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

Updated September 23, 2021 71.7k 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.

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  • Photo: Beata May / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Titles Could Be Gained Through Military Victories Long After The Middle Ages

    Gaining a noble title through feats of military strength began with a lord and his vassal in the Middle Ages. A knight fought bravely and was rewarded accordingly with a land payment. Over time, a form of nobility developed that was not due to victory in battle. In France, the two types of nobility were formally separated. There was the "nobility of the robe," which was earned through working for the Crown, and the "nobility of the sword," which was inherited from an initial military victory. 

    In more recent times, such as during the Napoleonic Wars, military heroes like the vice-admiral Viscount Horatio Nelson, were given their titles due to military success. To this day, members of the military can still be given an honorary peerage if deemed deserving.

  • In Russia, Noble Rank Was Measured By How Many Serfs You Possessed

    Russia’s relationship with nobility differed from the rest of Europe. For much of history, Russia lacked any sizable middle class. There was the tiny percentage of royals and nobles on one end of the spectrum, and a massive population of impoverished serfs on the other. Russia’s economic system therefore relied on forced labor for centuries, and nobility and wealth was measured by how many serfs one possessed.

    In a way, it was similar to the system of plantation owners and slavery that defined the southern US economy in the 18th and 19th centuries leading up to the Civil War. Russia was always trying to play catch up with Western Europe, but this systemic economic difference was an impassible hindrance, and the vast inequality of serfdom was at the roots of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

  • Photo: Tagishsimon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When The Nobility Teamed Up, It Was Always Bad For The Crown

    A rise in democratic systems was often the result of the nobility being fed up with a monarch’s autocratic control. The Magna Carta is the origin of parliamentary democracy and was the result of 13th century English nobles forcing the much-hated King John grant them some vague legislative power.

    Much the same power struggle was seen during the Fronde, a French civil war during the 1600s led by the nobles against the king's advisors; though it quickly devolved into more of a farce than a war.

    Over a century later, during the French Revolution, the goal of a democratic parliament was waylaid with a bloody and chaotic revolution, but the democracy could not have been achieved if some nobles had not aligned with the peasantry to rebel.

  • Photo: Caroline Bonarde Ucci / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Titles Are Now Given Out To Celebrities

    Laws regarding the peerage have become much more relaxed in modern times. Now, in order to join the peerage, one does not have to receive a hereditary title or buy it in a shady transaction. A "Life Peer" bestows a title on an individual for their lifetime, meaning it cannot be passed down to their children. 

    The beneficiaries of these titles are chosen by several committees that cover the fields of Arts and Media, Health, Education, Sports, Science and Technology, the Economy, Community, and the State. This is why actors like Dame Judi Dench or Sir Alec Guinness, among many others, possess a noble title.