Proving Four Quarters
A gentleman includes nobility. A nobleman may be made, a gentleman must be born so. The landed proprietors in every country constitute the nobility, and every man who can prove four quarters on his escutcheon, that is, whose ancestors for four descents have had the right of wearing coat- armour, are gentlemen, and, consequently, of the nobility. Heraldry is more attended to in Germany, and some other countries, than in England, and the family histories are incomparably superior to any the English possess.
The respect paid to ancient gentility can in Germany only be equalled by the contempt of new nobility, particularly that nobility which has been purchased for money. An exception is sometimes made in favor of that which was conferred on merit. A foreigner dining once at a castle in Franconia, complimented the landlord on the age of his hock. " True," answered the baron, " they are both old, my wine and coat of arms." The first families in Germany pride themselves on their uralt adel, or aboriginal or ante- documental nobility. Every candidate for the order of St. Michael of Bavaria must not only prove sixteen quarters of nobility, but that his own paternal family had been noble from time immemorial, and that no document recorded at what period they had been ennobled.
In very ancient time, the people in Germany were divided into two classes, the free and the enslaved - frie und leibeigene-liberi et servi; at least their earliest law-books mention no other. Afterwards, but still at a very remote period of German history, certain families among the free who were entitled to hereditary seat and voice in the national Diet were called adelige, which was translated by the Latin word nobiles. The other freemen were still called freie - liberi; and if they did military duty, militares. But the general term by which both classes (the adelige and the feie) were designated was ingenui.
Among all of these was such a contempt for slavery that it was conceived even to taint the blood: Bo that the free and the enslaved were forbidden to marry together, in some states under pain of death, and in all, the issue of such marriages were doomed to inherit the condition of their slave-born parent.
Distaste to servitude was carried so far, among the ancient German free races, that even vassalage to the emperor himself disqualified, not only the party consenting to it, but also his issue, from contracting a legal marriage with any perfectly free family : that is to say, if an ingenuut or pure freeman took land in fief of the emperor, or any one else, on condition that he (the tenant) and his heirs performed certain civil services to the lord of the fee, such as grinding his corn, supplying him with bows nnd arrows, fisn on a fast day, etc., etc., this sank the party exposed to such obligations down into an inferior grade called mittelfreie, or mesne-freemen, and all his family descended with him, because each of them was exposed to the contingency of being his heir. He and all his family thus became minitteriatci to the lord, who, if he mortgaged the fief, might have included them nnd their services in the mortgage ; neither could they have been restored to their primitive condition, until they had been formally emancipated. It must be home in mind, however, that the services here spoken of were quite distinct from any thing in the nature of temtium militare, or of what the English called grand serjenty; for these inflicted no degradation. They were rather such as were called with the English, little serjenty.
This is the principle from which the Continental doctrine of mesalliance has sprung ; and thie marriages of Knglish with members of the Continental aristocracy were often affected by that doctrine. By a case in point, the family of Afaltitz was one of the most ancient in Germany, and may be called one of the most noble, in the Continental sense of the word. But as it had no seat and voice in the Diet, and was consequently ranked inter nobilei minorti, for the sake of avoiding equivocal terms, a family of gentle birth. This, supposing its freedom to be unabridged by any vassalage, was quite enough to render it competent to intermarry with the very highest families of the German aristocracy ; and, in fact, a marriage took place between one of its members, Klizabeth of Maltitz, and the Markgrave Henry of Meissen, in the year 1272. These parties had issue ; and then it was discovered that the family of Maltitz was not quite so free as was imagined ; and that it owed some sort of ministerial service to the emperor. To save the issue, therefore, from following the condition of their mother, n letter of emancipation was obtained in 1278, from Rudolph of Hapsburg, then emperor, in which he declared the existing and future issue of the marriage to be "as noble as if they had been born of a free mother."
There seemed to be but one asylum into which the slave could fly from the oppressors' contumely. This was the Church. But even here he did not quite escape. The free-born priests appear to have regarded him as an inferior being, whom no consecration could purify or render worthy of officiating at the same altars as themselves. So strong was this feeling, that some of the more important of the religious foundations admitted to their fraternity only such as were free. In this we may see the origin of the noble Chapters of Germany.
Time went on. Many slaves had been emancipated. Many had run away from their masters into neighboring cities, and obtained their civic rights and the sort of freedom which was the consequence of such an acquisition. These were called by the laws of the time liberti and gefreite (that is to say, freed-men), to distinguish them from the liberi, or free-men. As may be supposed, the parties exposed to a distinction so invidious endeavored to escape from it, especially in the cities, where the burgesses, for this purpose, called hemselves freigeborne and freie, that is to ay, freeborn-men and free-men.
It seems generally admitted that when Henry the Fowler founded the German cities, he induced some of the free races to settle there. Others afterwards followed their example, and as a reward for uniting themselves with the communities, received offices of magistracy. These were after wards called patricians, and their posterity claimed the riplit of ranking themselves with the other free families of tho empire. Hut the latter regarded them as willing participators in the condition of enfranchised slaves, had an utter contempt for them, refused to receive them at tournaments, and even in 1754, refused to recognize their claim.
