1902 Encyclopedia > Nobility


NOBILITY. To form a true understanding of what is strictly implied in the word " nobility " it is needful to distinguish its meaning from that of several words with which it is likely to be confounded. In England nobility is apt to be confounded with the peculiar institution of the British peerage. Yet nobility, in some shape or another, has existed in most places and times of the world's history, while the British peerage is an institution purely local, and one which has actually hindered the existence of a nobility in the sense which the word bears in most other countries. Nor is nobility the same thing as aristocra'cy. This last is a word which is often greatly abused; but, whenever it is used with any regard to its true meaning, it is a word strictly political, implying a particular form of government. But nobility is not neces-sarily a political term; the distinction which it implies may be accompanied by political privileges or it may not. Again, it is sometimes thought that both nobility and aristocracy are in some special way connected with kingly government. To not a few it would seem a contra-diction to speak of nobility or aristocracy in a republic. Yet, though many republics have eschewed nobility, there is nothing in a republican, or even in a democratic, form of government inconsistent with the existence of nobility; and it is only in a republic that aristocracy, in the strict sense of the word, can exist. Aristocracy implies the existence of nobility; but nobility does not imply aris-tocracy ; it may exist under any form of government. The peerage, as it exists in the three British kingdoms, is something which is altogether peculiar to the three British kingdoms, and which has nothing in the least degree like it elsewhere.

Nobility, then, in the strict sense of the word, is the Defini-hereditary handing on from generation to generation oftion-some acknowledged pre-eminence, a pre-eminence founded on hereditary succession, and on nothing else. Such nobility may be immemorial or it may not.. There may or there may not be a power vested somewhere of con-ferring nobility; but it is essential to the true idea of nobility that, when once acquired, it shall go on for ever to all the descendants—or, more commonly, only to all the descendants in the male line—of the person first ennobled or first recorded as noble. The pre-eminence so handed on may be of any kind, from substantial political power to mere social respect and precedence. It does not seem necessary that it should be formally enacted by law if it is universally acknowledged by usage. It may be marked by titles or it may not. It is hardly needful to prove that nobility does not imply wealth, though nobility without wealth runs some risk of being forgotten. This definition seems to take in all the kinds of nobility which have existed in different times and places. They have differed widely in the origin of the noble class and in the amount of privilege implied in membership of it; but they all agree in the transmission of some privilege or other to all the descendants, or to all the male descendants, of the first noble.

In strictness nobility and gentry are the same thing. Nobility This fact is overshadowed in England, partly by thean(i habitual use of the word " gentleman " in various secondary 8entrv-uses, partly by the prevalent confusion between nobility and peerage. But that they are the same is proved by the use of the French word gentilhomme, a word which has pretty well passed out of modern use, but which, as long as it remained in use, never lost its true meaning. There were very wide distinctions within the French noblesse, but they all formed one privileged class as distinguished from the roturier. Here, then, is a nobility in the strictest sense. If there is no such class in England, it is simply because the class which answers to it has never been able to keep any universally acknowledged privileges. The word " gentleman " has lost its original meaning in a variety of other uses, while the word " nobleman " has come to be confined to members of the peerage and a few of their immediate descendants.

That the English peerage does not answer to the true idea of a nobility will be seen with a very little thought. There is no handing on of privilege or pre-eminence to perpetual generations. The peer holds a great position, endowed with substantial powers and privileges, and those powers and privileges are handed on by hereditary suc-cession. But they are handed on only to one member of the family at a time. The peer's children, in some cases his grandchildren, have titles and precedence, but they have no substantial privileges. His remoter descendants have no advantage of any kind over other people, except their chance of succeeding to the peerage. The remote descendant of a duke, even though he may chance to be heir presumptive to the dukedom, is in no way distinguished from any other gentleman; it is even possible that he may not hold the social rank of gentleman. This is not nobility in the true sense; it is not nobility as nobility was understood either in the French kingdom or in the Venetian commonwealth.

