Round Table 10
Nobilities in Comparative Perspective

The historians of Early Modern Europe are focussing intensively on the ruling
groups of European countries, and several essays, monographs and collections
of papers recently published substantially increased our knowledge of the
subject. It seems useful to reflect upon the state of the art, suggest new topics
and viewpoints. Panel members of Round Table 10 offered for discussion several
topics of general importance:
Proofs of nobility in various European countries (V. Vedushkin, Moscow);
Court and aristocracy in Early Modern Sweden in a European perspective (F. Persson, Lund);
Types of aristocratic patronage in Europe (J. P nek, Prague)
Noble violence and attitudes to violence, 16th and 17th centuries (G.Lind, Copenhagen);
Evolution of castles as a reflexion of changing identity of the nobility (P.Janssens, Brussels), and for comparison
The new nobility (kazoku) in building modern Japan (Y. Kim, Seoul).
Some panel members kindly sent me their comments in advance. What
follows is neither a summary of the papers nor an essay in synthesis. It is an
opening list of problems for discussion and questions based on a personal
research experience.

In 1936 Marc Bloch defined the nobility as un groupe pourvu d'un statut juri-
dique pr‚cis qui se transmettait avec le sang ou, d‚faut d'h‚r‚dit‚, s'acqu‚rait
seulement selon des r gles elles-m mes strictement d‚finies en droit. He con-
trasted it with, i. a., the potentes viri, interpreted as une classe de fait et non de
droit [Bloch 1936, 367]. This definition, although applied by its author specif-
ically to the French noblesse may fit diverse social groups across Europe.
However, all regional studies of the nobility used to focus upon diversities
within it. So the first items of our agenda may be: what is our subject?
The noble, what is in a name? And finally, nobility or nobilities?
This term is in some respects confusing when applied to the Continent in
diverse periods of medieval and modern history. J. P. Cooper, discussing
Europe from the British vantage point, commented: "though the word noble was
usually reserved for the peerage in England, [...] in France, Poland and other
countries it included those without titles who in England were called the
gentry." [Cooper 1971, 16]. The broad gamut of national terms more or less cor-
responding to the Latin nobilis (nobilitas) had something in common: it reflected
either the high values of members of that group (German: Adel) or its "high"
hereditary nature (Czech: çlechta, Polish szlachta; both from German Geschlecht
= kin). A Swedish medieval term fr„lse, i. e. exempted ("free") from taxes, with
unusual frankness stressed that desirable aspect of the noble status.
Marc Bloch noted a twofold origin of the noblesse: its either a traditional
(i.e. immemorial) or legally acquired status. The noble status normally led to the
hereditary one but the struggle for prestige and power often bought about a
deep division between the "old" and the "new" nobles. The picture heavily
depends upon the perspective. From a close vantage point, national or even
regional, differences dominate and destroy the harmonious, synthetic picture
of the nobility of Europe. Therefore in order to reach the comparative per-
spective it will be convenient to contrast these two approaches.
Factors of uniformity and diversity. They were included in the
definition but paradoxically, often consisted of the imponderables of an
ideological or even mythic nature. The origin and provenance of a noble group
was of foremost importance. The Renaissance discovery of Roman literature
enriched the imagination of European nobility with hosts of ancient heroes.
Probably most prolific in this respect were the escapees from burning Troy.
Glorious ancestries were imagined: the Germanic Francs (as opposed to the
commoners descending from the Celtic Gauls) in France, in England the
Norman knights followers of William the Conqueror. All Lithuanian nobles
allegedly descended from a Palemon (of Troy, for that matter) and the Polish
ones directly from Japhet son of Noah (as contrasted to Cham ancestor of the
peasantry and to Sem). The myth of a distinguished origin seems to be the
most common element of the nobilities. It was sometimes contested by the
"outs" (e. g. the "Norman" myth by the English radicals) but, especially in the
ages of Renaissance and Baroque, it made a good reason for self-satisfaction of
each noble group. Parallel to such group myths, each kinship tried to push its
pedigree as far to the past as it was possible. A deep, best of all "immemorial
origin", was crucial element of family's prestige. Yet the state needed the nobles
[M¥czak 1996] and a demand of honours among the subjects was even greater,
so that in most countries the ranks of the nobility were swelling.
Since the fourteenth century Italian scholars have impressively
contributed to the theory of the nobility. Bartolo a Saxoferrato underlined the
difference between the "natural" and "civil" nobilt , the latter bestowed by the
prince upon outstanding commoners (honestos plebeios) [quoted by Donati
1978,15sq]. In the subsequent discussion led by the lawyers and the nobles
themselves stress was laid either on the "virtue" (an equivocal term attributed
to the ‚lite only) or on the "gold" ("old gold" for that matter) [Donati 1978 and
1995, passim].
