Weird History
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What Did It Actually Mean To Be "The Nobility" In European History?

Updated September 21, 2018 71.6k views12 items

They toppled monarchies, caused civil wars, and occasionally lost their head to the guillotine's blade. Despite their darkest moments, however, members of the aristocracy have fascinated and beguiled us common folk for centuries with their lavish lifestyles. Whether ensconced in the gilded cage that was Versailles, or running amuck marrying "cash-for-title" heiresses to keep their castles from crumbling, the European nobility formed privileged ranks.

But how did someone become a noble? It began with military victories in the Middle Ages, then soon turned into a matter of bloodlines, and proceeded to become quite confusing and pretentious after that. While always subservient to their ruler (at least in theory), the nobility has more than once turned the world on its head and sent history in a totally different direction; how this unique and tightly formed social group came to dominate the world stage for so long is a fascinating story that reaches back through the centuries.

  • Photo: Martin van Meytens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Noble Titles Are Passed Almost Exclusively Through The Male Line

    Throughout history, noble titles have nearly always been passed along the male bloodline. In many cases, if a family possessed only female heirs, then their title could revert to the crown and they would lose the benefits and social standing - although in special circumstances a title could be transferred through a daughter to any male heir she might birth.

    This potential issue often put extreme pressure on noble daughters to marry into other noble families so their title would not die out. But there were few instances where women had titles “suo jure,” a Latin phrase meaning “in his/her own right.” One of the most famous examples was the rule of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (mother of Marie Antoinette), whose possession of the title led to the devastating War of Austrian Succession. 

    Only in the 20th century have the laws surrounding the female peerage begun to change. In England, women were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until 1958.

  • Photo: Claude-Guy Hallé / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nobility Could Be Revoked If One Worked A Regular Job

    Nobles really only had one job: to live “nobly.” This meant their every move was supposed to be part of an elevated way of life. Their relationship to the Crown, as well as their wealth, meant they were not supposed to work a day in their life. 

    Nobles were meant to derive wealth from their land holdings and employ and/or enslave others to make money off of it for them. If a noble was seen working the fields or tending to the animals, it was cause for disgrace and, in France, could even lead to them losing their title.

  • Photo: Gustave Courbet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The "Poor Noble" Is A Trope As Old As The Nobility Itself

    Some nobles found themselves in a Catch-22. Because they were noble, they supposedly possessed special privileges and wealth, which meant they did not have to work. Given the right circumstances, however, noble families could fall on hard times just like the rest of the population. 

    If resources were depleted, the natural inclination was for the nobleman to work himself, but as a noble, he was sometimes prohibited from doing so. Nobility could often be a misrepresentation of wealth, and the concept of the “poor nobleman” is an old one. The position of “poor nobles” made way for the degredation of the nobility through the selling of titles.

  • The Industrial Revolution Nearly Destroyed The Aristocracy

    Keeping up a noble estate and all the trappings that came along with such a lifestyle required an almost endless amount of funds. Originally, much of a noble's wealth came from their land holdings. Before the start of the Industrial Revolution, land was the most reliable source of wealth, but as economics underwent a dramatic shift with the advancement of technology, the way noble families made their money began to change, too.

    Land grew less profitable, and the traditional avoidance of "work" meant that an aristocrat couldn't seek employment elsewhere without shaming their family and potentially losing their title. By the turn of the 20th century, many noble families could no longer afford to keep up the massive estates which had begun to around them.

    With the rise of "new money," different options emerged for reinvigorating the family coffers; instead of marrying other impoverished aristocrats, families looked elsewhere for matrimonial opportunities. The trend of "cash brides" came into vogue, with wealthy American girls gaining noble titles in exchange for the huge fortunes their families possessed.

    When Consuelo Vanderbilt, a member of the wealthy Vanderbilt railroad dynasty, married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, she brought with her a massive dowry. In years prior, the illustrious Marlborough family would never have dreamed of marrying an untitled American. But they were hardly the only aristocratic family to fall on hard times, and many other noble families followed their example.