Nobility thus implies the vesting of some hereditary privilege or advantage in certain families, without decid-ing in what such privilege or advantage consists. Its " nature may differ widely according to the causes which have led to the establishment of the distinction between family and family in each particular case. The way in which nobility has arisen in different times and places is very various, and there are several nations whose history will supply us with examples of a nobility of one kind giving way to a nobility of another kind. The history of the Roman commonwealth illustrates this perhaps better than any other. What we may call the nobility of earlier occupation makes way for the nobility of office. Our first glimpses of authentic Roman history set before us two orders in the same state, one of which is distinguished from the other by many exclusive privileges. The privi-Roman leged order—the piopulus, patres, patricians—has all the Populus, characteristics which we commonly expect to find in a privi-leged order. It is a minority, a minority strictly marked out by birth from other members of the commonwealth, a minority which seems further, though this point is less clearly marked, to have had on the whole the advantage in point of wealth. When we are first entitled to speak with any kind of certainty, the non-privileged class possess a certain share in the election of magistrates and the making of laws. But the privileged class alone are eligible to the greatest offices of the state; they have in their hands the exclusive control of the national religion; they have the exclusive enjoyment of the common land of the state,—in Teutonic phrase, the folkland. A little research shows that the origin of these privileges was a very simple one. Those who appear in later times as a privileged order among the people had once been the whole people. The patricians, patres, housefathers, goodmen—so lowly is the origin of that proud name—were once the whole Boman people, the original inhabitants of the Roman hills. They were the true populus Romanus, alongside of whom grew up a secondary Boman people, the plebs or commons. As new settlers came, as the people of conquered towns were moved to Bome, as the character of Romans was granted to some allies and forced upon some enemies, this plebs, sharing some but not all of the rights of citizens, became a non-privileged order alongside of a privileged order. As the non-privileged order increased in numbers, while the privileged order, as every exclusive hereditary body must do, lessened, the larger body gradually put on the char-acter of the nation at large, while the smaller body put on the character of a nobility. But their position as a nobility or privileged class arose solely because a class with inferior rights to their own grew up around them. They were not a nobility or a privileged class as long as there was no less privileged class to distinguish them from. Their exclusive possession of power made the commonwealth in which they bore rule an aristocracy; but they were a democracy among themselves. We see indeed faint traces of distinction among the patricians themselves, which may lead us to guess that the equality of all patricians may have been won by struggles of unre-corded days, not unlike those which in recorded days brought about the equality of patrician and plebeian. But at this we can only guess. The Roman patricians, the true Roman populus, appear at our first sight of them as a body democratic in its own constitution, but standing out as an order marked by very substantial privileges indeed from the other body, the plebs, also democratic in its own constitution, but in every point of honour and power the marked inferior of the populus.

The old people of Rome thus grew, or rather shrank Patri-up, into a nobility by the growth of a new people byclans> their side which they declined to admit to a share in their rights, powers, and possessions. A series of struggles raised this new people, the p>lebs, to a level with the old people, the populus. The gradual character of the process is not the least instructive part of it. There are two marked stages in the struggle. In the first the plebeians strive to obtain relief from laws and customs which were actually oppressive to them, while they were profitable to the patricians. When this relief has been gained by a series of enactments, a second struggle follows, in which the plebeians win political equality with the patricians. In this second struggle, too, the ground is won bit by bit. No general law was ever passed to abolish the privileges of the patricians; still less was any law ever passed to abolish the distinction between patrician and plebeian. All that was done was done step by step. First, marriage between the two orders was legalized. Then one law admitted plebeians to one office, another law to another. Admission to military command was won first, then admis-sion to civil jurisdiction; a share in religious functions was won last of all. And some offices, chiefly those reli-gious offices which carried no political power with them, always remained the exclusive property of the patricians, because no special law was ever passed to throw them open to plebeians. In this gradual way every practical advantage on the part of the patricians was taken away. But the result did not lead to the abolition of all dis-tinctions between the orders. Patricians and plebeians went on as orders defined by law, till the distinction died out in the confusion of things under the empire, till at last the word " patrician" took quite a new meaning. The distinction, in truth, went on till the advantage turned to the side of the plebeians. Both consuls might be plebeians, both could not be patricians; a patrician could not wield the great powers vested in the tribunes of the commons. These were greater advantages than the exclusive patrician possession of the offices of interrex, rex sacrcrrum, and the higher flamens. And, as the old distinction survived in law and religion after all substantial privileges were abo-lished, so presently a new distinction arose of which law and religion knew nothing, but which became in practice nearly as marked and quite as important as the older one.

This was the growth of the new nobility of Rome, that body, partly patrician, partly plebeian, to which the name

