A short excursion » History of the aristocracy

The origins of the aristocracy and its development down the years

Anyone interested in purchasing an aristocratic title will often want to find out more about the history of the aristocracy. The eventful history of the aristocracy dates back several centuries, though its historical significance and development down the years are often unclear. Before you make your choice of aristocratic title and receive your certificate of appointment and the rest, the following explanation will help you to learn more about noble men and women.

The historical significance of the aristocracy

The aristocracy and the many aristocratic titles play a key role in human history. Noble status, shared by both men and women, existed in the very first advanced civilisations. It is a social phenomenon that has endured the test of time, far from its cultural beginnings. Aristocrats existed in ancient Egypt, imperial China and Japan, Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire and in many other ruling dynasties. There are some sources, though, that suggest that the aristocracy did not play a role in every advanced civilisation: the Roman writer Tacitus wrote in his works, for example, about the equality between all people that once governed society, and pointed out that the hereditary acquisition of aristocratic status only became common with the passage of time.

As there are not always sufficient literary sources, and many literary works are only partially available, we sometimes have to make assumptions to piece together the historical significance of the aristocracy. Historical findings like the so-called princely tombs demonstrate, however, that many centuries and even millennia ago there were already members of society with a higher rank. Even without being able to point to an existing aristocratic title we can be sure that social hierarchies were not always grounded in the concept of equality, and almost every society and culture developed its own hierarchical system. Today it seems certain that nobility played a crucial role in many, although not all, societies and dynasties.

The term ‘nobility’ nevertheless represents different forms of higher social status. Its definition and the conditions for achieving it varied depending on the period, history and region. There is no catch-all distinction for aristocracies of the past. Often the idea of nobility was not seen purely as a unified group, but rather came about as a social concept that evolved over the years.

There is a general consensus, however, that nobility had a key role to play in human history. Nobility is an elevated social status that is generally hereditary, meaning that people inherited their position in society. The descendants of a noble family became nobles themselves, and the same applied for adopted children or for men and women who married into the family. The extent of responsibility varies between nobles. There are lots of different possible gradings, from military honours like knighthoods to political positions with noble offices. Property in particular distinguishes the nobility from less well-off social strata who seldom had their own property, as land ownership was often the privilege of the aristocracy.

Membership of the aristocracy and its responsibilities

The variety of noble men and women’s functions changed over the course of history, though an elevated position of power was always accompanied by a greater share of responsibility. Noble children were educated and prepared early in life for their later functions. Their education was a kind of schooling to ensure that the aristocracy was preserved as a higher class with the most distinguished virtues. The European nobility through the ages represented Christian values, ideals of chivalry, and an enlightened absolutism.

Most of the time, membership of the aristocracy was hereditary via one’s parentage, though in some exceptional cases virtuous people without a title could also be elevated to the noble caste. It wasn’t just the emperor who had the power to do this, as kings and princes were also able to elevate commoners to the aristocracy. Monarchs ruled by the grace of God, but they delegated portions of this power and legitimised the high responsibilities of the noble class.

The aristocracy in literature and research

The aristocracy is principally a European phenomenon, one which a great many historians and researchers have attempted to discover more about but, despite all their efforts, the origins of the aristocracy still haven’t been fully explained. Academics have come to very different conclusions from their interpretations of medieval sources, with the main controversy surrounding the question of when the aristocracy actually came into being. Certain hypotheses crop up frequently, though, allowing us to assume that they are more significant in pointing to the origins of the aristocracy.

The French historian Marc Bloch made an important contribution to this research with his book ‘Feudal Society’, which demonstrates the existence of an aristocracy that already possessed a certain amount of property as far back as the early Middle Ages. The Robertines in particular owned a great extent of land. Positions of power often went hand in hand with a career at the royal court or in the service of the Church, something corroborated by property ownership at the time. The influence wielded by these families grew down the years, as they came to positions of power and entire dynasties were awarded enormous political responsibility combined with ownership of huge swathes of land. The influence of these families would shift abruptly with political changes, but the influence itself did not alter – a different family simply filled the position.

