- Nobility fascinates many people around the world.
- Why is that like that? And has nobility always existed?
- In an interview with our editors, history professor Werner Hechberger explains what aristocracy is, where the film “The Magnificent Seven” can help and whether aristocracy also sparked this enthusiasm in the Middle Ages.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the Internet and the tabloid media had already existed in the High Middle Ages: would the nobility have been so popular in it back then?
Professor Werner Hechberger: At that time there was already a European nobility that was networked with each other. But would he have played such a big role in public perception at the time? The question is hypothetical, but it wouldn’t be out of the question.
Where does this fascination that the nobility exerts on people come from – perhaps even back then?
I would speak less of fascination for the Middle Ages, when the nobility was a ruling class or stratum. Basically, I think that people like to look for role models and that they think they can perhaps be found among the nobility. That may be true for the present.
Was that also the case in the Middle Ages?
To begin with, we have relatively few sources on the ordinary population’s perspective on the nobility. In the late Middle Ages, the nobility can be role models as well as enemies. He has always been the subject of criticism – with regard to his behavior, less with regard to his existence: one demands a certain behavior from the nobleman and then realizes in practice that it is often more of a pious wish and not always realized that way will. However, the nobility can be a role model for social climbers.
Then let’s go back to the beginning: What is nobility anyway?
Nobility is considered a social and cultural phenomenon that arises in pre-modern societies. The term nobility refers to a group of people who enjoy a special status in society. The priority is usually legally fixed, it can be inherited. It is associated with certain values and norms and has consequences for behavior, appearance and also for marital relationships. The families then usually have above-average real estate and can refer to a special lineage.
Films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Seven Samurai” help with understanding
It certainly hasn’t always been like this in this way. How and why did the nobility develop?
Ideally, nobility is viewed as a phenomenon that arose in societies when one could afford to release certain people from general everyday work for particularly important tasks that could benefit society as a whole. If you will, it is the result of an early form of division of labour.
In this perspective, nobles are responsible for the protection of society, the warlike function is at the beginning and remains largely intact. There was also a nobility in antiquity, but the continuity of the European nobility cannot be traced back further than the early Middle Ages.
How did you select the people for these special tasks? How did you know who was eligible and who wasn’t?
Little can be said about that. But you can perhaps imagine that with the help of films like “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Seven Samurai”. These films feature warfare specialists who have received specific training and also have the necessary physical abilities. Education is the key, because it is a family matter. But that’s speculation, that’s how you imagine it ideal-typically.
So there are no sources to back that up?
In early sources, too, people do appear who are endowed with above-average property and who already exercise dominion rights. But little can be said specifically about individuals at the time when the nobility came into being.
How are the changes in warfare and the emergence of the nobility connected? The Merovingians (5th-8th century) mainly used foot soldiers, and later the Carolingians (from the 8th century) focused more on horseback. You had to be able to afford to have your own horse.
This is a popular idea, but perhaps a little too simplistic in today’s perception. But the basic idea should be correct: In the Middle Ages, a type of warfare that requires high costs became important and effective – the horse, the armor. In other words: the effective form of warfare can now only be afforded if one has the necessary material background for it.
Do all cultures know nobility?
One has to be very careful with universal statements, because there one often runs the risk of selling the results of historical developments as anthropological constants, which would then be unchangeable.
With some caution, however, one can say that this phenomenon of the early division of labor, whereby certain groups of people then also enjoy legal priority, can already be found in many societies. The European nobility certainly has some peculiarities that distinguish it from the nobility in other cultures, but it is certainly not a purely Central European phenomenon.
Let’s stay with the European royal families – there are also the most diverse forms with the British, the Norwegians and the Swedes. How does the nobility differ in these royal houses?
Basically, one should rather emphasize the similarities. With regard to values, norms and behavior, the nobility is a pan-European phenomenon – the differences are rather small.
The most striking difference between today’s royal houses is certainly the question of whether they are still involved in any form of rule. So whether one can speak of a royal house in a monarchy or a formerly ruling royal family that no longer has any public tasks.
Can you be more specific?
In England there is still the royal family, which has certain possibilities of influencing – even if it is only the conversation between the queen or the king and the prime minister. However, most European royal houses today have purely representative tasks.
Nobility has evolved over the centuries. How did nobility become hereditary and why?
The concept of nobility actually already implies heredity because it is used for families. Personal nobility or postal nobility is a late special form. It is not possible to state exactly when the nobility became hereditary, because nobility is a complex phenomenon.
If you look at nobility as a mental phenomenon, some values and norms date back to antiquity. If one considers “offices and dominion” as a central phenomenon, one can say that offices and dignities associated with dominion tended to be hereditary as early as the Middle Ages.
This begins at the level of the counts in the late Carolingian period, i.e. in the 9th century, and a little later with the dukes. When you think of the “Protection as Criterion” feature, it’s about being trained to become a warrior.
To put it banally: You don’t become a knight in a knight’s school, a nobleman receives his upbringing and training at his parents’ court, at the court of another, mostly related, nobleman, or at the royal court. And of course the upper social classes always tend to limit themselves from below. It is precisely these sharp attempts at demarcation that are typical of the nobility.
That is why the nobility always set themselves apart from below
Have there always been these attempts at demarcation by the nobility?
Most historians would say that by the end of the 9th century one could properly speak of nobility. Before that, things are not that simple. But at the moment when the nobility can be grasped as a social category, especially in the late Middle Ages, there are very sharp attempts at demarcation from below. The mental lines of conflict “nobility versus peasants” and “nobility versus commoners” are formative for thinking in late medieval society.
With the attempts at demarcation, the pressure on the nobility to justify themselves increased at this time, the nobility had to explain who they were still protecting – for example at the time of the peasant uprisings. What happened to the nobility in the early modern period?
A phenomenon of the late Middle Ages and early modern period is that alternative elites appear, such as the rich citizens in the cities or the scholars. A university degree can significantly increase one’s social rank.
In the late Middle Ages, the nobility also came under pressure to justify themselves because the protective function was no longer always recognizable, to put it mildly. The often quoted image of the robber baron is a gross exaggeration, but it has a core of truth: nobles are now more likely to be perceived as oppressors, and this naturally creates problems. But in the end it was the peasants who lost out, and in the early modern period social conditions were relatively rigid again.
Let’s jump back in time again. Can one say that the First World War is partly to blame for the fact that nobility no longer exists in Europe or that it was partially completely destroyed?
If you take a European perspective, you have to put that into perspective. The development of the nobility in the 19th and 20th centuries was very different in Europe in the individual societies – in Great Britain it was completely different than in Germany and Austria, for example.
That’s why you have to take into account the different national histories. German history and Austrian history are marked by striking and sharp political and social breaks – in the loser nations of the First World War, if you will.
The First World War alone may not have been responsible for the loss of importance of the nobility, but it did play a significant role, at least in Germany and Austria. Another context is undoubtedly more important: the history of industrialization and its consequences for society.
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About the expert: Werner Hechberger is Professor of Medieval History and its Didactics at the University of Koblenz. His main research interests include nobility, ministry and knighthood in the Middle Ages, as well as the political history of the High Middle Ages.
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