New nobilitas strictly belongs in Roman history. This new nobility, nobility gradually became as well marked and as exclusive as the old patriciate. But it differed from the old patriciate in this, that, while the privileges of the old patriciate rested on law, or perhaps rather on immemorial custom, the privileges of the new nobility rested wholly on a sentiment of which men could remember the beginning. Or it would be more accurate to say that the new nobility had really no privileges at all. Its members had no legal advantages over other citizens. They were a social caste, which strove to keep, and which largely succeeded in keeping, all high offices' and political power in its own hands. Such privileges, even of an honorary kind, as the nobles did enjoy by law belonged to them, not as nobles, but as senators and senators' sons. Yet practically the new nobility was a privileged class ; it felt itself to be so, and it was felt to be so by others. This nobility consisted of all those who, as descendants of curule magistrates, had the jus imaginurn,—that is, who could point to forefathers ennobled by office. That is to say, it consisted of the remains of the old patriciate, together with those plebeian families any members of which had been chosen to curule offices. These were naturally those families which had been patrician in some other Italian city, but which were plebeian at Rome. Many of them equalled the patricians in wealth and antiquity of descent, and as soon as inter-marriage was allowed they became in all things their social equals. The practical result of the Licinian reform was that the great plebeian families became, for all practical purposes, patrician. They separated themselves from the mass of the plebeians to form a single body with the sur-viving patricians. Just as the old patricians had striven to keep plebeians out of high offices, so now the new nobles, patrician and plebeian alike, strove to keep "new men," men who had not the jus imaginurn, out of high office. But there was still the difference that in the old state of things the plebeian was shut out by law, while in the new state of things no law shut out the new man. It needed a change in the constitution to give the consul-ship to Lucius Sextius ; it needed only union and energy in the electors to give it to Caius Marius.

The Roman case is often misunderstood, because the later Roman writers did not fully understand the case themselves. Livy could never get rid of the idea that the old struggle between patrician and plebeian was something like the struggle between the nobility and the people at large in the later days of the commonwealth. In a cer-tain sense he knew better; at any rate, he often repeats the words of those who knew better; but the general impression given by his story is that the plebeians were a low mob and their leaders factious and interested ring-leaders of a mob. The case is again often misunderstood because the words "patrician" and "plebeian," like so many other technical Roman and Greek words, have come in modern language to be used in a way quite unlike their original sense. The word " plebeian," in its strict sense, is no more contemptuous than the word commoner in England. The plebs, like the English commons, contained families differing widely in rank and social position, among them those families which, as soon as an artificial barrier broke down, joined with the patricians to form the new nobility. The whole lesson is lost if the words " patrician " and " plebeian " are used in any but their strict sense. The Catuli and Metelli, among the proudest nobles of Rome, were plebeians, and as such could not have been chosen to the purely patrician office of interrex, or flamen of Jupiter. Yet even in good writers on Roman history the words " patrician " and " plebeian " are often misapplied by being transferred to the later disputes at Rome, _ in which they are quite out of place.

We may now compare the history of nobility at Rome Compari-with its history in some other of the most famous city-son 1»-commonwealths. Thus at Athens its history is in its^^ main outlines very much the same as its history at Rome an(j up to a certain point, while there is nothing at Athens Athenian which at all answers to the later course of things at Rome, nobilities. At Athens, as at Rome, an old patriciate, a nobility of older settlement, a nobility which had once been the whole people, was gradually shorn of all exclusive privilege, and driven to share equal rights with a new people which had grown up around it. The reform of Clisthenes answers in a general way to the reform of Licinius, though the different circumstances of the two cities hinder us from carrying out the parallel into detail. But both at Rome and at Athens we see, at a stage earlier than the final reform, an attempt to set up a standard of wealth, either instead of or along-side of the older standard of birth. This same general idea comes out both in the constitution of Servius and in the constitution of Solon, though the application of the principle is different in the two cases. Servius made voting power depend on income; by Solon the same rule was applied to qualification for office. By this change power is not granted to every citizen, but it is put within the reach of every citizen. No man can change his fore-fathers, but the poor man may haply become richer. The Athenian evn-aTpl&ai., who were thus gradually brought down from their privileged position, seem to have been quite as proud and exclusive as the Roman patricians; but when they lost their privileges they lost them far more thoroughly, and they did not, as at Borne, practically hand on many of them to a new nobility, of which they formed part, though not the whole. While at Borne the distinction of patrician and plebeian was never wiped out, while it remained to the last a legal distinction even when practical privilege had turned the other way, at Athens, after the democracy had reached its full growth, the dis-tinction seems to have had no legal existence whatever. At Borne down to the last it made a difference whether the candidate for office was patrician or plebeian, though the difference was in- later times commonly to the advantage of the plebeian. At Athens, at any rate after Aristides, the eupatrid was neither better nor worse off than another man.