Between the years 800 and 1000, Europe was characterised by constant conflicts, with Norsemen and Vikings raiding central Europe. Many families and the men at their head put up a stern fight, and those who were particularly strong and successful with a sword in their hands at the defence of the the kingdom could count on increased influence. An immense effort in this defence would lead to the acquisition of an aristocratic title. These families often had no property or no express position of power beforehand, but their valient service for their homeland brought about a so-called ‘warrior class’, a milestone on the path to a full noble title. This warrior class was composed of old elites on the other hand, and families with new aristocratic titles on the other.

The feudal system of the age signified wide-ranging subordination within a kingdom, and the strict hierarchical system demanded varying grades of power. Noble titles were the best way of climbing this social pyramid.

The early Middle Ages and the aristocracy

In the early Middle Ages, the territory of Germania was ruled principally by the tribal unions of the time. A noble class as we understand it today didn’t exist back then. This first changed when the realm passed from the Merovingian to the Carolingian Empire. The rule of the Salics and the Saxons forged new structures that made it possible to wield individual power better, and the use of ministerials (officials to whom administrative power was delegated) was one milestone on the path to an aristocracy as we know it. These officials were often knights or other social climbers.

The feudal society and the strict hierarchical system demanded the development of a noble class that in many families was hereditary. Their work was not remunerated with money – instead, in most societies they received land to provide for their own needs. Feudalism was a defining development in the early Middle Ages,

and in the thirteenth century more and more people had an aristocratic title. Back then people could also acquire other aristocratic titles even without hailing from a family that had always enjoyed an elevated position of power. Even ‘unfree’ serfs could be granted an aristocratic title as a result of military honours or administrative services. In the mid-thirteenth century the aristocracy emerged as a separate social class, one that defined itself by means of certain ideals and chivalrous virtues. Someone with an aristocratic title in the early Middle Ages was associated with knighthood and noble virtues as much as with power and property. In the Middle Ages, one’s descent no longer played any role. Having previously belonged to a certain emancipated or powerful social class was a thing of the past. Now, people belonged to the ancient nobility regardless of their personal history and lineage. So when did aristocratic titles gain the societal importance that we attribute to them looking back today?

One of the most important historical sources is the Sachsenspiegel, or ‘Saxon Mirror’, an invaluable artefact that helps us understand thirteenth-century society. The Sachsenspiegel features just one mention of the word ‘aristocracy’. The Heidelberger Bilderhandschrift, an illuminated manuscript that accompanied the Sachsenspiegel, explains the important division of the castes and classes. Evidently this division was already anchored in society at the time the manuscript was issued. In hindsight, however, we can establish that the aristocracy had a different role down the centuries.

The aristocracy in the High Middle Ages

Rulers in the High Middle Ages went on appointing more and more ministerials as kings and dukes had others administrate their property. These functionaries were responsible for a great many day-to-day issues as a pronounced system of many positions of powers and different functions took shape in the High Middle Ages. Since it was also possible for people to work their way up this system, families with an aristocratic title acquired substantial influence. Noble families in the High Middle Ages assumed jurisdiction over their region and administered estates. Not everyone was a winner, however. Other families lost their power and found themselves subordinate to other nobles.

This was a system of power in constant flux. Successful ministerials were able to wield their power permanently. The aristocracy came to administrate more land and gave birth to a high nobility that formed a social elite. In the fourteenth century, this development was complete by and large. Conflicts ensured that the nobility obtained more and more power and remained independent. The creation of nation-states in Germany and Italy was a kind of patchwork in which various aristocratic families held power and political responsibilities across the different earldoms and duchies. In France and England, meanwhile, a nation-state already began to take shape in the High Middle Ages. German and Italian aristocratic families retained their influence for the moment, as it took a while longer for Germany to become a modern nation-state.

The zenith and the downfall of the aristocracy

The heyday of the European aristocracy was without a doubt in the High Middle Ages. In no other period did noble men and women have more responsibility and power in society. This societal significance can be traced back to the education that nobles received, since noble men and women were proficient in both speaking and writing the language. Economic development and the acquisition of riches through mercantile families brought about a power shift at the expense of the aristocracy. It was only in the eighteenth century that the heyday of the aristocracy came to an end. Societal developments and democratic aspirations brought about this loss of power, but the aristocracy’s high standing has hardly altered to this day,

meaning that anyone bearing an aristocratic title will still gain admiring looks and can stroll the streets of their town as a noble man or woman.