Viewing from general European perspective, we may take into
consideration one more element: who decided about the affiliation to the order
of nobility. While the membership of the titled aristocracy usually depended on
the ruler (besides the titles bestowed by the Pope and by the Emperor to foreign
subjects), the systems of ennoblement were more diverse.
It would be interesting to compare for various countries on which
conditions fellow noblemen were able to accept, or preferred to reject, a person
(or a family). In the extreme case of Poland, already during the fifteenth century
the decision who is noble and who is not belonged to county courts of justice
elected and run exclusively by noblemen. In the next century the Chamber of
Deputies of the Parliament for all practical purposes took over the royal
prerogative of ennoblement. In the true monarchies that prerogative remained
an important instrument of power. It was skilfully used by the emperors even
when the Empire itself has lost its cohesion. A distant case of modern Japan,
presented by Yongdeok Kim in his panel contribution, shows how skilfully the
Meiji government created a new ‚lite of "nobles by merit", merged it with the old
aristocracy and made it a tool of the reform programme. What in Europe was
being a rather conservative element (aristocratic titles, the peers in parliaments)
became a
The system of hereditary titles of honour was a strong factor of progressing
uniformity of the European elites. In Early Modern Europe it bore only formal
analogy with medieval Germanic and Latin names of offices (princeps, dux,
Markgraf, comes, baro &c.). The titles fossilised already in the Middle Ages and
eventually became a system of hereditary ranks understandable internationally.
When, for instance, Michel de Montaigne visited Augsburg, "the officers in the
town who were responsible for [...] honouring strangers of some quality" took
him and his companion "for barons and knights" and offered them adequate
quantity of local wine [Montaigne 1983, 35-36]. Incidentally, those officers
would have had problems with a Hungarian or a Polish nobleman because of
their different manners and dress.
Development of modern princely households, publication of the
Hofkalenders that informed the public about their composition (a sort of Social
Registers of the eighteenth century) along with the introduction of military
ranks, created a common language of social stratification. However, it was
highly misleading. In the later times in the court society "everybody" was at
least a count and other factors counted more than the empty title: closeness to
the prince, the family's prestige, blood relationships or wealth.
The court society could not exist without the nobles and yet much
remains to be explained about the relation between the courts and the nobility.
Any simple all-explaining formula seems illusory. In reaction to Norbert Elias
recent monographs of particular European courts stress their particularities
and conflicts between diverse factions or interest groups. Le Roi-Soleil has lost
much of his position of a giant casting a long shadow over everything at
Versailles, and the Versailles Court ceases to be a peerless case [cf. Beik 1996;
Le Roy Ladurie 1997; more theoretically Duindam 1995]. But strangely enough
the Elias' thesis gets support from an unexpected side. An obscure Hofrat from
Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf presented to his duke (1640) a memoir with a
brutally frank programme how "to diminish the nobility" by tying them to the
court: Louis XIV au petit pied! Its author believed such ideas had been already
implemented in Spain [Lohmeier 1978, 254-259].
It may prove fruitful to analyse the courts rather as a group or a network.
In the Empire the Frstenh"fe were in some respects specific and inter-
dependent [Mller 1995]. It is also doubtful if the royal households ever
monopolised the Zivilisationsprozess of the nobility. In some countries aristo-
cratic or magnates' households rivalled the royal court as centres of culture and
even of power. The architecture of castles and palaces, their decorations,
interiors, gardens and parks reflected cultural ambitions of their owners.
Depending on the situation they served diverse political and advancement
goals. In Elizabethan England some residences were constructed to host the
gracious (if somewhat parsimonious) queen. On the other end of Europe, in
Poland, that reason played a minor role. In the early seventeenth century the
characteristic residence type of Polish and Lithuanian magnates became
palazzo in fortezza: the centre of the latifundium but also of local social life and
the lord's domination over his lesser neighbours. In a manieristic palazzo built
in the 1640's all the external walls were covered in sgrafitto with a sort of
pedigree list: a characteristic billboard advertising the owner's impressive
connections with all major families of the country, a fine display of pride and
power. On the other hand, Paul Janssens shows how the new nobility in the
Spanish Netherlands conserved traditional residences medieval in style to
buttress their allegedly deep roots [Janssens 1996 and his contribution to this
Round Table].
Unquestionably, the ties between the power centres and the rest of the
country were strong and vital for the state. What remains to be explained are
diverse relationships between the "centre" and the "periphery", the "court vs.
the country" and so on. These terms were amply discussed in connection with
the original theses of Immanuel Wallerstein and Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper
but retain their value in relation to the nobility. It is my thesis that each
nobleman's situation can be best understood if we imagine him as somehow
spread between the power centre (the prince's household, his court, admini-
strative institutions) and his landed estates and local influence [cf. Lind 1996,
133]. Where did come his income from from his estates or rather his offices?