But, what is of far greater importance, there never arose at Athens any body of men which at all answered to the nobilitas of Bome. We see at Athens strong signs of social distinctions, even at a late period of the democracy; we see that, though the people might be led by the low-born demagogue—using that word in its strict and not neces-sarily dishonourable meaning—their votes most commonly fell on men of ancient descent. We see that men of birth and wealth often allowed themselves a strange licence in dealing with their low-born fellow-citizens. But we see no sign of the growth of a body made up of patricians and leading plebeians who contrived to keep office to themselves by a social tradition only less strong than positive law. We have at Athens the exact parallel to the state of things when Appius Claudius shrank from the thought of the consulship of Caius Licinius; we have no exact parallel to the state of things when Quintus Metellus shrank from the thought of the consulship of Caius Marius. The cause of the difference seems to be that, while the origin of the patriciate was exactly the same at Bome and at Athens, the origin of the commons was different. The four Ionic tribes at Athens seem to have answered very closely to the three patrician tribes at Bome; but the Athenian demos grew up in a different way from the Boman plebs. If we could believe that the Athenian demos arose out of the union of the other Attic towns with Athens, this would be an exact analogy to the origin of the Boman plebs; the ivirarplSaL would be the Athenians and the demos the Atticans (ATTLKOI). But from such glimpses of early Attic history as we can get the union of the Attic towns would seem to have been completed before the constitu-tional struggle began. That union would answer rather to the union of the three patrician tribes of Rome. Such hints as we have, while they set before us, just as at Rome, a state of things in which small landed proprietors are burthened with debt, also set before us the Attic demos as, largely at least, a body of various origins which had grown up in the city. Clisthenes, for instance, enfran-chised many slaves and strangers, a course which certainly formed no part of the platform of Licinius, and which reminds us rather of Cnaeus Flavius somewhat later. On the whole it seems most likely that, while the kernel of the Roman plebs was rural or belonged to the small towns admitted to the Roman franchise, the Attic demos, largely at least, though doubtless not wholly, arose out of the mixed settlers who had come together in the city, answer-ing to the fieroiKot, of later times. If so, there would be no place in Athens for those great plebeian houses, once patri-cian in some other commonwealth, out of which the later Roman nobilitas was so largely formed. Sparta, Thus the history of nobility at Athens supplies a close analogy to the earlier stages of its history at Rome, but it has nothing answering to its later stages. At Sparta we have a third instance of a people shrinking up into a nobility, but it is a people whose position differs altogether from anything either at Rome or at Athens. Sparta is the best case of a nobility of conquest. This is true, whether we look on the ireploiKoi as Achaians or as Dorians, or as belonging some to one race and some to the other. In any case the Spartans form a ruling body, and a body whose privileged position in the land is owing to conquest. The Spartans answer to the patricians, the treploiKOL to the plebs; the helots are below the position of plebs or demos. The only difference is that, probably owing to the fact that the distinction was due to conquest, the local char-acter of the distinction lived on much longer than it did at Rome. We hardly look on the Spartans as a nobility among the other Lacedaemonians; Sparta rather is a ruling city bearing sway over the other Lacedaemonian towns. But this is exactly what the original Roman patricians, the settlers on the three oldest hills, were in the beginning. The so-called cities (JTOACIS) of the weploiKoi answered pretty well to the local plebeian tribes; the difference is that the -n-tpioiKOL never became a united corporate body like the Roman plebs. Sparta to the last remained what Rome was at the beginning, a city with a populus (Si^os) but no plebs. And, as at Rome in early times, there were at Sparta distinctions within the populus; there were '¿¡10101 and iJ7ro/Li«oves, like the majores and minores gentes at Rome. Only at Rome, where there was a plebs to be striven against, these distinctions seem to have had a tend-ency to die out, while at Sparta they seem to have had a tendency to widen. The Spartan patriciate could afford to disfranchise some of its own members.
The other old Greek cities, as well as those of mediaeval Italy and Germany, would supply us with endless examples of the various ways in which privileged orders arose. Venice, a oity not exactly belonging to any of these classes, essentially a city of the Eastern empire and not of the Western, gives us an example than which none is more instructive. The renowned patriciate of Venice was as far removed as might be from the character either of a nobility of conquest or of a nobility of older settlement. Nor was it strictly a nobility of office, though it had more in common with that than with either of the other two. As Athens supplies us with a parallel to the older nobility of Rome without any parallel to the later, so Venice sup-plies us with a parallel to the later nobility of Rome with-out any parallel to the earlier. Athens has Fabii and Claudii, but no Catuli or Metelli; Venice has Catuli and Metelli, but no Fabii or Claudii.

In one point, however, the Venetian nobility differed Venice. . from either the older or the newer nobility of Rome, and also from the older nobilities of the mediaeval Italian cities. Nowhere else did nobility so distinctly rise out of wealth, and that wealth gained by commerce. In the original island territory of Venice there could be no such thing as landed property. The agricultural plebeian of old Rome and the feudal noble of contemporary Europe were both of them at Venice impossible characters. The Venetian nobility is an example of a nobility which gradually arose out of the mass of the people as certain families step by step drew all political power into their own hands. The plebs did not gather round the patres, neither were they conquered by the patres; the patres were developed by natural selection out of the plebs, or, more strictly, out of the ancient populus. The com-mune of Venice, the ancient style of the commonwealth, changed into the seigniory of Venice. Political power was gradually confined to those whose forefathers had held political power. This was what the later nobility of Rome was always striving at, and what they did to a great extent practically establish. But, as the exclusive privileges of the nobility were never recognized by any legal or formal act, men like Caius Marius would ever and anon thrust themselves in. The privileges which the Venetian nobility took to themselves were established by acts which, if not legal, were at least formal. The Roman nobility, resting wholly on sufferance, was overthrown by the ambition of one of its own members. The Venetian nobility, resting also in its beginnings on sufferance, but on sufferance which silently obtained the force of law, lasted as long as Venice remained a separate state.

