NobilityWhen Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman ?
Nobility is that distinction of rank in civil society which raises a man above the condition of the mass of the people. Society has a tendency to inequality of condition, arising from the natural inequality, physical, moral, and intellectual, or those who compose it, aided by the diversity of external advantages, and of the principles and habits imbibed at an early age. This inequality may tend to increase; the son, inheriting the faculties of his father, is more favorably situated than his father was for making use of them; and hence, in almost every nation in even the very early stages of civilization there was found something like a hereditary nobility. Privileges originally acquired by wealth or political power, were secured to the family of the possessor of them; and the privileged class come to constitute an order, admission into which required the consent of society or of the order itself.
The ancient Romans were divided into nobiles and ignobilet, a distinction at first corresponding to that of patricians and plebeians. A new nobility afterwards sprung out of the plebeian order, and obtained (in 336 BC) the right to rise to high offices in the state; and in course of time the descendants of those who had filled cimile magistracies inherited the jus imaginum, or right of having images of their ancestors - a privilege which, like the coat-of-arms in later ages, was considered the criterion of nobility. The man entitled to have his own image was a novus homo, while the ignobilii could neither have his ancestor's image nor his own.
The origin of the feudal aristocracy of Europe is in part connected with the accidents which influenced the division of conquered lands among the leaders and warriors of the nations that overthrew the Roman empire. Those who had acquired a large share of territorial possession, and their posterity to whom it was transmitted, were naturally looked on as the fittest persons to occupy the great offices of state and wield political power.
The Prankish kingdom in Gaul was divided into governments, each under the authority of a chieftain called a Count or Comes- a designation derived from the comes of the Roman empire - whose Teutonic equivalent was Graf. A higher dignity, and more extensive jurisdiction, was conferred on the Dux or Duke, a term also of Roman origin, and implying the duty of leading the armies of the country. In the Lombard Kingdom of Italy, the same term was applied to the great officers who were intrusted with the military and civil administration of cities and their surrounding provinces. The Marquises were guardians of the frontier marches. In the subinfeudations of the greater nobility originated a secondary sort of nobility, under the name of Vavasours. Castellans, and lesser barons; and a third order below them comprised vassals, whose tenure, by the military obligation known in England as knight's service, admitted them within the rank of the aristocracy. In France, the allegiance of the lesser nobles to their intermediary lord long continued a reality; in England, on the other hand, William the Conqueror obliged not only his barons who held in chief of the crown, but their vassals also, to take an oath of fealty to himself; and his successors altogether abolished subinfeudation.
The military tenant, who held but a portion of a knight's fee, participated in all the privileges of nobility, and an impassable barrier existed between his order and the common people. Over continental Europe in general, the nobles, greater and lesser, were in use. after the 10th c., to assume a territorial name from their castles or the principal town or village on their demesne; hence the prefix ' de,' or its German equivalent' von,' still considered over a great part of the continent as the criterion of nobility or gentility. Britain was, to a great extent, an exception to this rule, many of the most distinguished family names of the aristocracy not having a territorial origin.
Under the feeble successors of Charlemagne, the dukes, marquises, and counts of the empire encroached more and more on the royal authority; and in course of time, many of them openly asserted an independence and sovereignty with little more than a nominal reservation of superiority to the king. By the end of the 9th c., the Carlovingian empire had been parcelled into separate and independent principalities,under the dominion of powerful nobles, against whom, in Germany, the crown never recovered its power. In France, however, the royal authority gradually revived under the Capetian race, the great fiefs of the higher nobility being one by one absorbed by the crown. In England, where the subjection of the feudal aristocracy to the crown always was, and continued to be a reality, the resistance of the nobles to the royal encroachments was the means of rearing the great fabric of constitutional liberty.
After the introduction of Heraldry, and its reduction to a system, the possession of a coat-of-arms was a recognized distinction between the noble and the plebeian. In the words of Sir James Lawrence (Nobility of the British Gentry): Any individual who distinguishes himself may be said to ennoble himself. A prince judging an individual worthy of notice, gave him patent letters of nobility. In these letters were blazoned the arms that were to distinguish his shield. By this shield he was to be known or nobilis. A plebeian had no blazonry on his shield, because he was ignobilis, or unworthy of notice. Hence arms are the criterion of nobility. Every nobleman must have a shield of arms. Whoever has a shield of arms is a nobleman. In every country of Europe without exception, a grant of arms, or letters of nobility, is conferred on all the descendants. On the continent, the term noble was generally used in this sense; in England, it was more common to restrict the words noble and nobility to the five ranks of the peerage, constituting the greater nobility, and to the head of the family, to whom alone the title belongs.
Gentility, in its more strict sense, corresponds to the nobility of continental countries. This difference of usage was a frequent source of misapprehension on both sides of the Channel; at some of the minor German courts, the untitled member of an English family of ancient and distinguished blood and lineage was sometimes postponed to a recently-created baron or 'Herr von,' who had received that title, and the gentility accompanying it, along with his commission in the army. It was taken for granted that the latter belongs to the nobility, and not the former.
