Nobility is a social class that possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than most other classes in a society, membership thereof typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be largely honorary (e.g. precedence), and vary from country to country and era to era. Historically, membership of the nobility and the prerogatives thereof have been regulated or acknowledged by the monarch or government, thereby distinguishing it from other sectors of a nation's upper class. Nonetheless, nobility per se has rarely constituted a closed caste; acquisition of sufficient power, wealth, military prowess or royal favour has, occasionally or often, enabled commoners to ascend into the nobility.
There is often a variety of ranks within the noble class. Legal recognition of nobility has been more common in monarchies, but nobility also existed in such republics as the Dutch Republic (1581–1795), the Republic of Genoa (1005–1815) and the Republic of Venice (697–1797), and remains part of the legal social structure of some non-hereditary regimes, e.g. San Marino and the Vatican City in Europe. Hereditary titles often distinguish nobles from non-nobles, although in many nations most of the nobility have been un-titled, and a hereditary title need not indicate nobility (e.g., baronet).
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The term derives from Latin nobilitas, the abstract noun of the adjective nobilis ("well-known, famous, notable"). In ancient Roman society, nobiles originated as an informal designation for the political governing class who had allied interests, including both patricians and plebeian families (gentes) with an ancestor who had risen to the consulship through his own merit (see novus homo, "new man").
In modern usage, "nobility" is applied to the highest social class in pre-modern societies. In the feudal system (in Europe and elsewhere), the nobility were generally those who held a fief, often land or office, under vassalage, i.e., in exchange for allegiance and various, mainly military, services to a suzerain, who might be a monarch or a higher-ranking nobleman. It rapidly came to be seen as a hereditary caste, sometimes associated with a right to bear a hereditary title and, for example in pre-revolutionary France, enjoying fiscal and other privileges.
While noble status formerly conferred significant privileges in most jurisdictions, by the 21st century it had become a largely honorary dignity in most societies, although a few, residual privileges may still be preserved legally (e.g. Netherlands, Spain, UK) and some Asian, Pacific and African cultures continue to attach considerable significance to formal hereditary rank or titles. (Compare the entrenched position and leadership expectations of the nobility of the Kingdom of Tonga.)
Nobility is a historical, social and often legal notion, differing from high socio-economic status in that the latter is mainly based on income, possessions and/or lifestyle. Being wealthy or influential cannot, ipso facto, make one noble, nor are all nobles wealthy or influential (aristocratic families have lost their fortunes in various ways, and the concept of the 'poor nobleman' is almost as old as nobility itself).
Various republics, including former Iron Curtain countries, Greece, Mexico, and Austria have expressly abolished the conferral and use of titles of nobility for their citizens. This is distinct from countries which have not abolished the right to inherit titles, but which do not grant legal recognition or protection to them, such as Germany and Italy, although Germany recognizes their use as part of the legal surname. Still other countries and authorities allow their use, but forbid attachment of any privilege thereto, e.g. Finland, France, Norway and the European Union, although French law also protects lawful titles against usurpation.
Although many societies have a privileged upper class with substantial wealth and power, the status is not necessarily hereditary and does not entail a distinct legal status, nor differentiated forms of address.
Not all of the benefits of nobility derived from noble status per se. Usually privileges were granted or recognised by the monarch in association with possession of a specific title, office or estate. Most nobles' wealth derived from one or more estates, large or small, that might include fields, pasture, orchards, timberland, hunting grounds, streams, etc. It also included infrastructure such as castle, well and mill to which local peasants were allowed some access, although often at a price. Nobles were expected to live "nobly", that is, from the proceeds of these possessions. Work involving manual labour or subordination to those of lower rank (with specific exceptions, such as in military service) was either forbidden (as derogation from noble status) or frowned upon socially. On the other hand, membership in the nobility was usually a prerequisite for holding offices of trust in the realm and for career promotion, especially in the military, at court and often the higher functions in the government and judiciary.
Prior to the French Revolution, European nobles typically commanded tribute in the form of entitlement to cash rents or usage taxes, labour and/or a portion of the annual crop yield from commoners or nobles of lower rank who lived or worked on the noble's manor or within his seigneurial domain. In some countries, the local lord could impose restrictions on such a commoner's movements, religion or legal undertakings. Nobles exclusively enjoyed the privilege of hunting. In France, nobles were exempt from paying the taille, the major direct tax. Peasants were not only bound to the nobility by dues and services, but the exercise of their rights were often also subject to the jurisdiction of courts and police from whose authority the actions of nobles were entirely or partially exempt. In some parts of Europe the right of private war long remained the privilege of every noble.