The hereditary oligarchy of Venice was established by a series of changes which took place between the years 1297 and 1319. All of them together really go to make up the " Shutting of the Great Council," a name which is formally given to the act of the first of those years. In 1172 the Great Council began as an elective body; it gradually ousted the popular assembly from all prac-tical power. It was, as might be looked for, commonly filled by members of distinguished families, descendants of ancient magistrates, who were already beginning to be looked on as noble. The series of revolutions already spoken of first made descent from former councillors a necessary qualification for election to the council; then election was abolished, and the council consisted of all descendants of its existing members who had reached the age of twenty-five. Thus the optimates of Venice did what the optimates of Rome strove to do: they esta-blished a nobility whose one qualification was descent from those who had held office in past times. This is what the nobility of office, if left unchecked, naturally grows into. But the particular way in which oligarchy was finally established at Venice had some singular results. Some of the great families which were already looked on as noble were not represented in the council at the time of the shutting; of others some branches were represented and others not. These families and branches of families, however noble they might be in descent, were thus shut out from all the political privileges of nobility. When one branch of a family was admitted and one shut out we have an analogy to the patrician and plebeian Claudii, though the The distinction had come about in quite another way. And Roman in the Great Council itself we have the lively image of the Gw^^ aristocratic popular assembly of Rome, the assembly ofGreat the populus, that of the curiee, where every man of patri- Council cian birth had his place. The two institutions are the of Venice.

same, only the way in which they came about is exactly
opposite. The assembly of curix at Rome, originally
the democratic assembly of the original people, first grew
into an aristocratic assembly, and then died out alto-
gether as a new Roman people, with its own assembly,
grew up by its side. It was a primitive institution which
gradually changed its character by force of circumstances.
It died out, supplanted by other and newer powers, when
it became altogether unsuited to the times. The Great
Council of Venice was anything but a primitive institu-
tion ; it was the artificial institution of a late age, which
grew at the expense of earlier institutions, of the prince
on the one side and of the people on the other. But the
two different roads led to the same result. The Great
Council of Venice, the curix of Bome, were each of them the
assembly of a privileged class, an assembly in which every
member of that class had a right to a place, an assembly
which might be called popular as far as the privileged
class was concerned, though rigidly oligarchic as regarded
the excluded classes. But, close as the likeness is, it is
merely a superficial likeness, because it is the result of
opposite causes working in opposite directions. It is like
two men who are both for a moment in the same place,
though their faces are turned in opposite ways. If the
later nobilitas of Bome had established an assembly in
which every one who had the jus imaginum had a vote
and none other, that would have been a real parallel to
the shutting of the Venetian Great Council; for it would
have come about through the working of causes which are
essentially the same.