How important for his position and its advancement was his local (or regional)
power basis? This opens the problem of patronage-clientage. Much attention has been
paid in the last twenty years to clientage systems and to roles the nobles were playing in them. If one
may so generalise, Roland Mousnier and his followers used to stress moral-
psychological motives of loyalty, even devotion to the patron [cf. Hommage
1981], whereas the American students of French patronage (William Beik,
Sharon Kettering) are prone to view that relationship more instrumentally as
a tool of advancement or survival with little if any emotional attachment [cf.
recent comment in this sense by Reinhard 1999, p. 207). Patronage has been
a common type of relationship but in different human milieux it played various
roles. Therefore it makes a perfect subject of comparative research. Among
problems for discussion several functions and consequences of patronage may
be mentioned. Did it contribute to the homogeneity and solidarity of the Order?
Was it a link between the nobles and the commoners? What made it
constructive or destructive for the state?
And finally, can any of these questions get a common answer for all, or
even most countries?
An extreme case was Poland-Lithuania, a very particular monarchia mixta,
where during the seventeenth century regional assemblies of the nobility
acquired strong influence. An anonymous English-writing observer of the Polish
policy already at the end of the sixteenth century stressed the deep inequalities
among the nobility: "For that it is the common bande of unity betweene the
riche and the poore, bothe by that meanes participating of the benefittes of the
lande, the one by commaunde, and the other by the dependency of the
Commaunders trencher, besides the correspondency of patrone, and Cliente,
imitating in that the auncient Romane state [...]" And so on [Elementa 1965,
86]. In the elective monarchy, from the early seventeenth century patronage
increasingly became a political tool of the magnate in local and national politics.
In most countries the movement took a reverse direction. The Fronde des
Princes has shown that the followers were reluctant to support their patrons
[Kettering 1986]. In Scotland after 1603, "the rule by the pen" was replacing the
anarchy whereas in the North of England the domination of big patrons, the
Percys and the Nevilles, had been destroyed already by the Tudors. The gamut
of clientage in its social and customary, or cultural, expressions all over
Europe from Castile to Lithuania and from Scotland to Sicily was infinite.
Whom the nobility feared and how it changed. The students of early
Modern European nobilities paid much attention to the crises of their particular
groups or strata. There is no single answer to the question of twilight of the
nobility as a ruling group. Nobilities were endangered early and from different
sides. Curiously enough, what was being regarded as a danger by the nobles
themselves, may be appraised nowadays by the historian. Massive ennoble-
ments of successful bourgeois or royal servants as well as inflation of
aristocratic honours might be dangerous for the "ancient blood" and yet it
underlined the valour of being noble.
The very question of twilight and fall of the nobility before the nineteenth
century is disputable. In some countries (chiefly Spain and Spanish depend-
encies) the titles depreciated, many commoners acquired noble status through
royal service or simply by purchase. But the alternative danger was weakening
or even brought physical extinction of the noble species, as it was experienced
by traditional urban patriciates (see Venice, Lbeck).
It is a traditional topos that the principal danger for the nobility consisted
in the "rise of the middle class". This may be reversed: the true problem was
limited flexibility or adaptability to new economic conditions and to the growth
of the state machine. A major subject for comparative research is the spread of
Dienstadel in administrative service and willingness of the noblemen to reach
for professional education [see e.g. for Bavaria, Mller 1974; for Sweden, Gaunt
The problem raised by Gunner Lind noble attitudes to violence may be
discussed against the broad background of what Charles Tilly called division
of Europe into "coercion-intensive" and "capital-intensive" (i. e. coercion-
extensive!) regions [Tilly 1990; 1993, 31]. The American scholar had something
different in mind, but his theses may help us to analyse the phenomenon of
violence as well. In the early modern age the distinction between the public and
the private began to appear, and what may be called "right to violence" was
challenged by the courts of justice and other state institutions. Intensity and
forms of violence among the nobles themselves testify to the advancement of the
Zivilisationsprozess (or modernisation) of the nobility. This reflects the growing
role of legislation and state administration but also a parallel change of mores
and customs. In Poland, hostile forays against landed estates and other forms
of what the Germans called die Fehde, began to peter out among the nobility
not before the late seventeenth and in the early eighteenth century.
In the light of this and similar problems one may reconsider the set of
phenomena often rather awkwardly classified as "refeudalisation". Atienza
Hern ndez [1994, 249] rightly writes in this connection about "the corporate
appropriation of the means of administration" and analyses "the material
means of political power in the same way as the means of production." This
leads us to the conception of Frederic Lane who regarded the state as an
"protection-producing" and "violence-using enterprise" [Lane 1979, 50-65]. The
American scholar was focussing mainly on the oceanic expansion of European
powers but his approach may help us to interpret the noblemen's individual
and corporate struggle for their share of the cake [cf. M¥czak 1989].