The obstinately continued usurpation of a multitude is generally successful when unopposed by a greater multitude. So it was with the burgesses; for in the fourteenth century one finds them designated by the crms freie and freigeborne, even in the imperial chancery.
This naturally tended to confound the descendants of the originally free families with those of the emancipated slaves, and placed the former in a false position ; for it mixed them up, nominally, with their inferiors. It also enabled the emancipated slave and his issue to pretend that, in his capacity of freeman, he was qualified to enter the Chapters, from which slaves were excluded. It is not a surprise to find in ancient charters and books of jurisprudence technical terms such as semperliberi, liberi puri, immerfreie, volligfreie, and the like, employed to distinguish those who were free from the beginning. The term sempirlibtri, or semperfreie, as it is called in German, was usually applied to the families who had formerly seat and voice in the Diet. But the correctness of this application may be doubted ; because there were some of them, like that of Fugger of Augsburg, who were sprung from ennobled plebeians, whereas many families of the Equestrian order were free from the beginning.
But this was not all. To save themselves from commixture with those of a slavish origin, the militares and free families of the second class took the appellative of those of the first, i.e., adelige or nobiles; and those of the first class, to save their rank, called themselves erlauche, or illustres. The time when this change took place has never been precisely ascertained ; but it is thought to have happened about the end of the fourteenth century, probably toon after the cities acquired the right of calling themselves free cities, which seems to have been about the year 1356.
In the fourteenth century "illustrious" is the distinguishing epithet of the peerage or nobility with hereditary seat and voice in the Diet (called in the law-books hoheadel and nobiles majores), adelige to be that of such as had no parliamentary privilege, and were termed in the books niederadel or nobiles minnres, and freie, the old-fashioned distinguishing epithet of the most ancient and noble races, conceded to the burgesses and enfranchised peasants.
Long before this change became established, the Chapters had altered their ancient statutes. Formerly it was sufficient that the candidate should be a freeman, because the word then meant a man whose ancestors had always been free. Now, however, that the signification of the word had been altered, they required more. A rule was made that no man should be admitted to their body who could not prove himself to be descended from four grandparents each of whom was of free race. The proof of this was the production of their family armorial bearings; for during some centuries after the introduction of heraldry into Germany, none but those families who belonged at least to the Equestrian order had the privilege of wearing arms: and this was called proving four quarters.
It need scarcely be said that when the free families of the second class assumed the epithet nobilis, these Chapters did not neglect to apply it to themselves in their corporate capacities; so that afterwards it became commonly understood that no man could be a canon of Treves, Mayence, Cologne, and other similar establishments, unless he were a nobleman of four quarters; that is to say, what the French called gentile-homme de non et efarmei, and what the English called a gentleman of blood and ancestry.
But even this precaution did not preserve the Chapters immaculate. The emperors had in the meantime found out a way of making people noble by diploma or bull. These, as may be easily imagined, were at first laughed to scorn by the Equestrian order ; but their nobility was nevertheless held to be good, although inferior to that of the ancient races derived from their original freedom. It could not, indeed, qualify the possessor for admission into the noble Chapters ; but it led to a mode for facilitating the admission of his children. If, for instance, a new-made noble married a woman of ancient race (or vice versa), the issue of the marriage would be entitled to three escutcheons ; viz., that of the newly ennobled parent, and those of the father and mother of the parent of ancient family. In such a case the emperor claimed the privilege of completing the qualification by granting to a meritorious candidate the fourth escutcheon, which was wanting to make up the requisite number. This, of course, led to abuses ; and the Chapters, therefore, raised a new barrier, by declaring that no one should be received into their fraternity who could not prove sixteen quarters, that is to say, a descent during four generations from ancestors each of which was on both sides, paternal and maternal, of ancient and free race.
It was at a period when this qualification was most strictly insisted on, that Martin Luther came before the world, and with him the Reformation. Amongst some theses which he published, at the commencement of his quarrel with Albert de Magdeburg, Archbishop of Muyence, was one (at least so the story goes) which started a singular Question for discussion, namely, whether Jesus Christ, at his second advent, could be received as canon of a noble Chapter in case he should offer himself as a candidate for that honor. The question was said to have excited great interest amongst the privileged orders, and to have travelled even to Spain, where it led to another, viz., whether the Virgin Mary could be received into community with the Orders reserved for ladies of gentle birth. The point was, according to report, seriously mooted amongst the noble sisterhood, and a doubtful judgment given rather unfavorable to the Virgin. The canons of the German Chapters, however, arranged their affair in another manner. A sort of gordian knot had been presented to them; and feeling themselves, perhaps, unable to untie it, they cut it asunder by assigning to the Saviour a regular escutcheon of sixteen quarters.
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