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German Nobility

The original higher nobility of Germany consisted of the dynasty nobles, i.e., the electoral and princely houses of the realm, with those counts and barons who had a seat in the diet or estates of the realm. These last had, since 1815, all been elevated to higher titles. Most of the counts, in recompense for their acquiescence in the abolition of the German empire, received the diploma of prince, a title to which English dukes, marquises, and earls had also an undoubted right. The lower German nobility, corresponding to the English gentry, were the merely titular Counts and Barons (i.e., those who had no seat in the Diet), the Edel-herren and Banner-herren (something like English Bannerets) the Knights of the Holy Roman Empire, the 'Edlen von' (who took the style of baron), and the common nobles distinguished only by the prefix 'von.'

The struggle in German lands between the migratory nations and those among whom they attempted to settle, had, by necessitating implicit obedience to the dukes or chiefs, greatly increased their authority and gradually consolidated their power. When the throne became hereditary it was made so with the consent of the people, and was by no means granted from an inclination on their part to increase the royal prerogative, but with an intention of diminishing it, by imposing fresh conditions on each successor to the crown. The new kingdoms retained much of the ancient Germanic constitution ; for instance, the division of free-born men into tens and hundreds. The tens (decania) disappeared in course of time, and the hundreds (centena) became cantons, several of which formed a Gau or province.

The popular assembly was, as in former times, held every fourteen days, but, instead of the president being a judge elected by the free voices of the people, he was a Graf or count, (comes,) who was nominated by the king, and headed the contingent furnished by the Gau in time of war. Every post of honour, not only in the army and in the provinces, but also in the court and around the royal person, being filled by the Grafs, gave rise to different titles, such as, Pfalzgraf, Waldgraf, Landgraf, Markgraf, etc. The word Graf (gravio) has been falsely derived from grau (grey, old). Grimm has rightly deduced it from Ravo, (tectum,) and makes it synonymous with Geselle, a companion, (from Saal, a hall,) which also signified a companion in the house and in the field ; hence a Graf in Latin was always called Comes, and had sometimes a proxy called Vicecomes; whence are derived the modern French and English titles of comte, vicomte, count, viscount.

The conduct of the war, as soon as declared, was entrusted to the king, who, on that occasion, received, as was the case with the ancient German leaders, a great accession of authority, and the strictest obedience was enforced to his bann or right of compulsion. The Arimannia, from mannire, to cite, were the armed community convoked to the national assembly during peace, which, in time of war, formed a Land- wehr, (militia,) called the arrier-ban (Heerbann, from Heer, an army, and bannire, to summon). The monarch summoned the dukes; they, the counts ; who, in their turn, summoned the centners; and so on throughout the several degrees. Each man served the same chief in the field by whom he was governed in time of peace. Every canton, county, and dukedom furnished its contingent, which was distinguished by a particular banner (Panner., Panier, a standard, whence comes the Banner-herr or banneret).

Among the ancient Germans, if a knight was able to lead 10 helmets, i. e. 10 other knights, against the enemy, the duke (kerzog) gave him a banner, and he was called a banneret (bannerherr). In some republics, banneret or standard-bearer was the title of one of the highest officers, as the gon- faloniere of Florence and other Italian republics, and the bannerherr hi the Swiss republics. Banneret, in England, was a knight made in the field, with the ceremony of cutting off the point of his standard, and making it a banner-a custom which has long since ceased.

During the feudal system all countries were divided into fiefs, and these again into arriere-fiefs. In Germany the holders of the first were styled princes, of the second, barons. In some provinces in Germany nobles only were permitted to purchase noble estates, or knights-fees (rittergat). In other provinces a plebeian purchaser must have himself ennobled.

The course which the nobility took in Germany was different from that of France or England. Here the ancient dukes of Saxony, Bavaria, Francouia, Suabia, Thuringia, and, next to them, the margraves in the east and north of the German empire, obtained, at the same time as in France, the rights of sovereignty ; and of title of count became partly hereditary, partly an appendage to the ecclesiastical establishments. The emperors succeeded in annihilating these ancient principalities, but profited little by it, for new sovereignties soon took the places of the ancient dukedoms, inferior in size and power, but equal to them in the extent of their rights and privileges. The greater number of the Counts assumed the rights of sovereignty, and a vast number of ruling families thus sprung up in Germany, and formed a ruling order of nobility, in which not only the rank, but also the property, was hereditary, and became the common inheritance of die whole family.

One principle in this system is peculiar to the German nates, which was never established in any other country of Europe, namely, that the mother must be of equal rank with the father, in order to place her children in the full possession of their father's rights. Many even princely families, as Baden, Anhult, &C-, have transgressed this principle ; but others adhered to it with great strictness. The same principle was extended to the lower class of the German nobility. In their case, however, it affected only the enjoyment of certain privileges common to the whole body of nobility - privileges by which the German nobility were more strictly distinguished from the middle classes of freemen than that of any other country. In the rest of Europe, nor even the highest class of nobility recognises this pnnciple.

But although the imperial nobility, in the old sense, had come to an end in Germany, there was still a higher aristocracy of distinguished families, composed partly of the old imperial families (reichsstandische Gescklechter), partly of new families, which have been raised above the gentry by the public services of eminent men, such as Prince Bismarck and Count Moltke, or by princely favor. It is worth noticing that this high aristocracy, though its tone is rather conservative than liberal, has been distinguished by broad-minded views, and, so far from adopting a narrow and petty individualism, has shown complete sympathy with the national development and greatness of the German Empire.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:20 ZULU