A short excursion » The legal status of aristocratic titles today

The legal status of aristocratic titles – past and present

The legal status of aristocratic titles goes back a long way. In the last 1500 years these titles have enjoyed great distinction, sometimes more, sometimes less. However, developments in recent centuries have had a downward trajectory – seismic social shifts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused the nobility and its titles to lose importance. Nonetheless, even today certain legal provisions and special privileges are afforded to members of the aristocracy. It’s a good idea, then, to take a look at the history of legal aristocratic titles, name law, and the differences in attaining and using a name affix.

The history of legal aristocratic titles

The origins of aristocratic titles lie in the sixth century AD when the French king Clovis I established the first Salic law. This Germanic tribal law applied to all members of the aristocracy on German soil. Salic law was a part of public law, with legal regulations for all citizens on the other hand and at the same time certain exceptions developed for the benefit of the aristocracy. This made for a legal distinction between nobles and normal citizens, as well as laying out a mechanism for joining the aristocracy. Salic law was a prime concern for non-aristocrats who wanted to become noble men and women.

In later centuries, the aristocracy itself was divided into various classes. Members of the upper aristocracy had their own legal exceptions, including a special procedural law, their own family law and inheritance laws that regulated the upper aristocracy differently from commoners.

Even when the German Civil Code came into force in 1900 the higher aristocracy was afforded a special position with divergent laws specifically for the nobility. A special aristocratic law was not limited to the early days of the nobility, then. Nobles were also given a privileged financial position exempt from taxes and duty liability, substantially cutting their outgoings and further contributing to the financial consolidation of the aristocracy.

In the nineteenth century the aristocracy even had its own government authority, created by Prussian king Wilhelm IV in 1855 with the aim of better supporting members of the aristocracy: The Heroldsamt (which translates roughly to ‘herald’s office’) supported and promoted the aristocracy. Aristocratic law underwent many changes throughout history, But most of them had in common that nobles were given preferential treatment and benefited legally.

The overthrow of the monarchy and the new aristocratic law

The overthrow of the monarchy had a seismic effect on the nobility and aristocratic law. Monarchical states were closely intertwined with the aristocracy: Clovis I’s Salic law essentially applied until the fall of the monarchy after the First World War, and after 1918 Germany was governed by a constitution. Article 109 of this constitution did away with all privileges and disadvantages related by one’s birth or social class, consigning the aristocracy’s distinct legal position to the past.

From then on, aristocratic titles were nothing more than affixes to one’s name and had no official status. This made aristocratic titles more accessible and transferable. Aristocratic titles no longer played any role. Nowadays it’s possible to buy an aristocratic title and use it as a kind of pseudonym.

Despite this, following the First World War there was still a commission responsible for examining whether aristocratic titles were being used correctly in Germany. This was simply a private institution, however, and no longer comparable with the Heroldsamt of the past. Its decisions were only binding for the commission’s own members.

Even today the commission – called the Adelsrechtsausschuss (or ARA) – continues to check that aristocratic titles are being used in the historically correct manner. The ARA was formed after the Second World War as a private institution, so it is no longer comparable with the Prussian Heroldsamt. The ARA examines membership of the ‘historic nobility’ based on Salic law, but its decisions are not binding for anyone who is not a member.

What are the differences between aristocratic titles and styles of office or nobiliary particles?
Terms like ‘styles of office’ and ‘nobiliary particles’ also often crop up quite often nowadays. An aristocratic title denotes its bearer’s social status, which is why aristocratic titles continued to be important in Germany’s Weimar Constitution in order to determine someone’s rank on record. This hierarchical system had the Kaiser (or emperor) at the top, followed in descending order by kings, dukes, princes, barons, counts, knights, nobles and squires. There was also a different form of address for each of these aristocratic titles. These nobiliary particles required one to address a duke as ‘Your Royal Highness’, for example, whereas a lower rank such as an earl is titled simply with ‘Your Highness’. Nowadays it’s possible to find nobiliary particles in all social classes, whereas a name affix once denoted a noble as such. German surnames are sometimes prefixed by ‘von’ (which means ‘from’) to denote a noble’s provenance or the word ‘zu’ (‘to’), which signified a change of residence, and the two can even by combined to create a surname like ‘von Weißenfels zu Schwarzfels’ (‘from Weißenfels to Schwarzfels’). One could even make the combination ‘von und zu’ (‘from and to’) with which an ancient noble could make his or her long-standing ancestral seat recognisable.