The nobility which was thus formed at Venice is the very model of a civic nobility, a nobility which is also an anAris06aristocracy. In a monarchy, "despotic or constitutional, tocraey. there cannot in strictness be an aristocracy, because the whole political power cannot be vested in the noble class. But in the Venetian commonwealth the nobility was a real aristocracy. All political power was vested in the noble class; the prince sank to a magistrate, keeping only some of the outward forms of sovereignty; the mass of the people were shut out altogether. And, if no government on earth ever fully carried out the literal meaning of aristocracy as the rule of the best, these civic nobilities come nearer to it than any other form of government. They do really seem to engender a kind of hereditary capa-city in their members. Less favourable than either mon-archy or democracy to the growth of occasional great men, they are more favourable than either to the constant supply of a succession of able men, qualified to carry on the work of government. Their weak point lies in their necessary conservatism; they cannot advance and adapt themselves to changed circumstances, as either monarchy or democracy can. When, therefore, their goodness is gone, their corruption becomes worse than the corruption of either of the other forms of government. Civic All this is signally shown in the history both of Venice aristo- an(j 0f 0ther aristocratic cities. But we are concerned cracies. wj^.j1 them now only as instances of one form of nobility. The civic aristocracies did not all arise in the same way. Venice is the best type of one way in which they rose; but it is by no means the only way. In not a few of the Italian cities nobility had an origin and ran a course quite unlike the origin and the course which were its lot at Venice. The nobles of many cities were simply the nobles of the surrounding country changed, sometimes greatly against their will, into citizens. Such a nobility differed far more widely from either the Boman or the Venetian patriciate than they differed from one another. It wanted the element of legality, or at least of formality, which distinguished both these bodies. The privileges of the Roman patriciate, whatever we may call them, were not usurpations; and, if we call the privileges of the Venetian nobility usurpations, they were stealthy and peaceful usurpations, founded on something other than mere violence. But in many Italian cities the position of the nobles, if it did not begin in violence, was maintained by violence, and was often overthrown by violence. They remained, in short, as unruly and isolated within the walls of the cities as they had ever been without. A nobility of this kind often gave way to a democracy which either proved as turbulent as itself, or else grew into an oligarchy ruling under democratic forms. Thus at Flor-ence the old nobles became the opposite to a privileged class. The process which at Bome gradually gave the plebeian a political advantage over the patrician was carried at Florence to a far greater length at a single blow. The whole noble order was disfranchised; to be noble was equivalent to being shut out from public office. But something like a new nobility presently grew up among the commons themselves; there were popolani grossi at Florence just as there were noble plebeians at Bome. Only the Boman commons, great and small, never shut out the patricians from office; they were satisfied to share office with them. In short, the shutting out of the old no-bility was, if not the formation of a new nobility, at least the formation of a new privileged class. For a certain class of citizens to be condemned, by virtue of their birth, to political disfranchisement is as flatly against every principle of democracy as for a certain class of citizens to enjoy exclusive rights by reason of birth. The Florentine demo-cracy was, in truth, rather to be called an oligarchy, if we accept the best definition of democracy (see Thucydides, vi. 39), namely, that it is the rule of the whole, while oligarchy is the rule of a part only.

It is in these aristocratic cities, of which Venice was the most fully developed model, that we can best see what nobility really is. It is in these only that we can see nobility in its purest form—nobility to which no man can rise and from which no man can come down except by the will of the noble class itself. In a monarchy, where the king can ennoble, this ideal cannot be kept. Nor could it be kept in the later nobility of Bome. The new man had much to strive against, but he could sometimes thrust himself through, and when he did his descendants had their jus imaginum. But at Venice neither prince nor people could open the door of the Great Council; only the Great Council itself could do that. That in the better times of the aristocracy nobility was not uncommonly granted to worthy persons, that in its worse times it was more commonly sold to unworthy persons, was the affair of the aristocratic body itself. That body, at all events, could not be degraded save by its own act. But these grants and sales led to distinctions within the ranks of the noble order, like those of which we get faint glimpses among the Boman patricians. The ducal dignity rarely passed out of a circle of specially old and distinguished families. But this has often been the case with the high magis-tracies of commonwealths whose constitutions were purely democratic.

From this purest type of nobility, as seen in the aristo- Rural cratic commonwealths, we may pass to nobility as seen in Nobility, states of greater extent—that is, for the most part in mon-archies. There are two marked differences between the two. They are differences which seem to be inherent in the difference between a republic and a monarchy, but which it would be truer to say are inherent in the differ-ence between a body of men packed close together within the walls of a city and a body of men—if we can call them a body—scattered over a wide territory. The member of a civic nobility is more than a member of an order; he is a member of a corporation; he has no powers, he has hardly any being, apart from the body of which he is a member. He has a vote in making the laws or in choosing those who make them; but when they are made he is, if any-thing, more strictly bound by them than the citizen of the non-privileged order. To be a fraction of the corporate sovereign, if it had its gains, had also its disadvantages; the Venetian noble was fettered by burthens, restrictions, and suspicions from which the Venetian citizen was free. The noble of the large country, on the other hand, the rural noble, as he commonly will be, is a member of an order, but he is hardly a member of a corporation ; he is isolated; he acts apart from the rest of the body and wins powers for himself apart from the rest of the body. He shows a tendency—a tendency whose growth will be more or less checked according to the strength of the central power—to grow into something of a lord or even a prince on his own account, a growth which may advance to the scale of a German elector or stop at that of an English lord of a manor. Now many of these tendencies were carried into those Italian cities where the civic nobility was a half-tamed country nobility; but they have no place in the true civic aristocracies. Let us take one typical example. In many parts of western Europe the right of private war long remained the privilege of every noble, as it had once been the privilege of every freeman. And in some Italian cities, the right, or at least the privilege, of private war was continued within the city walls. But no power of imagination can conceive an acknowledged right of private war in Borne, Venice^ or Bern.