During the early Renaissance, duelling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner of resolving disputes. According to Ariel Roth, during the reign of Henry IV, over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels "in an eighteen-year period" whilst a twenty-year period of Louis XIII's reign saw some eight thousand pardons for "murders associated with duels".
Since the end of World War I the hereditary nobility entitled to special rights has largely been abolished in the Western World as intrinsically discriminatory, and discredited as inferior in efficiency to individual meritocracy in the allocation of societal resources. Nobility came to be associated with social rather than legal privilege, expressed in a general expectation of deference from those of lower rank. By the 21st century even that deference had become increasingly minimised.
In France, a seigneury (lordship) might include one or more manors surrounded by land and villages subject to the noble's prerogatives and disposition. Seigneuries could be bought, sold or mortgaged. But if erected by the crown into, e.g. a barony or countship, it became legally entailed for a specific family, who could use it as their title (although most nobles were untitled: "seigneur of Montagne" meant ownership of that lordship but not, if one was not otherwise noble, the right to use its associated title). However, any French noble who bought a countship was allowed, ipso facto, to style himself as its comte.
By contrast, in the United Kingdom royal letters patent were necessary to take a noble title, which also carried a seat in the House of Lords, but came with no automatic entail nor rights to the local peasants' output.
European nobility originated in the feudal/seignorial system that arose in Europe during the Middle Ages. Originally, knights or nobles were mounted warriors who swore allegiance to their sovereign and promised to fight for him in exchange for an allocation of land (usually together with serfs living thereon). During the period known as the Military Revolution, nobles gradually lost their role in raising and commanding private armies, as many nations created cohesive national armies.
This was coupled with a loss of the socio-economic power of the nobility, owing to the economic changes of the Renaissance and the growing economic importance of the merchant classes, which increased still further during the Industrial Revolution. In countries where the nobility was the dominant class, the bourgeoisie gradually grew in power; a rich city merchant came to be more influential than a nobleman, and the latter sometimes sought inter-marriage with families of the former to maintain their noble lifestyles.
However, in many countries at this time, the nobility retained substantial political importance and social influence: for instance, the United Kingdom's government was dominated by the nobility until the middle of the 19th century. Thereafter the powers of the nobility were progressively reduced by legislation. However, until 1999, all hereditary peers were entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Since then, a reduction has been undertaken, whereby 92 sit, with 90 being elected by other hereditary peers to represent the peerage.
The countries with the highest proportion of nobles were Castile (probably 10%), Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (15% of an 18th-century population of 800,000), Spain (722,000 in 1768 which was 7-8% of the entire population) and other countries with lower percentages, such as Russia in 1760 with 5-600,000 nobles (2-3% of the entire population), and pre-revolutionary France where there were no more than 300,000 prior to 1789, which was 1% of the population (although some scholars believe this figure is an over-estimate). In 1718 Sweden had between ten and fifteen thousand nobles, which was 0.5% of the population.
In the Kingdom of Hungary nobles made up 5% of the population. On the frontiers of Europe, western and eastern alike, ongoing warfare against ethnic outsiders – Turks and Tatars in eastern Europe, Moors (until 1492) in Spain – gave large numbers of new men access to higher status; and the booty of conquest provided the material bases for their advancement. All the nobles in 18th-century Europe numbered perhaps 3-4 million out of a total of 170-190 million inhabitants.
Nobility might be either inherited or conferred by a fons honorum. In its broadest manifestation and strictest sense nobility is an acknowledged preeminence that is hereditary, i.e. the status descends exclusively to some or all of the legitimate, and usually male-line, descendants of a nobleman. In this respect, the nobility as a class has always been much more extensive than the primogeniture-based titled nobility, which included peerages in France and in the United Kingdom, grandezas in Portugal and Spain, and some noble titles in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia and Scandinavia. In Russia and non-Prussian Germany, titles usually descended to all male-line descendants of the original titleholder, including females. In Spain, noble titles are now equally heritable by females and males. Noble estates, on the other hand, usually descended by male primogeniture in Central, Western and Northern Europe. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, with the exception of Poland and a few Hungarian estates, they usually descended to all sons or even all children
In France, some wealthy bourgeois, most particularly the members of the various parlements, were ennobled by the king, constituting the noblesse de robe. The old nobility of landed or knightly origin, the noblesse d'épée, increasingly resented the influence and pretensions of this parvenu nobility. In the last years of the ancien régime the old nobility pushed for restrictions of certain offices and orders of chivalry to noblemen who could demonstrate that their lineage had sufficient "quarterings", i.e. noble ancestry (matrilineal as well as patrilineal), to deserve to compete as equals with nobles of medieval descent for offices and favors at court, (although historians such as William Doyle have disputed this so-called "Aristocratic Reaction"). Various court and military positions were reserved by tradition for nobles who could "prove" an ancestry of at least seize quartiers (16 quarterings), indicating exclusively noble descent (as displayed, ideally, in the family's coat of arms) extending back five generations (all 16 great-great grandparents).