Nobiliary particles in name law
Today, nobiliary particles like the above are subject to name law, which actually makes it easier to obtain an aristocratic name by different means.

Nobiliary particles are regularly acquired, legitimately or otherwise, by birth or by changing one’s name following marriage or adoption. There are lots of imaginable combinations, meaning it’s possible for a woman to acquire a nobiliary particle as part of her husband’s name and to then get divorced, remarry and give this name to another person. It is not possible, though, to acquire a nobiliary particle simply by changing one’s name. This can only be done under very specific circumstances such as proving that the name causes psychological stress to its bearer. It’s practically impossible, then, that the simple fact that a name is not aristocratic could fulfil these criteria.

Differences between aristocratic titles, styles of office, and nobiliary particles

If we take a look at aristocratic law we can find several different terms. Aristocratic titles, styles of office, and nobiliary particles all relate to an aspect of nobility. But are these terms synonymous or are there are differences between them?

An aristocratic title essentially describes a noble person’s position in society, and is a precise designation of this social position. Even in German’s democratic Weimar Constitution, aristocratic titles were still important in determining someone’s social rank. The Kaiser (or emperor) was at the top of this hierarchy, and was followed by kings, dukes, princes, barons, etc. Each aristocratic title had its own form of address. This form of address was known as a ‘style of office’. Dukes, for example, were addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’. While an aristocratic title describes a person’s social standing, the nobiliary particle defines the appropriate form of address. The same applies for a style of office. Even today, nobiliary particles can be found in lots of German names regardless of one’s modern social standing. The words ‘von’ and ‘zu’ in particular indicate the origin of the name in aristocratic law and are in themselves a title of nobility.

Nobiliary particles and name law

Today a nobiliary particle – like ‘von’ and ‘zu’ – continues to play a key role in a legal context, though there is no longer a specific aristocratic law. Instead, nobiliary particles are subject to modern name law, making it easier for you to obtain an aristocratic name and then to use it.

It is possible to acquire a nobiliary particle in different ways, such as through birth, a change of name, marriage or adoption. There are lots of combinations and individual cases, however, and you can’t generally acquire a nobiliary particle by simply applying for it. It’s only possible under very strict conditions. You would have to prove that you are undergoing psychological stress in order make a name affix absolutely necessary for the state of your mental health. Proving this simply on the basis of a non-aristocratic name would be rather difficult. Nevertheless, you may well be able to acquire a nobiliary particle to stroll the streets with your own aristocratic title.

Acquiring an aristocratic title through marriage, birth or adoption

How can I become a noble? What does it mean to belong to the aristocracy? Generally a nobiliary particle on its own isn’t enough to make you a member of the aristocracy. The particles ‘von’ and ‘zu’ do not necessarily make a person noble. On the contrary, it takes a genuine aristocratic title to be elevated to the ranks of the nobility. Nowadays only women can acquire a classic aristocratic title and enter the nobility with ease by means of getting their title through marriage. After getting divorced, though, the title is lost as quickly as it was gained. It also isn’t possible for a woman to pass the title on to her children or to her next husband. Only legitimate children are considered aristocratic and can rise into the ranks of the nobility. Adoption is another option to make it into the aristocracy.

Buy an aristocratic title – Noble by purchase

Is it possible to buy an aristocratic title? Can a person really become a genuine aristocrat if they have enough money? Anyone who wants to enter the aristocracy and use a genuine aristocratic title can get there via marriage or adoption. Sometimes it’s even possible to purchase an adoption, as in the famous example of Prince Marcus of Anhalt, who got himself adopted and gained his aristocratic title in this way. Buying an adoption represents a serious risk, however, as it is generally considered improper, making any agreements null and void.

A more advisable alternative, then, is to buy an aristocratic title through us. You’ll then be able to use your aristocratic title immediately as a kind of pseudonym. There are no limits to this use – you are absolutely free to sign contracts or book hotel room under your new aristocratic title. You even get an authentic certificate of appointment and your own coat of arms – with no risk at all.