The other point of difference is that, whatever we take for the origin and the definition of nobility, in most countries it became something that could be given from outside, without the need of any consent on the part of the noble class itself. In other words, the king or other prince can ennoble. We have seen how much this takes away from the true notion of nobility as understood in the aristocratic commonwealths. The nobility is no longer all-powerful; it may be con-strained to admit within its own body members for whose presence it has no wish. Where this power exists the nobility is no longer in any strictness an aristocracy; it may have great privileges, great influence, even great legal powers, but it is not the real ruling body, like the true aristocracy of Venice. Nobili- In the modern states of western Europe the existing ties in nobility seems to have for the most part had its origin Western ^N PERSONA^ service to the prince. And this nobility by Europe personal service seems commonly to have supplanted an older nobility, the origin of which was, in some cases at least, strictly immemorial. Of this process in England, the substitution of the later nobility of the thegns for the older nobility of the eorls, something has already been said in the article ENGLAND (vol. viii. pp. 274-5). Now the analogy between this change and the change from the Boman patriciate to the later Boman nobilitas is obvious. In both cases the older nobility gives way to a newer; and in both cases the newer nobility was a nobility of office. Under a kingly government office bestowed by the sove-reign holds the same place which office bestowed by the people holds in a popular government. This new nobility of office supplanted, or perhaps rather absorbed, the older nobility, just as the later nobilitas of Borne supplanted or absorbed the old patriciate. In our first glimpse of Teutonic institutions, as given us by Tacitus, this older nobility appears as strictly immemorial (see Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte, i. 185 sq.), and its immemorial character appears also in the well-known legend in the Rigsmal-saga of the separate creation of jarl, karl, and thrall. These represent the three classes of mankind according to old Teutonic ideas—the noble, the simple free-man, and the bondman. The kingly house, where there is one, is not a distinct class; it is simply the noblest of the noble. For, as almost everywhere else, this Teutonic nobility admits of degrees, though it is yet harder to say in what the degrees of nobility consisted than to say in what nobility consisted itself. The older nobility is independent of the possession of land; it is independent of office about the sovereign; it is hard to say what were the powers and privileges attached to it; but of its existence there is no doubt. But in no part of Europe can the existing nobility trace itself to this immemorial nobility of primitive days; the nobility of mediaeval and modern days springs from the later nobility of office. The nobles of modern Europe are rather thegnas than eorlas. The eorl of the old system would doubtless commonly become a thegn under the new, as the Boman patrician took his place in the new nobilitas; but others could take their place there also. The Old-English laws point out ways by which the churl might rise to thegn's rank, and in the centuries during which the change went on we find mention—complaining mention—both in England and elsewhere, at the court of Charles the Simple and at the court of iEthelred, of the rise of new men to posts of authority. The story that Earl Godwine himself was of churlish birth, whether true or false, marks the possibility of such a rise. A still wilder tale spoke of Hugh Capet as the son of a butcher of Paris. Stories like these prove even more than the real rise of Hagano and Eadric.

In England the nobility of the thegns was to a great England, extent personally displaced, so to speak, by the results of the Norman Conquest. But the idea of nobility did not greatly change. The English thegn sometimes yielded to, sometimes changed into, the Norman baron, using that word in its widest sense, without any violent alteration in his position. The notion of holding land of the king became more prominent than the notion of personal ser-vice done to the king; but, as the land was held by the tenure of personal service, the actual relation hardly changed. But the connexion between nobility and the holding of land comes out in the practice by which the lord so constantly took the name of his lordship. It is in this way that the prefixes de and von, descriptions in themselves essentially local, have become in other lands badges of nobility. This notion has died out in England by the dropping of the preposition; but it long lived on wherever Latin or French was used. And before long nobility won for itself a distinguishing outward badge. The device of hereditary coat-armour, a growth of the 12th century, did much to define and mark out the noble class throughout Europe. As it could be acquired by grant.of the sovereign, and as, when once acquired, it went on from generation to generation, it answers exactly to the jus imaginum at Borne, the hereditary badge of nobility con-ferred by the election of the people. Those who possessed the right of coat-armour by immemorial use, or by grant in regular form, formed the class of nobility or gentry,— words which, it must again be remembered, are strictly of the same meaning. They held whatever privileges or advantages have attached in different times and places to the rank of nobility or gentry. In England indeed a variety of causes hindered nobility or gentry from ever obtaining the importance which they obtained, for instance, in France. But perhaps no cause was more important than the growth of the peerage (see PEERAGE). That institution at once set up a new standard of nobility, a new form of the nobility of office. The peer—in strictness, the peer in his own person only, not even his children—became the only noble; the ideas of nobility and gentry thus became divorced in a way in which they are not in any other coun-try. Those who would elsewhere have been counted as the nobility, the bearers of coat-armour by good right, were hindered from forming a class holding any substantial privilege. In a word, the growth of the peerage hindered the existence in England of any nobility in the Continental sense of the word. The esquires, knights, lesser barons, even the remote descendants of peers, that is, the noblesse of other countries, in England remained gentlemen, but not noble-men,—simple commoners, that is, without legal advantage over their fellow-commoners who had no jus imaginum to boast of. There can be no doubt that the class in England which answers to the noblesse of other lands is the class that bears coat-armour, the gentry strictly so called. Had they been able to establish and to maintain any kind of privilege, even that of mere honorary preced-ence, they would exactly answer to Continental nobility. That coat-armour has been lavishly granted and often assumed without right, that the word "gentleman" has acquired various secondary senses, proves nothing; that is the natural result of a state of things in which the status of gentry carries with it no legal advantage, and yet is eagerly sought after on social grounds. If coat-armour, and thereby the rank of gentry, has been lavishly granted, some may think that the rank of peerage has often been lavishly granted also. In short, there is no real nobility in England; for the class which answers to foreign nobility has so long ceased to have any practical privileges that it has long ceased to be looked on as a nobility, and the word nobility has been transferred to another class which has nothing answering to it out of the three British king-doms. This last class in strictness takes in only the peers personally; at the outside it cannot be stretched beyond those of their children and grandchildren who bear the courtesy titles of lord and lady.