This illustrates the traditional link in many countries between heraldry and nobility; in those countries where heraldry is used, nobles have almost always been armigerous, and have used heraldry to demonstrate their ancestry and family history. However, it is important to note that heraldry has never been restricted to the noble classes in most countries, and being armigerous does not necessarily demonstrate nobility. Scotland, however, is an exception. In a number of recent cases in Scotland the Lord Lyon Kings of Arms have controversially (vis-a-vis Scotland's Gaelic law) granted the arms and allocated the chiefships of medieval noble families to female-line descendants of lords, even when they were not of noble lineage in the male line, while persons of legitimate male-line descent may still survive (e.g., the modern Chiefs of Clan MacLeod).
In some nations, hereditary titles, as distinct from noble rank, were never recognised in law, e.g. Poland's Szlachta. Most nations traditionally had an untitled lower nobility (including, in continental Europe, hereditary knights) in addition to titled nobles. Examples include the landed gentry of the British Isles. However, unlike England's gentry, the Junkers of Germany, the noblesse de robe of France, the hidalgos of Spain and the nobili of Italy were explicitly acknowledged by the monarchs of those countries as members of the nobility. In Scandinavia, the Benelux nations and Spain there are still untitled as well as titled families recognised by law as noble.
Some con artists sell fake titles of nobility, often with impressive-looking documentation. These may be illegal, depending on local law. They are more often illegal in countries that actually have nobilities, such as European monarchies. In the United States, such commerce may constitute actionable fraud rather than criminal usurpation of an exclusive right to use of any given title by an established class.
"Aristocrat" and aristocracy, in modern usage, refer colloquially and broadly to persons who inherit elevated social status, whether due to membership in the (formerly) official nobility or the monied upper class.
Blue blood is an English idiom recorded since 1834 for noble birth or descent; it is also known as a translation of the Spanish phrase sangre azul, which described the Spanish royal family and other high nobility who claimed to be of Visigothic descent, in contrast to the Moors. The idiom originates from ancient and medieval societies of Europe and distinguishes an upper class (whose superficial veins appeared blue through their untanned skin) from a working class of the time. The latter consisted mainly of agricultural peasants who spent most of their time working outdoors and thus had tanned skin, through which superficial veins appear less prominently.
Robert Lacey explains the genesis of the blue blood concept:
It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat's blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy.
Many other non-European nations have had noble or aristocratic classes of various kinds: these are so diverse that it is somewhat misleading to try to translate them all into western feudal terminology.
In some Islamic countries, there are no definite noble titles (titles of hereditary rulers being distinct from those of hereditary intermediaries between monarchs and commoners). Persons who can trace legitimate descent from the Prophet Muhammad, as can members of several present or formerly reigning dynasties, are widely regarded as belonging to the ancient, hereditary Islamic nobility. In some Islamic countries they inherit (through mother or father) hereditary titles, although without any other associated privilege, e.g., variations of the title Sayyid and Sharif. Regarded as more religious than the general population, many people turn to them for clarification or guidance in religious matters.
In Iran, historical titles of the nobility including Mirza, Khan, ed-Dowleh and Shahzada ("Son of a Shah), are now no longer recognised. An aristocratic family is now recognised by their family name, often derived from the post held by their ancestors, considering the fact that family names in Iran only appeared in the beginning of the 20th century. Sultans have been an integral part of Islamic history .
During the Ottoman Empire in the Imperial Court and the provinces there were many Ottoman titles and appellations forming a somewhat unique and complex system in comparison with the other Islamic countries. The bestowal of noble and aristocratic titles was widespread across the empire even after its fall by independent monarchs. One of the most elaborate examples is that of the Egyptian aristocracy's largest clan, the Abaza family.
In East Asia the system was often modelled on imperial China, the leading culture. Emperors conferred degrees of nobility, which were not permanent but decreased a rank each generation. Imperial descendants formed the highest class of ancient Chinese nobility, their status based upon the rank of the empress or concubine from which they descend maternally (as emperors were polygamous). Numerous titles such as Taizi, and equivalents of "prince" were accorded, and due to complexities in dynastic rules, rules were introduced for Imperial descendants.
