles are a typical European phenomenon, one that has been researched by a great many historians. Nevertheless, the formation of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages has still not been properly explained. Research up to now shows how certain medieval sources have been interpreted very differently by various academics, meaning there is still controversy about when the concept we now call aristocracy first came about. There are common hypotheses that appear again and again, though. One important milestone in historical research was the book ‘Feudal Society’, written by Marc Bloch and published in 1939. According to this book there was already a nobility that owned a substantial amount of property at the time of the Merovingians and Carolingians, so in the Early Middle Ages. Bloch includes the Robertines and the Guelphs among these nobles, as well as an array of social climbers who forged careers at court or in the service of the church. He describes how the political influence of these families rose and rose, and certain families dominated both the military and administration. In turbulent times their influence would be usurped by other families. When the Vikings and other groups raided Europe between the years 800 and 1000, for example, families that fiercely defended against these attacks came to power. Aristocratic titles could also be acquired by defending the realm. The families that took this defence upon themselves didn’t always have an aristocratic background, and some had even been unfree serfs beforehand. The aristocracy of this time is also referred to as a ‘warrior class’, although it did also partly comprise the old, titled elites. The period that followed ushered in a feudal system with a comprehensive system of interdependency. Aristocratic titles provided an opportunity to climb higher in this social pyramid and,
in the thirteenth century, more and more people had an aristocratic title. People from non-noble families could prove themselves through military service or in administration and acquire an aristocratic title in that way. By the middle of the thirteenth century, in any cases, families awarded this distinction saw themselves as an aristocracy. Alongside the mere title itself, this consciousness was reinforced by certain class ideals. Knightly tournaments and musical traditions like Minnesang contributed to the establishment of knightly virtues that were widely admired. Anyone with an aristocratic title was associated with these virtues. Regardless of whether their membership of the nobility had been inherited or earned by some personal achievement, the person was considered a member of the ancient aristocracy. So when did aristocratic titles gain the social significance that they have today? One of the key sources from the mid-thirteenth century is the Sachsenspiegel (‘Saxon Mirror’), which only mentions the word ‘aristocracy’ once. However, the Heidelberger Bilderhandschrift, an illuminated manuscript that accompanied the Sachsenspiegel, portrays the two classes as separate from one another. Whenever aristocratic titles and their meaning came about, then, they were clearly already well-established in society by the time of this document. The social influence wielded by this group varied greatly throughout history, though.
The aristocracy in the Early Middle Ages
The rulers of Germania in the Early Middle Ages mostly ruled in the tribal unions of the time, grouped together specifically to better exercise their power. An aristocracy as we know it today did not exist at the time of the Merovingians, for example. This changed gradually in the transition to the Carolingian Empire. The ruling Salics and Saxons wanted to create structures that spanned all of what is now Germany. In order to create a power network across tribal boundaries, they also employed administrative officials called ‘ministerials’ alongside the tribal rulers. This kind of public office was not hereditary to begin with. The administrative officials were chosen from knightly circles and capable climbers. As the feudal system was based on strict tribal thinking, this role did develop into a hereditary office that in many cases was passed down the family. Officials in this society were not remunerated with money, which didn’t exist then as we know it, and instead they received land to support themselves with. This gave birth to one of the cornerstones of medieval life: feudalism.
The aristocracy in the High Middle Ages
Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries more and more ministerials were named, as kings and dukes began to have their properties administrated by these officials. A slender system with different positions of power came into being, and some families with aristocratic titles gained more and more influence in this period of time. They successfully administrated their properties and confidently dispensed justice within their territories. Other families with aristocratic titles lost their power and were forced to submit to another feudal lord or became administrative officials themselves. There was also movement on the part of the administrative officials, as some of the most successful ministerials were able to extend their power permanently. They took over property or received so-called imperial fiefdoms that were then passed down the family. This dynamic gave rise to an ‘upper aristocracy’ that enjoyed substantial influence as a social elite. Only in the fourteenth century did this process of acquiring power come to a head, creating a conflict with the centralised authority. The upper aristocracy with its titles attempted to gain a degree of independence from the all-powerful kings and emperors, and in Germany and Italy these efforts were successful, resulting in a patchwork of small sovereign states like palatinates, duchies and margravates. In France and England it was a different story, meanwhile: Here centralised nation-states began to be formed. Families with aristocratic titles also enjoyed great riches in these countries, but had no authority over the government.
The zenith and fall of the aristocracy
The heyday of the European aristocracy began in the High Middle Ages and came to an end in the late eighteenth century. The role played in society by families with aristocratic titles was in continuous flux in this period. One of the most important developments was the sovereigns’ use of church dignitaries and monks above all to support their government activity. There was a simple reason for this: These people were proficient in both speaking and writing the language, and also had a command of Latin. From the fifteenth century more and more commoners were employed with an understanding of the law and Latin. The aim behind this was to contain the power of the existing aristocracy and allow the sovereigns to continue ruling. It was not uncommon, however, for these officials to receive a patent of nobility, allowing them too to enjoy the benefits of an aristocratic title. These simple ‘patent-noble’ families did not have any substantial influence, though. Only when they acquired land was there an economic basis for this. For the traditional nobility, meanwhile, there were other historical developments in store. In the fourteenth century the army was transformed from an army of knights based on feudal vassals to a military made up of professional mercenary soldiers. Many families with traditional aristocratic titles had to battle economic difficulties. While the large merchant families in the big cities gained power, some knightly families with traditional titles chose instead to become robber barons, and part of this city aristocracy was officially ennobled. Powerful families received aristocratic titles and acquired property.