No attempt has been here made to trace out the history of nobility in the various countries and, we must add, cities of Europe. All that has been attempted has been to point out some general truths, and to refer to some specially striking instances. Once more, it must be borne in mind that, while it is essential to the idea of nobility that it should carry with it some hereditary privilege, the nature and extent of that privilege may vary endlessly. In the
France, last century the nobility of France and the nobility of Boland alike answered to the very strictest definition of nobility; but the political positions of the two were as broadly contrasted as the positions of any two classes of men could be. The nobility of France, keeping the most oppressive social and personal privileges, had been shorn of all political and even administrative power; the tyrants of the people were the slaves of the king. In Poland sixty thousand gentlemen, rich and poor, famous, and obscure, but all alike gentlemen, rode out to choose a king by a unanimous vote, and to bind him when chosen by such conditions as they thought good. Those sixty thousand, like the populus of Borne, formed a narrow oligarchy as regarded the rest of the nation, but a wild democracy among themselves. Poland, in short, came nearer than any kingdom or country of large extent to the nature of an aristocracy, as we have seen aristocracy in the aristocratic cities. The chief power of the state was placed neither in the prince nor in the nation at large; it was held by a noble class. The kingly power in Poland, like the ducal power at Venice, had been so narrowed that Poland, though she still kept a king, called herself a republic no less than Venice. And whatever was taken from the king went to the gain of the noble order. But the nobility of a large country, even though used to act politically as an order, could never put on that orderly and legal character which distinguishes the true civic patriciates. It never could come so nearly as a civic patriciate could to being something like the rule of the best in any sense of those words.

The tendency of modern times has been towards the
breaking down of formal hereditary privileges. In modern
commonwealths, above all, they have been thought to be
essentially inconsistent with republican institutions. The
truth of the matter is rather that the circumstances of
most modern commonwealths have been unfavourable to
the preservation, and still more to the growth, of privi-
leged bodies. Where they existed, as in Switzerland,
they have been overthrown. Where they did not exist,
as in America, everything has made it more and more
impossible that they should arise. And, as modern
changes have commonly attacked the power both of kings
and of nobles, the common notion has come that king-
ship and nobility have some necessary connexion. It has
seemed as if any form of nobility was inconsistent with a
republican form of government, while nobility, in some
shape or other, has come to be looked on as a natural, if
not a necessary, appendage to a monarchy. And as far
as regards the social side of kingship this is true. A
court seems more natural where a chain of degrees leads
gradually up from the lowest subject to the throne than
when all beneath the throne are nearly on a level. And
from one point of view, that from which the kingly house
is but the noblest of the noble, kingship and nobility are
closely allied. But in the more strictly political view
monarchy and nobility are strongly opposed. Even the
modified form of absolute monarchy which has existed in
some Western countries, while it preserves, perhaps even
strengthens, the social position of a nobility, destroys its
political power. Under the fully-developed despotisms of
the East a real nobility is impossible; the prince raises
and thrusts down as he pleases. It is only in a common-
wealth that a nobility can really rule; that is, it is only
in a commonwealth that the nobility can really be an
aristocracy. And even in a democratic commonwealth
the sentiment of nobility may exist, though all legal privi-
lege has been abolished or has never existed. That is to
say, traditional feeling may give the members of certain
families a strong preference, to say the least, in election to
office. We have seen that this was the case at Athens;
it was largely the case in the democratic cantons of
Switzerland; indeed the nobility of Bome itself, after
the privileges of the patricians were abolished, rested
on no other foundation. It is important to bring these
historical facts into notice, as they are likely to be con-
fused or forgotten among modern practical tendencies the
other way. (E. A. F.)

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