China had a feudal system in the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which gradually gave way to a more bureaucratic one beginning in the Qin dynasty (221 BC). This continued through the Song Dynasty, and by its peak only the Emperor's immediate family members were considered to be nobles.
This development was gradual and generally only completed in full by the Song Dynasty. In the Han Dynasty, for example, even though noble titles were no longer given to those other than the Emperor's relatives, the fact that the process of selecting officials was mostly based on a vouching system by current officials caused a form of quasi-hereditary nobility or peerage as officials usually vouched for their own sons or those of other officials. This process was further deepened during the Three Kingdoms Period with the introduction of the Nine-rank system.
By the Sui Dynasty, however, the institution of the Imperial examination system marked the transformation towards a full bureaucracy, though the process would not be truly completed until the Song Dynasty
Dynasties established by the minority, non-Han rulers via conquest in later years disrupted this ancient Han social class system. They compelled conformity to an ethnic policy wherein the Mongols and the Manchus were accorded higher social status than the Han majority whom they dominated.
In the Qing dynasty, many titles had been obtained or degraded through abuse and perversion of the original Qin system. Titles of nobility were still granted by the emperor, but served merely as honorifics based on a loose system of favours to the Qing emperor and the forwarding of Manchu interests: under a centralised system, the empire's governance was the responsibility of the Confucian-educated scholar-officials and the local gentry, while the literati were accorded gentry status based on lineage. For male citizens, advancement in status was possible via garnering the top three positions in imperial examinations.
The bestowal of titles was abolished upon the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, as part of a larger effort to remove feudal influences and practises from Chinese society.
Medieval Japan developed a feudal system similar to the European system, where land was held in exchange for military service. The daimyo class, or hereditary landowning nobles, held great socio-political power. As in Europe, they commanded private armies made up of samurai, an elite warrior class; for long periods, these held the real power without a real central government, and often plunged the country into a state of civil war. The daimyo class can be compared to European peers, and the samurai to European knights, but important differences include the distinction between the European code of chivalry and the Japanese code of bushido.
Feudal title and rank were abolished during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and was replaced by the kazoku, a five-rank peerage system after the British example, which granted seats in the upper house of the Imperial Diet; this ended in 1947 following Japan's defeat in World War II.
Like other Southeast Asian countries, many regions in the Philippines have indigenous nobility, partially influenced by Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic custom. Since ancient times, Datu was the common title of a chief or monarch of the many pre-colonial principalities and sovereign dominions throughout the isles; in some areas the term Apo was also used. With the titles Sultan and Rajah, Datu (and its Malay cognate, Datok) are currently used in some parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. These titles are the rough equivalents of European titles, albeit dependent on the actual wealth and prestige of the bearer.
Upon the islands' Christianisation, the datus retained governance of their territories despite annexation to the Spanish Empire. In a law signed 11 June 1594,King Philip II of Spain ordered that the indigenous rulers continue to receive the same honours and privileges accorded them prior their conversion to Catholicism. The baptised nobility subsequently coalesced into the exclusive, landed ruling class of the lowlands known as the Principalía.
Africa has a plethora of ancient lineages in its various constituent nations. Some, such as the numerous sharifian families of North Africa, the Keita dynasty of Mali, the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia and the Sherbro Tucker clan of Sierra Leone, claim descent from notables from outside of the continent. Most, such as those composed of the descendants of Shaka and Moshoeshoe of Southern Africa, belong to peoples that have been resident in the continent for millennia. Generally their royal or noble status is recognized by and derived from the authority of traditional custom. A number of them also enjoy either a constitutional or a statutory recognition of their high social positions.
In addition to a variety of indigenous peoples (such as the Aymara and the Quechua, who have long traditions of being led by nobles called Apu Mallkus and Mallkus), tribal connections exist among a number of other groups. Peerage traditions dating to the colonial period of such countries as Brazil, Cuba and Mexico have left noble families in each of them that have ancestral ties to those nations' native tribes, while such figures as the Afro-Bolivian king and the high priestess of the Ile Maroia Laji sect of Brazilian Candomble trace their ancestries to and derive their prestige from ancient monarchs and nobles of the pre-colonial African continent.
Amongst the Native Hawaiians, the Ali'i are the traditional aristocratic class. They routinely provided the kings and nobles of the Kingdom of Hawaii prior to its dissolution, and have served as a bastion of Native Hawaiian revivalism since its occurrence. In Tonga, after contact with Western nations, the traditional system of chiefs was developed into a Western-style monarchy with a hereditary class of "barons", the Tongans even adopting that English title as a synonym for chief.
A list of noble titles for different European countries can be found at Royal and noble ranks.
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