It was asserted by envy or ignorance, that the peers were the only nobility in the British empire. This assertion was repeated on the continent, and particularly in France, by those who wish to inculcate the inutility of the ancient noblesse. This assertion, however unfounded, had done injury to individuals, and is derogatory to the honor not only of the gentry, but of the peers themselves. For the gentry being the nursery garden from which the peers are usually transplanted, if the peers were to date their nobility from the elevation of their ancestors to the upper house, what upstarts would their lordships appear in the opinion of the pettiest baron on the continent.
In the early 19th Century Russia was said to contain 580 thousand nobles; Austria on an enumeration 239 thousand male nobles; and Spain in 1785 contained 479 thousand nobles ; and France at the revolution 365 thousand noble families, of which 4120 families were of ancient gentility. A French author asserted there were only about SOO nobles in Great Britain. Had he said, there are only 300 peers, he might have been tolerably correct; but there 'are, according to the statement produced in 1798, when the subject of armorial bearings was before parliament, in England 9,458 families entitled to bear arms, in Scotland 4,000; all these families are noble. " Nobiles sunt, (says Sir Edward Coke) qui arma gentilicia antecessorum suoTum proferre possunt."
Gentility is superior to nobility; gentility must be innate, nobility may be acquired; noblemen may be only persons of rank and distinction; but gentlemen must be persons of family and quality ; Fit nobilis, nascitur generosus.
Nobility means notability; noble is worthy of notice, or of being known. Any individual, who distinguishes himself, may be said to ennoble himself. A prince, judging an individual worthy of notice, gave him letters patent of nobility. In these letters were blazoned the arms that were to distinguish his shield. By this shield he was to be known, or nolilis. A plebeian had no blazonry on his shield, because he was ignobilis, or unworthy of notice. In an age when a warrior was cased in armor from head to foot, he could only be known by his shield. The plebeian, who had no pretension to be known, was clypeo ignobilis albo.
Hence arms are the criterion of nobility. Every nobleman must have a shield of arms. Whoever has a shield of arms is a nobleman. In every country in Europe, without exception, a grant of arms or letters of nobility were conferred on all the descendants. In the northern countries, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, the titles also of baron or count descended to all the male posterity, and to all the unmarried females of the family: but in the southern countries, France, Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain, the titles of duke, marquis, count, viscount, or baron, descended only according to the rules of primogeniture. In Italy the titles conferred by the Emperor descended in the German fashion to all the branches of the family; those conferred by the "Pope, and the kings of Naples and Sardinia, descend only to the eldest sons in succession ; but the cadets of all these houses, though they possess neither the same titles not privileges, are nor less noble than the heads of their respective houses.
The British gentry have not only been distinguished by coats of arms, but had given liveries to their retainers from time immemorial. When Henry the Fowler wished to polish the Germans, he sent commissioners to England to observe the regularity and order with which the tournaments there were conducted; and they brought back with them the rules of the tournaments almost word for word translated into German. These rules may be found in Edmondson's Heraldry, and in Ruxner's Turnierbuch.
The squire was not less noble than the knight, and changed not his helmet'on being knighted. Armor was expensive, and lasted not only during the life of tne warrior, but descended from father to son; but a squire, having distinguished himself by some brilliant action, opened his vizor to be identified, before bis chief conferred on him, the honor of knighthood. Hence the helmet of the squire is painted with the vizor closed, and the helmet of the knight with the vizor open.
The higher nobility, or nobility in the exclusive sense, of England, consist of the five temporal ranks of the peerage - Duke, Marquis, Earl. Viscount, and Baron (in the restricted signification of the word), who were members of the Upper House of Parliament. Formerly, all the barons or tenants-in-chief of the sovereign were bound to attend his councils; but after the reign of Edward I, only a select number of them were summoned, the rest appeared by representatives -- the former were considered the greater, the latter the lesser barons.
In France, a limited body of the higher nobility, styled the peers, were in the enjoyment of privileges not possessed by the rest. The title of Duke was subject to strict rule, but many titles of Marquis and Count, believed to be pure assumptions, were recognized by the courtesy of society. The head of a noble family often assumed at his own hand the title of marquis; and if an estate was purchased which had belonged to a titled family, the purchaser was in the habit of transferring to himself the honors possessed by his predecessor-a practice to which Louis XV. put a stop. Immediately before the Revolution, 80,000 families claimed nobility, many of them of obscure station, and less than 3000 of ancient lineage. Nobles and clergy together possessed two-thirds of the land. Practically, the estimation in which a member of the French nobility was held depended not so much on the degree of his title as on its antiquity, and the distinction of those who had borne it.
Commercial pursuits have more or less in different countries been considered incompatible with nobility. In England, this wag less the cose than in France and Germany, where for long a gentleman could not engage in any trade without losing his rank. A sort of commercial' Burger-Adel, or half-gentleman class, was constituted out of the patrician families of some of the great German cities, particularly Augsburg, Nurnberg, and Frankfurt, on whom the emperors bestowed coats-of-arms. In semi-feudal Italy, there was on the whole less antagonism between nobility and trade than north of the Alps.
In Russia, what nobility existed before Peter the Great was of a patriarchal not a feudal kind; but in his anxiety to assimilate everything to a western standard, the czar took the existing aristocracies of states quite differently situated as the model to which to approximate the fortunate of his own subjects. The Russian nobles have ever since been enlarging their privileges by encroachments on those under them. Before Moscow was burned, the mass of the nobles connected with the court lived there in great splendor, and along with their domestic serfs constituted half the population of that city.
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